Over the last decade, American singer/songwriter/multi-instrumentalist Phideaux Xavier has become a rising star in the progressive rock world. With the help of his stellar musicians and working under the guise of a simplified title, Phideaux, he has proven to be a masterful songwriter and composer. In fact, Phideaux’s releases, including Number Seven and Snowtorch, are arguably some of the best albums the genre has ever seen. Recently, I was lucky enough to speak in-depth with Phideaux about his music, influences, and life.
So how are you doing, Phideaux?
I’m feeling great. How about you?
Likewise, likewise. I’m very happy to be speaking with you.
Oh, well thank you. I’m honored to speak to you.
I guess it’s mutual then [laughs].
[laughs]. So what can I do for you?
Oh, just answer a few questions for me, I think. You know, I have a list of artists I’ve always wanted to speak with, and as soon as I discovered Snowtorch, I put you right at the top. As you can tell from my review of it, it completely blew me away.
That’s great, I’m so glad. Thanks. It’s fun to do live, too.
I’ve seen some live footage. Are you ever going to release an official concert film?
I don’t know if we’re going to do an official DVD, but we are hoping to record a gig that we’re going to do in October at Orion Studios in Baltimore. That’s gonna be a gig where we’ll basically have people there and the primary objective is to record it. We’ll be recording our whole repertoire that we’ve been working on over the last year. We did do some video at RoSfest, but I’m not sure how much I like the performance. I’ll have to think about that.
I’m sure it’s amazing.
Well, I’d probably find it amazing for different reasons [laughs]. I mean, we’d love to get some video out, but sometimes the problem is that the video looks great but the performance wasn’t exactly what we hoped for. The cool thing is that we really change up the music when we do it live. My main interest is in making studio albums; I really love the recording studio as an instrument and as a personality. I remember when I was a kid listening to all those middle period Beatles albums and reading about people like Brian Eno, who said that the recording studio is his instrument. That really affected me, and so I’ve always wanted to make albums. It wasn’t until 2007 when we got asked to perform at the Festival Crescendo in France that the idea of being a live entity even came into the picture. The transition from studio to live was very interesting because there were a lot of elements to the music that I wouldn’t even try to do live.
And so getting everyone together to play live, we found different solutions to some of those issues. It also opened up the music and made it very different, and that was fun. It gave new life to some of the aspects of the music that, you know, I either wished had been different on the album or just gave a different texture. I really want to get our live versions out on recording as well.
In terms of the writing, since the band is named after you, I wonder how much of the music is a collaborative effort and how much is you producing the demos and then telling the other musicians what to play.
Well, the idea of Phideaux as a band came about because we were asked to play Crescendo. Prior to that, it was my own project. I had played in many different bands, and I asked my favorite friends and my favorite musicians to help me on my solo work. Around the time of Doomsday Afternoon, some of those people kind of settled in to become the regulars, and after we performed at Crescendo, I wanted to make the next album with only those people. That was Number Seven, and much of that album was where I would send the demo out and I would say, “okay, this is the song,” and they would come and record it. It wasn’t so much me telling them what to play as it was that they were playing the chords that were written and we’d come up with melody ideas. Usually, the person would play whatever part he or she dreamed up and then I would always take the privilege of interfering. I would say, “hey, what if you played this at that point.” I’m not really a great player, but I do really enjoy orchestrating, and I hear lots of different interlocking parts in my head. When I hear what someone is playing, I kind of think about what everyone else is playing at the same time, and I will come up with a way to reinforce a theme someone else is playing. I always love when the bass is playing something that echoes a keyboard line, or visa versa. I often try to keep that aspect in what everyone is playing. I kind of keep an overview and then I will cooperate with the individual people on their parts, in that sense. It’s not like written out, and it’s not like “you must play these exact notes that I tell you to play.”
That’s interesting. Going along with that, you do use a lot of the same musicians on the newer albums. Do you see Phideaux as the band with these musicians, or is it like Frank Zappa where they’re all hired and you just happen to be using the same ones?
You could say it’s either option at any given point, or both options. On the one hand, I never set out to become a band that was named after me. I pretty much just wanted to make albums, and it just so happens that my name was what was recognizable. Having said that, I think I’m playing with a lot of people that I’ve known for many, many years, and they are some of my favorite people in the world. I love playing with them and I would always want to play with them primarily, but that doesn’t mean that if someone dropped out, we couldn’t go on.
I don’t feel like we’re a band like, say, Rush or the Beatles in that we could never replace someone. At the same time, I don’t think I would put out an album as Phideaux at this point with a radically different group of personnel. Thinking of a couple of projects I’m working on now, one of which is a solo album that I will call Phideaux Xavier. The other is an off-shoot band that’s more minimalistic and stripped down. It’s called Mogon, and that would be how I would approach a radical reinvention—to create a new band or call it a solo album. I think that “Phideaux” has become a band, and the newer albums are much more band-oriented. The album that I’m working on next, called Infernal, is one that I am gonna solicit a lot of collaboration on. I have written what I believe is the music, but I want to open it up to more exploration. I think there can be sameness when there’s only one voice, and I’m easily bored with only my voice at this point. Even though there have been great contributions from other members, it’s not yet so surprising that it’s radically different from what I might imagine in my head.
I think that vocally, your female singers are just as important to the Phideaux sound as you are.
We kind of have a hierarchy of vocals in the sense that I’m the main male singer and Valerie [Gracious] is the standout female singer. Ariel [Farber] is very supportive in terms of always having a harmony that locks in; she kind of helped us figure out the harmonies, as do Molly [Ruttan] and Linda [Ruttan-Moldawsky]. Molly and Linda, who are identical twins and have similar voices, kind of have a dreamy vocal quality. In fact, Linda and Molly are the featured vocalists on the song “The Search for Terrestrial Life” (from Number Seven). They have a little bit more of a Grace Slick quality. For the next album, one of the things I really want to do is explore the idea of all of our voices together.
That would be cool.
Our keyboard player, Johnny Unicorn, sings as well. He’s singing a little more these days and giving more of a male counterpoint. Quite a lot of singers (laughs). Molly, Valeria, Linda, and I were in my first band ever, called Mirkwood, which was named after the forest in The Lord of the Rings. I was ten years old when I came up with the name (laughs). We played progressive rock as a power trio; I’m not that good of a player so it was like progressive art rock chords on the guitar with Linda on the bass and Molly on the drums. I was the singer. Around the time when New Wave became more interesting to us, we got Valeria and changed are name to Sally, Dick, & Jane. That was more in the style of Jefferson Airplane and the B-52s morphed with X and the Ramones. Later on, many years later, Ariel and I were in a band called the SunMachine, which was a Celtic, acoustic approach to progressive rock music. Instead of a drummer, we had Ariel’s husband, Will, play bongos and congas, as well as guitars and keyboards. He was sort of the Johnny Unicorn of the band in that he played a lot of instruments.
I’ve actually played with a lot of multi-instrumentalists. Mark Sherkus, our keyboardist, is also a great guitarist. So when it came time to perform in France in 2007, everyone wanted to come and be apart of it. It was sort of a celebration of my music up to that point, and I wanted all my friends and everyone I’d played in bands with to come together. That’s how it shook out. I love Valerie’s voice; she’s always been the counterpoint to me, and when we were Sally, Dick, & Jane, we were the two lead singers, and the chemistry was very fun. I wanted to capitalize on that in this style of music, this art rock, which I love. I finally feel like I’m doing music that I really love as opposed to just playing in bands that just happen to sound a certain way.
It’s a privilege, and that’s why we have so many singers. It’s not like I thought “oh we need all these singers.” Everyone just wanted to be apart of it, and seeing that we now have this many singers, it would be interesting to see what we could do with an extremely dense vocal pallet. That’s one of the things that we’re going to explore on the next album. I always want to explore something new on each album. The Snowtorch album was all about keyboards; I really wanted to get really beautiful keyboard sounds. That’s primarily what I was going for on Snowtorch. Another element is how the song was kind of suggesting itself as a single-themed piece.
That’s how I always interpreted it.
Yeah. Even though Doomsday Afternoon and Number Seven have a lot of cross-pollination between the songs, they are not just one song. Snowtorch is basically one song, even though they’re broken into different titles. For example, all the musical ideas that are in “Helix” are present in the other songs, anyway. Also, the structure of the lyrics is almost identical to that of “Snowtorch (Part One).” We extracted “Helix” out because we thought it might be a song people would want to listen to alone when they didn’t want to hear the entire piece. Really, though, it functions as the bridge between part A and B of “Snowtorch.”
Yeah, I definitely see that.
The thing is, when you make an album and put it out into the world, it’s up to the people who listen to it to really tell you what it’s about. You know, I can’t be present in everyone’s living room when they listen to it, so it’s like you basically give over control of your work to the world when you put it out. It becomes everybody’s experience. It’s just like when I listened to Thick As A Brick as a kid. That changed my life, and a lot of people’s lives, really. I mean, here we are forty years later and there’s going to be a Thick As A Brick reunion concert next year, hopefully. That piece of work has really influenced a lot of people.
I first heard it when I was 13 and entering high school. It blew my mind, and none of my friends could comprehend how a song could be over 40 minutes long.
I know! And for it to feel satisfying at the end instead of like someone stretched it out until you never want to hear it again.
Did you ever see the Hyundai commercial that used the song? It really made me mad.
Yeah, I have seen that. They shorten it down to one and a half minutes (laughs).
When I spoke to Neal Morse a few weeks ago, he told me that they might be doing a A Passion Play reunion too, which would be awesome. I think it’s the better album.
Oh, I totally think it’s the better album too. I can’t imagine that Ian [Anderson] would do A Passion Play because he distances himself from it so much. To me, it’s the ultimate album. I’m glad to hear that Neal Morse likes it [laughs],
It seems that everyone in the new progressive rock circle grew up listening to the same few albums. I heard that when A Passion Play came out, fans hated it.
That’s not really true (laughs). I mean, some people may have said that or it could be revisionist thinking. I was a very small child and I saw the tour. I was amazed, and the audience loved it. It couldn’t have been better, but the press really turned against Jethro Tull.
Oh, yeah, yeah.
That, I think, is what demoralized Ian and made him go away and lick his wounds for awhile. When Warchild came out, you know, it was a much more concise and short album. That was the album that I got when I was sort of old enough to buy albums and I could say, “this is my album.” I was brought to see Jethro Tull because my sister was having a birthday party and they had an extra ticket. They woke me up and said, “you’re coming too.” It’s much like how a lot of the older generation turns the younger onto music.
It instantly put me on a path to become a music journalist.
The terrible path you were put on by these crazy records (laughs).
Going back to Snowtorch, is it about any specific themes or is it more about random ideas.
Well, the way Snowtorch began was out of a song called “Star of Light.” It was a meditation on how a star and its light and wave forms energize the worlds around the star and give life and allow for it to begin. That was that beginning of Snowtorch—that this torch in the sky will melt away the snow and free the life that was previously locked away in ice and cold gas and not-yet-present amino acids. Basically, the idea of Snowtorch should begin with a star in the base giving life to its planets, and from that, culture and everything that is human about us emerges as a result of that initial spark of life. That’s why the last words on the album talk about words and vowels and beautiful vowels, which is what unites us as people. Plus, the other current going through Snowtorch is the idea of asking if we as individual people are doing out best to live up to our potential.
You know, the potential that we want to live up to, or are we languishing in our worst vices? Or in are own problems? The song “Helix” is kind of the pivotal part of that—it’s about a person who’s very down and is asking, “tell me when the planet was formed? Did we weather the storm?” In other words, were we only brought here to be torn up in the storm, or was there a higher purpose? Am I going to get lost in the lust and debauchery and whatnot? “Helix” leaves that person in a very downbeat way. When you get to “Snowtorch (Part Two)” and that character is walking through that melody that sort of disintegrates into pure noise, which is reminiscent of the dark night of the soul, you get to “Fox Rock 2.” You know, can a man who’s cowering in his house come out and become effective as a person? That brings you to the “Coronal Mass Ejection” section of the album, and a coronal mass ejection is like a charged particle being exuded from the sun; it happens periodically, and we were always bathed in the particles of the sun. That represented a kind of slap in the face or spark of inspiration.
That’s very deep.
The other metaphor that goes throughout the album is this idea of climbing a tree, like the tree of life. You know, is this the seed? Is this the tree that I wanted to climb? The idea that inside of me is a seed, but what is the seed of? Is it of everything I could be? Will it link me to the tree of life and to mankind? If this character has climbed up the tree, then by the end of Snowtorch, the branches are breaking and the sounds of it and falling to the ground. The sort of conclusion to Snowtorch is the person coming out of the tree and realizing that there’s this whole beautiful world around them, full of culture and other people. The idea is that we are united by our highest instincts and our highest reasoning. Those are the words and vowels that unite us.
It all obviously operates on an impressionistic stage. To me, I’m not very good at writing something like “John went into the bar. The man in the corner gave him the bad eye and there was a knife fight.” I can’t really write a very clear, direct narrative.
I don’t think it would be very “prog rock” if you did (laughs).
Yeah, I prefer to write about bigger ideas and things that I’m interested in. Like, I’m interested in astronomy and the idea that we live in a gigantic universe that’s billions and billions of stars. And if that’s the case, you know, what does life mean? Plus, like with Snowtorch and everything else, I also like to have a lot of humor. I want there to be an opportunity to mess around and have fun lyrics on the album. I think that there’s links between Snowtorch and Number Seven in the sense that the search for terrestrial life is basically the same story as the character at the end of Snowtorch. You come out of your tree to become who you really think you are meant to be.
And moving onto Number Seven, which involves a battle between a dormouse and a crayfish, I’ve read that it’s really about the relationships between males and females. Is that true, or is it really just about those two creatures?
(laughs) Well you know, exactly. Plus there’s that old Genesis song that talks about father Tiresias, who lived as a woman.
Yeah, “The Cinema Show.”
And of course, you know, “there is in fact more earth than sea,” to quote that song. The Earth is represented by the shrew and the sea is represented by the crayfish. It’s also another planetary mediation on geology and all those things. The dormouse is another red herring; it’s another character that just moves around. That was essentially a lot of fun, to think about these crazy characters and these bizarre battles and whatnot. At its heart, the album is really about very human relationships framed with animals. I mean, I use animals a lot and I love animals. I love Animal Farm and I love using them as metaphors for people.
It’s a pretty clever tool.
The cover art for the album, designed by Linda, I just think is so beautiful. All these crayfish and shrew battles, and it was very surreal in the sense that you could make an album about anything and we chose to make an album about the battle between a shrew and a crayfish. And the reason was that I love this magazine called New Scientist, and there was an article that Gabriel (Moffat), who is my producer and guitarist, came back from the bathroom with. He had cut out a sentence that said something along the lines of “the daunting claws of the crayfish pose little challenge to the shrew.” It was some article about something related to land and sea, and he just thought it was so funny. It reminded us of a lyric King Crimson might use. I think somebody challenged me to use it in a song, and we used it in “The Claws of a Crayfish,” which is a subsection of “Waiting for the Axe to Fall.” We also used bits of the article as the narration that precedes “The Search for Terrestrial Life.”
It’s awesome that you could use such obscure inspiration.
Yeah, and basically I enjoy very surreal things that don’t necessarily make sense, but if you examine them, they kind of make sense. You say, “wow, that really does make sense,” and at the same time, you say, “this is just a bunch of silliness.” We could have any album about anything and we might be very, very serious if we said what it was about, but at the same time, we might also be laughing at the absurdity that we were able to actually make an album about a crayfish and a shrew. It’s a joke for everyone. Also, the fact that the artwork was so cool made it that much more fun.
It’s an incredible album, no mater how silly the concept is. It reminds me of creative writing prompts and how one sentence or idea can be turned into a whole story.
Oh, thank you. And that’s exactly right, and it could operate on so many levels. I get a lot of people who say, “his lyrics are just nonsense and they’re awful.” That’s amusing, and I don’t think my lyrics are T.S. Elliot, but I do think that if you read into them and have an open mind, they say a few interesting things. It’s not necessarily like A leads to B which leads to C, but there are thoughts behind them. There’s only or two places in all of my lyrics where I really feel like I let down the song by not spending enough time on the lyrics.
I’ve never though that.
Of course, I’m not allowed to say which songs they are, but there are some ones that could’ve used another pass. Usually I go through many, many, many, many drafts on all the words—you get the words, sing them, and then you realize that there’s a line or two that’s maybe too perfect or too terrible. You try to find a better way to say them with something that’s not quite so clichéd. One always runs the risk of devolving into clichés.
I think it’s a testament to the quality of songwriting and music if there’s a silly idea on the surface, yet the song still feels profound. It’s a great contrast.
Is it true that you’re currently working on 7 ½?
Yeah 7½ is basically a bunch of left over songs. We’re often recording multiple things at the same time, and whatever seems best is what the album becomes. I have a couple of pieces that have appeared on compilation albums that I always wanted to released under “Phideaux,” on my own albums. What happens is you get invited to write something for an album and they say, “for six months we only want it to be on our album.” And you’re like “that’s cool. It’ll get me some more exposure,” but then eventually the rights revert back. I really love “Tempest of Mutiny” and “Strange Cloud,” and I always wanted them to be on an album. When I was putting together Number Seven, “Strange Cloud” didn’t exist, but “Tempest of Mutiny” did, and for whatever reason, I decided not to include that on Number Seven because it wasn’t the band Phideaux; it was a lot of other people playing on it. The whole idea behind Number Seven was that it had to be people who had played on the live tour, so I decided to wait on “Tempest.” It was going to be on what was called 7½, but Snowtorch took over and became the next album. Right now we’re actually finishing up 7 ½ and we’re hoping to get it finished within the next couple weeks. My goal is to release it by mid-July.
Awesome. I can’t wait to hear it.
There are six songs on it and they’re mostly finished; there are only two songs that aren’t quite there yet. We’ll be doing some work on them in the next couple weeks. I can’t wait to get it out of my hair (laughs). I think it’ll be fun. There are three songs that are pretty new in the sense that “Tempest of Mutiny” and “Out of the Angry Planet” are two songs that we do a lot live. “Out of the Angry Planet” is a fun song for us and I’m glad to get it on an album. As for “Strange Cloud,” it was on a compilation that Musea Records did. It was a concept album based on Dante’s “Purgatory,” and I was assigned a section to write a song about. That was a lot of fun and I really enjoy the song. We have another song called “Have No Fear” that is essentially an alternate ending to Number Seven. It was replaced by the dormouse bits. It’s very much an outtake from that album. We also have “Love of a Million Doves” and “The Odyssey,” and they’re very old songs that I did for an album I made in 1992. I didn’t like it very much.
Yeah. I mean, I liked the songs but I wish that I had recorded them better. This is an opportunity to do that.
Did you ever think about remaking Friction?
Well, I have thought about maybe doing it, but there are aspects to it that I’m not interested in anymore. I would rather take the bits I like the most and use them in other ways. Because 7½ is an album where a lot of the songs are more classic rock sounding and down to earth in their approach, these two songs really fit well. We had a situation where our drummer, Richard [Hutchins], could not be at a recording date due to the death in the family. We used that time to have Molly play drums because the studio was already set up and everybody was already paid and on their way to the studio from airplanes and all that. Molly, who had played on those songs originally with Friction, got to do them again. 7½ is kind of a quirky album because the songs are a bit less evolved, and we’re putting it out with that title because it’s really just an odds and sods album. It’s not meant to be the next wave of our work, per say. It’ll be fun and I can’t wait to get through it.
Me too, as I said. Now, this is probably just me reading too much into lyrics, but on “The Waiting” from The Great Leap, you say, “I bound myself forever to number seven.” What is that in reference to? Is it foreshadowing the later album?
No, not really. The thing is that that’s always been my favorite number, and I don’t know why (laughs). I just remember that I always really enjoyed that number. As for “The Waiting,” it kind of involves people breaking out of a prison while the Rapture is happening. Everyone has been left behind and the so-called “Rapture” is occurring. And it’s not necessarily a good thing or a bad thing; the people that have gone away aren’t necessarily chosen. In fact, they might just be escaping. So, that lyric sort of just referred to another prisoner. Prisoner #7, as it were. But I have actually thought about that before and said to myself, “oh, that’s interesting. It very clearly says ‘number seven’ and the album is called Number Seven.”
In terms of looking back through your discography, from the newest to the oldest, some fans have said that with Doomsday Afternoon and onward, you really focused more on being a progressive rock artist. They’ve said that prior to that album, you were more of a folk/psychedelic rock artist, and not as good overall. I’ve even read some comments for The Great Leap that kind of put it down because it’s not as complex and epic as Doomsday Afternoon. I disagree that it’s less worthwhile, but I agree that it’s simpler. I think that you’re last three albums are your best, and I think that that’s how it should be—you’ve evolved, plain and simple. How do you respond to such categorization and dismissal?
The interesting thing is that most of my albums have been recorded in tandem. For example, the first real album did, which is also sometimes considered my second album, was Ghost Story. I recorded it with Richard and my friend Mark, and then I dropped out of making music for many, many years because I didn’t like the way it sounded and I felt that I had once again failed to achieve my vision for music. I put Ghost Story on mothballs and then four or five years later, I had the strange experience of being a volunteer at ground zero right after 9/11. As a result of that, I got it in my head that I could make music again. I could make whatever music I wanted and I didn’t have to worry about if I was going to be popular or not. I wasn’t going to try to get signed or be in the music business; I was just going to use my money from my job to fund recording projects. I got a piano, which I didn’t have previously, and I started writing music on it and came up with a lot of the songs that winded up on Fiendish. One of the songs I really wanted to put on Fiendish was called “Chupacabras,” a 20+ minute long progressive rock epic. Actually, at the time, it was like fourteen minutes. When we got to recording Fiendish, the producer coerced me into using a computerized piano, a MIDI or whatever you call it, and I really couldn’t play the song on it because I didn’t feel connected to the piano. So, the recording were kind of abandoned and I decided that Fiendish was too long anyway so I just wanted to concentrate on the quirkier, more pop/rock songs.
That would’ve been odd juxtaposition.
Yeah, I wanted Fiendish to be full of quirky songs with unusual keyboards that were like the band Grandaddy. I really liked the song “Soundblast” because it has interesting textures, and I didn’t think I wanted two huge songs on the album. Shortly thereafter, we overdubbed Rich’s drums onto my original “Chupacabras” piano demo and wrote a new part and created some bits. After Fiendish, I felt confident that I could now return to Ghost Story and mix it the way I wanted. There’s a song on there called “Beyond the Shadow of Doubt,” which is pretty much progressive rock; I couldn’t categorize it as anything else. After that, we put together a bunch of songs that didn’t really fit on either album and made Chupacabras. In a way, all three albums were just one long project and I think Chupacabras is considered one of the most progressive rock things in my discography.
Yeah, I agree.
Right after that, we decided to do this album called 313. It was basically a big, fun joke; I took all my friends, most of who are in Phideaux now, and we took over a studio for about 24 hours. We just put down whatever we could in those 24 hours, and then over the course of the next year, I revised it and added sounds and made it more unusual and fun. The songs were written on the spot because it was pretty much a psychedelic joke. I enjoy that album a lot. That was like the first new music I had done in many years, and after that was over, I started collecting a lot of pieces that I’d been working on. I rehearsed them with my drummer and they essentially became The Great Leap and Doomsday Afternoon. They were written at the same time. We recorded for about 11 days straight and did twelve hours a day. We got down all the basic tracks for them. As we were recording the works, it became clear that some of the songs were shorted and unrelated musically, while other songs seemed part of a greater piece. I thought, “well, I’m going to split these in half and make two different albums. They’ll be part one and part two of a trilogy.” All the songs seemed to be centering on the same vision of a dark, dystrophic world.
Be sure to check out the conclusion of this exclusive interview with Phideaux Xavier here.