The newest Transatlantic album, The Absolute Universe: The Breath Of Life, is bold step for already-established musicians. Having set up for a work during the period of the pandemic, they turned out to come to an incredible decision – recording two versions of one brilliant record.
I got the chance to speak with co-founder of Transatlantic, and the member of Marillion – Peter Trewavas about re-interpretation of already written songs and reflection, prog-rock and creativity, about differences between Marillion and Transatlantic.
LTW: Recently, Mike Portnoy stated that within The Absolute Universe: The Breath Of Life you recorded two versions of one album using different sets of approaches. How did you come to such decision?
PT: “We all got together in Sept 2019 in Sweden with myself, Neal [Morse] and Roine [Stolt] having written a lot of idea’s and songs to be used or included in the new album in some way. We then arranged the album and during the process decided to write an episodic grand piece with a continuous theme and concept. What we ended up with at the end of that time was the bare bones was Forevermore, the extended version. We then all went home and started work on the backing tracks. Mike tracked his drums then we all started overdub’s and soon after COVID hit and we were all in lockdown.
While working on our own versions of the album, it became apparent that rather than all working to finish one album. Roine wrote different lyrics to Rainbow Sky and Neal wrote new lyrics and melodies to various songs. After some time away from the project, Neal came back to us with a new edit which was quite differently arranged and quite shorter. He thought that the album would benefit from having a different approach. I had already expressed my feelings about the album being maybe too long in Sweden so was eager to see what Neal had done.
So we had two versions of the album both quite different and instead of choosing one over the other we simply chose both. I think it was Mike’s idea to have both versions. As they were at this point sufficiently different that it was not difficult to imagine them having different approaches in the finishing stages and being mixed totally differently again with different lyrics and different harmonies on both versions. We ended up with Forevermore “the extended version” and The Breath Of Life “the abridged version”.”
How does it feel to get back to something already finished and make changes, after some of these songs were already written?
“We had done a lot of the work on both versions as this approach to the two albums had all been decided and agreed to by InsideOut, who I must say really got behind us and embraced the whole thing.”
When you usually write something – where does the process start from and how do you develop it from there?
“Writing music can really come from anywhere. I usually start at the piano when writing for Transatlantic and with the experience of having recorded the other albums and crucially played so many gig’s together I have a good feel for what I am looking for musically. Of course, it has to start with a good idea. Mostly music but not always…Let’s take The Sun Comes Up Today. This was one of the first songs I wrote for this album and I was trying to get some musical idea’s together and hit on the chorus chords and instantly the melody came in to my head. I stopped and worked out the melody and what best chords or versions of chords would fit together to make a cool musical statement. I wanted it to be uplifting and positive. Once I had the chorus, I looked around for a verse pattern to compliment it and moved on from there.”
Getting back to the beginning of your career – when you joined Marillion becoming one of the pioneers of the movement, itself – what helped you to find your characteristic way of writing ?
“With Marillion we write most of our music together as a band starting off jamming. In the old days before any affordable recording technology or a recording contract we had to keep good ideas in our heads or record them on to reel-to-reel-tape recorders or a Sony Walkman. I think when I joined the band, we had the basis of a good group of likeminded musicians. It was while we were playing live and also in the studio for the first few times that we found our way forward. We quickly grew and developed in to better musicians. The addition of Ian for the second album was a major leap forward and a noticeable step up in musicianship for the rest of us.”
Over the years, you’ve been exploring very different musical tendencies with the projects of yours, whether this is Transatlantic or Marillion, Brave or Marillion.com. Some of the artists may explore the same musical tendencies for decades, literally. Others, like you, may choose something unexpected. But isn’t it difficult not to have a chance to look back?
“We get and move forward which is important when you’ve had such a long career. However, it is good to remember where you came from and what inspired you musically. People don’t want to lose touch with the band they fell in love with so reminding them can be a cool thing. The trick is to do it in a new and creative way. If you take Brave, for example, that was a concept album with nods to the earlier progressive movement but was an album for its time with the modern approaches we used both musically and sound sculpture wise. With a band like Transatlantic we all play in our own individual styles, but it’s the way we make the instruments fir together to build the sound that is important.”
At the same time, each release of yours is different, sometimes, to a point where it sounds like a different band. When you set up for a work on a record, what dictates the characteristic changes in your style, in your approach etc ?
“With Kino both albums are so far apart and John and I have changed as musicians sufficiently that the two albums are quite different. With Transatlantic, you can hear the band grow and develop from album to album. with the first album we were just a project of four musicians in a studio. However as soon as you hear album two there is a sound that we created and this has developed and got better from album to album.”
With the records like Brave and Afraid Of Sunlight it got to a point where you put a certain specific emotional coloring within the core of a record – what dictated these changes?
“Different music and different player often dictate how I want to play. Or as in the case of Marillion’s Anoraknophobia WE were going for a modern edgy sound and really anything and everything was explored as far as musical direction.
What was the idea behind The Absolute Universe?
“The idea behind The Absolute Universe started out as a broad and encompassing look at the human condition. Someone moving though their life, trying to find out who they are, where they fit in etc. This worked well as a concept to hang all the music we had on. It also allowed us to move through all the different subject matter we had lyrically.
We left Sweden with a very rough demo of Forevermore and over the next year this morphed in to the two different approaches. I think with The Breath Of Life, Neal really wanted to express some of what was going on in 2020 during COVID restrictions and all the subject matter we had been dealing with on Forevermore like Bully, Solitude and Looking For The Light seemed to be magnified by what people were and still are going through.
You find a lot out about people in adverse conditions. Who your friends are for example, how people cope under duress and dealing with stress. All these things get reflected on in different ways on both versions of the album.”
Being a member of Marillion and then Transatlantic, you could observe the evolution of prog and its influence upon the listeners. In what way has the reaction of your fans changed taking into account the years passed and evolution of prog ?
“Well things have changed a lot in the 40 odd years I’ve been in Marillion. The passion of the fans hasn’t changed and I think Progressive music is more popular now than it was for a long time. In the early days of Marillon we have rock and Metal fans who had also grown up with Progressive bands. Now there is a whole diverse world of progressive fans and this is great news for the genre, and is reflected by how many bands there are. Of course, labels like InsideOut and Edel really help the bands get their work to as many people as possible. And with the amazing packaging that can be imagined.”
Were there a moments in your career when it seemed difficult to transfer those feelings you had while writing or recording playing live?
“Playing live is an art and you have to learn the hard way. It’s only by playing to people that you can learn to get your songs across. and this is also true with the music. Sometimes a song that works on record just doesn’t work that way live so you have to find out what it is your audience wants form the song and quickly learn how to deliver that. Sometimes a song is a bit too soft or polite and the band needs to step up and give it an edge. Other times it needs a bit more space to let the words come across.”
With Translatlantic, what helped you to shape your way of writing when you got together for the first time ?
“Being from very different backgrounds culturally has a lot to do with the make-up of the sound we make. We play in different ways and although we have many styles of music, we love in common there are those subtle cultural differences that colour our music. Having said that, playing live that really shaped the band in to the band it is now. At times we are all lead instrumentalists and at other times we are all just listening to what is happening in the moment and being led by the audience.”
And how important it was for you to distance yourself from being a Marillion member at that point of your career ?
“I’ve never really thought about this so I guess it can’t be that important. The two bands are at different ends of the progressive spectrum. And my approach to both as a bass player is completely different. With Marillion, it’s all about staying true to the song. If the bass needs to be really simple then that is what I should be doing and that can be really cool. With Transatlantic it’s about embellishing the music and standing out as much as possible and when Mike is breaking out a killer groove and it all kicks off – then I have to be riding on top of that groove. And pick out the right drum phrases with the perfect bass run.”
Even though each record of yours is massively different fromthe previous ones, what usually defines compositional specification and what helped you to keep it so, taking into account changes within the band?
“Well it’s about staying fresh and keeping up with what’s going on. I listen to a lot of bass players and study tutorials. I’m a huge fan of music in general. I grew up listening to my Dad’s jazz records so I’m in to anything and everything. I was a child of the 60’s and 70’s so musical changes and progressions have been a big part of my life. What can I say: I’m in love with music and I love the bass guitar.”
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Photo credits: Tobias Andersson
Words by Dan Volohov. Find his author’s archive here.