Behind The Masque
In October 2001, Progfreaks.com published an interview with The Red Masque. This interview is republished below. Nathan-Andrew Dewin (keyboards, concert harp) has recently left the band to pursue his tribute project, music dedicated to his brother. Joinng the band on keyboards is Marcia Bachochin-Fabirkiewicz, guitarist Steve Blumberg left in June, replaced by Kiarash Emami. In May I interviewed Lynette Shelley, an interview that serves as companion piece to this one.
The Red Masque will be headlining a mini-festival on December 6[, 2002] called The Philadelphia Project: A Night Of Experimental Music, which also features Dysrhythmia [the Philly band] and Second Sufis, to be held at the Sedgewick Cultural Arts Center. See both the The Red Masque and The Sedgwick websites for more details.
If there is something that you can't accuse The Red Masque of being, it's conservative. With progressive rock expanding its boundaries constantly and even creating wide rifts between its own listeners, some bands out there are taking it to themselves to keep pursuing the most unorthodox arteries of the genre, something that this act is definitely interested in doing. With a recently released EP under its arm and the intention of recording a full-length album to be released next year [a second album-length "EP," Victoria And The Haruspex, was released in the meantime], it's anybody's guess just what the Philadelphia-based band is going to sound like next, and what devilish intentions are lurking in its camp. We may not have found that out, but yours truly certainly got a lot of interesting responses from band members Brandon Ross, Steven Blumberg, Nathan-Andrew Dewin, and Lynnette Shelley, who were all too kind in answering this interview and explaining their penchant for wearing weird costumes!
Marcelo Silveyra: Well, since The Red Masque is a relatively new band with a recently released EP (Death Of The Red Masque), and many of our readers may be curious as to what is behind the band, could you give them a bit of background information and history?
Brandon Ross: Well, I met Lynnette when I joined a band she was in, which was the closest thing I could find to a prog band. When that group disbanded, we decided to form a new band closer to our ideals. It took two years to find committed band members, endless phone calls, auditions, ads. If you want to learn about abnormal psychology, don't take a course - put out a musician wanted ad! Steve joined in the summer of 2000, Nathan-Andrew followed by that fall, and Kevin finished out our lineup in February 2001.
Lynnette Shelley: I decided to work with Brandon because I got tired of people telling me how bands are "supposed" to be on stage, and to play what the audience wants to hear. How do you know what the audience wants to hear? I want to play in a band that plays what I want to hear. If the audience likes it, that's great but it's not essential. If musicians and other artists only wrote songs or created art that the mass public feels comfortable with, then nothing groundbreaking would ever be accomplished. You have to take risks. Sometimes you will fall flat on your face, but sometimes you will create something really special. So some people may find our music inaccessible. We're VERY different from traditional neo-prog. Other people, I hope, will find something unique and different in our songs. Brandon, Kevin, Steve and Nathan are all very talented people. They are not afraid of taking chances and they are not afraid of being on the fringe.
MS: Your EP is very dissonant and harsh at places. Actually, at most places. This certainly won't appeal to the mainstream, something that proves your credibility and musical integrity. What are your goals for the band financially? Is there a point in the future where you could see The Red Masque as your sole source of income?
BR: I hope at some point we can just do the band full-time; I have no interest in regular day jobs. But why does a musician have to play whatever is in vogue in the mainstream or covers to live off of his music? Initially, you may make money, but you will hit a brick wall creatively and spiritually. Trends come and go and a "professional musician" becomes a chameleon who dumped his originality out in the trash. Frankly, it disgusts me how art is co-opted and branded by mass media and spoon-fed to a public who they think can't even make decisions for themselves anymore. But progressive bands have their own niche and people appreciate it when you take chances and don't just pander to them.
LS: When Brandon and I first decided to form a band together, monetary gain was the last thing on our minds. If I wanted to get rich quick, the last thing I would do is play in a band like The Red Masque, which plays music that is pretty "out there" by many people's standards (although I don't think our music is that bizarre, personally). That being said, however, we have found a niche of people who really appreciate what we do, which is heartening. And we are getting some label interest. Musea Records will be distributing our EP, and Beta-lactam Ring Records wants to finance a full-length album for us.
Would we ever be able to all quit our day jobs and just do The Red Masque full time? I don't know. Only time will be able to answer that. What I do know is that I love this band enough to do just that - both the music and all my band mates. I don't know what they think, but for myself I am very glad to be with them.
Steve Blumberg: I never thought of music as a source of income. It would be great to work on music with The Red Masque full-time, just seeing people in the audience listening is enough satisfaction for me. This is the greatest outlet to express myself as a musician.
Nathan-Andrew Dewin: I don't actually consider our music to be overly harsh and dissonant. It does have its moments of brutality, sure. However, I would hope it isn't done gratuitously. It serves the need of the compositions.
MS: On the available pictures of The Red Masque, the entire band appears dressed up in costumes that certainly don't stem from this century (or the previous one, for that matter). Lynnette and Brandon seem to be the most into full impersonation, while Steven looks like the only "normal guy" in the band. A question of fashion sense? Are you trying to evoke any particular characters in history or literature?
BR: Often when you see bands in photos or live, particularly new prog bands, they have this regular guy, stripped down look. Guys with baseball caps and khaki shorts playing spaced out epics? I mean, I think the music should speak for itself and every band has their own vibe, but when I see pictures of groups in the '60s and '70s they look like a band. Their appearance visually fits the music.
In the photos I wanted to go for a romantic/gothic vibe - Hammer films, Lord Byron. I think an audience appreciates a band being a band and not just coming out like Joe the Sports Bar Guy. Again, I'll say the music is the most important thing and dressing up, which we do for larger shows, becomes part of the overall performance.
SB: Well to tell you the truth, I'm not human and this is my costume. I would never want anyone to see what I "really" look like.
NAD: I like the idea of presenting a spectacle, a real SHOW. You haven't seen us wearing the live animals yet...
MS: Like you just mentioned, in order to bring your music to the stage appropriately, you've chosen to wear the costumes live as well. Even then, however, you probably have to do a bit more than that to reflect the intensity of your music. Do you make random concert attendants disappear to bring up a sense of eeriness? Lift up tables via magic? How does The Red Masque show what it's got on stage?
SB: We once made the entire audience disappear and then reappear on a ship somewhere in the Baltics, this only happens when we are improvising, Lynnette is a witch you know!
LS: Personally, I like to turn hecklers into toads ... Actually, we are working on the theatricality of our live shows. We've only been playing out together since late April, so it's still evolving. Our last show, we played at a science fiction convention [59th World Science Fiction Convention in August 2001]. So I knew we should try to make our performance as much of a "show" as possible. We all got dressed up in various costumes: I looked like a cross between Stevie Nicks and a 17th century Italian courtesan, Nathan dressed up like a space pirate, Brandon fopped it up like Lord Byron, Kevin had a Michael Myers (Halloween) mask, and Steven had this really cool Venetian mask with a great big long nose. It was pretty fantastical.
Anyway, we brought two "devil" dancers with us, who wore red eye masks and modified ballet leotards. We also had a woman dressed up in a green cloak and staff who does energy healings. She led our band in a procession - each of us were playing various percussive instruments and Nathan had a didgeridoo - to the stage and did incantations over the audience while we moved into a 15 minute space rock improvisation. I don't think the audience knew what hit them ... a lot of people came up afterwards and said it was one of the best shows they had ever seen.
I think back in the heyday of psychedelia and art rock, concerts with more theatricality would be expected, but considering how most bands today perform in T-shirts and order beers from the waitress in-between songs (or sometimes DURING the songs), people find these shows unusual. That being said, we're not GWAR or anything. Of course, sometimes bands take things too far and they lose touch with the audience. Being theatrical is fine. Being staged is not. I think U2 realized this after their "Big Giant Lemon On Stage" tour. So, we promise we will not have a big giant replica of Chtulhu on stage with us ever. Then again ... that DOES sound kind of tempting ... hmmm.
MS: The current progressive rock scene is considerably varied, and although rather "uncommercial" tributaries, such as RIO and Zeuhl, have appeared, most prog fans are still attracted to the more melodic and mainstream. How do you see The Red Masque in the current progressive scene? Who do you think are going to be your allies in the future?
BR: We try to balance dissonant and melodic sounds to create textures, improvise, try different things. I don't think we're easy to categorize. Why I love Van Der Graaf Generator so much is because they combine chaos with structure, melodies that turn and have sharp corners. And to me, Henry Cow and Magma are just as great as Yes and Genesis. I have trouble getting why you can't appreciate all these bands [I think Henry Cow and Magma are great ... my fault for not explaining myself adequately - MS].
Prog groups in the '70s came out of psychedelia; they were experimental. For some reason, a lot of fans and musicians forget this and want everything in a box, a kind of safe neo-prog that doesn't have the smell of counter culture on it. So, some of what we do could be considered RIO, some space rock. Our allies I think will be people who like more European prog, and are into older groups from the '70s. And maybe younger people who are tired of the crap that is spoon-fed to them and are looking for something else.
MS: I happened to read that the lyrics to one of your next songs mixes Ernest Hemingway's The Old Man And The Sea with Samuel Taylor Coleridge's Rime Of The Ancient Mariner, the latter of which brings me to an interesting question: have you ever heard Iron Maiden's take on Rime of the Ancient Mariner?
LS: Uh, great minds think alike? Actually, no, I haven't heard the song. The closest I get to heavy metal in my CD case is Black Sabbath.
MS: Now that we're drifting off for a second, Brandon, I read a comment from you regarding the death of alternative music. In your comment, there was an implicit sense of respect for the original alternative music pioneers. What I'm wondering is, just what exactly did you think when it initially became all the rage and what bands you would think really broke some new grounds?
BR: What I was saying is that when a style of music or particular group becomes so saturated and overexposed and co-opted it really ruins what was originally in the heart of it. I was using alternative rock as an example as well as prog in the late '70s. Prog has been revived because it has to; the spirit of adventurous music is so needed. "Alternative" music came out of '80s college rock, which is something I'm not particularly into. I think at the time it became all the rage, the radio was saturated with awful garbage. So then you had diverse groups rebelling against this, putting out sounds that seemed to fit how a lot of people felt - disenchanted.
I remember liking Faith No More, who were kind of proggy, and Urge Overkill, who were pretty odd. But this all went down the drain. Record companies began to clone bands, groups got poppier, the new bands got worse and worse. I stopped listening to the radio and started listening to King Crimson (God bless the Crimson King!).
One thing I could not stand that came out in "alternative" was the ultra hip snide indie bands. That "I'm too cool to know how to play" crowd. Those people still walk around like they are royalty. They're really the worst. Fuck them.
MS: Now, returning to The Red Masque ... the second track on your EP, "Endless Ways," is an improvised song. Just how "improvised" is improvised regarding this track? What is the writing process for The Red Masque like and how much of this is reflected on stage?
SB: "Endless Ways" was recorded with no preconceptions at all, and we still have about 30 minutes of music from that recording session that we plan to release shortly.
BR: That track is taken from a longer improv. It is totally improvised. We write by piecing ideas and fragments together. Someone might have a basic idea, then someone else will expand on it. Everyone will come up with these parts and make suggestions. Some things are more structured and some are more improvised; it's a lot of trial and error. Things become more solid as you go and then you can improve them.
On stage the audience may not always be able to tell what part is structured and what is improv. I think that makes things interesting.
MS: Steven, your guitar sounds on the record are anything but standard, excepting the normal effects such as distortion. How do you approach the guitar as an instrument and just how much do you try to freak people out with it?
SB: I grew up in the eighties where "rock guitar" had just about pinnacled, everyone was playing as fast as possible and with a lot of notes, but I learned early on that it's the note itself that was important, so I thought if I could just play with more feeling and a better understanding for the sound of that note I would have more of my own style. The guitar is the perfect tool for creative expression. The Red Masque gives me this freedom to express myself as a musician, not just a guitar player. I guess if I can freak myself out when I'm playing it's working.
MS: What lies in the future for The Red Masque regarding your music and your shows? Are we to expect a full The Red Masque festival, clowns and knife-throwers included, ten years from now?
SB: More audience participation in the disappearing acts. And I think some fire thrown in the mix would be neat.
BR: I'd love to have our own festival with all sorts of freaks, weirdos, outcasts, and misanthropic malcontents. Clowns, monkeys, erotic performance art - you name it. I mean an event for real freethinkers, the marginalized outsiders.
LS: Right now we are taking things one day at a time - getting label interest, recording a new album. We will most likely be in the studio in December, with a CD out by spring 2002. What I would like to see happen is for us to kind of catch on in a grassroots kind of way through word of mouth and the Internet, maybe play with similarly bizarre/cool bands - Sleepytime Gorilla Museum, Thinking Plague and the like. I hope we can play many of these prog and space rock festivals throughout the U.S. and maybe even internationally. I would LOVE to start our own festival and book all the kinds of bands that don't fit into safe little musical boxes. I really don't know what is in our future but I am very excited about the possibilities.
[Interestingly, the band organized last June's  Philadelphia Underground Music And Culture Festival which Featured Acts included Land of Chocolate, Persephone's Dream, and Church of Hed (which featured members of Quarkspace) - ed.]
NAD: Ideally, a Red Masque performance should serve to peel back the ossified crust of consensual reality. The universe is a much stranger place than most people allow themselves to realize. Besides, it would be fun to do!
Death Of The Red Masque (ep) (2001)
Victoria And The Haruspex (2002)
Feathers For Flesh (2004)
Fossil Eyes (2008)
Stars Fall On Me (2009)