Sussman, Andrew (Frogg Café) (July 2005)

Conversations With The Frogg Prince - An Interview With Andrew Sussman

Frogg CafeNew York based progressive rock band Frogg Café were the second act on Saturday's bill to play at this year's NEARfest, wowing many in the crowd with their mix of rock and jazz and pleasing long-time fans by playing "Waterfall Carnival" from their second album Creatures. Their third album (or forth if you include the jam CD Noodles) is just out from ProgRock Records, The Fortunate Observer Of Time; tracks from this album were also played, naturally.

Andrew Sussman at NEARFest 2005 (photo: Stephanie Sollow)Back in mid-May, Joshua Turner shared a lily-pad (that is, a conversation) with bassist Andrew Sussman about all things Froggy. Sit back and enjoy this ribbiting interview.

Joshua Turner: I basically wanted to start [with...], I've been listening to your music a lot recently and I just wanted to find out what kind of plans you've got for touring or concerts, just any way a person can see your music live?

Andrew Sussman: Yeah. Basically we're pretty busy. Well, the big kahuna gig for us is NEARfest and that's something that we've been trying to get into for three years now. So when we got... last summer we did a tour of Germany, Belgium, and Austria and it was really great over there. We really want to get back there because it was just, like the crowds over there just really love prog and anything out of the ordinary. But as far as what's coming up, we're playing in Montreal on May 29th, and all this stuff is on the website if you wanted to check it. [We're also playing with...] you know the band Proto-Kaw?

JT: Yeah.

AS: We're opening for them twice in June. They're going to be playing once on June 11th. They're playing at Jim Robinson's New Jersey Proghouse. I don't know if you've heard of that before.

JT: Oh, sure.

AS: And, uh, Jim's actually really... If there's one person who's helped the band out more than anybody, it's Jim Robinson back when, back in 2000 when no one knew who the hell we were. He gave us a shot and let us at what was then called the Metlar-Bodine Museum, which is kind of like where the start of that New Jersey Proghouse series happened until that Museum actually had a fire. So they had to move it to a different place, but he basically had us back pretty much every six months and whenever some sort of act comes through that he books, he always either lets us open for them, let's us play with them, like we played with Happy The Man. He's just a great guy. He's just a fan of ours... he's really like a friend. [Jim announced the band at NF, too. -ed.] On June 12th Proto-Kaw is also going out to -- there's another progressive rock series up in Lowell, Massachusetts, it's called NewEars. Are you familiar with that?

JT: Yeah.

AS: Two brothers run that one, Eric and Al. I don't know how to pronounce their last name. [It's a] Armenian last name, Baillargeon [he tries to pronounce it and it's a noble effort, but he has a hard time with it - JT] or something like that. Those guys are really good guys, too and basically both of these are not-for-profit kind of prog [concert] series and we're opening for Proto-Kaw on 12th there, too and playing a bunch of other shows. [FC's performance with PK was cancelled, though PK went on -ed.]

We are doing a CD release party in New York City on June 30th, going up to Burlington for the first time in June and playing at this other place in Boston, O' Brien's for the first time. So we're trying to break into new markets.

JT: Yeah, it sounds like you've got a lot going on at this time.

AS: It's not easy to break into a new market. If it's a prog series, it's easier, because you have a built-in audience who will say, "oh, okay, I've heard about these guys" cause they are kind of into prog circles, or, you know, the Internet groups are really kind of making the world a little bit smaller. Like, I could talk to some guy in Romania and he could say, "oh, cool, I checked you guys out," you know?

JT: You're actually talking about having a release party... I mean, you're coming out with a new album right now.

AS: Literally, it is probably being printed as we speak.

JT: I was just hoping you could tell me a little bit about what we could expect from this new album.

Frogg Cafe at NEARFest 2005 (photo: Stephanie Sollow)AS: Well, the band's definitely gone... I'd like to think that the band definitely has its own sound. I hope I'm right about that. That sound has definitely evolved since the first album and I think what people can expect from Fortunate Observer Of Time... Well, first of all, we have a new guitarist. We have a different guitarist than the last album, than the last two albums... our first two albums, and three if you count Noodles. Frank Camiola was our guitar player [on those albums], but he developed [tinnitus]. He's a very, very good friend. Actually, he and I started the band together as a Zappa band. That was the first thing that we ever did before we were Frogg Café, we started as a Zappa tribute band. But he developed severe tinnitus -- I used to say tin-night-iss -- to the point where he couldn't play in a rock band anymore.

JT: Wow!

AS: That was really hard for him and sad for all of us, and we're still very good friends but...

Frogg Cafe at NEARFest 2005 (photo: Stephanie Sollow)[Frank was a special guest at NF, however -ed.]

JT: That's unfortunate.

AS: So we replaced him with another good friend and a guy that went to music school with all of us. We're actually all music teachers. That's what we all do for a living for a public school; public school music teachers in the New York area. Some of us are from Rhode Island. Some of us are actually in the city. Some of us are north of the city in a suburb called Westchester and I teach... like some of us teach orchestra, some of us teach band and... So our new guitar player [is] Steve Uh -- it's a Korean last name spelled U H. He's a great guitar player. He's actually a multi-instrumentalist. He plays the violin and keyboards equally as well, and he stepped in and basically learned all our tunes in a month, which is unbelievably unbelievable that he would come in and do that. And when Frank had to leave, it was like really bad timing, too. We were playing the big show up in Massachusetts and he had to like leave two months before and Steve stepped in and learned the whole set and came up and nailed the show. It was good. We also were playing ROSfest. You said you went to ROSfest right?

JT: Yeah.

AS: We played the ROSfest pre-show last year [2004] and I actually heard that maybe we might be playing there next year. We'll see, hopefully. Was the place sold out this year?

JT: I think so, yeah.

AS: Cool.

JT: There were a lot more people there this year than last year.

AS: Did you make it to the pre-show last year?

JT: [I was worried he'd ask this question] No. I mean, actually I had to road trip and just the way it worked out, my ride and everything like that, I was just a little bit too late.

AS: You just missed us?

JT: Yeah. I couldn't see anything that Friday night, but I was sure to make it this year, because of all the talk people had from last year. I mean, actually a lot of people did say that the Frogg Café show last year was really good.

Frogg Cafe at NEARFest 2005 (photo: Stephanie Sollow)AS: We got a really good response, so I'm really happy with it.

JT: So, I've been wanting to see you guys live, but it's just a matter of time at this point.

AS: Are you going to get to NEARfest this year?

JT: I'm not entirely sure; maybe not, maybe next year. I don't know, I just... it looks like I keep missing you guys. But like I said, it's just a matter of time before I see you guys live.

AS: We have a bunch of friends in Wisconsin who come to NEARfest every year.

JT: Oh, they do?

AS: You know how, like, you meet people... you have kind of prog friends, these guys that you see at these festivals and stuff. I don't know their last names. I cannot remember. Every time I see them, we like kind of like re-introduce ourselves to each other's lives. We always joke with these guys like, one day we are going to come out to Wisconsin and do a Cheesefest or something, you know.

JT: Yeah, oh yeah, yeah, that would be a good name for it, too.

AS: But these guys; I forget their names. I thought you maybe... I didn't know how many guys from Wisconsin are actually in prog circles.

JT: I see them pop up every now and then. It seems to be starting, prog seems to be starting around here. We actually have Shank Hall in Milwaukee that has a number of shows, so I think that's kind of been?

AS: Don't you kind of have your own group out there?

JT: Well, we've got a huge festival here called Summerfest, which a lot of bands come to, but that's a little bit more mainstream. So we've had more of a mainstream kind of a crowd here up until now. But I can see acts, you know, at some of the smaller venues and now they're starting to become larger venues. There's a lot of progressive rock starting around here. I mean, a lot of people here typically get on a plane and go out to the East Coast or something like that if they want to see a festival or something.

AS: Yeah, right.

JT: I mean, that's where the festivals seem to be, right there on the East Coast.

AS: We're trying to play some jam band festivals even though we're prog. We're trying, you know. We can actually pick and choose songs that kind of fit a little more in the jam band category even though they're proggy, just to try to get a little bit wider audience, cause one of the hardest things for prog bands who are kind of like, you know... We're kind of like a small fish in a small pond, you know what I mean? It's getting people down to shows. Getting people to come out to shows and that's... the most success we've had is at these prog events, which sometimes, if you're just playing, you know, in Boston at a regular club or something and trying to get people down, it's sometimes hard to get as many people as, like, you know, a Dave Matthews cover band.

JT: Sure. Just to get back on track, I'm interested in how your albums have evolved from one to the next. The first one is more like that jazzy kind of impromptu feel, while the second one, at least to me, seems it has more of a rock feel. I'm wondering if you could tell me about the evolution from album to album?

Frogg Cafe at NEARFest 2005 (photo: Stephanie Sollow)AS: Well, I think definitely it stems from the fact of who's writing the tune. If it's a Nick Lieto tune -- he's our keyboardist, singer and trumpet player -- it's gonna have... it ends up having a jazzier feel to it.

He's the student of Coltrane and Miles and he's just a really brilliant guy. We always joke with him, like you know, "hey man, we're a prog band. No, you know... we only want the root third or fifth of the chord, no ninth, eleventh, or thirteenth. Get that out of there! What's that, a sharp eleven?" He's like always trying to make these substitution chords, you know. But this album that's coming up, it starts up with a pretty rocking tune. Just almost, you know, straight-up rocking tune.

[They must have changed the track listing because the first one, while it's a great song, doesn't rock by definition, it's pretty laidback to these ears - JT]

It has some time-changes in it, but no one would say it was jazzy. But then the second track, the title track, "Fortunate Observer Of Time" is... there is a full flute and horn solo in the middle. It's very jazzy sounding. So you get to see that the middle of the album has sort of a jazz thing, but anything that I write always ends up being more rock influenced. I'm actually a cellist, but my listening background is more progressive rock. Like, you know, my favorite group when I was younger was Floyd and my stuff is definitely more rock influenced. You're not going to really hear jazz in any of my tunes, and the one tune that kind of ends the album, this new album, is called "The Abyss Of Dissension" and that's like a 14 minute [piece], you know; like a real straight-up prog rock tune. I kind of wrote it to be like that.

JT: Cool, so is this actually like a concept album?

AS: It's not a concept, you know. There's... within some of the songs, there are a lot of... the lyrics relate to each other, as a matter of fact. [In "Fortunate..."] there is like a seven, a kind of a measure of 7/8, it's a rhythm in 7/8 that comes back within three different songs. I guess the best way to kind of think of it is more like... how an opera works.

JT: Okay.

AS: The first tune, called "Eternal Optimist," has many of the musical scenes that are going to be in the album, whether it's a drum beat or whether it's a guitar part, you hear it coming in and out of the counterpart. You are going to hear some of those themes come back. And then the very last track after "The Abyss..." is a string trio with flute. I mean, if it's a cello, two violins, and a flute, it's really a quartet. That almost acts as kind of like a post log, and in that three minute quartet, themes come back that you heard in [earlier] the album, too. So, I think even when we were talking about it, you know, Nick was kind of saying how the album actually is almost like an opera. But it's not really a concept album like The Wall or one of these kind of albums. But whereas some of the tunes run into each other, it's not purposely telling one huge story, is what I'm trying to say.

JT: What does the title of that album mean?

AS: Well, [with] Fortunate Observer Of Time, basically we were thinking about [how], you know, time has a lot of different meanings. And I think a lot of Nick's lyrics have to do with how relationships change over time. And not only that, but in the music you can literally see how we have a lot of time signature changes in the music. So it's... I guess it's just kind of a little bit of play on, you know, [a] concept. You [can] take it literally, saying we're really changing time signatures all over the place, and that's seventh on one thing and... seventh eighth, in fact a lot. But there's also the lyrics [which] are very much about how things change over time, how you look at time.

JT: Just speaking of names, how did you come up with the name of the band?

AS: Frogg Café. Well Frank actually came up with that. After having a pretty funny short list of names we were going to name the band, one being the Dave Matthews Band Sucks Band. That was just a joke, but the Frogg - F R O G G - is like an old English spelling and there was the Renaissance composer named John Dowland. Have you ever heard of him?

JT: No.

AS: Dowland is like D O W L A N D. John Dowland was a pretty famous composer of his day and he wrote a lot of lute music and one of the most famous complete works for a lute is by John Dowland. This complete work, it's really an amazing actually piece of work. But one of the titles of one of his pieces is actually called the "Frog Galliard," which is a pretty obscure reference. One of the first things we ever did as a Zappa band, when we just started deciding, "hey, we should write some original stuff," is [that] Frank said, "hey, we should transcribe this tune and make it kind of like an ELP style kind of [piece]." You know, progressive rock does a kind of a classical piece thing cause it was kind of a cool, it was a cool melody with cool renaissance chord changes. And we did it and eventually we ended [up saying to] ourselves, well, what do we want this band to be? And we said, well... we don't really want to put a limitation [on ourselves], we want to be able to do jazz-sounding stuff and we wanted to do rock-sounding stuff. But basically the idea is that you can serve up anything at the Frogg Café, which is kind of like the cheesy, I guess, explanation of it. But it just kind of stuck and we just went with it. But it definitely came from that piece, the "Frog Galliard," and we kind of liked the Frogg; it stuck, too.

JT: You've actually answered a lot of things kind of earlier on, but I just want to go into some things a little further.

AS: Sure.

JT: You were kind of talking about your songwriting process, but I'm just wondering, how do you actually come up with these songs, put them together... you know, put them down into recordings. What's your process?

AS: Well, there's a program called Finale and it's music notation software. We're all pretty fluent in it from our jobs where we do a lot of transcription for orchestras and bands and stuff with that. So what will happen is someone will be the main writer of the piece and everyone has kind of a different process of how they write. I guess I could tell you how I write better than I can really tell you how Nick writes. I actually usually come up with the music first and I fit the lyrics. I fit the words into the music. Some people come up with lyrics first, but I do it the other way around. I sometimes like come up with the groove. Being a bass player, I'm always kind of thinking about the groove, about what time signatures, what's the feel going to be, you know. And after I lay that feel down and work it out, work out the drum parts with Jim [Guarnieri] then... I'll take it to the band and I'll have it all charted out. I'll say this is... if there's kind of a jazz sounding head or just... you know. I'll give everyone their part and then we'll start. Pretty much the first rehearsal is just a bloodbath, you know what I mean? [we both laugh] It really is and you've got to ready for that, you know. Frogg tunes take forever to learn and it's like you've just got to be ready for... you've got to be ready to suck at the tune for about a month and not play it out live. Not even close. And just really practicing separate measures. Then what happens is... all we say on our albums [is] "all arrangements Frogg Café" cause we all in a way kind of bring [something to the piece]. Like I'm not going to tell Nick exactly what keyboard copying rhythm I want him to do.

JT: Right.

AS: He's so good that I can never write anything better than he's going to play just naturally.

JT: Sure.

AS: So, I'll say, listen Nick, I want this kind of feel for this kind of measure. Then maybe if there is a specific thing I want in there, I'll annotate it, but just so he knows, and then we'll fool around with it. Same with the guitars. Steve's amazing at putting his own ideas in, and a lot of times people will just tell me the chord, you know. They're not going to tell me lay down exactly this bass line, although Nick does that sometimes. But most of the time he'll say, you know, I want kind of like a funk groove here, and then at the end of every four measures you'll have to do this lick and... I'll work something out. So it's really like someone brings the chart to the table and then we all kind of scope it. And sometimes even it will be like, you know what... After I hear it, I say to myself, you know what, it needs this part, this part needs to repeat or it needs to be a little bit longer or this part sucks [I laugh] and that's about it, you know what I mean?

JT: Right.

AS: And we tweak it and we're not... We're all really good friends enough to say, hey, you know, this doesn't work or this is great, you know, and it's nothing personal. It's just... Most of the time it really comes out pretty good.

We're learning some new songs right now that aren't on any album. And they're tough. Stuff that... Nick just keeps evolving.

JT: So, are you guys actually working on another album at this time beyond what you're putting out?

AS: Well, we actually have four or five really, really tough tunes that we haven't even learned yet.

JT: Wow.

AS: If we really, really wanted to, we could probably go back in the studio. But, you know, we don't have the money to do that right now. We could probably... we should start it now, because then it will probably be ready two years from now. [we laugh] If we really [wanted to, it would be an] '07 release. Yet, we might even start the recording process...

Frogg Cafe at NEARFest 2005 (photo: Stephanie Sollow)I know you're asking about our violin player Bill Ayaase, who is also an orchestra director on Long Island. He has a studio in his basement, a professional studio, which he basically built since the first beginnings of the Zappa band for us to record in, and now he has, after obviously thousands and thousands of dollars, state of the art stuff down there.

JT: Wow.

AS: Including, a digital performer with, you know, the most powerful Mac G5 out there and all sorts of plug-ins and all sorts of crazy preamps and just he's really become like amazing at it. I really do think that the production on this album, what with the combination of Bill's experience now and the fact of the new gear that we have, I think that this album just sonically is going to be far superior than the first two.

JT: That's unbelievable.

AS: You can be judge of that. I'll be happy to send it as soon as the album is out. Just, you know, send me your address and I'll be happy to send you one.

JT: Thanks. You talk about Frank Zappa and you talked about Pink Floyd. I'm wondering if you can tell me what some of your other musical influences are so I can kind of get more of an idea of just how your music is getting influenced.

AS: Yeah. I mean, you know, it depends... If you look at all our CD collections, I think [it] is a good way of looking at it. We have a lot of crossover between the five of us of stuff that we like and it's definitely... we cross over in jazz a lot, we cross in prog. Everyone loves the big five in, you know, that kind of stuff. Some of us have turned each other on to different stuff, like my guitar player's never heard any... He was more like a Pat Metheny kind of guy than he was really an early Genesis kind of a guy, and I started turning him on to this early stuff. He was always a Floyd, Van Halen kind of guy, but, you know, to get him more into the world of like... you know, like hey you're in a prog band now. He never heard Gentle Giant ever and we... we have a part in my tune ["Abyss..."] that just goes to this four part -- four people singing in a classical contrapuntal kind of a way, and that's definitely right of out the Gentle Giant songbook.

I hope it sounds different than a Gentle Giant tune, but the idea of it is just something like a prog tune; breaking down to just four people singing in counterpoint. Nick and James... these two are big, big jazz guys, huge jazz guys and they can... you know. I'll send you a bootleg, too, of this show we did in Montreal. Sometimes we just let them go. We're going to do this at NEARfest, too, where a song will just kind of... do this improv and we let it go out. We just let Nick on trumpet and Jim [on drums go]... we'll just stop playing and get out of their way and they do kind of like a Coltrane, Alvin Jones kind of a thing.

JT: Oh, wow.

AS: You don't hear any of that stuff like where Coltrane will just play with Alvin Jones. It would just be drums and sax and they would just jam and play off each other, but they [Nick and James] love doing that. That's just like right out of the Coltrane idiom.

JT: Cool.

AS: So a lot of people are... they're totally, you know, people who end up liking us. I mean, I really love National Health.

JT: Yeah.

AS: That's like, if you're going to come. [To NEARfest, I presume he means -ed.] Some people say we sound like them sometimes, but I don't know if we do. But I definitely like [them]. It's kind of like the jazz approach to prog, I would definitely call a lot of our stuff.

[Is it just me or is there a pattern of the answers going off on unrelated tangents? That's fine, it's always welcome and spawns interesting discussion -JT]

JT: You've also told me a little bit about kind of where you're at right now. You're a music teacher, but I'm wondering when your involvement in music actually began?

AS: Oh, for me, my father. My father is a music teacher and I started on piano at four and I'm actually a cellist[, that] is my main instrument.

JT: Oh, really?

AS: Yeah. And I play cello on this album, too, in the quartet at the end. And there's also a string interlude in the middle, too. I started cello in third grade and basically did all the things you do when you're a kid, you know. You kind of try to do all-county orchestras and I played in all this outside stuff and finally when I got into high school, my father gave me an acoustic guitar and a bass. And when I actually went to music camp, I kind of played in my first rock band. Which is really actually funny, just because I was [at that camp] in 1985 and twenty years later I actually tracked down the guitar player of my first rock band. I just tracked him down literally like this week. So I guess I'm getting a little nostalgic. I had his address and I sent him all the Frogg Café stuff and he's supposed to actually give me a call today. So I'm really curious to see what he thinks of, you know... This is the perfect example of where I'm coming from musically, just by giving you the set list of what we used to cover when I was 15. We used to play "Foreplay/Long Time" by Boston, you know what I mean? [We used] to play "Roundabout" by Yes.

JT: Okay, yeah, that's a good one.

AS: We used to play "Subdivisions" by Rush. Are you... you know what I mean? We didn't play Genesis back then, but we used to play Van Halen tunes, you know.

JT: Oh, sure.

AS: What else did we do? You know, like, that was kind of like a set list of my first rock band, but that's definitely that's how I learned. Geddy Lee taught me how to play bass pretty much. [he laughs].

JT: That's cool. And you were saying how you were friends with everybody in the band [FC] and that you all kind of have the same sort of career, but how did you actually meet your bandmates?

AS: Besides James, we all went to a music school called The Crane School of Music, C R A N E and that's up at a university in upstate New York. It's a SUNY school called SUNY Potsdam and -- P O T S D AM -- and we were all... it's a school that specifically trains music educators. You go there to get your music ed. degree. The guy who replaced Frank was actually in a blues band with me when I was in college. Me and Steve [have known] each other for forever, you know. So when he stepped right in, it was kind of cool for us to be in a band again together. And we all just ended up in the same Long Island area. It was one of these things like as, you know, almost as a joke when we started the Zappa band. Frank Camiola, who's actually an amazing bass player, a better bass player than I'll ever be, that was his major. And he said, "you know, I'll play guitar, you play bass, and remember that guy," he was saying to me. "Remember that guy Bill from Crane?" And I go, "yeah, I remember him." Basically, he's a couple years younger than me. He's like, "well, guess what, he's actually in the studio and he plays violin." I was like alright, we could do like the, you know, the 'Willy The Pimp' kind of Mothers of Invention-era Zappa with Ponty kind of stuff on it, you know?

And, I [said] why don't we [do] the Ponty-era stuff. I'm [saying], why don't we do that kind of stuff, 'cause it's not as hard as new stuff. [we laugh] It started off [with us] doing [stuff] from Zappa, Zappa will be Free. We had a drummer, who is a really nice guy, in the Zappa band when he started off. I mean, a really good friend and he actually plays marimba on a lot of our album; Steve Campanella. He was really a marimba player and he was just sitting [in] on the drums. Zappa always used to say [that] the hardest seat in the band for anyone to sit [on] was the drum seat.

JT: Sure.

AS: So you need a real motherfucker on the drums, but he was a great marimba player. So when we started doing Frogg stuff... We ended up having... When he left the band, we had this huge audition, this huge search for a drummer and James Guarnieri -- it was pretty funny, because in order to play in our band, and this isn't to sound snobby or anything at all, you really need to find a drummer who can read music.

JT: Yeah.

AS: That sounds like an easy thing to find, right?

JT: Right.

AS: Well, it's not. It's an easy thing to find if you're going to pay someone, [isn't that how it always works? - JT] but if you want to find someone... We don't make money from Frogg Café. Any money that [comes in], anything happens, always goes into the band fund and to pay for CDs and to pay for studio mastering and that kind of stuff. So we needed to find a guy who was honestly interested in being in a project like this, a project like this that kind of improves your skills and gives you creative freedom, but is also responsible. That's hard to find in a drummer to begin with. You want them to show up to rehearsals and find someone who wants to do it for free! [he raises his voice as he says this and I laugh - JT]. So it was kind of funny how we went to these auditions and we met a lot of nice people, guys who would come in here and they would be able to play for you in four and sixth, you know. And a lot of drummers are used to playing in those time signatures. But all of a sudden we'd say, okay, well here's a piece called "Space Dust," it's on our first album, and it's basically time changes every five or six measures.

JT: Yeah.

AS: And the guy couldn't read it, you know. So many guys who just couldn't [read it], they were just playing right through it. And then the big funny thing was, he was always [saying] let's jam a little, you know. The guy, the drummer, just always wanted to jam. It wasn't that we didn't want to jam, 'cause a lot of our stuff definitely has improv in it, but we really needed someone who we would be able to give a chart to and who could just read it down. James came in and we didn't... When we first saw him, you know, I think he just turned 54. He doesn't look it, you know; we're all in our thirties. I asked myself, who is this old guy coming in here? He comes in real slow, he brings his Gretsch, this really beautiful Gretch jazz drum kit in and Nick says to me, "look at that kit." He's like, "that kit, really, really expensive kit." He sits there for like five minutes tuning each tom [I laugh] and he's like din, din, din, ding, ding, ding, deing, deing, deing, din, din, din, ding, ding, ding, you know. He's turning the little keys, you know. Oh, who is this guy. [I laugh] So, we put the music in front of him and it turns out he's a band teacher, too. He was so focused on it and... he didn't nail it the first time, but he could play it. He could play in 7/8. He could play 9/4. He could play in 11/8. All the stuff that we were trying, you know, you'd take for granted. The hardest person to have to play these time signatures is the drummer, and if you look at any Dream Theater [music], Portnoy is amazing at playing that kind of stuff.

JT: Yeah.

AS: That perfect example of the drummer who can freaking play the shit out of odd time is Mike Portnoy, and I don't really know if anyone else in the band is a Dream Theater fan, but I really like Dream Theater a lot. But, none of our stuff is actually ever that hard, but I just really respect those guys a lot.

JT: You've given me a lot of examples already, but I just get the impression that you're full of them; can you recall any big Spinal Tap moment that you may have had in your career as a musician, just something really odd or quirky that happened?

AS: Yeah. I mean, I'd have to say that like [on our tour of] Germany, there's so many moments. I mean, actually on stage or just on tour, 'cause there's a couple each?

JT: Just the one that stands out the most.

AS: The one that stands out the most is when we were playing a festival in Germany [in 2004] called Berg Herzberg, basically like B E R G  H E R Z B E R G, Berg Herzberg [which is] a big hippie festival and actually we were playing right after Caravan, which is kind of cool actually. We got to have breakfast with those guys. They were pretty cool guys. Also mostly jam bands [on the bill], but what was kind of cool about Germany is that they will love to hear a jam band and then they'll love to hear a prog band, and the jam band guys are just as into the prog stuff. As a matter of fact, they love Zappa in Germany, too, so when we pulled out a couple Zappa tunes -- we'll play "Peaches" or we'll [play] something, you know, they'll eat it up. After we played, of course, everyone's... it's basically like... for the band it's just basically this endless keg of beer. [I laugh] So after we played, we were so psyched to be over there for the first ever time. First ever time I was in Germany playing, you know, a dream come true for us to be over there and playing. And we we're starting to drink. I didn't realize that Bill had the rental car like right behind the stage, and about two hours later, the whole night sky, it was so stiff. Everything became absolutely still, but it was like this summer, it was really humid. And I was saying to -- you ever hear of the German band called Trigon?

JT: No, I haven't.

AS: T R I G O N.

JT: No.

[Duncan reviewed Trigon's Berg Herzberg 2004 CD -ed.]

AS: They're really good. You should check them out. They're good friends of ours and we actually stayed at their house when we were there and they were at this festival. They were playing the festival, too, and I'm with my friend Rainer Lang (guitar). [I said to] Rainer -- it's like 11 at night or something and I was sitting at a picnic table and drinking a beer. I [say to him], "you know what man, the merch is out. All our merchandise is out," but at this point everybody is just totally freaked out. Everyone at this festival is just totally out of their mind [I laugh]. And, you know, guys were doing shots of Absinthe. You know, the stuff that's illegal in this country.

JT: Oh, wow.

AS: They're drinking Absinthe like... You know, that's the stuff that Van Gogh cut his ear off with.

JT: Really?

[Not with obviously, as Absinthe is a liquid - intrusive ed.]

AS: Yeah, yeah, he was whacked out on Absinthe and this stuff is an hallucinogen. [An] hallucinogenic liquor, and everybody at the festival is flipped out of their bird, you know. I was just drinking beer. I mean, I wasn't sober, but I wouldn't... these guys are like, whoa, [he laughs]. As James said, it's like these guys went out there and they never came back. He's like, these guys went out in the sixties and they just never came back. [I laugh] He's like, you see these guys in their sixties and they're still wearing the fluorescent-striped pants and the vests and the Sergeant Pepper's Beatles kind of vest and they're just flipped out. It was a wild scene man. It was a totally wild scene and I said to Rai, to Rainer... I was like at this point [saying that] we should probably get the merch back. He's like, "yeah, no one else is going to buy anything at this time. Let's get the merch back in the car."

JT: Geez.

AS: For just, for no reason I said this, okay. I, I get James and Nick, I'm like, nah, let's just get this merch back in the car. The car -- this is like a huge field, you know what I mean? So the car is like in some... well, it's already muddy where the car was and we're putting the merch away and all of a sudden the wind started to whip up and all of a sudden it was like, we're taking it. I mean, all of a sudden it [went] from absolutely still to just the wind like... folding chairs flying. [I laugh] I'm just throwing stuff into the back of this rented minivan, this piece of shit, and I'm just throwing it in there and all of a sudden this crazy-looking German guy comes out and he's like babahbala [he say's this in a high pitch] and whatever in German and I go, "what?" He's like... he makes a funnel motion with his hand and I go "holy shit, a tornado is coming through."

JT: Oh my.

AS: And all of a sudden... You know, the funniest moment is [that] Nick all of a sudden goes [to] Jim. Jim is still in the back like counting t-shirts. [I laugh] He's like one, two.. I was like, "Jim, would you throw that shit in the back and get in the car," because this is not like... there wasn't any shelters around here. Everyone's camping and there's nowhere to go. Where the hell do you go? We go to just get in the car and all of a sudden it's lightning strikes. They're like right on us, you know. Boom. It's like, holy shit. I mean, I'm so glad we got the merch in the car. There's a band, there's a band called Anekdoten.

JT: Yeah.

AS: Have you ever heard of those guys?

JT: Yeah, I've heard of them.

AS: Okay. So we hung out with those guys a little bit. [he chuckles]. They were onstage at this point. Meanwhile onstage the wind is so... this is one of those... You've been to a festival where it's in the middle of a field and they just basically construct these big metal frames. This big metal frame for the stage is where the lights are hanging from and that kind of stuff and there's like a back tarp kind of thing.

JT: Yeah.

AS: One of the lights broke free and it starts swinging, okay, the lights are swinging. The tarp at the back of the stage is ready to pull the frame out, so they release the tarp. The tarp is flying, the drummer's cymbals are blowing over. They obviously had to stop mid-song and all of a sudden Nick starts yelling. I guess he had a bit too much to drink and he gets flipped out. He's yelling, "Jim get back in the car, there's a volcano coming." [now he has me laughing hysterically -JT] I overhear this and I go, "dude, did you just say there is a volcano coming?" [we both laugh] It's a tornado, but the joke for that is that the volcano is coming. And there's a new... what... and meanwhile [he's a little lost for words because he's too busy laughing while he speaks] our rental car is right in back of the stage 'cause that's where we had unloaded for our set. We had taken all our gear out and just parked in back of the stage and Bill is like, "yeah, I'll move the car later." Meanwhile, there's this big scaffold, you know, scaffolding thing with weight swinging over our car.

JT: Oh my.

AS: And the whole joke the whole time was like, we can't screw-up, we can't fuck-up the rental car. We used a credit card. It's like, oh no, Bill, get the fucking rental car out from under there. [he laughs] So Bill, half-cocked in a tornado, takes this car and he's moving it down this muddy incline. Meanwhile, it's just one of these really, really bizarre [scenes]... and then it starts hailing. And we find out the next day that basically a small funnel cloud missed Berg Herzberg field by 1500 meters.

JT: Wow. [that's not far at all, about 5000 feet]

AS: And cut a path through the woods.

JT: Holy cow.

AS: Yes. And no one got hurt. Anekdoten, I think, they had to wait like a couple hours and then they went on again. Isn't that bizarre?

JT: That is totally bizarre.

AS: So, that's probably the funniest thing that happened to us on tour.

JT: That's pretty amazing.

AS: It was; it was pretty funny. But there's a new tune that I wrote that's called -- it's not even on this album, it's going to be on the next whatever we do -- it's called "Leave of Absinthe." We always joke about taking a leave of absence from our work, you know, and I was [thinking] it would be funny to name a tune called "Leave of Absinthe." It's all about... The tune is all about our... adventure that night and..., you know.

JT: Well, yeah. I was going to say that it sounded like some good material for a song.

AS: It was great material for a song.

JT: Maybe you will want to call the next album, The Volcano Is Coming

AS: [he laughs] There is a part in there where we go, [he starts singing slowly] "Volcano." But the other funny thing about that festival [there's more?] is... You know, Europeans are generally much more laidback than Americans and, especially even coming to having contracts secured and working out where the hell you're even going to sleep.

JT: Sure.

AS: Basically, these people are out of their bird and they're just floating, basically, wherever they land. I guess if they are totally bombed, it's like where they sleep. We're a little bit like, you know, slow up a little bit. I'm [thinking], I need a bed and blanket and a clean pillow, you know. And a towel, and, you know, a shower that's clean.

JT: Exactly.

AS: And this guy... I guess this was some old farm property and there was an old farm house and we went down to the farmhouse. This guy [says], this is where you are staying. And I [reply], I thought it was supposed to be a bed and breakfast. We get there and this place... As soon as you walked in the door... I have never smelled a stronger smell of mold and mildew in my life. It was like creaky. You walk in, it's [got] creaky stairs. And we go up in to the room that we're supposed to be in and there's already... [coming] out of our bathroom that we're supposed to have, you know, there's like a really skanky-looking hippy chick, totally filthy. She had just used our bathroom and the bathroom hadn't been clean. All the sheets, the pillow cases, and the blankets are all soaked, they're moist, you know. Like where it's outdoors. It's like the door, the window is opened, there's flies everywhere, and I said, holy shit. I'm like, there is no way. [I laugh]. There's just no way, there's no way I can stay here.

JT: Wow.

AS: So we ended up going. We ended up paying out of our own pocket to go to this... we were lucky to find it. I think actually Steve and Bill did. [After] one night, Steve woke up the next day and his eyes were puffy and full and he's like, I cannot stay here another night. We ended up going to this like Petzione kind of place, you know, for 30 Euros a night. It was totally worth every freaking penny. And that actually was where we ended up seeing Caravan the next morning, 'cause they were of course staying there. They're not going to, you know... They had a real booking agent probably booking their tour and our band had me booking the tour, you know. The next time we go to Germany, it's going to be easier 'cause you can see around the corners. But I literally booked the tour for ourselves and, you know, I guess obviously the festival coordinators didn't exactly take me as seriously as they did Caravan 'cause they're basically like, yeah, you guys can play for 800 Euros right, okay, sure. We were thrilled to be there. I was like, I didn't want to tell the guy we'd do it for free, but you know. You know what I mean, you don't want to tell them that.

JT: Yeah.

AS: You just want to play, you know. And a chance to play in front of thousands of people like that, when it's on a real stage, is like it's an insane opportunity.

JT: Yeah.

AS: We killed with merch, so that was a good thing. We sold a lot of merch over there.

JT: Well, that's good. Just to change gears, I wanted to get kind of a feel of what your current musical tastes are and I just want to ask you what's the last CD that you purchased?

AS: The last CD that I purchased was actually a new Pat Metheny album called The Way Up and it's really great. That doesn't necessarily mean that that's what I'm listening to at the moment.

JT: Oh, sure.

AS: I guess I definitely go through, you know, listening to prog and I'll go through listening to jazz. I really like Michael Brecker a lot when I'm in my jazz moods. I'm a big Brecker fan, a big Metheny fan, a big Miles fan... And then of course, the prog, you know. I'm also really... I love twentieth century American composers and some American composers who are really from other countries, but considered American composers like Stravinsky. We love Eric Copeland. A lot of that stuff is reflected in some of our stuff. I have this fanfare, this trombone and frugal horn fanfare, before "Abyss Of Ascension" starts and that's definitely Copeland-inspired.

[Not sure if he meant Aaron Copeland, and I suspect he did; but there is an American composer Eric Copeland, too... -ed.]

A lot [of] our [music is inspired by] Charles Yves. I don't know if you've ever heard of Yves before.

JT: I think so, yeah.

AS: Yves is amazing; really, really amazing stuff.

JT: And then kind of along the same lines, what's the last concert that you attended as a fan?

AS: As in like to just like to go see?

JT: Yeah.

AS: Well, I guess that's actually... I bought that Pat Metheny disc at the show.

JT: Oh, okay.

AS: I saw Metheny live at SUNY Purchase with the Pat Metheny Group and that's when I bought that CD.

JT: Okay.

AS: But, you know who Steve just went to see? Who did he just see... he likes Wayne Krantz. I don't know if you've ever heard of Wayne Krantz. He's an amazing guitar player. He [Steve] lives in the city, so he gets to see all these amazing shows.

JT: I just want to ask you some of your favorites as well, and these might be hard to narrow down, so just whatever pops into your mind or if you've got to name two or three that's fine, too. What would you say is your favorite album?

AS: Huh, that's really tough.

JT: Yeah.

AS: I mean, you know... You know, what album I love?

JT: What do you love?

AS: It has nothing to do with prog. I love the album by Joni Mitchell called Blue. Believe it or not, Nick is a huge Joni Mitchell fan, too, but it has nothing to do with prog. It's just great songwriting.

[Roine Stolt too has a fascination with Joni Mitchell - JT]

JT: Who would you say is your favorite band? Same sort of question.

AS: That's a tough one, too. If... you want to just go like straight-up, like who really is above the whole rest of the tribe and it's probably a cliché thing to say, but... I think Yes is just a great band. I mean, that's an easy answer, but... There's a reason why the big five is the big five and I, I love them all. I love Genesis. I love King Crimson.

JT: Okay. I wanted to ask you some of your favorites that aren't necessarily related to music. What would you say is your favorite movie?

AS: Favorite movie... I love... I love the movie Pulp Fiction. I like Braveheart. Mel Gibson kind of turned me off with his whole religious bang, but... 'cause that really bothered me. So I almost don't... I used to love the movie Braveheart, but I'm looking forward to this new Star Wars movie actually, too. [Which was due to open in a week -ed.]

JT: Oh, Definitely. [we both laugh] I'm debating if I should see it opening day and wait through all those crazy lines or just avoid people [don't like spoilers] and just see it like over the weekend or something.

AS: I'll see it. I was going to try to see it as a matinee maybe in the next weekend or two, usually you can get in pretty easily.

JT: Yeah.

AS: I mean, I love Star Wars. I love Star Trek, you know. I'm kind of a nerd [he laughs].

JT: What's your favorite TV show?

AS: Seinfeld and Curb Your Enthusiasm are two great shows that I love. I'm also a big Reno 911 fan and South Park.

JT: I've been watching Curb Your Enthusiasm a lot lately.

AS: That's great stuff. I love it.

JT: Yeah, and it even gets funnier as the seasons go on. The second season is hilarious.

AS: Oh, yeah. That stuff... that's a great show. HBO ... they take it to another level, so it's hard to have like a regular TV show compete with any of those shows, Sopranos or Deadwood or...

JT: Yeah. I actually think Curb Your Enthusiasm is like actually better than Seinfeld, because the main character is like a combination of Seinfeld and George all in one.

AS: Right, right. They... he really is... they based that first George character really on him.

JT: Yeah. And I just saw the episode where people are cutting down the George character and he is taking it personally and nobody can figure out why.

AS: [he laughs] I never saw that one. I'll have to check that one out. I missed a couple of them. I'll check that one out.

JT: Yeah. I was also going to ask what's your favorite book?

AS: Oh, that's a really hard one, too. You know what I really like? I'm a big Carl Sagan fan. I mean, if you're talking about straight fiction, you know, I just read The Hobbit again after not reading it for a long time, and I love The Hobbit. That's really a prog rock cliché to say that you like Lord of the Rings, you know what I mean? But I just really enjoy reading The Hobbit after not reading it for all these years, and I purposely don't make any Lord of the Rings references in my songs, [I laugh] but as far as non-fiction, I love Carl Sagan. There's a book called Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors and it basically talks about Darwin and evolution and about how... basically when you go back a few generations from you, these people are really strangers.

JT: Right.

AS: Even though they are genetically not strangers. It's actually a really interesting book about how human perspective right now is very limited, even though most people don't expand their mind enough to really think back to where we come from, and I think that's really interesting now, especially since the Kansas Board of Ed is trying to ban the teaching of Darwin and evolution in school.

JT: Right.

AS: It has to be all creationism.

JT: Okay.

AS: I'm definitely a born-again atheist.

JT: [I laugh] I've never heard that term before, but it's funny.

AS: Sometimes that goes over like a lead balloon, you know, depending on who you are talking to.

JT: No, that's okay. I've got a dumb question here. Nobody else asks this, so I ask it and it's something I can identify with and I've gotten some interesting answers.

AS: Sure.

JT: Do you have any pets?

AS: I do.

JT: What do you have?

AS: I have a dog. He's a combination Lab and Border Collie and he's a great, great dog. We rescued him. He's a rescue. We have two cats that were rescued, and it's actually really because of my wife. She, Jenna, my wife Jennifer, is a real animal... [he pauses]... lover, rescuer for her whole life. She even kind of grew up on Eastern Long Island where they... Her father's kind of a caretaker for this estate and they even had horses that were rescued. I never was really was allowed to have pets. My father... we had a turtle once. My mother kind of dropped him and it was a problem. [She did it] by accident and he wasn't really the same since. But ever since I've been married, you know, we've had these two cats and this dog and it's really great. It's just, I just never thought I would really like having them as much as I do, and they're really a part of the family. We're even thinking about getting a... We saw a Bernice Mountain Dog puppy last night. It' ever see a Bernice Mountain Dog?

JT: I think so, yeah.

AS: Those huge dogs, and they almost look like St. Bernards, but they're a little bit different. They have brown and white on them and they're huge dogs. They can be like 120 pounds when they're full grown, but they're just so lovable and gentle. We're actually thinking about getting a second dog to kind of keep Buster company.

JT: What my dad always says is that, you know, just how a person is with animals actually says a lot about them. So, you know, it's kind of interesting just to find out from musicians if they have pets and that kind of stuff. And like I said, I get some interesting answers.

AS: Yeah. I mean I just.. I love to have them. I think we're going to get another dog. Jennifer doesn't like the idea of.... buying an animal.

JT: Right.

AS: She likes the idea of rescuing them.

JT: Yeah; it usually turns out for the best, too.

AS: Yeah. That might be something that we end up doing, you know. The way I feel about it is... actually this dog was... one of my students found this dog on the streets of the town where I work, and they couldn't keep it 'cause his mom was allergic and I came down and took one look and said, okay, you're going home.

JT: Okay. That's all the questions I have, but I usually like to wrap-up with asking if there is anything you'd like to say to your fans at this time?

AS: Well... I mean, it's cliché to say this, but thank you, because a lot of the people... everyone that we've kind of come in contact with... the prog audience is really a bunch of cool people, 'cause it's not only like.... They're not just like, you know... They're definitely critical and they definitely want quality, but at the same time, when you give them that, they're so appreciative and they're really cool about it and there are a lot of people who have helped us in a lot of ways. Like, I'll send someone a free bootleg to kind of spread the word a little bit, and then I'll find out that they burned it for ten of their friends and then those ten friends will come and they'll buy our album, which allows us to keep making albums. Like they'll always be doing kind of goodwill kind of stuff and... There was a guy who was really a fan of the band and he just passed away, actually. His name was Jerry Keller. I don't know if you knew Jerry.

JT: Oh yeah; I met him, yeah.

AS: You know Jerry?

JT: I know Jerry, yeah.

AS: And Jerry was, you know, just a guy that became a fan and he would always just talk us up. Anytime you're on Progressive Ears or anywhere, it was always like... you would search Frogg Café and he'd be like on a post, "you gotta check them out," you know. He'd be... he was just a guy who epitomizes, you know, the great prog fans. It's the great spirit of it and that's why it was such... when he passed away... Our new album is in memory of Jerry Keller, and it was a guy that I only met once at the ROSfest pre-show.

JT: Yeah. Actually when I was telling you about the fact that I talked to fans after I got there later that night, he was the first one that I encountered that was talking you up.

AS: Oh, really.

JT: Yeah.

AS: Yeah, see what I mean?

JT: Exactly.

AS: So, in the liner notes, it actually says in memory of Jerry Keller.

JT: That's nice.

[At ROSFest 2005, Jerry's seat was held empty in his honor; there in spirit. And, if I recall it all correctly... his NEARfest 2005 ticket was given, donated, raffled (something like that) to a prog fan in Jerry's honor -ed.]

AS: I even had some people email [saying they] would like to buy a t-shirt in honor of Jerry Keller, you know. It's just... not only was he nice, but the people who he was friends with were all kind of like this community. Even when I say to them, oh yeah, let me sell that to you for cost, like just give me 10 bucks for it, you know, or something like that. And then I'll get the PayPal from them and it will be like for 18. They're like, oh, no, no, no, we want to support the band and here's the money, you know I mean?

JT: Yeah, exactly.

AS: [Still quoting fans] We're going to pre-order it. I'm going to pre-order two, one for me, one for my friends, even though, you know, they know that I would probably... Anyone who kind of helps the band out, I try to give them either a copy of the CD or something, or make them... give them... go out of my way to try to send them some bootlegs, you know. That's why I'd love to send you some, you know. I appreciate any kind of people who take the time to interview us, too.

JT: That sounds great. Well, that's all I have. I wish you guys a lot of luck in the future. Your music just seems to be getting better and better and I'm really looking forward to hearing this latest one that you have.

AS: I appreciate you taking the time to talk to me.

JT: You're welcome.

Frogg Café have more live dates coming up this year, during August and September 2005, including an appearance at the Prog In The Park 2005 festival in Rochester, NY. Visit our concerts page for date or, of course, the Frogg Café website.

Frogg Café (2001/2004)
Creatures (2003)
Fortunate Observer Of Time (2005)
The Safenzee Diaries (2007)
The Bateless Edge (2010)
Admiral's Picks: Vol 1 (2014)

Added: July 16th 2005
Interviewer: Joshua "Prawg Dawg" Turner

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Language: english

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