Neo brings together some of the finest musicians in the British (neo)progressive rock scene. Names like Clive Nolan (Arena, Pendragon, Caamora) and John Jowitt (IQ), Alan Reed (Pallas) and Nick Barrett (Pendragon) are very familiar. Their first release is a stunning DVD where they play a very nice selection of songs by IQ, Pallas, Arena, Shadowland, Nolan & Wakeman and Pendragon. And while I watched the DVD, one person caught my eye: Mark Westwood. He turns out to be an excellent guitar player. Since he was fairly unknown to me, I took the opportunity to get to know him a little better and get some insights from his point of view on the whole Neo project.
Marcel Haster: Mark, first of all, congratulations on the debut release of Neo. How do you look back on it?
Mark Westwood: Thank you. It was a little bit crazy, setting up a new band & then your third gig being a live video shoot. Personally I was very excited & a little nervous, we all were. Although we all enjoyed playing each other's songs, none of us wanted to be the one to balls 'em up. The other scary thing about Neo was not knowing what kind of reception we would get from an audience. Thankfully, that was very positive.
MH: Isn't it a bit unusual to have a DVD as debut release?
MW: I suppose it is, But what else could we do? When you're playing other people's material, there's just no way we were going to be able to release anything. Then Clive Nolan suggested that filming a show would be a good way of letting people see what Neo was all about.
MH: Maybe it's best to start at the very beginning: How did Neo come to be and how did you end up in it?
MW: If I remember correctly, it came about when IQ was playing NEARfest in America. John Jowitt, Andy Edwards, Rob Aubrey (IQ Sound Engineer), Lol Dyer (IQ lighting Tech) and myself were sitting in a bar, drinking beer (just for a change). We started talking about how we'd like to do more shows. At the same time John was looking through a magazine and found an item about Dennis De Young playing the music of Styx with his own band. John said what a great idea, Lol Dyer said let's do it, and along came Neo. I guess I ended up doing it because I was the only guitarist sat around the table.
MH: Can we call Neo a band or is it more a project? A one time thing or will there be a follow up to Broadcast one day?
MW: Call it what you like, I call most things I work on "Projects." As for a follow up to Broadcast, who can tell? I really enjoy playing with all the guys in Neo, playing all the different styles from each band. I hope we do more.
MH: Clive and John have a strong connection, as they both played together in Arena. How strong is their influence in the band?
MW: That's a hard one to answer. I was going to say that the core members of Neo (Jowitt, Nolan, Edwards & Westwood) all had a strong influence on how the band developed, but then so did, Nick Barrett & Alan Reed.
MH: The DVD offers an interesting collection of songs. Some quite "old" and maybe even a bit rare, others quite recent. Who chose the songs?
MW: As far as I remember, I think Clive, who had such a mixed back catalogue of material, suggested the Shadowland, Nolan/Wakeman and Arena songs. I was so happy he suggested doing the "Hanging Tree;" it's one of my favourite Arena songs. John, Andy and myself came up with a short list of IQ songs; Andy and I really wanted to do "Erosion," and Nick suggested "Outer Limits," along with the Pendragon songs. We used to do a full version of "The Enemy Smacks," mainly because me, John and Andy used to jam through it in rehearsals. As for the Pallas songs, they were all suggested by Alan Reed. He sent a CD of Pallas material and we picked the ones we fancied doing. We really wanted to a song called "Ratracing," but we just ran out of time.
MH: When I saw the names, most were familiar except yours ? it states you play in the Martin Orford Band? Please tell a bit more about yourself and your musical past.
MW: I've been drifting in and out of the Prog scene for quite a few years, mainly due to my friendship with John Jowitt. Over the years we've played in various bands together, two of them being Dirtbox & White Trash. We also had a great time with a spoof band called King Duck. Other than that, I have been playing in rock/metal bands, playing with the likes of Dio & Mot?rhead. The Martin Orford Band came about when Martin needed a guitarist for some live shows.
MH: I really enjoyed your play on the DVD and some solos reminded me of how nice these actually are. How difficult or easy were the songs for you to play? Any particular favourites?
MW: Thanks. I really enjoyed playing all of the songs; they all had their difficulties. I think the hardest thing was the sheer workload. Learning two and a half hours worth of material, some of which I'd never heard before, in such a short period of time. As mad as it might sound, the toughest song to learn was "Mindgames," a Shadowland song. It's just an acoustic, strummed song, which really shouldn't be that hard. But for some reason I just couldn't remember the arrangement. As for favourite songs: "Outer Limits" (IQ), "Hanging Tree" (Arena) and "Hide & Seek" (Pallas).
MH: Nick plays guitar on the Pendragon songs ?did they change the arrangements to fit you in as second guitar player?
MW: Not really, I did meet up with Nick to discuss exactly how we were going to tackle the two-guitar thing, but on the whole we left the arrangements as they were. "Paintbox," was mostly acoustic guitar, and then on "Masters Of Illusion" and "Nostradamus" we just doubled up the guitars, which made the songs a little bit heavier.
MH: Would you have liked to play those songs yourself?
MW: Not at all, it was nice to have a bit of a breather, and Nick liked having a second guitar on stage.
MH: Neo has performed several places and even on several continents, with the same line up. How difficult were the logistics for that?
MW: Logistically, at the start, it wasn't that hard. But I think we were just lucky with the timing. Everybody seemed pretty quiet. But now things are a little different. There was talk of a few gigs later this year, but we had to postpone due to other commitments.
MH: The DVD was filmed in Poland, but you guys also played at ROSfest ? why not film that show entirely?
MW: Two reasons really. Firstly: ROSfest was our first gig and up until then, we still weren't sure if the whole idea was going to work. I remember on the plane over someone pointed out that we had never actually played the whole set from start to finish; that was a little scary. The second reason was: It's not very easy to film in a festival situation, you don't really have enough time to set something like that up.
MH: The label releasing the DVD is Metal Mind and they are really gaining a profile as specialists in filming prog concerts. How was it to work with them?
MW: Fantastic, They're very good at what they do. I think over the last few years they have filmed a hell of a lot of concerts, so they've had plenty of experience at getting it right. I'm back out there in October, filming the Caamora show with Clive and John. I'm really looking forward to it.
MH: Still I was a bit surprised, as there are three independent labels connected to Neo: GEP Records, Verglas Records and Toff Records ? why not release it through any of these?
MW: There was a bit of political reason why we never went to GEP, Verglas or Toff. We didn't want to get snowed under with all the red tape. I mean IQ songs on Verglas, Pallas songs on GEP, etc. Releasing through a completely independent label helped keep things simple.
MH: Neo is one of the many prog bands that joined MySpace. Why did you guys do that?
MW: As for the My Space site, that was Andy Edwards' suggestion. None of us knew what My Space was, but it was a quick and easy way to let people know what was happening with Neo. And also let us see, if there was any interest in what we were doing.
MH: There is some discussion going on at several internet forums about the new media and the threats it poses to many bands. How do you feel about that? Do you think the Internet has advantages for bands, or might help them to get new audiences?
MW: I think there are pros and cons with everything. Love it or hate it, the Internet is here to stay; it's no good pretending it isn't. Most bands have embraced the web in a positive way and used it to get their music out there. Before the Internet, it was virtually impossible for a band to be heard, now they can do it all in house, they can package and promote their product and keep total control over how they think it should be perceived.
MH: I just received the first release of Clive Nolan's new project Caamora and guess who plays guitars? Is that a result of working with Clive in Neo?
MW: I don't know, I guess so, maybe you should ask Clive. I've known Clive for quite a long time and we've talked a few times about me playing on something or other. There have even been a couple of occasions where we tried, along with John Jowitt, writing a couple of tunes, but it never really came to anything. I guess it's a timing thing, people being in the right place at the right time.
MH: Do you have anything else going on, musically or otherwise?
MW: There's always something going on. Watch this space!!!!!
MH: You did tell a bit about yourself, but what kind of music do listen to? Do you keep yourself up to date on current bands and albums? Any favourites?
MW: I listen to lots of bands. I like the old favourites like: Bowie, The Kinks, and The Beach Boys. Then there's: Killing Joke, XTC, Mr Bungle, Kings X, The Clash and Underworld. Prog wise I like: King Crimson, Muse, Pink Floyd and bits of Yes (90125). I saw Pure Reason Revolution in Spain with IQ and thought they were brilliant.
MH: Any musicians you'd like to work with?
MW: Not really? I don't really think that way. I see loads of amazing bands, with stunning players and tend to think how I'd love to be in a band like that. I see lots of great musicians who inspire me but I wouldn't necessarily want to work with them.
MH: Well, I do hope to hear more of you in the near future. Thanks a lot for this interview.
MW: My pleasure.