This week I speak with primary song-writer, lead singer and guitarist for the Portland, OR based progressive rock band The Mercury Tree – a band that I’m very excited to feature.
Not only is the song-writing inventive and original – not at all a clone of any classic prog band like Rush or Yes – but I myself identified with many of Ben’s musical interests:
- Jazz-inspired technical chops
- Complex rhythms (not just complex musical meters)
- Organic shifts in tempo within a song
The last one got me really going on an almost academic tangent in our interview – on the topic of composer Elliot Carter‘s metric modulation technique, the late medieval musical style of ars subtilior, and the analog between organic tempo changes and key changes (i.e. harmonic modulation). Really geeky stuff, but hopefully equally interesting to you folks in the audience who like to hear “inside baseball” shop talk between two talented (did I say that??) musicians.
We hear two tracks from the band’s latest EP “Descent”: Running the Gamut and Preconceived Notions. I can’t emphasize how great these songs are, so please take a listen and patronize the band’s website.
Ben Sommer: You guys are from Oregon, right, Ben?
Ben Spees: That’s right. Well, actually, I moved here from Arizona, but I have lived here for about six years.
Ben Sommer: So just tell me a little bit about the band, what your guys’ histories and background is, and what you guys are up to right now?
Ben Spees: Well, basically, I moved to Portland looking for more like minded musicians, and so I was able to put an actual band together back in 2006, and that was with Mike Byrne and James Crutcher. Mike has since gone on to be hired by Smashing Pumpkins, so we’ve gotten another drummer since then. Basically, we’re trying to make really progressive interesting music, so that it doesn’t fall into any of the current clichés, and like one of the things I think that’s really interesting is just all the potential in odd meters and different rhythms that have not really been exploited in popular music. So I think that’s the big thing we focus on.
Ben Sommer: Rhythm is kind of the main piece or aspect of the music you’re interested in these days anyway?
Ben Spees: Yeah, certainly when I started out, I can play really fast. So one of the things I could do there was to play strange rhythms.
Ben Sommer: Right.
Ben Spees: So even though I’ve gotten faster since then that has always been something I thought was a little bit different.
Ben Sommer: Right, if you have a good sense of rhythm and you can execute even just at a fiddling level. Yeah, I know what you mean. You can mix it up. This is funny. I’m exactly the same way. I wax and wane how fast I can play on the guitar with two musicians, but I’ve always been obsessed with rhythm and very extreme scenarios. In fact, I was listening to some of your songs. Listen, I’ll be frank. I think this stuff is great.
Ben Spees: Oh, thank you so much.
Ben Sommer: For, I think, the same reasons it is produced solidly in the prog rock kind of style, but it’s got those nuances which are probably interesting to people once schooled and pretty even someone like me. It really keeps your mind busy and appeals to all your senses, so the rhythm is definitely one important thing. You guys change that meters a lot. You change up tempos, which is even more unusual.
Ben Spees: Right.
Ben Sommer: What is your approach to changing tempos?
Ben Spees: Well, it’s funny. We’ve gotten so used to changing meters that we really don’t even notice it, and I think if you have a pretty strong melody or something strong going on melodically around the meter change, it really kind of hides it and makes it feel a lot more natural. So basically, we’re very accustomed now to playing like five or seven, so it will be pretty common to try switching to something like that. But occasionally, the different meter at same tempo will feel, like even though it’s the same tempo, it might feel too slow or too fast, so we might end up having a slight tempo change like, let’s say, from 105 to 95 just to make it feel more natural internally. I’m sure there is probably some mathematical logic behind that.
Ben Sommer: There is.
Ben Spees: But I’m not grasping it yet.
Ben Sommer: So this is one of the techniques I use all the time. I mean, I’m totally over-educated in music, so my gut and my knowledge kind of joined up at one point. That what you’re describing there is what some people call metric modulation, so you know how when you modulate from one key to a key that’s related, there is usually a pivot chord or several that both keys have in common, which you use to kind of ease the transition.
Ben Spees: Right.
Ben Sommer: You can take the same analog by saying here is the tempo or whatever it is. I think the ones you described are probably related where one value in this tempo or whatever it is 16th note, triplet or whatever, has a common value in the other tempo, and then basically the note stays the same, so you’re going dah, dah, dah, dah, dah. Now, I’m in dah, dah, dah, dah, dah, but then I could be dah, dah, dah, dah, dah, and the tempo is totally different. Do you know what I mean?
Ben Spees: Yeah, absolutely. I’m sure there is some stuff like that going on.
Ben Sommer: I’m sorry. That was ridiculously academic, but I’m just so excited to see someone doing this kind of neat stuff.
Ben Spees: Oh, no, actually, I don’t find it academic at all. It’s quite applicable to what we’re doing.
Ben Sommer: So you moved to Oregon. So you’re for music to find likeminded people. What was wrong with Arizona? Why Oregon?
Ben Spees: Well, in Arizona, I lived in Phoenix basically because I got hired by a game company there. So that was the only reason I lived there to begin with.
Ben Sommer: Okay, you’re a developer by your day job?
Ben Spees: Right, exactly. So I mean, there is some things about Phoenix, but it’s pretty sprawled out. It’s very hot obviously, and there is not much of downtown scene, although they have tried to improve it. Certainly there is no obvious network to plug into the music community. I can pretty much think of one famous band, Jimmy Eat World from Mesa, but it’s not really like there was any community surrounding that. So it was a pretty frustrating place to try and be in a band. In Portland, I guess, had an image as very Indie-friendly and a place with open-minded people, and I think that’s obviously what I felt like we needed for the kind of music I wanted to make. And I guess I’ve been proved right and wrong because I definitely have found some great people here, but overall, I’m a little bit surprised people aren’t as open minded as you might think, and certainly for a band that doesn’t fit into any obvious genres, it’s a little bit hard for people to figure out whether it’s cool to like you and stuff like that.
Ben Sommer: That’s funny, I think. I mean, I live near Boston. I think it’s a similar scene. It’s very a thriving Indie scene, but the kind of music you and I are really into is always going to be on the edge, on the margin, and like so many things in the community, there is extreme tolerance for things that are buried within a narrow band, but anything else outside of that, you always going to have trouble.
Ben Spees: Yes, yeah, it’s certainly a difficult question to know how to make any sort of appeal to the mass market. Since I don’t really know what to do with that, I tend to just look at people as individuals, and as individuals, gosh, there is an amazing creative open-minded and really great musicians here, and we have found some bands lately that are even semi-similar to us, so that’s been a really great development.
Ben Sommer: Cool, cool. So you’re the guitarist and you’ve got two other guys or three other with a girl named Liz Kuhn by what’s on your site who subs in for some minutes.
Ben Spees: Yeah, it’s sort of a four-man band now. She played flute on a couple of those songs.
Ben Sommer: Okay, yes, she sounded like…
Ben Spees: What’s that?
Ben Sommer: She sounded just like kind of ringer who came in to play wood winds, but the core is the power trio, right?
Ben Spees: I wouldn’t say she’s a ringer, just like out of respect. We certainly appreciate her contributions, but it was sort of fine experiment to have a flute on some tracks. I don’t know, what do you think of the flute?
Ben Sommer: I don’t think I’ve gotten there. I’m down with Track 3 on your BandCamp page, which is the www.themercurytree.bandcamp.com, and maybe I missed it. Was she playing on either of the first three?
Ben Spees: It is in Julienne during the heavy riffs section, but it’s sort of an ambient loop kind of a thing that’s going between the speakers, so it’s kind of a textural that you might have to listen to it more closer.
Ben Sommer: Yeah, yeah, I mean, I definitely heard like textures, and if I listen closer, I might have discerned those.
Ben Spees: It even sounds like a synth really.
Ben Sommer: Right. That is what I’m going to say. I probably wasn’t listening close enough to really discern if it was a synth or a flute or something else, but I was going to say the drummer, and I mean, you’re a quite a good guitar player, so I know you’re knocking yourself early, but you’re very good, but these guys who are playing in the rhythm section are sick. I mean, here’s the thing, I run this site, BandsLikeRush.com, so it’s kind of a goofy angle, but that band Getty and Neil are two of the greatest in their fields, right? They are great.
Ben Spees: Absolutely.
Ben Sommer: But these days, I’m just sorry there. Just the talent is just so insane, and I would venture to guess that your drummer is playing stuff that’s more subtle, more nuanced and just as chops and is just as sick as what Neil could do. And your bass player, too, I mean, they both got the kind of the extreme jazz fusion chops that you’re hearing on some of these players with the bass tone is great. I mean, it sounds like you have six strings. I don’t know if that’s true, but he’s got it wired.
Ben Spees: He’s absolutely good there, yeah. He started playing six string about a year ago, and part of that was I started playing baritone guitar, so we want to have some lower notes. But with the high string, we have just a lot of prisms with really clever things that he can do, especially with tapping. So yeah, absolutely, I’m humbled to have those guys play with me.
Ben Sommer: So that sounds interesting, so with six string, the bass gives you two lower strings or one low and one high?
Ben Spees: It’s like a five string, which has the extra lower string, but it has an extra high string as well, so extra string on both sides.
Ben Sommer: Right, okay. Cool, and baritone guitar, now, I’ve never laid hands on one, but what is that like?
Ben Spees: Basically, it just allows you to tune lower without having problems with the strings getting rubbery or intonation problems, and it’s actually wasn’t originally [cut audio 00:11:28] to play lower. But I came across this tuning called new standard tuning, which when I told people about it, they’ve almost never heard of it but it was invented by Robert Fripp, and the basic idea is you tune the guitar in fifths instead of fourths between each string.
Ben Sommer: Like the violin or a cello?
Ben Spees: Exactly, exactly, and because of how high you end up going, you need to start from a lower point in order to be able to get up to the high point.
Ben Sommer: Oh, I see, to cover the right range with similar ranges of guitar. Neat…
Ben Spees: Right.
Ben Sommer: So…
Ben Spees: So it’s cool. I actually have the range of a seven string with this baritone tuning on a six string.
Ben Sommer: And it’s a different instrument?
Ben Spees: Really the difference between a baritone guitar and a regular guitar is just the neck would be a couple of inches longer, so it just increases the string tension and it’s designed a little bit differently to accommodate the different dimensions.
Ben Sommer: What song…
Ben Spees: I’m sure the pick ups are a little different tune.
Ben Sommer: Yeah, what songs on this album that you use the baritone on?
Ben Spees: Well, Running the Gamut is only the song on this album where I use it. It sort of has an identifiable sound during the heavy riffs during the chorus, and then there is also a new song that I posted on our Facebook page called Interstitial, and that’s all tapped baritone. That’s another thing about the baritone is because the neck is larger and that makes it easier to tap and also the fifth tuning allows for some just amazing shapes in the fifth tuning that sound beautiful.
Ben Sommer: Wow…
Ben Spees: So that’s been a major area of my interest.
Ben Sommer: Neat, neat, neat, so the music again, like I said, I gave you some examples of why I like it. Well, it’s mixed and engineered very well. So first of all, I’m curious who did that. Did you guys do it, or do you hire someone?
Ben Spees: Yeah, I did that myself. I started using Pro Tools about nine years ago, and I just started off recording myself, but I just tried to kind of raise the bar higher and higher, so I’m really pleased that you think it sounds good.
Ben Sommer: Yeah, it’s good. I mean, I’m in the same boat. I am totally self-taught, but I decided to try to learn and it’s great to hear someone like yourself who is all-around do it yourself and is sounding really good.
Ben Spees: Thanks a lot. Yeah, I’ve done a few projects for some other bands, too, which I think had come up pretty well.
Ben Sommer: Good. Is that just for fun or for profit or both or to improve your skills?
Ben Spees: Well, I can’t really. The people I work with can’t really afford to pay a large amount of money, so it mostly my friends and they kick me a few bucks to be nice. But despite that I still think the stuff we came up with is competitive sounding.
Ben Sommer: Yeah, yeah. Going back to the music, it’s not only you mix up the tempos, the meters, which is classic prog style, but you’re also mixing up from a more melodic style, textural style, and then typically when there is an instrumental interlude in these tunes, I’m hearing some dissonant harmonies, which is really cool with more angular ideas. That’s where the kind of crazy rhythms come in, and it’s even on the verge of metal, so I’m curious what was your favorite music growing up and now to come up with that kind of mix of styles?
Ben Spees: Well, it’s funny. I’m really not that into mouthful, although there certain metal bands I love like Meshuggah, although even then I prefer to listen to the instrumental parts more than the vocals. But really that’s only something I started to appreciate more recently. When I was a teenager, my favorite band was REM, so I was just obsessed with like the chiming guitar sound and the sort of dreamy and mysterious atmosphere that they created. So, of course, now, I look at them in a different way. I’m like, “They’re not really that technical.” But at the same time, you don’t necessarily have to play with ridiculous techniques to make a really effective song.
Ben Sommer: Absolutely right. You’re right.
Ben Spees: But I think if you can, that’s even better.
Ben Sommer: Yeah, so maybe that where you’re with some of those diverse and stuff where there is a more melodic and textural vibes going on. I was about to lie to myself saying I could REM in that. I really can’t.
Ben Spees: Well, I’m not Michael Stipe, that’s for sure.
Ben Sommer: Yeah, although the vocals, that’s the other thing. If I were to criticize one thing about the mix, and I normally don’t do this except for like stuff I’m really excited about, so I guess take it as a compliment. It is a little lost, and I would like to hear more of it, and I’m wondering if it’s not the mix, your vocal is being lost. You seem to have a range squarely in the mid-range with baritone, and I’m struck with very few prog bands and singers who don’t follow the pattern of the Jon Anderson or Geddy Lee with very high registered tenor wailing vocals, do you know what I mean?
Ben Spees: Right. Well, yeah, I mean, I can’t sing in falsetto, and I’ve tried to sing in higher range, but honestly, sometimes I just feel like it comes out as strained, and I don’t want to sacrifice any sort of genuine emotional quality or natural humanistic quality just to reach some operatic high note.
Ben Sommer: Yeah, I hear you.
Ben Spees: Although, of course, I love to be able to sing like Jon Anderson or one of those guys. I sort of try to stay to my strengths.
Ben Sommer: Yeah, that’s the smart thing.
Ben Spees: And I think as far as the mixing, yeah, I might have had the vocals a little bit louder, but it was also one of those things where we wanted to make sure nothing would detract from the impact of the bass and drums since those were so strong and they were really driving a lot of the excitement.
Ben Sommer: It’s true.
Ben Spees: So I don’t know. It’s possibly we might do a little bit of re-mastering or something in the future.
Ben Sommer: You see, I’m the same way, and I hope you would take it in the spirit it was offered with that little tidbit.
Ben Spees: Oh, absolutely.
Ben Sommer: I hear what you’re saying. Again, I was hearing all sorts of really neat things in the bass and the drums, so I hear where you are going. Well, that’s so funny. It’s like the inverse of typical cookie-cutter mixing advice you get from pros, “Start with the vocals. Vocals is always the most important.” But not always.
Ben Spees: Yeah, well, gosh, I’ve read so much on different people’s opinions about production techniques, and honestly, for every person if he says you have to do it one way, you can find someone else who says no, that’s the wrong way to do it.
Ben Sommer: Right.
Ben Spees: So I mean, I’m not making a pop record. I’m not Frank Sinatra. I think when people come to a live show, probably what they’ll be most impressed by is the instrumentation, and hopefully the vocals are a pleasant edition for that.
Ben Sommer: Yeah, definitely.
Ben Spees: But not necessarily the focal point. I would love to be able to get a back-up singer, though, because I love vocal harmonies.
Ben Sommer: Right, right.
Ben Spees: And hopefully at some point, we’ll be able to arrange that.
Ben Sommer: Maybe I didn’t listen close enough. I didn’t hear a ton of vocal harmonies in the recorded product, am I wrong?
Ben Spees: They’re mixed pretty low, and again, this is where we didn’t let the vocals or harmonies to overshadow anything, but in some of my older work, they’ve even a lot more prominent.
Ben Sommer: Right.
Ben Spees: I used to kind of get over the top with the fun of over-dubbing your own voice.
Ben Sommer: Yeah, it does get a little weird, but to your point, I think having the vocal double or backed up live is always just an impressive kind of performance. I’ve just found that live vocals and harmony have really done really well or even things like live horns just really make a show with rock.
Ben Spees: Yeah.
Ben Sommer: So you’re out promoting this album or do you have any events coming up you want to plug or your websites, et cetera?
Ben Spees: Oh, yeah.
Ben Sommer: Go ahead.
Ben Spees: If you go to our website at www.mercurytree.net, we’ve got our shows listed coming up. We’re playing on several shows over the coming months in Portland. There is an EP-release show on September 18th at Oak Grove Tavern and then some other stuff listed after that. And also on there, there is a link to BandCamp where you can stream all of our music.
Ben Sommer: Cool. Well, this has been great talking to you, Ben. Thank you so much for joining me.
Ben Spees: Thank you, Ben, it was great talking to you, and it’s very interesting.
Ben Sommer: Cool, all right, I’m going to press stop…