Without detracting from the awful events which took place in Ottawa yesterday (October 22, 2014), here is the third and final part of my interview with Greg Kampf, DJ of CHUO FM 89.1’s prog-rock program, La Villa Strangiato.
In part 1, Greg and I went over the history of the program and of prog rock itself, giving you a glimpse into the storied background of the prog-rock universe.
In part 2, Greg and I talked about how the internet has affected the production, distribution, and consumption of prog rock.
Here in part 3, Greg and I explore what prog rock means in the 2010s. How do you define prog rock in the 2010s? What does it mean to be a prog rocker in the 2010s? Can the idea of prog extend beyond rock and into other genres, such as pop? And to what extent has prog rock seeped into pop culture through mediums such as film and sampling? Greg answers all of these questions below.
Part 3: What is prog rock in the 2010s?
Now the thing about prog rock — and especially listening to your show — is to define prog rock. I listen to your show and I hear sections that are jazzy, I hear very metal, kind of Dream Theater-type stuff, although you probably stay out of the way of Dream Theater because they’re a little bit too common at this point…
I used to be a huge Dream Theater fan.
I think the last time we spoke 14 years ago, you asked me about Dream Theater.
I think I probably did. I was a real fanboy of the group at that time and they were an important group on the scene at that time. They were making records that no-one else was making, their sound is so huge, their musicianship was on a scale that hadn’t been seen in a long time, and they were kind of doing things on their own terms. As uncool as they were, that was really great…
They still kind of are, aren’t they? We’re sort of off on a tangent now, but we can still talk.
Well, yeah. I’d say the last five records that they’ve done sound kind of samey, and I’ve lost a little bit of interest in what they’ve done. There are so many other groups doing so many interesting things. But I still have to hand it to Dream Theater. They sparked an entire era/subgenre of bands that were inspired by them and it’s what we call the progressive metal scene. They’re one of the grandfathers of that scene and they’re still doing things on their own terms.
So how do you define progressive rock in 2014?
Well, I think we can make a distinction between progressive rock and prog. We’ve talked a lot about all these early bands making all these classic records and coming up with these sounds and whole universes of uncharted territory from 69 to 74.
Today, I look back on that, on those works, on those bands, and that to me is prog.
A lot of musicians and bands today still draw a lot of influence from those groups, especially Genesis.
Now we’re talking Gabriel-era Genesis…
Gabriel-era Genesis, yes…And two albums that were done after, in the post-Gabriel-era, which would be Wind & Wuthering and A Trick of the Tail, both in 76, when Phil Collins took over the vocals, but Steve Hackett, the guitar great, was still in the band. He had so much to do with the way that they sounded at the time.
So that’s kind of the classic prog sound. A lot of groups and a lot of listeners today, I find, they grew up in that age or, as they say, the music you listened to as a teenager is the music you listen to the rest of your life. So if Steve Hackett comes to play at the Casino du Lac-Leamy, it will be sold out. There will be 1200 people there. If there’s a Genesis cover band that comes to play at the Bluesfest, there will be 800 people standing in the field watching them. If there’s another band that kind of sounds very similar to that early Genesis prog-sound that comes to play in Montréal, people will drive down the highway to see them.
But, in 2014, if there’s a band that is truly progressive doing things that have their own sound, that have a variety of diverse influences, and they’re trying to make something new and unique, we’re lucky if five or six people will come to see them at Café Dekcuf or Presse Café.
Okay, maybe 20 people.
Now is that the definition of progressive – to be doing something truly unique?
I think so.
To be pushing forward?
What kind of pushing forward do you see now that didn’t exist in the 70s, 80s, and 90s?
Well, I think as the planet becomes more globalized and we have access to hearing basically anything that’s ever been recorded and we’re kind of at a time when it’s been so easy for musicians to connect with one another across countries, across continents, you’re seeing the types of collaborations that wouldn’t have been possible 30 or 40 years ago.
I recently received an album by Russian pianist Stanislav Zaslavsky. This project is called Kazhargan World, and he’s basically recruited six musicians from diverse places. They’ve all recorded the music that he’s written. They’ve recorded all their parts, shipped it back to him. He mixed it all together, and it sounds like a full band that was recording in the studio together. They’re totally in sync.
That type of technology did not exist 40 years ago. You’ve got Europeans and Americans and Japanese musicians that have all collaborated together and are bringing their diverse backgrounds and experiences into a project. And anything can happen when you’ve got that type of creativity that comes into a project.
So that is really exciting in terms of the future: the types of collaborations that are happening now and will continue to happen. And the types of traditions that may not be common to progressive rock or progressive jazz that may be brought in.
There’s a record label in New York City called MoonJune Records — Leonardo Papkovic‘s label. He’s been going to Indonesia a lot and making contact with a lot of rock and jazz musicians in Indonesia that were unknown to most of us, and he’s now actually releasing their records internationally. So now he’s bringing Indonesian musicians to America to play with jazz guys here, and it’s just amazing what they’re coming up with. That’s the future.
With progressive rock necessarily being a niche market, do projects like these eventually trickle into the mainstream consciousness?
On some level. Do we hear a series of notes in a Beyonce song and say, that actually originated with this project?
I think that happened with a Kanye West tune. Didn’t he sample something off In the Court of the Crimson King a year or two ago? [Ed. Note: Kanye West’s “Power” features a sample from “21st Century Schizoid Man“.]
So there are some moments when pop culture kind of takes ownership of some of these moments in progressive rock and kind of turns them on their head and uses them for different means, whether it’s the background music in a film or in a television commercial. Although I’ve yet to see that.
There’s a beautiful moment in Children of Men — do you know that movie?
I haven’t seen it yet. Now I have to see it.
There’s a beautiful moment where they use “In the Court of the Crimson King” as a background against an image of the inflatable pig from Pink Floyd at Battersea Park with a very rich man in this huge mansion in the sky.
And you know why this is happening now, right?
Because the guys that are producing films like that are the guys that came of age listening to prog rock in the 70s and are now in positions of power somewhere up and down the line with creative input in the film industry. They’re now able to take what they loved growing up and deposit it in a kind of mainstream popular film, which appeals very much to me as a prog rock listener, but may be absolutely mystifying to somebody who isn’t familiar with the traditions as much. That’s cool.
On that note, actually, you made me think… I just watched The Lego Movie with my daughter, and Mark Mothersbaugh did the soundtrack. Now, we’re speaking of Devo, and Devo is something else altogether but, could they also be considered progressive, if not rock, then pop in the way they pushed the limits of pop?
Devo, I suppose, was revolutionary in the sense that Devo was out there doing their own thing, a very singular entity in pop music.
In the context of this conversation, and that’s just where this idea’s coming from, I would want to consider them progressive pop.
There’s a lot of progressive pop that’s out there that I hear and go, wow! This is great because it’s more than just the conventional pop song. There’s a lot going on here.
Just like, you know, how a lot of these Pixar films appeal to kids and adults because they work on both levels. They can appeal to the simpler, more innocent side of us, and they can also appeal to the intellectual side of us that stimulates various neurons to go, wow, that’s so cool, that’s so clever, so I totally agree.
OK. As a final note, you’ve talked a lot about how Europe and Japan seem to keep producing progressive rock and also have an appreciation of your podcast. Would you say progressive rock is something of a more European type of music. Is it rooted somewhere in the symphonic music of the last 500 years? Is that why there’s an appeal?
I think if you were to read a lot of essays about where progressive rock came from, you would read a lot of musicologists attempting to make that link between kind of what was happening in the call [?] between psychedelia, pop, and classical music that all converged towards the end of the 60s. Definitely, there was a lot of that, like, classical or contemporary, modernist aesthetic that came into it to make it what it was.
It stands out – it’s not Jimi Hendrix. It’s not The Doors, although there are some very proggy elements of The Doors music. But if you listen to Jethro Tull, Thick as a Brick, that is not like listening to Traffic or Chicago.
But yes, musicologists agree there is some degree of the classical aesthetic that fused with what was happening in the 60s with rock, pop, and psychedelia, that kind of created this new form that then was labeled progressive rock.
OK. Thank you very much for your time. It has been a pleasure.