Symphony X is in a league of its own. A symphonic, neo-classical and progressive metal outfit from New Jersey in the US that is untouchable! The band’s first release was in 1994, the self-titled Symphony X, initially only released in Japan (through Zero), still sent waves through the metal scene world-wide; as an import. However, with the release of The Damnation Game in 1995, released both in Europe and US Symphony X had landed. They immediately caught the attention of the metal world with this release and this was at a time when metal was not selling well across the globe but the band flourished. In 1997 they released the critically acclaimed and ultimate Symphony X classic, The Divine Wings of Tragedy, and from this point they were an established outfit in the metal world.
The band has now released nine studio albums, the latest being Underworld, released in 2015. For the first time Symphony X will grace our shores in October this year for a tour of the East Coast, a metal event not to be missed, and I caught up with bass player Mike LePond, to discuss all things Symphony X.
Seeing as your tour to Australia in October will be your first, how would you describe Symphony X to the uninitiated?
“Well Symphony X is an interesting combination because our sound is like progressive rock, meets power metal, meets classical music. For those who don’t know us, whether you like metal, prog or a number of different styles of music there is something in there for you and I think that is why we appeal to so many different music fans.”
Focussing on Underworld now, it has been stated, despite it not essentially being a concept album, it has the common theme of Dante’s Inferno Running through it. How did this album come about?
“Our goal before we even started writing was to create an iconic kind of album where you would have to listen to the whole album before you could understand it. We were so disgusted that people were downloading one song here and there and we started writing based on bringing back the album concept. First we started with the music and from here we knew it was going to be a little darker. Micheal (Romeo) came up with the combination of Dante’s Inferno with the Greek myth of Orpheus and we started on this concept and then the songs states tho flow. It is a dark love story and the listener needs to listen to the whole album to understand it.”
Mike Romeo is seen as the principle songwriter, or the engineer, of Symphony X’s material, but how are songs put together within the unit of the band, and what roles do the rest of the musicians within the band play in this process?
“Michael “Romeo) will write the bones of the song, the riffs and melodies. He then makes a demo and sends it to all of us. So when we record, we use his basic idea and we throw in our two cents in and we make a song. The cool thing is you are never going to know what it sounds like as we put it together in the studio first and so the first time we actually play the song together is live.”
Mike you joined Symphony X in 2000, how did you become a part of the band, and what was the audition process?
“Throughout the 1990s I was a struggling musician in New Jersey and just playing in local bands and I just loved to play. We all used to hang out at this metal club every weekend. There was a guy there who used to go there all the time he was a regular and he knew Symphony X and when they needed a bass player he came to me and said you would be perfect and he set up an audition. At this time I was a hard rock blues player and I wasn’t ready to hear what I heard when Michael sent me an album to learn material. Their level of musicianship was so high and so at this point I said well you either have to do it or just put the bass down and find another job. So I drove to the first audition and I wasn’t too confident but I wanted to go through with it and meet the band. I played three songs from Divine Wings of Tragedy at a rehearsal. Then on the second audition I had to play others songs from two other albums and I got the gig. From here my first show was in Sao Paulo in 2000 people. Pretty amazing really”
What aspects do you believe set Symphony X a part from other metal bands within the symphonic genre?
“I think, and please don’t see this as a put down, it is an observation, I think a lot of other bands, their knowledge of theory and orchestration and nuts and bolts of music are limited to a certain extent. With Michael, he is a composer and not just a metal guitarist, and I think this extensive knowledge is above a lot of other bands. His ideas don’t become stale and everything sounds fresh. Our material doesn’t sound the same and all albums sound different.”
How do you arrange Symphony X’s songs for your set? There is so much going on in your studio tracks with multi layers of instruments so how do you pull all of this together in your live sound?
“It is a compromise. We obviously can’t duplicate all of the layering in the studio; we try to do as much as possible. We make do and support each other with our instruments and take on different sound scapes where appropriate and possible. We really don’t like to have everything sampled, we don’t want to lose that raw sound and that is what we do.”
How did the band finally line up an Australian tour, I know that you have been trying for some time to come down here and play?
“We have always wanted to play in Australia but the simple answer would be that with the offers we had, it just didn’t work out. We have always wanted to play and we are really excited that it is now coming together. We have heard such great things about Australian fans. I know it is probably twenty years too late but better late than never.”
What should Australian fans expect from the Symphony X shows in October?
“Honestly, we have never sounded better than we do currently, live. We really have our sound dialled in and our whole show is really solid and I think whether you like our old or new stuff we will have something in there for everyone and we are looking for great energy from our audiences and have that whole vibe going. I am sure we won’t let anyone down who comes along to check us out.”
Do you have a final message for your Australian fans ahead of the tour in October?
“To all the Australian fans we wish we could have come earlier but we are so excited to come now. We know we have a lot of fans over there and we thank you for your support and we are going to give our all when we are down there in October.”
It was a real pleasure to chat with Mike. He is an amazing musician and a shining bass player on the metal circuit, and now I can say a nice bloke! This is definitely going to be a tour not to be missed, the Australian metal audience has not been fortunate enough to experience a metal band in this genre and really of this musical calibre, so don’t miss this opportunity. I can assure you I will be there.
Interview By Mark Snedden
Details of the Symphony X shows can be found here