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Mark Zonder: “We wanted to do an album with basically eleven singles. With a good feeling, a happy kind of vibe. There is too much negativity, there is too much doom and gloom

Eens temeer is er een (ex) lid van Fates Warning een nieuwe band begonnen. In dit geval drummer Mark Zonder die van 1999 tot 2005 actief was in de Amerikaanse progressieve metal band. A-Z (Aee through Zee) kan duiden op de veelzijdigheid van de band, maar lijkt ons toch eerder in verband te brengen met ‘from Alder to Zonder’, aangezien Fates Warning zanger Ray Alder de vocalist is. Het is een interessante nieuwe onderneming en we praatten met een heel gemotiveerde en enthousiaste Mark Zonder over zijn nieuwe baby. Een pro die weet wat hij wil…
Vera Matthijssens Ι 20 september 2022

Mark, how are you doing and where are you located in the US?
I am actually in California, just outside Los Angeles where my studio is located.

We know you as drummer in Fates Warning and Warlord, but what happened next? Why did you take such a long break?
Actually I was not away. I played with Graham Bonnet Band and I did a couple Spirits Of Fire records. I probably recorded over three hundred songs for other people. The reason I left Fates Warning, was that I was getting married and we started a family. It just wasn’t fair to the men, to myself and to my wife and kids. Fates Warning was not a band like Rush or The Rolling Stones where things were planned out for a year ahead and you could take care of it. Literally you got a phone call like: ‘hey we are going on tour in two weeks’. That was very difficult. I have been in the band for fifteen years and I gave it everything that I had. We rehearsed and recorded at my studios. I did everything possible that I could for the band. I went to Jim Matheos one day and said: ‘I just cannot do the touring. It is not going to work, but I still like to do the recording. If we can work something out, I will be part of the band.’ It is not about the money. Everybody knows, these bands are not about the money. Again, this is not Rush or The Rolling Stones. It was a very nice conversation, but he said he just wanted somebody in the band that would record the record and do the touring. I said: okay, and obviously everything is fine, because he got me playing on the Arch/Matheos record and on the solo album he asked me to play on two songs. Everything is fine, it is just business. You have to make mature adult decisions.

At a certain point you started writing songs, this kind of material. How did that work out?
Well, I did the same kind of idea back in 2007 with my band Slavior. I spent my time recording different drum ideas and try to make them as crazy and as interesting as possible, with a groove in it. I always found that it is a lot easier for someone to write to my drum parts than me, trying to take these drum parts and make them fit into what someone is trying to do. So I have hundreds of parts and I used them for my band Slavior and released it on InsideOut Music, which was a great record. I love the record and I love the guys in the band. I have been trying for a long time, it is just that people don’t understand it. It is very difficult to get a band going if you don’t get paid. Everybody wants to get paid for whatever they do, whether if they are good or bad. I can understand, but I always put myself in a position where I didn’t have to rely on a band for music. I like to pick and chose what I want to do, instead of having the job even though I hated it. That’s being said, I always wanted to do this. I always had a lot of ideas on my own, I have always been the kind of person that rather leads than follows. So I just got started doing it, piece by piece and I knew exactly what I was doing. It was very well-thought out. It wasn’t just an idea and see what happens. I had very distinct ideas of what I wanted and how I wanted to get it done.

But I think you had a pretty close connection with Vivien Lalu, the keyboard player, isn’t it?
Oh yes. What happened is… actually I called Matt Guillory first and asked him if he was interested, but he was very busy, what basically means: if I cannot make any money, I am not interested. So he gave me the number of Lalu. I remember I called him and talked to him, he was a big fan of mine, I am a little older, so he listened to and grew up with all these records. I sent him a couple of drum ideas and when he sent it back, we had some magic. Besides a keyboard player, Vivien is a very good composer. So it is not just jamming, he was really thinking about what he was doing. That’s exactly how I wanted it. I wanted songs with a verse and chorus, not a lot of jamming and the foundation for big vocals.

And there we have Ray Alder in the picture. Of course you know him from back in the days, but how did you get him involved?
Well, I am still friends with Philip Bynoe, the bass player, so whenever I am going to play, Philip is there too, so we have the bass player. And Joop Wolters actually worked with Vivien, so Joop is the guitarist. Now we are really good friends. First we could not find a singer. We tried out ten, twenty guys, singing the songs but it just did not work out. But I knew Ray was into this kind of music, because we talked about it when we were together years ago and I also knew that working with Ray for this project would work the best, because of the fact that he sings with a groove. There are a lot of singers, especially in prog, that are singing all over the place, just a kind of vocal operatic performance all over the place and stuff, it doesn’t really fit with the music per se. I knew for this band that the lyrics, the melodies and the music really needed a lock of a commercial hit song. So same thing: I called him up, he answered the phone and he said: sent me something and here we are today (laughs).

We are a bit late with the interview, but I wanted to do it anyways. Music is timeless, isn’t it?
Absolutely. We achieved what we wanted to do. We wanted to do an album with basically eleven singles. With a good feeling, a happy kind of vibe. There is too much negativity, there is too much doom and gloom. We could have gone with the Viking cutting the snake’s head off, wandering through the desert, the end of the world, such kind of things. We want to go back to where rock-‘n-roll should be and what it is kind of meant to be. It makes you feel good. The same thing as when you put on a UFO record; you feel good. Not oh man, it is the end of the world. You get inspired, you rock out, that kind of thing… That’s what we are going for and I think we hit it on the head.

That is true. They don’t make those records so much anymore, so I think you can fill a gap…
Yeah if we can be the first that leads this whole trend, like a new wave that’s coming, that would be great. We are just playing what we like to play. I know that this is going to sound amazing live. I know the positive relationship will happen between the audience and the band. That’s what I said in the beginning. I saw this in a bigger place. I saw this with a mass of people, I didn’t see this in a small little club, but akin to the concerts where I used to go to when I was younger, just a kid. Where the bands just capture the audience and the audience was always all together and very positive.

A kind of celebration…

That shines already through in the artwork. It is very funny and the way you introduce that in your video clips and presentation is also nice…
Yes, Hugh Syme came up with this idea. He has done all of our records. He is very famous, a great guy. Again, part of the plan with this band was finding the best people that you can find, whether it is a organist, a bass player or a guy who’s going to mix the record and let them be themselves. Let them do what they are going to do and that is where I think the originality and the magic comes from. Same with Ray. We wrote a bunch of music and we had vocals in mind. I just gave it to Ray and said: hey, do whatever you want. Do what you want to do. And what you hear on the record is basically the first thing that he came up with. It is very natural.

The record is recorded in different places all over the world. So before you are going to play live, you need to rehearse I guess…
Oh with the guys in this band, you show up at rehearsals for two days and it will be more than fine. This is not overly complicated. All the guys wrote their own parts and it is just a matter of preparation, just like with Fates Warning. Everybody just needs to show up prepared, that’s the thing. Just two days will do then.

What surprised me and I applaud that, is that Simone Mularoni, the Italian guy from DGM did the mix…
He is a great guy. We have been playing together on several occasions. When we went out for a mix, I sent it out to ten different engineers. I was just looking for the best one. This needed to be sent out to one guy. We have sent it out to some very, very big successful mix guys and Simone’s mix was just the best, but when I started working with Simone he told me that I had to change the drums a little bit, because he was trying to do what he did on most records, putting a little sample in there, because the drums were very well recorded, but we did not do that. It was a natural drum sound and I just want to hear my drum kit. Another thing that separates the record from many other records, is that it doesn’t sound like anybody else’s record, even though Simone mixed it and he has done a lot of other things. We went a different road, we wanted it a little more organic, a little more natural, instead of sticking samples all over the place.

Is there a kind of lyric you want to talk about and shine a light on in a more profound way? Something that moved you?
The interesting thing is that Ray wrote all the lyrics and I am not going to speak for Ray, but when I talked to him I asked him I said: some of them are personal, but a lot of these are rock-‘n-roll. It sounded good. It is not a deep concept record. We didn’t go into the gutter and live for a month and got in touch with this inner soul. This is rock-‘n-roll, do you know what I mean?  That is what it is. There is nothing to read about it, it is not a concept record, it is just a good old fashioned hard rock record that hopefully people dig.

‘The Machine Gunner’ is really an explosive song for instance…
We came up with the music, we needed a very up-tempo type of song and Ray came up with the lyrics and the lyrics fit perfectly. The words fit the music very well.

Is this an experience you want to prolong? Is the band really a band, going on tour and making a second album maybe?
Yes, when I started this, this was going to be a band. We are already writing material for a second record. We have four songs, so we are writing for the second record and we are out there for touring possibilities and playing sets. It is very difficult, because of covid-19 a lot of bands of 2021 that got cancelled, and everybody is looking for a chance, but we are doing that right now. Yes, we go on as a band and we will see what happens now when the record just came out. We got a few more videos that will come out. We are constantly going to promote this. It is too good as record to be out for two months and then vanish in the haze.

Was it difficult to find a label?
No. Well, it is never easy, I mean, we were shopping, just like anybody else, we had an EP and a video that explained the band and from a couple of labels we got really honourable offers, they wanted to tie the band up like I was 96 years old, actually a very, very prominent prog label told me flat out that it was too commercial and too AOR. Never mind, Metal Blade had a great offer, and the thing about Metal Blade is that it is more than anything else, and we are familiar with the label, so no problem. Our relationship has proven to be good, because during this process. I just got in touch with them and they took care of it, it was great. It just made sense. No complains, I know them for forty years and just called them up. But it wasn’t an automatic thing, like we were not talking with anybody else. A lot of labels were contacted.

So you think before taking action, that is smart…
Same thing with the artwork. I love Hugh, but I wanted to see what other people would do. They were pretty bad (chuckles).

The band name is pretty special. How do you pronounce it?
A through Z. All the guys in the band know that the toughest thing to come up with is a name. We were searching and just could not come up with a name and then one day Ray said: ‘what about A through Z’? I did not know whether he meant Alder through Zonder or ‘everything’. The thing I really like about it is that it doesn’t give you an idea about the style of music. I mean, if we would have called the band Swords and Serpents or Devastation and Destruction. People would have thought automatically what kind of band it is. With this kind of name and that kind of album cover, it puts you kind of by yourself. That is what we wanted to do.

Is there a chance, when you tour, that you also come over to Europe?
Absolutely, you have to remember that we have three out of five members in the band in Europe. We got a great reaction in Europe. I just found out that it is doing well in the official charts in Germany and Switzerland. Also you have to remember that Fates Warning and Warlord always had a proper fan base in Europe. Absolutely, I would almost say that would happen first, before going on tour in the US.

Are you going to write songs in the same style for the second album?
Basically we just kept on writing. We don’t really think about it. We turned in the record last November and I think from November till today I have written and recorded like 122 drum ideas that I sent to Vivien, so we just kind of do what we do. We just like what we are doing, there is a kind of magic when I send him something and he returns with his additional ideas. But it definitely sounds like A-Z.

Are you going to work with Hugh again for the next album artwork?
Yes, I love Hugh. I think also it is very important – and it goes back to what we were talking about in the videos – you know we start and end every video the same, with the zebra and the apple, so I think it is a smart idea to be consistent in your artwork. It is important to be recognizable. If you see that zebra and apple, you know exactly who that is. I am not sure if you can say that about a lot of other bands.

Is this band now taking your whole attention or do you still do other work besides it?
Well, I get hired as a job to record for other people. I have a recording studio here. I can do that and I do that for people, but this is the main thing. Doing the interviews, getting the videos on line, playing the stuff on internet, just trying to push, putting the merchandising store together, we have one now. I always work on it. It means constantly calling people, it is constantly taking care of stuff for the band and I do that all day long, while the others guys in the band are doing other things and that is fine, but this is what I do. Someone has to drive the bus. Someone has to lead it. Someone has to have the ideas. Our latest video has the quotes from all different people. We have a video for ‘Stranded’, but there is another video with 20 seconds of every song and it has quotes from people who heard the record. Famous people like Joacim Cans from HammerFall, Phil from Kansas, the drummer from Fear Factory, their quote comes up on the screen. It is just constantly promoting the band. Constantly pushing it. These days the record company does not do those things, it is up to the band. The record company is worried about selling as many records as they can, but the band really needs to participate if you want anything to happen. If I am going to do it, I want to do it right.

If there is something to occlude this nice conversation, the honour is yours…
I want to thank all the fans. Hopefully everybody will give it a listen and hopefully it resonates with everybody and they really get into it. The response so far has been good, I mean really good. I am amazed. What is really satisfying for us, is that people are getting exactly what we are trying to do. We are not trying to be a prog band, we are not trying to be a fusion band, we are just a straight up hard rock band with guys that are very talented and can really play. The music is interesting, but at the same time there is a big chorus that everybody loves. Everybody loves a big chorus.

This summarizes the essence of your endeavours, thanks a lot!