Lords of Metal
Arrow Lords of Metal
Michael Romeo: “You got to have riffs. Lots of riffs! Together with the cinematic stuff from all the movies I grew up with and all the classical music I like, but riffs prevail. That is the blueprint of these albums.
Michael Romeo kennen we uiteraard als gitarist, bezieler en belangrijk componist bij de progressieve metal giganten van Symphony X. Niettemin kwam hij in 2018 op de proppen met het soloalbum ‘War Of The Worlds pt. I’. Als inspiratiebron fungeerde hier de liefde voor films, soundtracks, klassieke muziek en – natuurlijk – metal. Centraal in het verhaal staat het boek van H. G. Wells waarvan het hoorspel, lang geleden toen het uitkwam, paniek deed uitbreken onder de bevolking. Nu dat ‘War Of The Worlds part II’ uitgebracht is, grepen we de kans aan om te praten met deze veelzijdige maestro over dit grote project.
Vera Matthijssens Ι 30 maart 2022

We expected this second part of ‘War Of The Worlds’ a bit earlier, since the first part was released in 2018. How come that there is so much time between those records?
With this solo record, I started to write in 2017. I think it was around that time. Once I started writing, I just kept writing and writing. There wasn’t even going to be a part 1 and part 2, just a solo record. But when I looked back, I had so much material and I decided: ‘I take care of the songs now and finish them and put the other half aside’. At some point I would come back to those. That was in 2018. In 2019 Symphony X was touring again and we had more tours coming up in 2020, right in the Spring we had our first shows in the US. So right in the beginning of 2020, I said okay, I have a couple of months here, let me pull those songs out and finish them up and get part II finished. That was all good until about March or so and then covid-19 came. The tour was cancelled. The record was delayed. The studio was locked down. All that happened. Now the record has been done for about a year. Then they considered: what’s a good time for a release? And what’s going on with that? It is difficult to make a plan and stick to it, because you never know what’s happening from day to day. And now we are going from one crazy thing to another one.

Why do you feel the need to make solo albums, because you are the main composer of Symphony X? Of course I know about Russell’s accident and hope he is better now…
There was that whole period when Russ had an accident and we weren’t sure what was going to happen. I remember talking to him right after the thing and he had a hard time. It is putting your whole life in perspective and your family. He did not know he could do this again. So there was some uncertainty. We didn’t know. He decided that he just needed time to sort it out. I completely understood that. Well, the band was taking a break and I just kept myself busy and kept doing things. That is how it started.

You instantly recognize your style of playing guitar, but there is so much more. You are responsible for the symphonic arrangements, but one thing is sure: you are fascinated by science-fiction. Was it already in your youth?
Yes, science-fiction or mythology, everything with a cool story. When I was a kid and growing up, there were so many cool movies. We had Star Wars and Indiana Jones and all these blockbusters and they all had great music. And even though I was so young, there was something about that music that connected with me. As I got older and playing guitar, listening to Priest and Sabbath and Maiden and Rush and all that stuff that I grew up with, I also listened a lot to classical music and film music. I like that big cinematic kind of thing. It just evolved, the stuff that I really like. Even with the band (Symphony X), like ‘The Odyssey’ where you have this big and epic thing. Musically, this ‘War Of The Worlds’ is a classic thing, or it can be horror or it can be mythology. For me, from writing I like the picture thing, you know. Again, going back to when I was a kid, it was all about monster movies and that stuff I liked. I definitely saw the original ‘War Of The Worlds’ movie when I was a kid. It is cheesy, but at that time it was cool. But that one was not my inspiration, I was just looking through books, trying to find something. I wanted it to be epic, sci-fi, space… When I stumbled upon ‘War Of The Worlds’, the book from H.G. Wells, I thought it would be perfect and lyrically too, because I did not want to tell the story like: ‘here come the aliens and they have flying saucers’, but I did not want to do it like that. There is a little bit of that in there, but I liked the idea of ‘them versus us’. I could play with the lyrics here and there, there is always a kind of conflict. Not that I am political or anything, but these are stories with a sci-fi backdrop. It was more the music of ‘War Of The Worlds’ that inspired me, rather than the story. I knew how I wanted the music to sound like by that. I just needed to find a concrete idea.

You have worked with a different singer than on the first album. How come and how did Dino Jelusick get involved?
On the first record it was Rick Castellano, a friend of mine. I like all the guys. That is kind of cool about a solo record: let’s call guys I know. John Macaluso, a friend for years and JD (bass – Vera), we went to high school together, right down the street. On the first one, Rick was the vocalist and I was thinking about the second record: maybe I do something different and bring in a new guy. Who else can I bring in? I was thinking about other guys and I thought maybe I could take a different singer on every song. Yet I preferred the continuity of one singer. I was on the phone with Simone Mularoni, my mixing mate who helps me tremendously. We are super close friends now. He said: ‘I can suggest you my buddy Dino’. I was familiar with Dino a little bit, so Simone put us in touch. We started sending files and it was perfect. It worked out great, I think he did an amazing job.

You are a genius on guitars and keyboards, but you played different instruments on this record as well, like cello and the eastern flavoured oud and saz. How come?
I play piano a little bit indeed. When I hear something I like, I want to do that. When I was a kid and listening to Kiss records, I saw and heard Ace playing and said to myself: I got to learn to do that myself. What is that? Next thing was buying a guitar and play. When I fast forward to now, doing a solo record, I wanted to do as much as possible myself. We have the song ‘Destroyer’ with that Middle Eastern thing and at that time things started to lock down and I thought: fine, I have some extra time in the studio. It would be cool to add a Middle Eastern instrument. Normally I just take some computer thing or sampled sound, but now when I had time, I just bought the instrument and tried to figure it out. I hear something and I try to get the real thing, I try to do it. I am not a maestro on these things, but when I play the part good enough, I think we have that extra human being kind of playing which makes a difference. That is cool. That’s how I play a bit cello. It is rudimentary how I play, but when you put that in the background with the sampled orchestra, it adds a human, organic zest to it. It is sloppy and not perfect, but cool. I love the sound of the cello. My wife always asks me: ‘what do you want for Christmas?’ Ah, a cello! Then I get it and I am plucking and think: goddamn I am pretty good. But when I hear it, I come to my senses and think: wow, I get to figure out how this whole thing works. I love all kinds of music and having a new instrument is amazing to play and experiment.

The 7-string guitar, was that also a Christmas present?
(laughs) Oh no. The 7-string is used in that same song, in ‘Destroyer’ and I had a little more time. What could I do? Actually that was one of the songs which wasn’t totally finished when I went back to the project and looked at it. It was almost done, but it was regular guitar, 6-string. And I was thinking: oh man, this riff has to be darker and obviously a bit heavier. Or I tuned it more or I just get a 7-string, which I did. This song is definitely a little darker and heavier. The 7-string and the saz and the oud, some of these Middle Easter things, they kind of make it a little bit different, a bit cooler. Different texture you know.

What is the story behind the changing of label? Part 1 was still on Mascot Records, the second part comes out on InsideOut Music?
With the band, Symphony X, we have a bond with InsideOut. With Mascot, it was great and with this one, I was looking on different labels and we have already a relationship with the band with InsideOut, so it was natural for me personally as well, kind of cool it is.

Do you have plans to create visual art in the shape of video clips for some of the songs?
The label does any lyric video stuff. I’ll do a bunch of play through things. Quite the normal things. So when the record comes out, we have something and hopefully we will do well and another good news is that Symphony X has a tour lined out for May. So we will be back together practicing again finally after three years! So I got this solo record coming out and the band is back on tour. I guess it is as normal as can be for right now, fingers crossed, without craziness.

You have a busy time ahead of you?
Yes, it is good. The last two years I had all this time to work on music and in the beginning it was fun. Finishing up the solo record and oh, I have more time, so I experiment a bit more, but then it is like: okay, 2021 a tour was coming and then it got cancelled and then it is like ‘oh my God’, now it is long. I mean, I love being in the studio, but now it is getting time to get these tours going on.

Symphony X in May live. Did you ever consider playing the songs from your solo albums live?
Usually I don’t think about that because it was more of a project, even just a recording. There is going to be six guitar tracks and three hundred orchestral tracks and samples. In the studio it doesn’t matter, it is what I am hearing, but if I would do it live it would take a minute to figure out how that would happen, but who knows? But with Symphony X it is two years since we have played live and that is the priority now. Get things moving back on track.

Aren’t you nervous then?
(surprised) No! The first show might be weird, but the second show we will realize: yes, this is what we do. Now things feel right.

Are you playing only in the US with Symphony X?
In May we have that US tour, some South American shows are next and some festivals in Europe. We are just going to try to do whatever we can, depending on the restrictions, but it looks like everything starts now. Hopefully everything will be okay.

Are there already ideas for new songs for Symphony X?
Yes, we have been talking all the time, coming up with ideas. Every morning I come down here and I start working on some ideas and going back and forth on what we are doing. What will be the theme of the record… things like that. We are moving along, but it feels slow. It feels like since we haven’t done it so long, just being around each other and playing, so it is like trying to get back on the horse. It is going, a bit slower than normal. I am sure the next month when we are rehearsing and then the tour, things will start to fall back into normal and that will be nice.

I think that will give you a different mind set…

How is Russell doing?
He is good. I talked to him yesterday and he is doing good. He is looking forward to getting back to playing and talking about this new record. I think all of us. It has been a long time. This whole lockdown, cancelled tour, re-cancelled and rescheduled and so on. It is nerve breaking. You try to make some kind of schedule, some kind of plans for your life and what’s going on and… it is tough. That is the same for everybody, definitely some people are way worst than us, that is for sure.

Who did the artwork and can you tell about it?
A friend of mine, Drake. When I did the first one, I reached out to him and this was this kind of sci-fi alien thing, kind of like Geiger, this is even darker and alien-ish. I had some ideas and he came up with his ideas and for this one I did not want to do something totally different, so he came up with some things again. With this one too. Since it is part two, I didn’t want to come up with something completely different. So I talked to him and maybe we made some tweaks that made part 1 and part 2 a little different, but keeping the same thing and of course adding some other artwork there. We wanted a bit more like H.G. Wells, the big alien thing. It is heavy, it is metal, some of it is a little darker, it is cinematic, that’s all in the cover artwork, it kind of sets the tone.

I enjoy it that, even if it is symphonic layered, it is a pretty heavy record…
You gotta have riffs! Lots of riffs, together with the cinematic stuff from all the movies I grew up with. All the classical music I like, but then again I am a guitar player, so we need riffs, we need some of that Sabbath, some of that Priest, some of Pantera, Metallica, Megadeth, Slayer… it is all in there.

You are in a room with many guitars standing in line. Are all those guitars yours?
Yeah! I got a few. I know it looks like a music store. When I get a new guitar, I always keep it. After all these years I got hung on to everyone of it. This is my work place, so this has to look cool.

Are there special guitars you only use for live concerts?
Yes, my main guitar is my signature model that Caparison did, a custom model Caparison Dellinger II – Michael Romeo custom. I have been using it forever because when I decided to go with them, I said them: “I have this guitar that I grew up with, when I was a kid, this old creamer, now it is beaten to hell. It was the first guitar that I bought when I was a kid and had some money. I played it all the time, it was all I got. There is something about the neck I like, it just felt really comfortable, so when talking to Caparison, I said let us take the neck and make it something close and he did. When he sent me a guitar to try, it felt like the guitar to play on forever. Then again, sometimes when I am recording something here, I need a different kind of tone or I grab a Stratocaster or an acoustic one, depending on the song, but 99% of the time I take the Caparison custom model of all. But it depends, different tools for different jobs, you know.

Is there a chance that there will come a part 3 of this?
No, if I do another solo thing at some point, it will be something different. Part 1 and part 2 were written at the same time. I did not even know that there would be two parts, it was just so much material. It was that point in time, where my head was at that moment, so I guess I will find something different if there comes another solo effort. Who knows what it will be? It can be anything. I like to find a topic or a theme, just to get a little blueprint, which direction I should go, that helps, but no part 3. I like to be creative, so I am always looking for new things, it could even be a movie. It can be anything