Interview with Bill Berends of Mastermind

Mastermind is one of the few struggling independent bands around that I think deserve a lot of praise for their music and performance. I posted a bunch of questions to Bill Berends, who I consider the main architect behind the project, about the nature of their music, their latest release Until Eternity, and future plans. Here's what Bill had to say in response.

First of all, how would you describe your music if you had to?

It's music I wish I could hear elsewhere but don't. It's hard rock, it's loud, it tends to be aggressive, but I really don't have any regard for how it's categorized which has caused us some problems. There are progressive tendencies, and at times we get fairly heavy although I wouldn't call it metal in the strictest sense, so I generally call it progressive hard rock since it does need to be called something.

I sense reluctance to call yourself "metal". Is there any specific reason for this?

Well... yes and no. I don't have a problem with metal music in general, in fact I like some of it, produce and record a lot of it, and consider some metal I've heard to be really interesting and innovative. But I'm not sure that's where we fit in. We're a loud band that gets fairly heavy at times, and a lot of our fans are metal fans, a lot of prog heads consider us metal too. But metal seems to be fairly narrow in definition, especially among younger listeners, and we don't really fit that definition. Metal is more 'chugga chugga' with strong 2/4 underpinnings and I think we're jazzier in rhythmic approach with a broader sonic palette that isn't so readily accepted by many metal fans. Metal is so very stylized that when you step outside of those boundaries of style you lose that interest, you become 'false metal' or worse. So although we're easily as intense as many a metal band, I don't think we are metal, no. But if you want to call it metal it that doesn't bother me, I just don't think it accurately portrays what we are.

Could you shed some light on the recording and songwriting behind your fourth album, Until Eternity?

With the so called 'progressive revival' and the ensuing flood of bands and labels trying to catch that wave, I decided I wanted to make more of a rock album, to explore some of our other interests and to distance it a bit from the prog label. You'll hear more fusion and 60's hard rock influence on this one, plus a few things that are genuinely progressive although I think maybe a lot of prog fans won't feel this way. I have no specific method for writing. Usually I'll get an idea and fool around with it on guitar, then sketch it out with a midi sequencer to see how the arrangement feels. I think this recording is our best yet and it was done in the same manor as the others laying down basic rhythm tracks of drums and guitar first and building from there.

What sort of midi and other computer applications do you use in creating music?

For MIDI, I use a Roland SCC-1 Sound Canvas which I think it's great. Of course I have all kinds of other synths lying around, but when the muse hits they are a pain in the butt to get up and running. For audio an SB16 for simple analog monitoring and i/o, for critical digital editing & mastering, the AdbDigital MulitWav!Pro card with optical i/o from my DAT. I use Cubase software for writing and a wide variety of things for audio editing depending on what I'm trying to do.

How would you compare this album to your previous ones?

It's more Mastermind and less of our influences. You can tell it's the same band, but some tracks are very different from anything we've done in the past. It has been said it's the best of our different tendencies all on one disc which seems fair as each of our albums are very different. The first was very neo-prog like and intentionally emulated the music we loved which had been gone for so many years. Our second, Brainstorm, was more balls-to-the-wall and a lot heavier. Tragic Symphony was intentionally paced slower and had more of a symphonic flavor, and this one is more rock you could say. I wanted to make an album you could play in bright daylight driving down the road in a convertible, although it does end on more of a brooding note. The best feature of this album is when listened to from start to finish, regardless of how one might feel about any particular track, it leaves you in a distinctly different place than where you started. I think that's important.

What is your current label situation? What's the best way to obtain a copy of this (and perhaps other) releases of yours?

We have several licensing deals with strong independents in the major markets of the world - Japan, Europe, and North America. The easiest way to grab a copy here on the Internet is visit the Mastermind web page and order from there. Out on the street you can order our stuff from most CD shops.

I notice that the entire album is done almost single-handedly by you except for the instruments. Would you consider yourself a bit of a control freak?

One thing a lot of people miss is that all the albums say produced by Bill Berends AND Rich Berends. Although I do all of the writing and most of the mechanical aspects of recording and so on, Rich is the sounding board for nearly everything I do and this is what makes it Mastermind as opposed to a Bill Berends solo outing. If Rich said "that sucks, don't do it" I probably wouldn't. So no, I'm not a control freak, I just don't want to get screwed or be 'out of the loop' as far as career decisions are concerned, so I hold the reigns tightly on the business side of things.

I take it that you're on a hiatus from touring. Why is this, and when can we expect to see you on tour again?

We've never really been on 'tour' in the traditional sense, we just play whatever gigs are available to us that seem appropriate. We played a lot of shows over the summer and have more gigs coming in the next few months including our first appearances in Japan. But right now I'm taking a few weeks off from playing live to promote this new album before I get too involved with the details of going to Japan, and trying to record a few things I've been working on over the past few months.

Who would you cite as influences?

In my formative years it was the hard rock and psychedelic bands of the 60's - The Beatles, Cream, Hendrix, Spirit, etc. Later on I fell under the spell of Mahavishnu Orchestra and the whole jazz/fusion scene like Miles, Return to Forever and so on. Some of the original progressive bands also had a big influence, most notably early ELP, but I would never really say I was a 'proghead'... although most of the music I liked was outside of the mainstream. I think the common thread through all of these seemingly different musical styles is blues. Bands without any sort of blues influence for the most part never really did anything for me.

What music do you like most, and what're your favourite groups?

I still like Cream and will occasionally listen to Mahavishnu or Miles, but I don't have any favorite groups anymore. I think with Mastermind I'm trying to create the sort of music I just don't get from anyone else these days. I have a Metallica disc and a Dream Theater album but I wouldn't say they are my favorite, they're enjoyable every once in a while. When I sit down to listen to music it's usually classical music. As I get older rock music in general seems less relevant with every passing day.

Could you elaborate on that last comment?

Rock is the music of youth, the angry young man, the teenage love affair, the wild and the free. But it hasn't gone anywhere, it hasn't changed all that much in the last quarter of a century other than sonically (i.e. better recordings and cooler sounds), and it doesn't seem to be really going anywhere other than to ad agencies selling cars, sneakers, movies, beer and blue jeans. In the beginning it was revolutionary, sexy, exciting, even dangerous. Now it's passé. It's on TV, it's in the malls, it's everywhere and there's just so MUCH of it. It's become a homogeneous background noise in our society and I've heard it all before. Now with few exceptions it's over stylized "me too" bands trying to get signed or get noticed by following some minute change in trend, trying to be whatever they saw on TV yesterday. Most of the "heritage" bands aren't doing anything new, they just recycle the same shit they've been doing forever, and the angry young man bands? Well, I have no interest in some clown in baggy shorts hollering at me and telling me how it is or that I'm going to die. I already know that, I don't need some jerk screaming it in my face, I've got my own problems. They say it's about attitude... well anybody can have an attitude, but that doesn't mean they have anything to say. I mean it's easy to complain but how many people actually do something with their lives? And Alternative is an alternative to what? It's the same old 2/4 dance beat and the same four chords cranked out on the corporate platter, the difference now is nobody even tries to take their craft to a higher level. Well I want music that will stimulate my though processes, activate my mind, and is engaging enough that it can withstand repeated listening. I just don't get that from most rock noise any more. Maybe because I'm involved with the business and have just heard so much of it, maybe because I'm just too old, but I need more depth and subtlety from music and classical music seems to provide that for me. I'm sick and tired of attitude and would prefer a refreshing dose of talent instead.

What're your views about the music industry in the U.S., especially in the context of the music you make?

The music industry is just like any other industry - profit driven. That's understandable and doesn't even bother me so much, people are in business to make money. The real problem lies in the juggernaut mentality of "everything we know is right. See how much money we've made? That proves it" and new or different types of music which do have market potential never get a fair shake. This is the sort of thing that caused the collapse of the industry in the late 70's and is typical American thinking - look at what happened to the American auto industry, same type of thing. I think there is another giant collapse of the music industry just over the horizon because they didn't learn the first time around.

How do you mean?

Near the end of the 70's the music industry took a nose dive; album sales were down, concerts sales were down, companies were going under. People had lost interest in the "same old same old" monolithic monsters of rock that didn't have anything new to offer so they stopped buying. The labels were in deep financially with wasteful mega-spending policies and couldn't get out from under it, so they took a beating. It was the smaller forward thinking labels that had started signing newer and more unusual artists that resulted in a new wave of music that got the money flowing again, and that was the era that spawned the independent label for obvious reasons. Now again we see huge investments in star names and heritage artists with little to no interest in up and coming bands outside the A&R mainstream, so sooner or later, as the current cash cows fall out of favor and the heritage bands become outright geriatric cases, the big labels will find themselves without a stable of new talent to develop. Even now a large percentage of major label revenues is from reissuing old catalog items on Compact Disc and not from new releases. What will they do to make up that money when their catalogs run dry and every album ever made has been reissued, start all over again with a new format? I can see it now... "Upgrade your old mechanical spinning wheel CD's to the NEW Data Cube with no moving parts!!" But the consumer electronics industry was shocked when the MiniDisc and the DCC died at birth, people just don't want a new format every five or ten years. I still meet people who haven't broke down and bought a CD player yet! So if labels want to stay viable, they're going to have to start developing some new talent and take some risks with different music, and more importantly, stick with these bands for a few albums while they get their act together and build reputations. The current idea of risk is to sign a band, throw some money at them and if they don't sell X amount of records in X amount of time, dump them and move on to the next. There is no development time, it's just throw it against the wall and see what sticks.

Do you see the current music industry structure threatened at all by digital media and the Internet?

Here and now today? No. But as soon as somebody figures out how to massively increase data transmission speed (or whatever) to enable delivery of high fidelity audio over a phone wire in reasonably small amounts of time, then the game changes. If you could download an entire CD off the Net in a matter of minutes I would imagine your music collection would change dramatically, I know mine would. The effect of all this is to level the playing field much the way the World Wide Web does - any Joe at home can have just as elaborate a web site as a huge corporate entity which I think is great. Now some Joe at home could make his album just as readily available to you as a major label, and distribution is one of the two key factors in any business delivering product to the end user. The other is promotion and marketing, and the home computer and Internet has also made more of that power available to the average computer user, to be able to shoot your mouth off to a select target market all over the world with the click of a mouse. I think that's incredible. Digital communications will dramatically reshape the music and entertainment industries (along with many others) over the coming decades, but we still have a way to go before the music industry is threatened.

What are your views on bootlegs?

The thing that bothers me the most in regards to Mastermind boots is the few that I've heard are terrible... for some reason people think recording direct off the sound mixing console is the ultimate bootleg recording and it is NOT! You don't get the sound of what's going on in the room, the actual feel of the performance, you just get whatever isn't coming off the stage which is most of what is happening in smaller venues. For example there is some video floating around of our ProgDay performance last year which has the worst audio I've ever heard - I've even considered filing suit against the persons responsible for letting this garbage get out. But I have the same performance recorded on mics in the audience and it sounds just wonderful. So I think this sort of thing hurts more than helps and why would I want that? As far as bootlegging commercial discs is concerned, I think that's criminal and should be dealt with accordingly. Fans trading tapes is one thing, pure profit motives are another.

What's your general philosophy with regards to music? Do you view it as entertainment? As art? A balance of the two? Do you think it should engage the listener actively or passively?

Music has as many different purposes as there are people making it, so it's all of those things. But what it actually is is difficult to put into words. I think of music as a mystical form of communication that somehow bypasses the conscious mind and reaches directly into the psyche of the listener, almost like hypnotism. Depending on how well versed one is on this sort of hypnotism and how adept the hypnotist is determines how deep it can get into your central being, how it will affect you. Look at how music is used - military marches, royal fanfares, movie sound tracks, church ceremonies, ball games, etc, all used to enhance and amplify the sensations of the occasion. That's fine, but when I sit down at home in my comfy chair to listen to music, I want art that has something to say to me. I think that's the problem with a LOT of music and musicians out there now - they have some skill and mechanical knowledge, but when you get right down to it, they have nothing to say at all.

What're your musical goals? Where do you see Mastermind in the year 2000?

Right now our goal is to take the music of Mastermind to as many people as possible without going totally broke. To play live all around the world if we can possibly pull it off. When people see the band live they enjoy it, they buy the discs, they usually come back for more, so it's not just an exercise in vanity. If people stopped buying the albums I'm sure we'd stop making them. Musical goals are harder to define. I'd like to get into a position financially to involve more people - more musicians, a bigger band, a bigger live production, and to explore some different musical directions. Until that time we'll just take it one step at a time.

Music ram-blings || Ram Samudrala || || October 14, 1996