Art Rock Circus originated with the purpose of performing John Miner's Rock Opera Heavens Cafe in Las Vegas circa 1996. The band recorded both a studio and a live album by the same title and later released both recordings on the Tributary Music Label.
Art Rock Circus Album Releases
Heavens Cafe, Heavens Cafe Live, Tell A Vision
A Passage To Clear, Variations on a Dream
TELL A VISION
Tell a Vision (history)
John Miner: The first thing I had to decide when approaching the recording process was..... how do I want this to sound? Based upon the material we had written, and the types of players and gear we had...it made sense to me to record it very naturally and capture this band as organically as possible, and to best represent to the listener what "Art Rock Circus" sounds like. Kelton and I have vintage tube amps...I have an original analog tape delay unit on my effects board, and Nolan is using a vintage Ludwig drum kit. Milo brought over an early sixties Hammond organ and all kinds of other vintage toys...so it was clear to me that this record would be capturing the sounds of these things as they were intended at the time of their invention. To best record these classic instruments I chose to use analog tape everywhere I could. The natural compression of tape lends itself quite nicely to rich and full textures and the subtle colors you hear on the record are a result of a lot of attention to mic placement and the natural reverberation found in the various rooms we used to record the album. The art of recording and individual sound development for each track were specifically engineered to keep the sonic spectrum alive and hopefully interesting to the listener unlike much of the homogenized "pro tools and plugin" approach most producers follow today. My intention was never to "sound retro" but to deliver an authentic recording that represents the band much as we are in a live situation. This is an honest record, maybe to a fault, no sampling, no manipulating the rhythm section to computer perfection, just a group of intense musicians laying down real tracks in real time as we do. Enjoy!
1. TELL A VISION (Miner, Stolz)
It had been a while since I had attempted a large scale epic type piece. Maybe since Sprinagar of the Mantra Sunrise days. As with Sprinagar, I tend to write from personal experience as that is what I can relate to best. As I was learning computers as we all have over the last decade, it once again seemed to me that we have kind of come full cycle with yet another addiction. TV was hailed as a great communication tool when it first came out but soon it was viewed by many as a mindless waste of time and life. More and more channels to choose to entice us to stay put and soak in the messages from advertisers and modern day charlatans. Now with the internet it seems the same dark forces are at work on us all in the name of" interactive" or "educational". I was certainly feeling it's pull and felt the need to express that inner polarity here in this musical piece. Although in the past I have used keyboards here and there, the real reason I haven't used them more is simply that progressive type players just have not popped into my life much, if at all. But at this point in time, Nolan and I had two in Milo and Tony Branco. Both outstanding players. Having Nolan to work with has been very instrumental in the development of this album in that first he is a wonderful drummer, and second he is getting a masters degree as I write here in composition, and he also plays keys quite proficiently. It had been a few years since I had seriously collaborated with another writer, and in many ways the sophistication of this record has much to do with that collaboration. This piece was much more difficult to record than it was to write. The song is basically broken down into eight main parts, all very different ideas that with a bit of thought were able to be strung together is a somewhat cohesive form. It was an extremely complex recording from a production standpoint, and it just got more and more complex as time went on. One of the things I had to do from a guitar view was to change the eq picture to one that was much more trebly to allow the keys the sonic room they needed, as compared with past projects where with just drums and bass in the mix , the guitar had much more obligation to fill in a bigger eq spectrum. But as you change your eq, it also affects the way you play and the style in which you move around the frets. I think the overall dynamic of the piece from top to bottom is the most dramatic I have done. It was fun to re unite with original Heavens Cafe' Live cast members Tim Burris, Miche and Todd Ashmore. Tim plays the role of the deeper overall consciousness that controls all the media and propaganda we are exposed to. Miche the innocent subject or media addict and Todd plays the sweet and seductive puppet that lures the subject into hypnotic submission on a daily basis. Mixing the song down was a huge undertaking in an effort to keep the whole piece flowing sonically. I was careful to keep enough variety in the textures so as to never die on the ears as do many over extended works I have listened to through the years. Amazingly I was quite happy with the end result, I anticipated more of a nightmare than it actually was. The recording Gods were on our side on this one I think.
2. THE CELL (Miner, Stolz, Milo, Martino)
The Cell is obviously about doing time. This not from my own experience but from conversations with a very dear and close friend of mine who ended up doing hard time. A most unlikely candidate ending up in such a dismal situation. What I saw was an incredible spiritual transformation that happened during his stay unlike the scenario that happens to most that attend. I don't really think our national prison system has much of a reputation for rehabilitation. In this case I think that the subject takes full credit for the intuitive soul searching and inner growth that came out on the back end. Although a dark sounding piece, lyrically it is quite the opposite. The hope and opportunity for inner sanctum and friendship may be better in a situation like this than the comforts of the typical world most of us live in. I know for my friend this was a strange and far away place for him and Milo did a wonderful job coloring the piece with mellotron and electric sitar. Dave Hornbeck I found in the underground local music scene at a little club called Wilson's where there was this great vibe going around with local talent just pouring out in an amazing way. Dave used to bring the house down with a solo rendition of Kashmir and I found his almost Bowie-esk voice to be completely honest and compelling, hence using him four times in this album! He's a great guy, and one hell of a talent. Interesting enough a year of so later, he would be hand picked by Brian May of Queen, out of a thousand auditioners, to perform the guitar parts in the Vegas show "We Will Rock You!" you never know what can happen in Vegas! Jim Martino came up with a bass line that I had fun opening up and soloing over, near the end. Jim filled in for Kelton when we were playing out "A Passage to Clear" album live. At the very end of the song when you hear the big gate slam, we'll that's the front door of my house, layered like seven times and stuck in a huge reverb tank!
3. ART OF BELLS (instrumental)
I had attended an art exhibit here in town that featured a piece with these large hand made bells strung up on ropes all over this huge museum room with hardwood floors. When you would pull on the ropes the bells would ring and just echo through the whole museum in a way I had never heard before. I felt the need to record them so I went home and grabbed my portable recorder and a few friends and went back later that day. I had everyone working a different rope and set the recorder near the center of the room slightly hidden in my backpack. Trying to direct it the best I could with hand signals, the museum's curator came running into the room and said we must stop and that the pieces were not meant to be touched! We politely apologize and scurried out with this recording!
4. BEGINS BEFORE BECOMES
This was a poem I had written inspired by a book I'd read called the "Holographic Universe" that everything we do is essentially being projected from somewhere else onto this canvas we call "life" I had worked out a series of chords on the piano and Kelton thought it would be a good idea to get it done on a church pipe organ. We had a mutual friend with good connections over at St Paul Chapel West and just quickly went in and did the song during off hours. I had always loved Karen Wallo's voice and had kept her in the back of my mind as someone to work with ...when this piece came up she just seemed like the right choice with here smoothness and clarity. Erika, rather than her usual improvisation, this time played a violin melodic line written by her and Nolan. Obviously not a rock piece, but more of a haunting classical piece that I think in a strange way finds a nice place on the record.
5. THE BALLAD OF JOAN ALLEN (Miner, Stolz, Milo)
We were up on Orcas Island off the coast of Washington State, and I was watching the sunset over the meadow as thick fog was falling over the hills into the valley. On the hill was an old Victorian home that looked like it had been abandoned for quite some time. I suddenly felt this haunting dark feeling that something bad had happened there and that the reason the home was vacant was due to it's jaded and mysterious past. The music for the vision came quick. Maybe I had just seen a few too many Hitchcock films, but in this episode, The Ballad of Joan Allen would be the feature here. I particularly liked Nolan's brush work and Milo's electric sitar in the intro. The song builds slowly and naturally. Dave took easily to the vocals and I think everything just meshed really well here. This was actually Dave's first vocal performance with Art Rock Circus. When it came time to record Dave was well rehearsed and professional in every sense. It doesn't surprise me he's having the success he's enjoying today.
6. OREGON TRAIL SONG (instrumental)
I wrote this song several years ago while up in Oregon, go figure! Karyn, (who did much of the vocal work on "A Passage to Clear") and myself were camping up the coast of California and Oregon and made our way all the way to Canada. It was a happy time after a fairly dark album, and this little acoustic piece seemed best when played on Spanish guitar. I guess it was the first song actually written for the album.
7. THE CULT ON HAMMER HILL (Miner, Stolz, Milo, Martino)
This song is a tough one for me to talk about. My best friend chose to end his life early, but in a way the final verdict is one that still puzzles us all to this day. He had become involved in a religious cult that believed in no materialism, no sex and no shoes. However, drugs and brainwashing were ok, and part of the new order. It was a horrible ending to a previously joyous soul and one I will never forget. Just out of high school, it took me quite a long time to get any material out relating to that crushing event. Sam used to love slide guitar so in a way I guess that's why it's there. A very complex song about a very complicated situation. The underlying form of the piece is centered on a twelve tone row. Like the twelve disciples Sam became one of the sheep, a sad and distant lamb.
8. POEM FROM THE SEA (Miner, Stolz)
Another song that just came out of a poem I had written years ago while traveling late in the summer in the far northeastern US and Canada. The feeling of fall coming off the last days of summer is beautiful and seems a bit nostalgic for only recent memories of summer days, nights and romance. My very first attempt at slide guitar and a very rare tune for me indeed in that I am actually using standard guitar tuning. I think I have to go all the way back to Mantra Sunrise with "Sleeping Whales" and even that was a one-off standard tuning track on that record. In complete contrast to "Tell a Vision" this very simple song just seemed to stay that way. Miche did a wonderful job with interpretation of the feeling and mood here and it set's things up for some of the more complex activities that present themselves later on the album.
9. STRING THEORY #1 (Milo)
Milo had played me a demo of this song complete with drums and bass and other instruments... I asked to hear it on just the organ solo. When I am doing a piece I always ask myself, does this need more? or is more now becoming less? It certainly is not lacking in complexity. I asked Milo if we could use it on the album and I was quite happy that he said yes!
10. RAINBOW SUN (Miner, Stolz)
Rainbow Sun, in a way, is a hard song to pin down conceptually. Memories of childhood, finding secluded places, like caves and tunnels were always of interest to my friends and I. Often conversations would go from fun stories to spooky tales of terror and mystery. Somehow I would always come away from an all night hang, with a sense of newness and freshness...often suddenly and without concious understanding. As the piece here came to life, it brought out a lot of emotion and distant memory of days somehow lost yet at the time seemed so eternal. When the song makes the sudden break to the more friendly melodic part after Nolan's intense drumming ... a kind of rebirth is represented here...one of hope ...coming from a feeling of such uncertainty. Miche' and I spend a lot of time singing this one together and I felt that our voices worked well in that way ...although I am not usually one to open my mouth much... it was one of the earlier songs that went down to tape on the album and I think it gave me a shot of confidence to take more vocal responsibility on songs like Cult on Hammer Hill and Desert Song. It was challenging to get a good mix on this one for some reason. I think at mastering it improved more than some of the others and I feel pretty good about it now. It's an interesting song but not my personal favorite on the recording.
11. DESERT SONG (Miner, Stolz, Milo, Martino)
I spend a lot of time out in the desert. Living here in the Mojave region, you'll start to see and feel the form and design of where we live. The endless open spaces and the vastness of the horizons is an easy sell for me. If you know where to go, you'll find water and bubbling hot springs flowing from the earth. The surreal landscape can look unearthly in places, and the glow of a full moon on the red rocks makes you realize we are living on a planet not so different than our neighbors Mars and Venus. Desert song is a tribute to the visuals and sounds offered in such a region. The slow 7/8 feel of the piece represents seven major solar and lunar positions during the cycle of one day. Dave and I trade lead vocals to enhance the contrast between day and night. Milo's haunting keyboards are instrumental in creating the mysterious mood that the desert continues to create. Just like the desert...the piece feels open and full of space yet demonstrates the complexity of simplicity.
12. SONG FOR A FIFTH SEASON (Miner)
This little acoustic instrumental was simply a product of just noodling around on the guitar. It's played in an open g tuning, one I use often. Once I had incorporated the harmonics into the song, I realized that it would stay in the acoustic domain because of the sensitively of those delicate notes. Putting drums or other instrumentation into the piece I felt would damage it sonically. Nolan's suggestion to add triangle seemed the perfect finishing touch. If you listen carefully to what he does you'll find even the triangle has a deliberate complexity near the end of the song.
13. THE RIPPER (Miner, Milo, Stolz, Martino)
As usual I find myself writing about things that are closest to me.... whether it be traveling or my own perception of the life I create in this reality everyday. This song was about a friendship gone astray and with it, several others were caught into the deceit and deception that was so easily misguided. Lyrically I think it is fairly straightforward. Certainly not as ambiguous as much of the other material I have penned over the years. I tend to use words often more in a sense of feeling sometimes rather than in implied direction. The Ripper is a complex piece about a complex situation with even more complex people coming into play. It's driving and dark. Cold as it should be, and at times even a bit uncomfortable. At the end of the song the music just dissolves into a sonic nightmare... as did the friendship in question. Nolan and I put a lot of thought into it's organization and delivery. It was probably the most difficult piece for me to do on the record on many levels. I suspect it's still trying to work itself out in my head and even when I listen to it, my own personal perception keeps changing with each play.
14. SYNOPSIS (Miner, Stolz, Manning)
I always like to think a rock piece can be effectively performed by a three piece lineup as many Art Rock Circus gigs have. This arrangement for three piece rock band did just that, and gave us the opportunity to get a feel for what the record might sound like "live". Nolan, Kelton and I took some of the major themes heard on the album and just went at it. We did a few takes and then from there took the best ones and weaved it all together. I like to think the music can stand on it's own without lyrics and vocals. Some new material came into view and we also improvised some of the material on the fly. There are no overdubs or studio trickery, just the three of us playing it live, and after completing such an extensive studio piece, the next link for us to complete is to get out and play the record live.
TELL A VISION
ART ROCK CIRCUS
TELL A VISION