DETRITUS Interview: Ray Alder (Fates Warning/Engine), by Clay Marshall


-Exclusive interview with Ray Alder (Fates Warning/Engine)
Since replacing John Arch in 1987, Ray Alder has been the voice of progressive rock outfit Fates Warning, where his unmistakable wails and midrange power have consistently wowed fans. With Engine, though, he gets the opportunity to chart his own musical course, but even he will be quick to say it’s not exactly a “solo” project. While it seems like everyone in the genre has countless side projects ongoing, Alder’s is different from most in that Engine–also featuring guitarist Bernie Versailles (Agent Steel), drummer Pete Parada (Face To Face) and bassist Joey Vera (a Fates bandmate and member of Armored Saint)–runs very differently from what fans are used to hearing. Instead of Fates’ vivid melodies and evocative lyrics, Engine always goes full-throttle, with driving rhythms that never slow. And people are taking notice: L.A.’s two major newsweeklies have given the self-titled Engine disc rave reviews, and one even had a more than capable interview with Alder (see http://www.laweekly.com). Still, he recently took the time to chat one-on-one about the experiences Fates continues to deal him, in addition to his future and Engine, all of which are moving full speed ahead.

Q: I got to see the live debut of Engine here in L.A. about a month ago. What was it like being up there for the first time?
A: It was a lot of fun. At first we weren’t going to do the show, because it was in the middle of writing the Fates Warning record. In the end, it was like, “Wow, what a great time.” To play it live for the first time was a big experiment for us because we’d only had a couple of days of rehearsal before we recorded the record. The reaction was more than I’d ever expected, to tell you the truth.

Q: Should we expect to see Engine back onstage soon?
A: I would say, probably, yeah… later on down the line. In the meantime, we’re going to be so busy writing the Fates record, but in between, there’s always that big gap in time before the record comes out. It’s usually at least three months, so probably within that little time period, we’ll go out and do some shows. I’d love to, especially from the way it felt. Joey and Bernie, after the show, were like, “Man, it just felt good!”

Q: What made you decide to do a solo record?
A: I can’t really say it was because everybody else was doing it, but it seems to be the trend. It’s kind of weird. I had actually talked about it a long time ago, but never had the time. I’ve always had the opportunity, the friends, the studio–Mark [Zonder, Fates Warning drummer] owns the studio, for God’s sake. We had such a long break since PLEASANT SHADE OF GRAY. We did so much for that record, and such a long break that I said, “What the hell? I might as well do it.” I had talked to Bernie about it, and just started putting about songs. It just kind of snowballed from there. It was really something to do to pass the time at first.

Q: Your Fates Warning bandmate Jim Matheos also just released a solo record, but the two of you couldn’t have recorded albums that were more different.
A: (laughs) We both wanted to do something completely different than Fates Warning. Jim’s style of music–the music he listens to–is a bit more eclectic than mine. We’re just totally different people. Mark as well. I think it’s good, because that diversity in Fates Warning is what makes Fates Warning what it is. When it came time to do the solo record, I’d heard what Jim was doing before I’d even begun writing mine. I listen to a lot of heavy music, and I knew I wanted to do something heavy. If you look at my CD collection, a lot of it is more of the heavier style of music. I just got Static-X a while back, and Slipknot I just got the other day. Trying to get used to that one still–little crazy. Kind of reminds me of Soulfly.

Q: Why did you call it Engine, instead of putting your name directly on it?
A: The kind of music that it was, I just felt like it needed a name, like it needed some sort of identity. I couldn’t really do it in all fairness to the other guys, because everyone did have a lot of input into the record as well. I could have never done the record without Bernie, or Joey, or anybody involved in it. It was such a great effort on everybody’s part. I just don’t think it would have been fair to everybody else. The name Engine took a while to come up with. That was a battle, too–it was like, “What the hell am I gonna call this?” Engine stood out to me–it sounded great. [Like] a machine.

Q: Jim has been Fates’ primary lyricist, but with Engine, you got the chance to write. Was it a release of sorts?
A: A release? Maybe so. I’d like to release some more one of these days. (laughs) It was more of a very frightening experience, I must say. I’ve written lyrics for one Fates Warning song before, and that was quite a few years ago. Even that was very frightening for me. Jim has talked about it a million times–[when] you write lyrics, you’re basically baring your soul to all these people you don’t even know who are going to interpret it one way or another, the right way or the wrong way. For me, it was really scary, but I knew it was something I was going to do. We all take steps in life to see what we’re capable of, and for me, to finish the thing, I had to write the lyrics. I think it worked out pretty well in the end. I wanna do another Engine record one of these days. Jim already asked me to write lyrics for one of the songs on the new Fates Warning record, which I’m starting on now.

Q: The record is very heavy, while being very dark lyrically. Did you try to stick with a somewhat moody theme?
A: I knew I wanted a dark sound. I think the music lends itself to something serious or darker. I don’t think it’s really “happy music.” It might be some sort of recurring theme going throughout, the lyrics being sort of digging in yourself, and your fears. “Monster” is a metaphor for failure for me. “Teach Me” is basically about a love/hate relationship. I think it just carries on with the Fates tradition of that dark cloud of gloom hanging over your head. (laughs)

Q: What do you think Fates fans will think of it?
A: So far, it’s been pretty positive. I haven’t heard a lot of negative things about it. I know a lot of real die-hard Fates Warning fans are really into European progressive music and things like that,
so this is really far-fetched for them to listen to, I think. But there’s a lot of them that like a lot of hard rock too. I’ve really heard nothing that is absolutely negative. I actually go and spy on some of the Web sites from time to time–the message boards, to see what people are saying. It’s been really good.

Q: What did you find most difficult about the project?
A: I can’t play guitar, so that was the only thing that was detrimental. I could have done a lot better if I had known how to play guitar.

Q: How did the writing process go, & which tracks are most personal?
A: A lot of them came about with riffs I would come up with in my head. I would come up with something, and I would call Bernie. If he wasn’t home, I would [vocally] leave this riff on his answering machine. We would work on it later that night or I would record it here. It was just things that would come up at the time. The song “Falling Star” I think probably was one of the most heartfelt. That was a point in my life in a relationship that I have that was a bit bleak at once. We’re all adults, and these things tend to fix themselves with a little conversation.

Q: Was everything written post-PLEASANT SHADE?
A: It was all after–right when we started writing this record. I was amazed at how fast everything turned out. We were like a machine, just spitting out songs. We figured we were going to write eight songs for the record. We said, “Wait a minute–we have nine!” We didn’t realize we had nine songs. Next time, maybe it won’t come about as easy, but you never know–it might be easier.

Q: Who wrote the monster riff for “Alone?”
A: The chorus was my idea. The very beginning was something that we came up with together.

Q: How about “Tree of Life?”
A: That one I wrote. I wanted a riff, so I called, and I said, “I have this riff,” and I said, “What are these notes?” and figured out the notes and said, “That’s the chorus.” Then I just came up with a verse to fit around it. It’s a pretty straightforward song. There’s really not a lot of changes in the song. It just has that certain, you’re- right-in-the-middle-of-everything vibe just flowing through thesong. Not too heavy, not too mellow. When I had the riff in my head, I knew what the lyrics were going to be already.

Q: How did you choose collaborators?
A: I know a lot of people that when they do solo projects, they want to work with all these different people–musicians that they’ve never met, or people they admire. Obviously, I admire everyone that I worked with, but I knew I wanted it to be a close, tight relationship. Everybody involved with the record, we’ve all been longtime friends. Bernie, we work well together. We’re kind of the same kind of people. We like a lot of the same things, and a lot of the same music. I knew Bernie was my first choice for the guitar player. Pete, I’ve known forever, and he’s a rock-solid drummer. Just amazing. There’s some little, tasty fills here and there but he doesn’t overplay. I knew I wanted him to do it, and at first, he couldn’t do it because of his time schedule with Face To Face. In the end, he called me up–he was like, “I can do it between this time and that time.” I said, “Okay, good. We’ll work around your schedule.” Joey was kind of funny. I actually asked Joey what he thought of another bass player that I wanted to use. He was like, “Well, what about me? You don’t want me to play on it?” I’m like, “I didn’t think you’d like to do it.” He was like, “Yeah, of course man,” because he’d heard the demo already. He was like, “Yeah, man, I’d love to do it– it’d be great. Of course–why not?” [I said,] “And while you’re at it, why don’t you record the damn thing for us?” (laughs) He had actually done some recording at Mark’s studio with other bands–demos, and things like that. He knew how to do everything, so I figured what better guy to have? I think he did a great job.Q: I asked Jim this question too, but do you worry about there being an overabundance of side projects in your genre?
A: It had crossed my mind before. Fans aren’t going to want to pick up everything. They’re not stupid. A lot of people know that some solo projects are going to suck. A lot of people just do it for money. Some people do it for an artistic outlet. Some people are coerced into it. Somewhere down the line, I think it’s just going to be too much. People are going to start complaining (about) too much product. But I think it’s good for the artist, because that way, you can get rid of what you’re thinking of, that you know you won’t do with your band. It is sort of like therapy. A lot of bands—not us—are stuck with each other every single day. Obviously, it’s good to get out and work with different people. In my case, I had a lot of time on my hands, and I needed to do something or I would just absolutely. That was my motivation. A lot of people have done it for money. Even myself, it’s like, “I can do this and make some money at the same time, so why not?” But obviously, my motivation was to put some ideas down on tape that were my own. It’s not pointing a finger at anybody in Fates Warning, because I love what we do with Fates Warning, and I don’t think I could ever— I know I could never, ever match what Jim is doing. He’s a brilliant guitarist, brilliant songwriter and lyricist. I think I’m comfortable with my position in Fates Warning, but I think it was just time for me to do something on my own. Not to prove to anybody, but maybe just to prove to myself that I have the ability to write songs in my own style and lyrics in my own words. I definitely think it was a bit of therapy for me.

Q: Were you surprised by the overwhelming reaction to PLEASANT SHADE?
A: I was amazed, to tell you the truth. When we were writing the record, I remember this big conversation we had one day. It was like, we tried to be somewhat commercially successful with INSIDE OUT. At this point, it was like, “You know what? MTV’s gone. Radio’s gone, as far as the style of music we play. Let’s just write a record, and to hell with everybody.” A lot of Fates Warning fans (thought) we were trying to be commercially successful, and we said we’re just going to write a record for ourselves, and for the progressive fans, and we’ll see what happens. In this day and age, doing a whole record that’s one long concept is kind of unheard of. It was great in the ‘80s, I guess, but we took a big chance, and were absolutely amazed at the reaction from the fans, and from a lot of the press. Even live, we did the whole record, and we were kind of freaking out, and didn’t know how it was going to go over. It went over great—people appreciated the fact we did the whole record, and threw a couple of old songs on the back of it. I think the reaction was more than we could have ever expected.

Q: Was it difficult dusting off “The Ivory Gate of Dreams” live on the final leg of that tour?
A: I’m getting old there, buddy. (laughs) That high thing was big in the ‘80s, and I’ve been moving down. Every record seems like I move down the scale a bit more. It’s more comfortable—it’s easier, there’s more emotion involved—and then we had to go back and do that. It was like…(sighs). I felt somewhat silly having to sing that high. It was like, “Let’s not do this again.” (laughs) I hope you can understand!

Q: So it doesn’t come back to you so easily?
A: No (laughs). It’s not old hat. It’s weird, because we haven’t played a live show in over a year. We have one day of rehearsal. It’s happened before—we’ve done it before—but never a year. When we went on tour with Dream Theater, we hadn’t played together in a couple months. We were thrown together in Europe. It was like, “Wait a minute—we don’t need a soundcheck? We’re not rehearsing? What’s going on?” The curtain goes up—you’re on! It’s like, “Oh, man…” And we pulled through. Everybody knows their part. I think as long as everybody is rehearsing on their own time, and doing their own thing, once it all comes together, the worries should just dissolve away. Obviously, there’s a lot of practice, a lot of rehearsal involved with each other as
individuals. I would never call anything old hat.

Q: Jim said he wasn’t too sure what to do with PLEASANT SHADE live in the future.
A: There’s been talk about it. I think we’re going to probably chop it up into bits and pieces. Some of the songs that we have for the new record are pretty interesting. I don’t want to give too much away, but some are longer than others. I think we’re going to have to chop it up and pull out some of the better parts. It’s too early to tell how much of it we’ll play.

Q: Can you tease us with a description of the new Fates material?
A: If they liked A PLEASANT SHADE OF GRAY, and they liked  PERFECT SYMMETRY, they’ll probably like this one.

Q: Who are some of your more eclectic favorites?.
A: I like Soulfly, (but) I like Joni Mitchell and Sarah McLachlan. I don’t really listen to radio-oriented music, but when I first started out with Fates Warning, I was a big fan of everything. I liked Nuclear Assault and Overkill, bands like that. I was never a big fan of Kiss. Never really liked Black Sabbath that much. I always liked somewhat of the underdog—the underground type of music. Now, it seems the underground has gotten a lot bigger. Since the mainstream metal is gone, they’ve turned to the underground, and the underground is starting to become the mainstream again. Who knows what the new underground is going to be? Music’s getting pretty fucking weird right now, if you ask me. I mean, look at Slipknot. Kiss is what it was back then, but now, it’s getting out of hand. We’ll see what happens.

-The band performed in Greece Oct. 23 and 24, after I conducted this interview. Alder said he was looking forward to it, but “that it is taking a lot of time from the writing of the (new) record.” It had been some eight or nine years since the band performed there, so he said it would be “a lot of fun.”

“I think we’re going to stay for a few days, and actually visit Crete,” he said. Talk
about an island in the stream… (Sorry. Had to go there.) ********