Entrevistamos a Mike Lepond (SYMPHONY X) – English Version
Hello Mike! Thank you so much for your time! Happy birthday by the way, I know it was last week, how did it go? Did you have some time off to celebrate?
Well, we had my birthday and it was a day off at the time so the band and I had a nice dinner and it was really nice, it was like a family. The road family. We were somewhere in the UK, I don’t remember where because this whole tour is like a dream.
Today’s your first date in Spain, been 5 years since your last visit. How does it feel guys to be back?
It feels so great to come back to Spain, we always have great shows here. Our fans here are so loyal and they keep coming back and they support us so much. We are really excited to play because the shows are always high energy and the fans have so much passion.
You’re back with “Underworld”, (a brilliant album I have to say) that got released last year. It’s amazing because I haven’t seen any bad reviews about it yet, in fact it’s so hard to find a bad review about any of your albums! What did you think the first time you heard it once you finished recording?
There was a point where we had the songs close to being finished and we could kind of see what the album was going to sound like and we knew we had something very special. So we were very excited, we wanted to release the album as soon as possible, and we think is one of our best albums and just like you say, the press has given us fantastic reviews and what’s great about this album is that our new fans and our old fans like it because it has elements of our old sound and our new sound so we found the spot where we want to be, where we can get everybody back. So far the tour has been amazing, the fans have been responding to the new songs… they go crazy.
Symphony X is a band that has always been there when people talk about progressive metal, it’s like an icon. What kind of evolution have you seen in the band since you joined in 1999?
I joined the band in 1999 and at that time we were definitely called a progressive, symphonic metal band. Since that time we’ve gotten a little heavier. Each album seem to get a little heavier, now some of our older fans did not like that but on other hand we’ve picked up a lot of new fans. The last album before “Underworld” was called “Iconoclast” and that was the heaviest album we had ever done, now I think in my opinion, it was a little bit too heavy for Symphony X. I loved the album but I think it was a little bit too much for us so with “Underworld” we came back just a little bit and like I said we are really happy the way we are now.
I wanted to take a little look back and I wanted to ask you about the process of joining the band.
Oh, I’ll never forget it.
What were you doing back then?
In the 1990’s I was a struggling musician in New Jersey, USA, and I was playing in the local hard rock and heavy metal bands.
I never played in a progressive band before. The band before Symphony X sounded like Tesla meets Skid Row, like Whitesnake kind of. Matter of fact I should let you hear it because I think you’d like it.
So I was a struggling musician and I used to hang out at the local heavy metal bar that we all went to every weekend and I knew this guy, and he knew Symphony X and one day he said “Symphony X is looking for a bass player, you’d be perfect!” so I said “Sure!”.
But if you were playing in a band like Tesla, how could he think that you’d be the right person?
That’s a very good question. He knew that I could play… well, he thought that I could play very well. I wasn’t that familiar with Symphony X but I knew that they were popular in Europe and they had some things going on at the time so he had Michael Romeo call me, we talked on the phone and he said “hey, you wanna come down for an audition?”, so I said “okay, send me some songs that you want me to learn”. I was a blues player, a hard rock player and he sent me the “The Divine Wings of Tragedy” cd so I put it in and I was like “how can anyone play this?! This is crazy! This isn’t like Dokken!”.
At that point I looked in the mirror and I said “you’re either gonna do this or take the bass and put it down and go work as a garbage man or something”, so I said “I’m gonna do this”. I looked the door of my room and I practised for hours and hours, never stopped.
For how long did you practise?
I think I had two weeks to learn three songs, three songs of that album. I practised so much… and then came the day of the audition.
I didn’t think that I would get the job, I was like “the songs, they’re a little bit too hard for me, but I did my best” and I’d meet the guys and at least I could say I met Symphony X and I could tell everyone that I auditioned for them. So I go to the audition, I open the door and it was very quiet and I was like “wow, okay”, so I pick up the bass and we start playing “Of Sins and Shadows”. So I’m playing and I’m doing good! I’m like “wow I can keep up with these guys!”, they’re playing and I’m right in there and doing great. So the song ends and they seemed like “oh, okay this guy can play!” so then we’re going into the second song “The Accolade” and we started playing, did good, and then we did “Medusa”, I did good. So after I finished those three songs Michael Romeo, he says “alright let me talk to you”, and I didn’t know maybe he would say “alright you should go home” so he started asking me and he said “you did really good, can you tour?” and I said “yes of course!”. To make the long story short I came back for a second audition and I did some songs from “Twilight in Olympus”, I did very good because I was more confident and then to make a long story shorter I went from the struggling musician who played for maybe the bar tender and his girlfriend. The first show was in Sao Paulo, Brazil, one thousand people, it was like a dream come true, like the movie Rockstar.
How hard is to keep a band alive nowadays? Digital era, people don’t buy as many albums as they used to… unless you’re an Iron Maiden or a Metallica… is it hard even for you guys?
The bands have gotten hit very hard, because nowadays so many people just steal your music. The only way to make money is you have to stay on the road, some bands can’t afford to be on the road, they don’t bring enough people to the shows and they loose money and they can’t do it. It hurts a lot of bands and also the internet is so huge: you have big bands like Megadeth and you have bands maybe you never heard of, they’re all on the internet fighting for attention and exposure, and it’s so hard to break out so you really have to find creative ways to be exposed on the internet. Also with the illegal downloading record companies are going out of business, so only the big ones are there. It’s hard so I’m actually happy that crowdfunding is around like GoFundMe, Kickstarter… I did my first solo album on Kickstarter, so that helps but it’s a lot of new challenges.
You guys have been together for 20 years. What do you think is the secret to stick together? You can often see many different lineup changes in most of the bands.
Being in a band is like a marriage. You’re together with these guys for months and one day somebody is in a bad mood, another day someone else is in a bad mood, you have arguments, but you have to learn how to work it out, talk it out and realise that you have something so special here. If you go out on your own, you’re not going to be as big as Symphony X, if I leave Symphony X I will not have a tour bus, I’ll be in a van, so you keep in mind the goal. Symphony X for 20 years has built a huge following and we know this and we’re not gonna let anything get in the way, so anytime there’s a problem we talk it out, we work it out and in the end we all love each other and we all are like brothers.
Let’s talk about your solo project “Silent Assassins”. Why and when did you choose that name for your first solo album?
That’s a very good question. “Silent Assassins” has a few different meanings: the first meaning, I was thinking “what should I call this project?” I don’t wanna call it “Mike Lepond”, that’s dumb! That’s not cool! I don’t wanna call it “Mike Lepond and Friends”, it sounds like Disney.
So you didn’t have the cover in mind? Because the cover has to do with that.
That comes later. So I said “What would be a cool name that is the same as Mike Lepond and Friends?”. How about my assassins! My silent assassins! Nobody really knows them, they’re quiet, and they’re my assassins! They play with me! It’s a cooler way to say “friends” so there you go that the first meaning.
The second meaning is, for one of the songs also called “Silent Assassins”, the silent assassins in my mind were the great warriors that were hiding inside the Trojan Horse, they were hiding, they were silent and they were assassins and they were going to come out in the night. So there’s the two meanings.
Did you know already who was going to play each instrument and sing when you started to write it?
Because it was such a huge a project I had to do everything myself, the only way I could do it was to take one piece at a time so first thing I wanted to do was write all the songs and once I had that written then I said “okay, who’s going to play on this”. Michael Romeo said “why don’t you just program the drums, I’ll do it and you won’t have to look for a drummer” and I said “perfect, one problem solved”. So then I was like “okay, I’ll play the rythm guitar” and if there was something I couldn’t play, Michael Romeo would just say “okay, I’ll play it for you”. Then it came “okay, who is going to sing, that’s the most important thing” and I knew Alan Tecchio for a few years because he was on the New Jersey scene many times and I loved his voice because he had a tough heavy metal voice but he could also scream, he could also sing a ballad and I was like “wow, I want him” so he heard the songs, he loved it and he did a fantastic job. Then for the lead guitar I had my good friend Metal Mike Chlasciak, also lived in New Jersey. All these guys lived near my house so I could go to the studio with them, so he did a great job for me and so it was only a few people but I wanted to have everyone closeby so I could be in the studio with them.
So you wrote EVERYTHING: the music, the lyrics…
I wrote the music, I wrote the lyrics and I wrote the vocal melodies.
How long did it take you?
It took me three years. When we were touring on “Iconoclast” I would wake up before everybody on the tour bus and I would start writing. I would have my little history book and I would write all the lyrics, type them all in the computer and I had my little guitar. We toured on “Iclonoclast”… the tour lasted about two years so during that time I wrote all the songs and when the tour was over I was ready to record.
In which way did Michael Romeo help you with?
Michael Romeo helped me so much because he programmed the drums and he fooled so many dummers. Many drummers said “who plays drums on that?” and I was like “nobody”.
So he played keyboard, he gave me that Symphony X orcherstration wich was wonderful, he also played the lead guitar and he recorded all the instruments for me. I could not have done it without him.
I have read some interviews and you say that you wanted an album that included classic heavy metal because that’s what you’ve always loved. How did you feel when you went from composing with a band to going solo? Pros and cons?
With Symphony X, Michael Romeo writes most of the music so he’ll give us a demo of the song and then we’ll put our ideas into the song and it becomes a Symphony X song and now with this I had to do everything so it was very very difficult. I learned so much from Michael Romeo songwriting, how to really take a song and make it the best it could be. My first love has always been classic heavy metal: Judas Priest, Iron Maiden, Megadeth and all that stuff so I always wanted to do that. My idea was to have the old school riffs with that attitude and to put it with the orchestration and the production of the modern day, and put it together. With Alan’s tough heavy metal voice to me it sounded something fresh and exciting so I did everything, I wrote everything and did everything little by little: one day the drums, one day the vocals and one day the guitar and then all the suddent it was done. I was looking at the cover and thinking “I can’t believe I finished it, I must be crazy”.
Are you satisfied with the response of the fans? What kind of expectations did you have?
I was afraid because Symphony X fans, they expect a certain level of excellence, they expect greatness, so I did not know how the fans would react to just a straight ahead heavy metal album. But I was very happy because the progressive fans and maybe fans like Symphony X, they all really enjoyed it. I think the Symphony X fans liked it because it may not have been progressive but it had this Symphony X kind of feel to it, with the orchestration and the big choruses, and the production, that was all very much like Symphony X. Then fans who maybe liked Gammaray and bands like this, they just liked that old shool straight ahead headbanging….so it got good reviews from all the different kinds of fans so that was amazing.
Do you think there will be a chance to hear some of the songs live someday?
This is my dream. To get the “Silent Assassins” here, if I could make sense of it financially I would love to do it. It would be though because we wouldn’t have a beautiful bus, we would have a little van, you (Yadira) are the driver, you (Roger) are light guy… but it would be an amazing thing for me to have songs that I just wrote in my room played in front of everybody and I would love to do it and I’m talking to different promoters to see if it’s possible.
I added a question, because yesterday we were talking about Erzsebet Bathory and you told me that there was a song about her. Is it going to be released someday? Do you have in mind recording more solo albums?
That’s the latest song I wrote, I wrote a song called “Lady Bathory” and all about her. I actually wrote that song maybe just a few months ago but I had already started recording my second solo album. Now I can tell you because you’re the coolest girl I’ve ever met … I can tell you a little about my second solo album. I have already finished the drums, so Michael Romeo did it again for me, bless his soul, and just before we left for Europe I finished the rythm guitar. So I have a second solo album I’m working on, the name of it will be “Pond and Procefy” and on this album there will be a 21 minute song, it will be like a heavy metal approach to a long song, I don’t know if there’s too many heavy metal bands that do the long songs but I wanted to try it, so with all the Symphony X touring I won’t be able to work on it a lot but I’ll have it out hopefully by the end of this year or early 2017.
Which song made you fall in love with heavy metal?
When I was 13 years old my father took me to see Kiss in New York City, and that’s the big thing! Think back back on how your mind was at 13 years old and I see these explosions, Gene Simmons spiting fire and flying… and after that I wanted to be a rockstar just like him. As I got older I started discovering Black Sabbath, Iron Maiden, Judas Priest… and I started learning about all these different bass players, and kept going and going and going and if someone would have told me 20 years ago that I would be here I’d say “muy loco”.
What’s your favourite Symphony X song?
Well that changes…every so often that would change.
Which one would you say you’re most proud of?
I would say right now my favourite song is probably from the new album. I really like… I forget the number of track it is but it’s called “In My Darkest Hour”. It’s cool, it’s kind of… maybe like a Megadeth kind of… and I really like the chorus and the way it was put together, so that’s my favourite song right now. I guess the song that I’m most proud of with Symphony X is probably “The Odyssey” cos’ it’s just like this adventure, and it’s something that people… makes them cry…