Hamlet of Transport Aerian
I recently got the chance to catch up with Hamlet of Transport Aerian. He is getting ready to release his most ambitious album yet on November 17th through Melodic Revolution Records. Hamlet has a deep, artistic mind and I was excited to get to pose some questions to him about his personal musical history, the new album, and the music industry as a whole.
The Prog Mind: I know that you are rather vocal about your opinion of the modern music industry, but I’ve never asked about your passion. When did you embrace music as a passion?
Hamlet: I think it’s always been there, ever since I was a baby. Interesting thing is that until the age of 12 or 13 music seemed to me like something too complex to recreate so I never really thought I could become a part of it myself. But then I got really addicted to Russian underground psychedelic stage, mostly so-called “suicidal punk” bands from Siberia (I must mention here, that they didn’t really sound like punk, often not even like something of rock music). These musicians had very limited access to the knowledge of how to make rock music in the western understanding of it, neither they had sufficient technical means to do so. Instead, their starting point was The Idea, the Theme, and they were employing very deconstructed, primitive and raw sound and song structures with heavy and deep poetry to bind it together. In their creations, the elusive bones, skeletons of the music were well-exposed, and that was what I needed to see and comprehend to realize where do I start, so I did. Some years spent learning how to play various instruments, and how to bring some layers of meat upon the skeletons of songs, some years spent as a trainee in a recording studio and in a local live music venue, and so it all started falling into place. I was soon invited to join a newly formed progressive rock band, initially as a lyricist and then as a frontman, where I learned how to work with more complex structures and with different approaches. But I always keep in mind that the first thing is The Idea. That’s the way I make music until now.
TPM: Okay, so that spawns more questions. Did your parent expose you to music? Did you teach yourself how to play the instruments you know?
Hamlet: I had been initially exposed to some fine examples of progressive rock by following music my dad would bring home when I was a kid, but I took off to settle my own tastes in music and my own path in life quite early. As for the instruments, I’m self-taught on most instruments, but I did take some vocal and drum lessons because for these two education (or a lack thereof) is too noticeable to be skipped.
TPM: That suicidal punk sound is so apparent in your music. I can hear the raw, poetic humanity in every note you play. In fact, in your new music video, the distortion and the candidate presentation as you face the camera both seem to feel very personal and dark.
Hamlet: It isn’t apparent at all! It might only be present as a method, a way to create an embryo, but it is not visible within the result. Transport Aerian is much more accessible, far less aggressive, and I really don’t think intentionally poor sound production is a suitable mean of expression for me. Real suicidal punks’ creations ranged from the acquired taste to being straight unlistenable! The Last Years Of Peace music video we published prior to the album – as much as the album itself can be described by the word ‘disturbing’. I think it works best to emphasize the given context.
TPM: I guess I was referring to the poetic, raw nature of your music. Your music is very refined, so that is definitely not something that carries over from that subgenre. Anyways, it seems like you have gone all out, vocally speaking, on this record. Is this something you wanted to explore more? What is your background in music?
Hamlet: It is a curious remark. There is indeed quite some vocal acrobatics on Therianthrope, but I know my limits very well, and I never try to do what I know would sound forced. In my youth I combined playing in a progressive rock band with singing in a cover band. Yes, my fellow progressive purists, you might wrinkle your pink noses at this point, but this was the best school a singer could have! My approach to vocals is that I always try to sing within the required context, don’t go into a technical or range show-off spree unless the music requires me to do so. Besides Transport Aerian, I’ve been singing blues, chanson, hard rock, some more extreme metal too (in fact, a progressive metal band Fabulae Dramatis just released their second album last month and I’m featured there as a singer/bassist). I think voice, as any instrument, sounds good only if it creates the right emotion within the given piece of music. An intimate intonated whisper won’t work in a metal band, neither would constant powerhousing benefit most of Transport Aerian records. As much as I firmly believe that “less is more” is most often a coward’s resort dedicated to cover a blunt lack of knowledge of how to enrich the context, I also believe that a principle “doesn’t mean you should just because you can” needs to be employed, especially when it comes down to vocals or soloing licks.
TPM: The reason that I say that is because your tone and your charisma seem elevated and fuller on this album, and I am very impressed.
Hamlet: Thank you for the compliment!
TPM: The female vocals (from Rachel Bauer and JoJo Razor) are a great addition to your sound. Does this have a purpose, or did you just really want a female singing on this album?
Hamlet: I do not do anything without a purpose. I invited two gorgeous female singers because they can highlight some aspects that I cannot represent myself. For the same reason, I went with two opposite timbres: Rachel Bauer is self-trained, very intuitive, and has no experience as a musician, but unconsciously, naturally, she knows how to give a certain atmosphere with her voice, and has an inborn sense of pitch and correct breathing technique. We worked together on Darkblue, and I know that her voice brings in this special, dark, deep haunts to the pieces I ask her to sing on. On Therianthrope her role is slightly smaller, because there are more other aspects that I needed to talk about.
JoJo Razor is almost the opposite, coming from pure progressive rock background, she has more aggressive, more technical manner of singing, totally different timbre and it adds this wicked, venomous feeling to Pitchfork Martyrs and Let You Never Perish.
Any voice is an instrument. But the choice of the right voice can be an instrument by itself and I had a luxury of having some great ones there.
TPM: I was a fan of Rachel’s work on Darkblue, for sure. Do you think you’ve learned anything from them from working so closely?
Hamlet: She did amazing job for both albums. I think it’s possible and necessary to learn from any experience at all, so yes, I did, both on spiritual and musical levels.
TPM: Now, the lyrics here are very somber and powerful, as is the album art. Is there a certain concept or idea that unites the tracks?
Hamlet: Yes, it is always the case with Transport Aerian. Not having to rely on music as the source of income grants me the incredible luxury of making the albums only if I have a large and personal theme to tell. The concept on Therianthrope was simple: to explore the correlation between the mind of an individual torn apart by the invisible, inner pains and the outer world within the context of modern living – with whatever it brings. I think it’s the topic to which most of us can relate, as we all have our own, deep and secret wounds and aching scars, we all suffer from the invisible inner pains, and we all live in this ever-accelerating objective reality, that affects us all in a very subjective way.
Each song on the album tells about one aspect of the mental illness: Smirking Sirens is about the paranoia and persecution syndrome, also it demonstrates how a little and seemingly insignificant detail can trigger a panic attack; Let You Never Perish – about self-pity; Destroy Me and Last Years Of Peace – on fear of loss of the beloved ones and death, Lions is about alcohol abuse, and so on. On the opposite side, Therianthrope contains The Abstract Symphony pieces, which were to represent the outer world and thus were dealing with more ‘objective’ concepts.
TPM: I did get some sense that deep psychological turmoil is a theme on this album. I know exactly what you mean, as I’ve experienced, and still do experience, many of those emotions. Without getting too personal, did you garner these perspectives from personal experience, or is this something that is more observational in nature?
Hamlet: I could describe a lot from my own perspective, – and I have experimented with my mind this time by trying to record and compose in the middle of another episode. A lot doesn’t mean all, there are some themes in lyrics that I don’t really relate to myself, but as much as I put some personal demons into play here, I also did quite some research on how do these conditions work from the social and psychological perspectives, both from the inside and on the outside. I tried to make it more comprehendible with the use of images that talk about all these issues in more accessible metaphors and appropriate musical means. What I think the most important about Therianthrope concept, is that everyone of us can on a bigger or lesser scale relate to it. We all have deep traumas and pains. To all of us, our subjective pains feel unbearably sharp at the times. Our own demons always seem scarier and stronger than the ones of our neighbors. I made this album as a dedication, for the people who deal or struggle with their pains, to show them that they’re not alone. And to make those who think they’re perfectly fine aware that there are plenty of human souls around them, close to them who are torn apart by the invisible inner beasts.
TPM: In light of all that, can you explain the album title to me?
Hamlet: Therianthrope means “human-beast”, a shapeshifter. The legends and beliefs around therianthropy in the old times initially originated from observing those who suffered from severe psychological issues, it was a sort of metaphor, an euphemism to describe such people. The word itself and the concept behind it refers to many cultural and social aspects, but the main denotate is the inner demons and beasts that live in each of us, and that are virtually invisible for as long as they’re contained. We are all therianthropes. The album is about all of us.
TPM: I see. So it’s directly describing the animalistic pain and trauma that comes out of sorrow, loss, and mental scarring. I know the feeling very well.
Hamlet: That’s one of the aspects. There are more – but no word or concept implements only one meaning, rather, any of them evoke a network of meanings, and I think a word “Therianthrope” describes all the assets of what I’ve done on this album most accurately.
TPM: Following that line of thought, this album almost seems like more of a project than a solo album this time. Do you prefer solo or group composition?
Hamlet: It really depends. For Therianthrope, a team of musicians with very different backgrounds was a necessity, because I needed to inhabit a lyrical subject into the objective reality represented by many variables I can’t paint myself. Transport Aerian’s philosophy presumes a full freedom of expression, and I think the guests did a fantastic job enriching music, adding the angles and points of view unreachable for me. I never tell musicians what and how to play on my songs, while Abstract Symphony was based on their blind improvisation entirely.
What concerns my personal preferences and tastes – I do like to work on my own, but there is one slight problem with one-man projects, especially within the realm of progressive and avant-garde music. This method discredited itself completely and to the point of no redemption. There are too many musicians attempting to record music alone by playing all the instruments, but they often in fact are only good at only one instrument, which is most often a guitar. The rest of the arrangement is assembled from the main instrument’s perspective, and it doesn’t make music ‘musical’. It is painfully obvious when hearing such attempts to put together the drums: almost always programmed, almost always in the same software, and while imitating the acoustic drum kit, the parts are assembled in such way that no real drummer will ever (be able to) play. And there are hundreds of such examples.
When working alone, the composition has to be seen from the perspectives of different instruments, there should be no ‘main’ instrument, some research and studies has to be done in regard to how the different instruments actually work within the arrangement, harmony, production… there are few musicians who do it the right way, but with the majority of amateurish attempts, the entire idea of such recordings obtained such a dreadful reputation, that it tends to become a non-grata right upon mentioning ‘one-man project’ in a press-release.
TPM: The album definitely has several guests that play all sorts of fabulous parts and instruments. Where do you normally connect with these musicians? From my perspective, they seem to add a certain level of classical influence and even whimsy to the music. In your own words, what do you feel they bring to the table?
Hamlet: They define Therianthrope’s physical representation. Some musicians on Therianthrope are my label brother and sisters, as Melodic Revolution Records has very diverse roster. The label recommended me to take a look at Marco Ragni, an Italian mutli-instrumentalist, whose approach is quite close to mine, so we got in touch some years ago, and I also played some bass for his previous album, Land Of The Blue Echoes. A guitar player Peter Matuchniak also played on that record, and I loved his style and I also saw him having a lot of soundscape capable guitar gear, which I asked to use a lot for Abstract Symphony. JoJo Razor sings in his band, Gekko Project, and they both seemed to enjoy an opportunity to do something totally different. Stef Flaming is a man in charge for Belgian band Mukry Red, they’re the only Belgian band signed to Melodic Revolution Records besides Transport Aerian, and I really love his guitar playing style. Darren Brush is a stick player and he builds his own instruments, mostly expanded range basses and touch guitars, one of which he plays on the album. He happened to look for somebody to collaborate with just at the same time when I thought “I need a stick player for this one”! Paul Sax is a violinist of Curved Air and Praying For The Rain, I got to know him on some rather hot discussion on modern music world some years ago, we kept in touch ever since, and I’m a big fan of his musicality as he has absolutely incredible intuition and knowledge of what and how to play, so I’m very proud of having him playing for Therianthrope.
Elvya is a hammered dulcimer player and a singer. She played for Ayreon, but I heard her first with her solo project and her debut solo album was probably one of the best independent releases I’ve ever came across. I wanted to collaborate with her for quite some years, but it only happened now. She also has a fantastic voice, but for Therianthrope I only asked her to play dulcimer, and I remember Rachel Bauer calling me names after hearing her album and getting to know that I decided that this voice wouldn’t match Therianthrope’s atmosphere!
Dyian is Polish hurdy-gurdy troubadour, he was travelling across the Europe to play on the streets in all the historical cities around here, and Elvya brought him to the recording session to surprise me, so we put some of his playing in one of the tracks too. Rachel Bauer you already acquainted with by Darkblue and Stefan Boeykens was a key part of Transport Aerian live line up since 2008, essentially he was the first musician to join me in this country, and somehow we’ve always had a great sense of each other’s playing, but this time he mostly handles acoustic guitar, which, as a schooled classical guitar player, he does incredibly well. Long ago I took a principle for myself – to only work with the musicians capable of adding the missing pieces without being told which piece is missing. And I’m blessed with the fact that I have a fantastic team on Therianthrope that totally match this principle but frankly, I’ve always been lucky with my live line ups, too.
TPM: The genre is impossible to pin down for this album. I hear everything from electronic to prog rock to even metal segments. Is this a goal of yours?
Hamlet: The goal was solely to describe a certain idea, talk of a certain theme. Whatever language worked, be it prog, metal, pop, trip-hop, ambient, chanson – I used it all.
Sticking to one genre – even if the genre itself presumes a considerably wide variation field – is limiting and therefore counterproductive, not to mention that it’s plain boring.
I’m well aware that it is slightly harder to promote and commercialize music that doesn’t fit into a certain slot or doesn’t match one’s expectations in terms of approaches and structures but I don’t care about the genres. I do care about the listeners, however, as it is obligatory to maintain a high quality of production and musicianship so that the message that Transport Aerian transmits is loud, clear and not jettisoned. That’s the only thing I really care about.
TPM: I love that about you. You let the music speak to you and to the listeners, and I feel the tapestry you have created here is pure art. Do you find one genre to fit your composition skills more than others?
Hamlet: No. Genre tags are necessary for the promoters to target a certain audience group and help music finding its way to the potential customer, but not from the musician’s perspective.
TPM: Speaking of the diversity on this album, can you tell me more about the composition of the Abstract Symphony suite? I absolutely love these instrumental tracks and they seem very ambitious and difficult to write.
Hamlet: It has never been written. That was a large part of experiment we exercised with Therianthrope: the album consists of two major parts: the convenient, ‘normal’ songs which deal with the ‘inner world’ and the Abstract Symphony that deals with the ‘outer world’. The Abstract Symphony has a very special nature, as it is made entirely out of blind improvisations recorded by five musicians: Marco Ragni, Peter Matuchniak, Stefan Boeykens, Elvya, Darren Brush. They were not told what and how to play. I gave each of them 5 topics that they had to describe by playing their instrument. The topics were: modern information space or internet, a whore, the strongest emotion, pop music and God. Participants of the experiment were not allowed to communicate with each other and they had no idea what the others will play. After they finished, I gathered their improvisations on the given themes and bound them together within the instrumental pieces by cementing it with some bass guitar and drums which I played myself. We also added some guitars played by Stef Flaming in one of those pieces afterwards. The Abstract Symphony is one of the main fulcrums of the album, from which the idea around Therianthrope initially emerged. In fact, I wanted to make the entire album based on blind improvisations and make it entirely instrumental, but that would have been too one-sided, so I expanded the concept.
TPM: Wow! That makes total sense from hearing them. Is this improvisation something that you want to explore more in the future?
Hamlet: I have no idea. I generally don’t plan things for Transport Aerian, I let it evolve and give me the subject and only afterwards define the appropriate set of tools and methodology. I certainly liked working with more musicians and if a musician is present, it means I value his or her personal input dearly. But what I absolutely don’t want to become is another “wow look at my guest names act” doing quasi-similar music over and over again, just with the different set of voices and instrumentalists involved. We all know examples of such, and that’s not the way that I find attractive.
TPM: Now, don’t hate me for this question. Would you say there is an 80’s influence to this album? I’m hearing it all over the synth and bass, and I have a sneaking suspicion that this is partly why I am connecting so well with the music.
Hamlet: You know, the beautiful thing about not sticking to a certain genre or an influence is that if the output product appears to be comprehensible, it brings different associations to different listeners, depending on their personal preferences, musical erudition and how these two are allocated within their minds. I do not see much of the 80’s in Transport Aerian. However, it cannot be dismissed, that if I am to speak the language of music, I am also to utter a certain syllables or particles, nucleus from the different vocabularies. Any epoch of contemporary (rock) music has the elements that are inevitably implemented in any music made. We can try escaping one influence or one genre, but we can hardly stay away from the bricks when constructing a building. High pitched notes, powerhouse male singing, bombastic themes can indeed be pinpointed to the peculiar sound of the 80ies, but the artists exploiting those, have also been influenced by something from the epoch before, and so on, and so on. Music, as any art, is a sociopsychological phenomenon, so it is structured, and it evolves in a hierarchical fashion, even if that isn’t obviously visible. If a certain element, that was coincidentally popular at a certain decade, works within the context of a piece I write – I use it.
TPM: Yes, that makes sense. I think my own correlations between the 80s and certain sounds, such as certain synth tones, are what I am recognizing.
Hamlet: Yes, your musical erudition can either help you pinpoint the elements correctly or play the trick on you. I once heard that Transport Aerian sounds like Red Hot Chili Peppers cover band. Guess the favorite band of that reviewer.
TPM: What is your creative process? What inspires you?
Hamlet: I used to have a poster with Andy Warhol scratching his head and the slogan “The world fascinates me”. That would be the answer. Just being a bit more observant can already bring an incredible number of images and ideas. But the images are not enough. The theme is what needed. The themes come by living. For instance, The Dream was inspired with the deadlock I got myself into back in 2007, Bleeding had to do with the growth of hope and changes, Darkblue – with love and its consequences, Therianthrope – was a sort of pain-relief therapy. But creative process for me is never spontaneous. If I was to put all the thoughts and ideas into the music that would have started to stink a lot like a sort of graphomania. That is the last thing I want to be accused with. I always wait until the concept, the structure, the instrumentaria and the needed elements of production crystalize, cut off what’s not needed, and only after the entire concept structures in my head I proceed to create something in the realm of physical things. The ideas are shadows on a cavern wall, but not all of them must to be materialized, and those that are – need a lot of tweaking to become comprehendible and aesthetically (or anti-aesthetically) valuable. That takes a lot of time, and I do not like to make music the same way I already did before, so the ideas I’ve already used go to the trash before seeing light of day!
TPM: This reminds me of some of the pet peeves I’ve been garnering lately. Your music is so sincere and purposeful, but I’ve been running into other bands, such as the recent release from Vuur, that is nothing more than meaningless filler with some big names attached. Yes, it will sell well, regardless of its quality. Where do you draw the line between art and entertainment? Why do you think these plastic bands sell so well, while true artists that sweat blood and tears into their works simply cannot find an audience?
Hamlet: It’s a big question. First off, I don’t want to be compared, let alone opposed to these countless commercial projects that reside within the domain of presumably intellectual music. Everyone has their own sense of what is interesting, own integrity, all of us need to eat. If some musicians can afford generating sufficient profit by selling the same pseudo-elitist product repeatedly to the ecstatic crowd – well God bless that parasitic symbiosis, live and let live.
But as much as I’m not interested in mainstream genre-prog, I do love and appreciate some pop music. Between good high-ranked pop music and mainstream genre-prog, I do prefer the quality and innovative ideas, and it is highly unlikely to come across these in the latter! What can we learn from a band that sounds a bit like Yes, a bit like Rush and will certainly become the Second <Insert the reviewer’s favorite band here> by playing something no longer new or relevant for at least half a century? But I see no point in judging. Musicians need to make ends meet. The never-ending discussion of what is the difference between the genre-prog and something really progressive that sparkles way too often is alarmingly symptomatic and is getting old.
Regarding the commercial success, if we had the ultimate receipt of it, things would have been very different. Guns’N’Roses would not reside head-to-head with Adele in Forbes top 10 of wealthy celebrities. Marillion or Queen would never reach multi-platinum status despite label’s initial disbelief in their possible success… However, if my grandma had four wheels, she could as well be a bus, so I prefer not to speculate! My personal and very subjective opinion is that there is always a combination of factors that need to come together: a quality of product, personality and business grip of the artist have to coincide with the right time, right place, right connections and right money invested. In many otherwise fantastic and valuable artists you see at least one or more of those factors missing.
Regarding the art-entertainment dichotomy, lets first have a look at history of poetry or literature – both recognized within the posh area of fine arts for quite a long period. Many poets and writers that we now regard as classics, at their times of living were not popular at all, often lived in poverty and were underdog to slightly more shallow coevals – names, let alone the creations of whom we don’t even remember now. But with rock music situation is very different. While progressive rock always attempted to step over to the domain of fine art, but such attempts are doomed to fail miserably, simply because progressive rock still belongs to the larger domain of ‘rock music’, and it is still associated with ‘pop music’, as opposed to strictly defended territory of elite classic music and, partly, jazz music. Because of the line between rock music and pop music has never been drawn, because rock music is still seen as a marginal case of entertainment business, we don’t stand any chance. Peter Hammill becomes ‘some kind of male Nico’, according to some kind of music journalist. Classic rock is associated mostly with those who generate the most profit or by those whose kitsch’s are so vulgar that they sneak into the mainstream choir of pop culture in a form of some sort of freak show. Artists of bigger poetic value are either remembered by the example of affecting the considerable deal of women in Germany born after 1985, because those were named by previously inexistent female name, or are doomed not to be remembered at all.
TPM: Do you plan to take this album on the road at all? I remember the “Love.Blood.Live” album. I fell in love with the live charisma and evocative poetry that was so palpable. Do you have plans for something similar?
Hamlet: I would love to say yes. I love playing live, much more than working in a studio. It saddens me that Transport Aerian has become mostly a studio project, but I happened to fail assembling an operational and lasting live line here. Mainly due to the non-commercial nature of the project, but even more so due to the unimaginable distance between my understanding of what good music is and such around the place I live in, hence finding the musicians with a right mindset is hard to mission impossible task. However, I’ve always been somehow lucky with the musicians that surround me, so I sure hope it will work out again. I consider the possibilities right as we speak, and although no album release party is planned, I hope to assemble the circus for setting up live shows in early 2018.
TPM: Thank you so much for sharing your mind with us!
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