Praying Mantis Interview - March 2003
Praying Mantis released "The Journey Goes On" in Japan in March and it has just come out on Frontiers/Now And Then in the UK. It is three years since "Nowhere To Hide" came out so Jon Hinchliffe went down to the Mixing studio to see what has been happening with the band. Present are Tino Troy (Lead Guitar, Backing vocals and Keyboards), Chris Troy (Bass Guitar, Vocals and keyboards) and Dennis Stratton (Lead Guitar, Backing vocals)
JH - What is the current line up of Praying Mantis?
CT - It is us three basically. In a way it has been us for a while. I think we thought Bruce Bisland (Drums on every studio album since the band reformed in 1990) was a part of the core too but in some ways I think he caused some of the problems with Tony O’Hora (Lead Vocals on the previous two studio albums). This was a shame really as it was quite a record for us to record two albums with the same line up. In fact in my credits on "Nowhere to Hide" I commented something like, "Wow we have finally done it. Two Albums with the same line up". Now low and behold it is back to us three.
DS - It has always been the three of as far as the song writing and recording has gone so I think that is why our records are still consistent. Bruce used to play on albums and come on tour with us but we always had to work around his commitments with The Sweet so he was never really a full member.
JH - Why did Bruce Bisland and Tony O'Hora leave?
TT - The whole thing goes back to the Gods festival 2000. Bruce and Tony had a chat about Mantis and it resulted in Tony quitting the band. We talked Tony around in time to support Glenn Hughes but nothing was the same and it was the downfall of the band really. Just before we recorded "Nowhere To Hide" Tony had moved up to Birmingham and that didn’t help band unity either. At the end of the day we just decided to call it quits with them.
JH - Does it worry you that the band keep making what is arguably the most difficult line up change you could make i.e. the vocalist?
CT - It used to but it doesn’t now.
TT - Given the amount of times it has happened I think we pretty much expect it now. They come and they go and as long as the three of us remain the same it doesn’t bother us.
CT - I think a lot of bands have changed vocalists and that includes a lot of big bands such as Iron Maiden. I am really pleased with what has gone on, on this particular album. I think sometimes you can buy an album and it gets a little bit tedious because of some of the similar sounds. With something like this it is quite refreshing to hear different vocalists. I think it made it quite an interesting project. Actually it surprised me how much more I enjoyed making the album with more than one vocalist.
DS - I think the band was at it’s best on the last two albums. This was probably because we had a consistent line-up with Tony and Bruce. The whole band just jelled because we spent more time together. What bothers me is that all the years we 3 have been together we have had singers come in who have either used us as a stepping stone to further their own career or have just made unreasonable demands. When you think you have got the right singer you go "Great" but then all of a sudden all these silly little things start arising and you start to wonder what is going on. So from that aspect it worries me. I think over the years we have been too nice to our singers. We have gone out of our way to welcome people aboard but it just backfired on us. I think at the end of the day it is nice to have a settled line-up but now I would rather do what we did on this album and just ring up people like Doogie and John and get them to come in on a track by track basis.
JH - Do you perceive having changed vocalists so often has harmed your prospects?
CT - That’s a difficult one. Our main market has always been Japan and the media there have been consistent in the view that it does. But to be honest I don’t necessarily agree. I think you go out to a shop and buy something that is pleasing to the ear. I don’t think you get put off just because they haven’t kept to a vocalist. I think music is too fluid now to keep to such a rigid idea as "Oh such and such has left the band. I won’t get the next album now"
TT - I agree, I don’t really think it has affected us. The nucleus has always been the same and the singers have just come and gone. But as we say with the title of the album "The Journey Goes On".
DS - I think with "Nowhere To Hide" being the first album to use the same line-up as a previous album it put us at rest and we jelled better. I don’t think this was the most important thing though. The most important thing is that the standard of the songs remains up to scratch. I don’t think it matters who sings the songs as long as the quality of the songs is good. For instance on this album there is a song "If Tomorrow Never Comes" where Chris does the lead vocals and on another song "The Journey Goes On" we sing the song in three part harmony. This is something we have always done. "Children of the Earth" performed live is a good example of that. I think losing vocalists would worry me if the standard of the song writing and material went down. Having said that, it shouldn’t. Apart from Colin Peel on "A Cry For The New World", none of the vocalists we’ve had, have contributed to the song writing process. I think in time if the standard of music remains the same, getting in session vocalists is the way we will go from now on.
JH - With hindsight do you wish you had tried harder to keep any of the vocalists? Or do you ever wish you had just kept the lead vocals within the three of you?
TT - I don’t think keeping one vocalist longer was in our hands. We did consider keeping the vocals within the three of us again but we decided we wanted a front man to allow us to concentrate on our other roles within the band. It is very difficult to play harmony guitar lines and sing as well. A lot of the melody comes from the guitars as well as the vocals.
CT - I think having a really good vocalist adds a different dimension. It can make an average song sound good and a good song sound great. So it can really, really bring out a performance. We can all sing but we are not superb vocalists and people like John Sloman and Doogie White are. Some of the tracks when you compare the demos with the final versions sung by Doogie or John make you go "Wow look at the difference they have made to that song".
DS - Back in my Lionheart days we had a similar set-up to Mantis where we had three core members who wrote and sang great backing vocals and we just could not get the right Lead vocalist. We therefore tried to do the vocals all ourselves but I don’t think you can beat that extra quality you can get from a lead vocalist. I have always thought if you have great backing vocals you still need a really good singer frontman. It is the same with Mantis. Neither Tino, Chris nor I are lead vocalists so while it would have been nice to keep it between the three of us we can’t because our vocals are just not the quality of a lead vocalist. If you want the best out of an album you need a lead singer who can put that across.
As to whether we should have tried harder to keep a vocalist in the band, I don’t think anyone could have done any more than the three of us to try and keep Tony in the band but once a singer walks out, which Tony first did for a short spell after "The Gods" festival in 2000 you are on a slippery slope and it is hard to ever recover no matter what demands you meet.
JH - Looking back a bit, how do you perceive your last album "Nowhere To Hide" now?
CT - Funnily enough I don’t listen to it that much. I find if you do listen to your previous stuff too much you can probably get stuck in a rut as far as writing is concerned. When I do hear it I am pleased with what we did. I think it was a really good progression from "Forever In Time" without being too dissimilar. I think perhaps there was a bit of repetition because we had the same band but overall we made good progress. With this album we took a slightly different route overall and I was really pleased with the album.
DS - I still think "Nowhere To Hide" is a great album. I even think 1993’s "A Cry For The New World" is still a great album but with each year that goes by you learn and you try to better yourself. I think "Nowhere To Hide" and "Forever In Time" are similar albums but I think "Nowhere" matured a little bit and got better. Since we don’t tour that much when I do play these two albums I don’t get fed up of listening to them. I don’t play them all the time but when I do look back there is not a lot I want to change.
TT - When I was mixing the new album I was using the previous albums are a reference point but the album I worked with most was "Nowhere To Hide". At the start of mixing I was quite impressed with it but to be honest at the end of it I feel I have got a far better mix on "The Journey Goes On". I feel I have managed to get a far better openness of sound. Overall though I thought it another good stepping stone along the journey.
JH - Is there anything you would like to change on it now?
CT - There always is. It is impossible to make an album and after the final mix is complete wish there wasn’t something you wish you could have changed or just done instead. The day you do a perfect album and don’t have some regrets you might as well hang your hat up because it is perfection and you can’t beat it.
DS - Some fans on the internet when you read their reviews say they preferred the mix on "Forever In Time" but I personally prefer the mix on "Nowhere To Hide". Chris Tsangaridies did a good job on "Forever" but I personally don’t think he spent enough time listening to the tracks and doing a mix that was to his standard. Steve Mann who produced "Nowhere To Hide" I know for a fact listened to each track as a producer and as a musician and I think the result is far better. It is down to personal opinions though and I don’t think I would have changed anything.
JH - Why did you not play that many songs from "Nowhere To Hide" Live?
CT - To a certain extent it was because we didn’t get the opportunity to tour the album like we did for "Forever In Time". Also though you sometimes put things into an album in the studio and then you realise that live it won’t work. You either need more musicians or you have so many rigid sections going on that you can’t actually enjoy playing it. You therefore tend to leave those songs out. When you are playing live you don’t want to be rigid on stage. You want to enjoy playing it and you want to come across to the audience that you are enjoying playing it.
JH - The fanbase felt you had made excellent progress with "Forever In Time" and "Nowhere To Hide". It seems you have now lost some of that momentum. Why has it taken so long to get this follow up album out?
CT - I think we lost time because we spent a long time trying to patch up and salvage something with Tony and Bruce. Eventually we realised it was pointless to go down that route. I think we might have spent 8 months to a year on that phase and normally we take about 2 years to do an album. That is from the concept and writing of it to getting it issued. I think it is about 3 years since "Nowhere To Hide" so that adds up more or less to the three years.
TT - While we have come to expect losing vocalists, losing Tony and Bruce after having had a settled line-up for two albums did knock us back a bit. It makes you re-evaluate the band and once we did that we decided to carry on knowing that we have bounced back so many times before that we will do it again.
JH - Now that you have made the album are you glad you have done it?
TT - Oh yes, getting on with it again was a real tonic. It was a really positive experience and a great new learning curve for me. We decided to do the whole process on this album ourselves. We got a Tascam DM-24 mixing desk on loan from Teac UK to do the mix on the album and it is really fantastic. I have really enjoyed it. I would love to use it again on the next album.
JH - When did you start writing the new album?
TT - With my duties on engineering and mixing this time, I didn’t have much of a hand in writing. We have included snippets from the library of ideas we have built up over the years. Apart from that we decided to re-record "Naked" which was released on "Nowhere To Hide" in Europe but was never released in Japan. It is not completely re-recorded but we have new vocals, new solo guitar and a few other bits and pieces such as melody changes here and there. I really love the new version.
DS - I started thinking about songs during the summer and it was about then we started putting demo tracks down in Cubase. I remember one day towards the end of summer we spent the whole of a Saturday putting all these backing vocals in. Then we clicked the computer and we lost the lot. We then needed to upgrade the systems. We had made two albums with them so they were getting a bit old but it did add to the delays.
CT - I probably wrote the first song about two and a quarter years ago.
JH - So Chris, have you been writing songs all along?
CT - Yes I have been putting down ideas for two years and they have gradually formed into songs.
JH - Who do you write for? Do you write for your own personal reasons or do you write for the record company and the market?
CT - I think it is almost both. It is natural obviously. I don’t like writing stuff that is totally unnatural. It has to be natural and you have to enjoy doing it so to a point it is self-gratification. But sometimes you are aware of what your roots are and you don’t want to go too far away from them because you appreciate that that is what people expect to hear. I think every single band goes through an experimental phase just to try something different but at the end of the day they normally come back to doing what they do best.
JH - So if you were to write for a solo album would you be writing something different?
CT - No not really. It would be something very similar I think.
JH - Who do you write for Dennis?
DS - I agree with Chris you tend to write for yourself but also for the band. When I wrote "Best Years" on "Forever In Time" it was about running around as kids and I definitely wrote it for personal reasons but you are also aware of the direction the band needs to go to keep the fans happy.
On this album I was writing the lyrics for "The Journey Goes On". I had the tape at home and I wrote down some ideas for it and took it back to the studio and showed the lads. I played the track and I started singing to the first verse "I have travelled a life time alone but the hunger’s still strong" and Chris said "Hold on a minute that would sound better as a chorus". So what I originally had in mind as a verse then became the chorus.
When I wrote "Whenever I’m Lost" on "Nowhere To Hide" I wanted to write a ballad because the band always has a ballad on every album but I also wanted to write about my son. So you have a bit for yourself and a bit for the band. That is the best way I can describe it.
JH - Was there a set plan for the album before you set out writing it?
CT - I think the only albums where we tried to go a bit different were on "Predator In Disguise" and "To The Power Of Ten". We were really trying to break more into the European market but those moves didn’t go down well in Japan and it didn’t really work in Europe as we would have liked either.
DS - As I have already said I think "Forever In Time" and "Nowhere To Hide" are our most professional albums to date. I therefore feel we can’t go too wrong by staying in that sort of vain. I think those two albums pointed us in the direction we needed to go and so hopefully this album is a logical progression from "Nowhere To Hide". I don’t think we have set out purposefully to go this way. It is just the way we naturally feel we want to go. Since "Forever In Time" we have changed the way we write and record albums. On this one we have been trying different ideas with backing vocals.
TT - We decided to use a Digital drum kit again on this album. We first used one on "Forever In Time" but Bruce was not used to working with one so for "Nowhere To Hide" he took his kit down to Andy Scott’s (Guitarist for The Sweet) studio. On this album Martin Johnson was used to working with Digital drum kits so we went back down that route.
JH - Which way of recording Drums do you prefer?
TT - I think working digitally is the way to go. There is still room for improvements to be made on digital kits. Some of the Cymbal sounds are still a bit clashy though. You definitely need to be a drummer that is used to playing a digital kit. Even then it is still not going to be quite the same as a drummer playing a normal kit. It is a brilliant tool to work with so it is swings and roundabouts.
JH - Since you have two vocalists plus yourselves singing on the album did you write any songs with a particular vocalist in mind?
CT - No you just imagine a good vocalist doing a song. As it is, the difference between Doogie and John is not that great. They both have a very good range and it is not like one of them has a deep gruff voice and the other has a high thin one. They both have powerful good high ranges so anyone in that sort of calibre would have fit a lot of the songs.
DS - When I was writing the only thing that would worry me is that we had someone like Tony, Doogie or John who had the range to get up high. Once we knew we had lost Tony I said to Chris "We have really got to be careful with the keys of the songs because we have to make sure the vocalist whoever we get is able to sing these high notes". The songs are not written for any singer. They are written for Mantis and we could sing them but the first three songs we put down were the songs John Sloman did. I contacted John at the beginning of the summer and I wanted him to do the whole album but he had other commitments so all it was, was a case of playing him the songs and letting him sing them. They are not written for any special voice or singer as long as they can reach that range and of course John and Doogie can both do that.
JH - So why did you choose Doogie and John?
DS - I tried to get John Sloman to join Lionheart back in the 80's but he was working with Gary Moore. I tried to get him to join Mantis in the 90's but I didn’t manage it. I finally got hold of him to do some songs this time but he didn’t want to do a whole album’s worth because of other commitments. I think he has a really great voice.
CT - John is a great guy and was really easy to work with. I thought he did a great job. It was similar with Doogie. There was some history with Doogie
DS - Doogie toured with Mantis in the early 90's and also has a great voice.
CT - I remember at the time thinking it would be great to get Doogie in the Studio. We didn’t manage it back then but we heard he had a bit of free time between his Yngwie Malmsteen commitments. We thought "excellent" and grabbed the chance with both hands.
JH - Have you enjoyed the creative process of the album this time?
CT - Yes I always do. Doing things digitally is sometimes frustrating. For instance on the "Forever In Time" album we lost about two weeks of work in a hard disc corruption and it was absolutely heartbreaking. The electronic format can save a lot of effort but it can also be soul destroying at times.
DS - Since the three of us have been working together I have found it very easy to bounce ideas off each other. What I really enjoyed on this album was when we had about 7 tracks written, we had another 2 that we were messing about with and we had the music roughly written. I was sitting there and I said to Chris "What do we have for this one?" and he said "basically nothing". So we sat there and bounced ideas of each other and by 5 o’clock we had a chorus down on this track and it was really sounding the business and yet it came from nothing. So I have really enjoyed sitting here with a little bit of pressure on us because of the deadline but relaxing and being creative. Doing things like changing a verse to a chorus and just writing under pressure. When you go home at night after days like that you think "that was really nice today". The album was frustrating at times because we didn’t know if John Sloman was going to do another two tracks and it was a bit disturbing when we knew Doogie was away with Yngwie Malmsteen and we had this deadline to meet but regarding the creativity of the three of us working together I have found it great.
TT - I really enjoyed this album too. It was a whole new learning curve for me and working with a digital mixing desk was great. It was a daunting tool to use when it first arrived but after a couple of days it was almost plain sailing. I spent time doing things one way but after working on a few songs I discovered I could do it a lot quick another way. I wished I had known it for the first few mixes as it would have saved so much time but that is part of the fun. For me the album has really been quite exciting and has really got me back into the music again.
JH - Who is the producer this time?
DS - Tino is the one with no hair so I imagine he is the one that has pulled it all out!
CT - It is something Tino has always wanted to do. Tino has always done a lot of the engineering and tidying up of the tracks. We then give it to other people to do and it comes out in ways we feel we could have done better. We felt particularly let down by Chris Tsangaridies on the "Forever In Time" album and we have often thought Tino has got it so close to the end why not just let him finish it? The worst thing is we are really up against time. It would be great to have a little bit more than we have now just to get the finishing touches in but you have to have a deadline or you would never complete an album.
DS - I have never ever been a lover of a band member producing or mixing an album. I get very frightened that when a person has been listening to an album day in day out that their ears get shot. I think you need a fresh pair of ears and someone that knows what the band is about like Steve Mann did. He can come in, take the stuff away, listen to it and balance it out. If you have been part of the process of recording the stuff for three months and then you try and mix it you can get completely confused because you are hearing sounds you have been hearing every day for 3 months. Having said this I know Tino has always wanted to have a go at producing the album and so far he has done a great job. As long as he doesn’t have a nervous breakdown and jump out of the window I am happy to see what happens this time.
I checked back with Tino and Dennis after the mix was complete
JH - You were on a really on a tight schedule for getting the album complete and as is always the case it seemed the mixing time got really squeezed. Did you get it done to your satisfaction?
TT - I could still have done with a few more hours as I was in a bit of a rush at the end but yes I am happy with it.
JH - Do you think another week would have given you a much better sound?
TT - No I don’t think it would have given us a much better sound but it would have allowed a few more refinements. There were a few reverbs I am not as happy with as I could be but after it was complete I gave it a rest for three weeks and then played it and it was great. When I first heard it after mastering I thought "Oh no no no" but once I had time away from it yes I am really pleased with it.
DS - In the time we had left Tino did an excellent job on the mix. I think the thing we have learnt on this album is that we need to build in more time at the end of our schedules for mixing. We always complete recording on time but during mixing it seems we always hit unexpected delays with the technology. In future we need to extend the amount of time allocated to Mixing by a couple of weeks.
JH - Can you give me a run through of your thoughts on each of the songs?
CT - Tonight: is about a prophet that sees many catastrophes occurring on this planet and ultimately he sees his own death. It is just his whole thought process, how he sees things and how he reacts to his own death without being able to do anything about it.
The Beast Within: is based on the 2 year old James Bulger’s murder by two ten year olds. It is ten years ago that he was murdered and his killers have now been set free and given new identities. The basis of the song is that although they have now served their "time" their nature can never be changed The lyrics are almost written from the mother and father’s point of view.
The Voice: is about a pretty young girl that is born into a world of drugs and half ways houses. She tries to break out of that world but, as is typical of my lyrics, ends up dying. I know, I write such happy lyrics but love just isn’t my thing really.
The Silent War: is a bit contentious really. It’s about this country and it’s whole history, it’s roots and it’s gradual destruction through mass immigration. It is sort of from the perspective of the old world war veterans. They have fought a war and collected their medals but now they no longer can see the country they fought for because of the silent takeover and total change of ethics.
If Tomorrow Never Comes: That is about my father. We went to Cyprus six or seven years ago when he only had a short time left to live and we drove down to the beach and past his old school. He turned round and looked at us and I could see he was remembering his childhood at that school. I wrote the song because of all the emotion I saw in his face at that moment. It was almost like seeing a lifetime span in an instant. He was thinking about all those childhood times at the beginning of life now knowing that the end was so close.
TT- The Journey Goes On: You dwell on things you have done wrong in the past and things that could have been. What should have been and what should be. It is a song of destiny and heartache.
DS - This is the song I was talking about where the verse became the chorus. It started off being about someone that never settles down. It’s a bit like most blokes as they are always moving on. It takes you on a journey and hopefully one day you find peace.
CT - The Escape: is basically about a guy that has a mundane existence. He has a very ordinary job and life and he can’t really break away from it but he has these really vivid dreams and in these dreams he becomes a hero. He lives his complete life in these dreams.
Lost World: is set in the future. The world has been destroyed by a series of catastrophic events but at this point in the future they have managed to find a way back in time. It wasn’t quite perfected but this craft did manage to escape before the demise of the Earth. They are now there trying to change the course of history and find the planet after having travelled back to what they believe is the time when events could be changed.
DS - Hold On For Love: This is a song I started working on in the summer and it started off as "Hold On" and it was originally going to be about us on tour as band in Japan. As I carried on writing it though this song became more and more about holding on for love. You go through changes in your life and people rush into things. It is saying if you hold on for the right person at the right time you will then be happy. It took a diversion from being about the band to being about a relationship.
TT - Naked: This is a very special song to me as I lost my second daughter Briony at birth
JH - How hard do you find it to come up with lyrics?
CT - I wrote all the lyrics fairly recently. All the music was there and we knew Doogie was coming in to sing the songs so we had to write them quite quickly. I find it quite easy to write lyrics now. As soon as I hit a theme they can flow quite well. If I can’t think of a theme I can dwell on a song and it then gets really boring.
DS - I too find I can get stuck on a lyric. As I said for "Hold On For Love" I wanted to write about us on tour but I seem to find it easier to write about personal experiences and emotions as I did on "Best Years" on "Forever In Time".
JH - Do you need to hear the music before coming up with a theme?
CT - 99 times out of a 100 I will do the music first and then try to come up with the lyrics afterwards.
JH - Tino, why aren’t you writing as many songs now?
TT - I have just been so busy with family life and work. I just don’t seem to get the time to go to the studio and write anymore.
JH - When the songs were being credited "Troy/Troy" did you take a more active roll?
TT - Yes it was pretty much an even split. In the early days we both did lyrics and we both did songs but recently Chris has done the lion share of everything really. But that is not to say I won’t start writing again in the future. I have quite got the bug again at the moment and I am really itching to use the equipment. I just need to find the time to fit everything in.
JH - Are you expecting to take this album out on tour?
CT - I very much hope so. It would not be practical to take both vocalists out with us but I am sure we could get one of them to come out with us.
TT - It would be nice to do a few more festivals in the summer but I guess we will have to see what happens to the album.
JH - Would you play just a one-off festival?
TT - As long as the band wasn’t out of pocket by doing so I think we would but it would be nicer if you could get several dates. Doing hours of rehearsal for one or two concerts every few years all seems a pointless exercise sometimes.
JH - Who would play drums if you did get something together?
CT - It would be Martin Johnson who plays on the album. He is a very good drummer.
JH - Some bands in the UK are playing 300-400 size venues and going out on tour and not making a loss. Is that the sort of route you could see Mantis going again?
CT - I think if we were all in our 20’s still we would do that but I don’t think that is really an option that is open to us now. I think we love writing, putting it down and we love releasing albums. When we get the opportunity to tour them properly we do it. To do it on a half-cocked basis I don’t think we would want to do that. You see I think a lot of our stuff is biggish production and biggish sound and I just don’t think it comes across in small places unless they have got really good PA’s and you can give it a bit of polish. I think it is great when we can to do the big sets and open air festivals. I really enjoyed it when we played Wacken in Germany. That was superb.
DS - I also think it boils down to whether you can afford to go on tour. We were asked if we would like to go on tour with Asia but they wanted money to allow us to support them. So basically you have to decide if the tour is going to do you any good and if you can risk losing X thousand pounds of money on it. Tours have to be viable. We could go on tour in the UK but is it worth risking our future getting into debt for? I have no idea. I was upset that we did not manage to get to Japan with the "Nowhere To Hide" album as I thought it was our best record but the Japanese economy is in trouble and people are just not going to concerts there.
TT - I would like to think we would but gone are the days when we can live in the back of transit vans. I am too much of a home loving man to go gallivanting around the world and Europe for weeks on end. I would love to do the odd few days here and there though. While I understand Chris’s point of view on the good PA I have sometimes found playing the smaller places is better. On a big stage things can get lost and you are so far apart from each other you don’t always hear what each other is doing. I think in all honesty there are pro’s and con’s for both types of gig. I like gigs of all sizes. I loved it when we played the Reading Festival and I loved playing the Hammersmith Odeon as it was. I loved playing at the Marquee and at Windsor Castle. It’s the atmosphere and not the place that is important.
JH - Do you expect Frontiers will ever try and get you to do gigs outside of Japan?
TT - I suspect so. We were asked to play the Gods Festival this year. Unfortunately at the time we were asked we were in the early stages of writing the album and didn’t know who would be singing on it or anything. It was therefore not really practical to accept a gig at that point. Who knows though, maybe next time?