Interview with James O’Toole

Interview with James O’Toole

By Dave Smiles

James O’Toole is a Melbourne musician who knows what he’ll be doing for the rest of his life – making music. Like many independent musicians, James has made sacrifices for his passion but, as it does for many people, the call of music becomes so strong that there really isn’t anything else he’d rather be doing.

What first got you interested in music and what does it mean to you?

I remember first getting into Kiss and lots of other rock music when I was in primary school. I liked the energy of it and the way songs could make you feel so many different emotions. My dad plays acoustic guitar and always had one around the house. From about the age of ten I became really into listening to music and I’d make mix tapes of lots of different stuff and I would listen for hours on end, usually while I also worked on art, drawing sci-fi and fantasy stuff. When I discovered Iron Maiden and Judas Priest as a teenager that was it, I was completely hooked. I remember borrowing a copy of The Number of the Beast and just being totally blown away, I couldn’t stop listening to it. I played it every day for a few weeks! So began my obsession with the heavier side of music and I’ve been into it ever since. I particularly like heavy music that also has some melody or interesting sounds woven in rather than just flat out aggression, though that can also be good at the right times – Pantera, Hatebreed and working out seem to go well together!

I can’t imagine life without music, it’s been such a massive part of my life and when I think of some of the best times of my life music always seems to feature. I also love the way songs can become linked to periods in your life and instantly bring back memories when you hear them, no matter how much time has passed. Music is very powerful in so many ways. I still listen to as much new stuff as I can, there’s so many good bands out there just waiting to be heard.

A lot of musicians tend to be drawn to one instrument in particular, but you can play guitar, bass, drums, keys. (Have I missed any?) What inspired you to learn each one?

I started playing relatively late, when I was 21, and bass was the first instrument I learned. A friend’s band was looking for a bassist and he said I should start playing and try out, and being a massive fan of Steve Harris, I thought why not? I’d been thinking about learning an instrument for a while and I really liked the sound of bass, the low frequencies and depth, and how you could use it for driving rhythms and also contribute interesting parts to shape the sound melodically by playing against what the guitars were doing.

I didn’t end up joining that first band, but I did start jamming with another mate who played guitar, learning metal and alternative covers just for fun before we decided to put an original band together. I started writing lyrics over some of the music very early on and once that band was jamming we were lucky enough to find a permanent room we could set up all our gear in and leave it there, so I would go down when no one else was there and start messing around on guitar and trying to record complete songs with drum loops, bass, guitar, and rough vocals. I’ve always been interested in song writing, so playing different instruments just evolved through wanting to write complete songs and present them to the band. Bass was first, then guitar, keyboard and learning to sing was last, which I started doing mainly because in all the bands I’ve been in it has always been difficult finding singers. I don’t actually play drums, I usually use professionally recorded midi patterns to start and then tailor them to suit in Superior Drummer or BFD. I can play a little bit of everything well enough to write and record my ideas, but it’s a slow process! When it comes to playing live I’m really only comfortable playing bass and singing. I really like writing on guitar and cranking it up and jamming, but I still love the low-end rumble through the floor when playing bass, so I don’t see myself ever switching to guitar live.

What would you like to achieve as a musician?

I’d like to keep on developing and become a better songwriter and musician, and continue to promote The Spiral Sequence as a permanent and ongoing project. I’m still always trying out new ideas and sounds and trying to progress further with production and mixing as well. I’m also interested in writing music for soundtracks, more orchestral and ambient stuff. I feel like there is still a massive amount to learn when it comes to music and it’s a never-ending journey. I love that it keeps evolving and what I write ten years from now will probably be very different to what I write now. After I write some more new material I’d like to get out and play live again and I’d love to tour internationally.

What was the inspiration behind your solo project, The Spiral Sequence, and how long did it take from the initial idea to completion?

I really just wanted to see what I could do creatively, to push myself as a musician and songwriter. I was really bored in my day job and wanted more of an artistic challenge and I had a lot of ideas I wanted to express. Another factor was being involved in a couple of bands that split up and feeling like all the time and effort had gone to waste, so I decided it was time to try something on my own. I figured no matter how long it took to do it all myself it would be worth the effort and looked at it as a long-term investment.

From the time I decided to start seriously working on the first album to its completion was four years. At the start I also decided I wanted to learn about recording and production so I could shape the sound and really set myself up to be more musically self-sufficient, as I plan on doing this for the rest of my life. I worked part time and spent every day off learning as much as I could about recording and mixing, and set up a home studio while I worked on writing the songs. It was a massive undertaking and a steep learning curve but well worth it, I can’t imagine doing it any other way now. I love every aspect of the process, from the pure art and creativity of writing to the technical aspects of recording and mixing.

The lyrics throughout The Spiral Sequence album Through Shadow Into Light are incredibly thought provoking and focus on some very humane issues. What inspires you when writing lyrics?

Anything can be inspirational really, but I tend to either write about world affairs or personal experiences. I like the idea of writing about things that might make people think differently, or at least question what’s going on around them. I think we live in a society where many things are not what they seem and we’re fed a lot of negativity and fear by the media and told what to think. A lot of the lyrics on the album were inspired by topics I heard on Coast to Coast AM, saw on alternative news sites or read about in books. Blood and Ashes is about the Cathars, who were slaughtered in the thousands by the Catholic Church for heresy. The song If is pretty straightforward – as we get older I think it’s natural to wonder what would have happened had we taken a different fork in the road at various points and how life might be different. Dehumanisation and Sacrifice touch on the New World Order and wars fought over resources, while Transcendency deals with the idea of reincarnation and the afterlife. Surface was inspired by depression and loss, and how it feels to recover and start to return to normal. So many things can inspire lyrics, there’s no shortage of things to write about. The mood of a riff or piece of music usually gives me ideas for lyrics straight away. Lyrics have always been very important to me as a listener as well and are often the reason I listen to a particular band. If something in the lyrics resonates and the music also grabs you it’s a really powerful combination.

As well as all the performances and recording on Through Shadow Into Light you also created all the artwork, with an image for each track. Album cover art has, sadly, become a bit of a lost art. How do you feel cover art and imagery adds to overall listening experience of an album?

I think it can really help get the message across and form part of an interesting overall package. I love buying albums and studying the artwork and lyrics while I listen to the music, which is one reason I still buy CDs. I like really becoming immersed in what the artist is trying to express. Years ago I remember seeing a Skyclad album called The Wayward Sons of Mother Earth and though I’d never heard the band the artwork and album title seemed to suggest Celtic and pagan themes combined with metal, so eventually I took the plunge and bought the album based on the artwork alone! Luckily it was a great album and they became one of my favourite bands. When you think of some of the iconic album covers over the years there’s no doubt it can be a very important part of the overall band package. When you look at a band like Tool, the artwork for Lateralus and 10,000 Days is amazing and really enhances the albums, extending into their music videos. When it came time to create the album artwork for The Spiral Sequence I knew I wanted to do something that helped express the vibe of each song, and it was a fun artistic project in itself. I’ll definitely do it again for the next album.

Your band, Sun Like Blood, is in the process of recording some new songs? Can you tell us a bit about what we can expect from this music and what sets it apart from your work on The Spiral Sequence.

Sun Like Blood is probably more alternative rock based and more melodic, it definitely has a different sound. Most of the music came together very organically through jamming in rehearsal rooms as an instrumental three piece, with me on bass, Damian Zylstra on guitar and Louis Tsokas on drums. Both Damian and Louis are great musicians and we have great musical chemistry, so ideas flow very easily. We would just start jamming and improvising, I’d record everything on a hand held digital recorder then we’d arrange the best ideas and work on them to shape them into finished songs. It’s a great way to work if you can get the right combination of people together. We are currently working on seven songs, we’re just finishing up vocals and final mixes. It’s been a slow process lately, but we have a ton of ideas recorded in addition to the ones we’re working on right now and just have to get together to finish them. We’ll also be looking for a vocalist to hopefully take some of our lyric and melody ideas to the next level and perform them live. We’re aiming to have the songs finished and released next year.

The song writing for The Spiral Sequence was done by yourself and Sun Like Blood is a collaborative effort. What are some of the advantages and disadvantages of each style?

The best thing about collaboration is that ideas can change and improve with the influence of other band members, so you can produce something together that becomes greater than the sum of its parts. Some really cool musical chemistry can happen and suddenly spark fresh inspiration, leading off in new and exciting directions. Jamming is always fun as you can often stumble into a great idea without really trying, just as a result of the musical interaction between the different musicians. That’s definitely the best part about working with other people, and it’s always a rush when you just happen to lock into a cool idea from nowhere. I really enjoy that aspect a lot. Collaboration also exposes you to different playing styles and it all helps your development as a musician. Every musician I’ve worked with has influenced me in some way, and it all helps you expand what you can do personally, if you let it. Another positive aspect is that the song writing load is spread between a few people, so if someone’s going through a creative dry spell other members can help out.

Writing alone is good, but as there’s no other input sometimes I can get stuck on finishing an idea until something sparks a fresh direction. That can mean songs are shelved for a while, or sometimes not finished at all. On the plus side there are no arguments over direction or parts, but it also can take a lot longer to get everything written. There’s also a real sense of artistic satisfaction creating something entirely by yourself. It’s always a challenge, so it’s never boring!

On top of music, recording and graphic design, you’re also a writer. Can you tell us about The Deathlance Trilogy?

The Deathlance Trilogy is something I’ve been working on for years on and off, but with work, music and everything else I haven’t had as much time as I’d like to put into it lately. It’s a massive dark fantasy story split into three parts. I’ve read a ton of fantasy and sci-fi stories over the years and always been into creative writing and music journalism as well as writing lyrics. I’m up to my fourth draft of the first book, Di’Anno’s Wolves, which I’m hoping to get back to next year finally, after finishing off the Sun Like Blood songs currently in production. The story is about an outlaw bandit company leader who finds part of an ancient demonic weapon, and things go downhill fast for him from there as he finds himself embroiled in some major events beyond his control. It’s a pretty dark story, the inspiration for writing it was I thought a lot of fantasy books lacked a gritty, dark edge. Many were very clear cut good versus evil stories, so this is my attempt to write something a little darker and more ambiguous. I really liked The Elric Saga by Michael Moorcock, The Black Company series by Glen Cook and the Thieves World series because they all featured characters who weren’t your typical heroes or good guys. The story also takes some well-established fantasy clichés and turns them on their head, so there are a few twists and turns to keep things interesting!

It’s an ongoing debate for every music fan and musician that seems to increase with every passing year – Downloading music, both legally and illegally, streaming, the decrease in album sales and the ‘death of the music industry.’ What are your views on the constant changes in the music world?

I think for listeners there have been some amazing changes with the availability of music, it’s so easy to jump on Spotify or other streaming services and check out a band instantly, or go their website or YouTube and see what they’re up to any time, from anywhere. That’s pretty amazing, and it’s now possible to do a lot more yourself in terms of recording, and putting your own music out without having to go through a label. When I first started The Spiral Sequence I was thinking about all these changes and have structured everything accordingly. There have been a lot of positive developments in some areas, like recording technology. I have access to sounds from every instrument imaginable through samples and virtual instruments, which is awesome and a lot more affordable than it was ten years ago, and computers have become much more powerful and make it much easier and faster to record at home.

Unfortunately the easy availability of torrents and file sharing has also devalued music. People don’t want to pay for music any more. It’s something of a double edged sword for musicians – it’s never been easier to produce and distribute music to a potentially world wide audience, but getting noticed among the millions of bands is still hard work, and making decent money from recording is now a thing of the past for most bands. Older acts with massive established fan bases like Metallica, AC/DC, Iron Maiden and so on are still doing fine, because they made their money before things changed, but even they aren’t selling as many albums as they used to. The concerning aspect of this is that in ten years who is going to headline the big Metal festivals when the bands who are doing it now are gone? I don’t see too many bands achieving the same massive level of success as those older acts and I think once those older acts start retiring there is going to be a big hole left behind because newer bands just don’t have the same pulling power due to the changes in the music industry. It seems like more and more of the up and coming bands or middle tier bands are calling it quits after five to ten years because financially they just can’t keep doing it. Recording, touring and all the expenses that go with it add up very quickly and without strong album sales to support it it’s a tough road. Labels don’t have the money to put in to developing new acts like they used to either.

It’s an interesting time. I think the internet in general and apps like Facebook and Twitter have shortened peoples’ attention spans hugely, so that also plays a part. There are so many options vying for our attention now and it’s very easy to jump online and flick between ten different things, without really focusing on any one subject, let alone devoting time to actively seek out new music and give it the attention it deserves. Bands just have to work harder and smarter and make use of the new avenues that are available now and take more responsibility for their own promotion and development.

Melbourne, and Australia in general, is developing a very strong hard rock, metal scene and live music has made a big come back – even with an ever increasing number of venues being threatened with closure. What do you think is bringing people out to see live music?

There’s an energy you get from a live show you can’t experience listening to a recording. The volume, the crowd and bigger sound all combine to make it a very different experience. I used to review a lot of metal shows and often the really good bands sounded better live. Acts like Slipknot, Meshuggah and Killing Joke come to mind, particularly the depth and power from the bottom end, which is always hard to capture fully on a recording. Maybe people are getting tired of all the shows like X-Factor and American/Australian Idol and want to see legitimate musicians who write their own music and play it with some real feeling – we can only hope that’s the case!

What does it take to be an independent working musician? How do you fund producing albums, promoting, etc and what sacrifices does it take on a personal level?

I work as a freelance graphic artist, which is how I pay for my musical endeavours. I fund everything myself, so I’ve invested a lot of money over the years in lessons, gear, rehearsals and studio equipment. I work as much as I have to make sure the bills are covered, then keep as much time as I can free to work on music. It’s a constant juggling act, but every independent musician knows what it’s like. It makes things tough financially sometimes, but I do it because I want to, no other reason. I may not have some of the material possessions other people do, but I don’t have to go to a soul destroying job full time either, so I feel like I’m doing exactly what I should be doing and that’s the most important thing to me. When I look back on this time twenty years from now I’ll at least know I did exactly what I wanted to do and I’ll have no regrets. Material possessions are fleeting, experiences and satisfaction with how you lived your life are what really counts. Seeing streaming reports showing my music has been heard over in the US, Canada, UK and Europe makes it all worthwhile. It’s a long slow road, but I’m in it for the long haul. Fortunately I also have a very understanding partner, she is a belly dancer who tours interstate and internationally, so she knows what it’s like to make sacrifices for your art and it’s never an issue between us.

What musicians would you love to jam with?

Steve Harris from Iron Maiden, Danny Carey and Adam Jones from Tool, Geordie from Killing Joke, Greg Mackintosh from Paradise Lost, Brendan Perry from Dead Can Dance and Steven Wilson from Porcupine Tree are the first to come to mind – all fantastic musicians I admire greatly.

You’re trapped on an island with One Direction. What do you do?

Start swimming! Either that or show them the error of their ways and try to turn them into a real band by forcing them to listen to Classic Rock and Metal albums on constant rotation until they see the light – or should that be darkness?

Thanks for taking the time to do this interview and all the best with your future music endeavours.