A-Z Capitalizes on Progressive Metal’s Allure (Interview)
Former Fates Warning drummer Mark Zonder is one of the most innovative “professors of the drum kit” in the prog metal genre, while current Fates Warning vocalist Ray Alder possesses one of the most distinctive metal voices around today. Reunited after 17 years since their time together in Fates Warning, their new band — aptly titled A-Z (Alder through Zonder, perhaps) — is a collaborative concoction of edgy-yet-accessible modern prog metal.
On its self-titled debut full-length album, A-Z — also featuring bassist Philip Bynoe (Byron Nemeth Group, ex-Warlord, Slavior), keyboardist Vivien Lalu, and guitarist Joop Wolters — have created 11 tracks crafted around heavy grooves, decorated with challenging rhythms and articulate riffs — all topped off with Alder’s engaging vocals. During a recent phone interview, Zonder kindly chatted about the new album, his drumming technique, his Fates Warning days, and his future plans with A-Z.
I think the new self-titled A-Z album sounds fantastic. Is this the first time that you've been reunited with Ray Alder for a project since your Fates Warning days?
As far as something like this… yes. We have actually, believe it or not, over the years we've been on a couple of other people's projects. We both got hired and we both showed up on it, but we didn't work together. And we didn't really have anything to do with it, we were just hired guys. But this is the first time that we've actually done something official.
This is awesome for Fates fans. What was your game plan for the band? Did you have discussions about the band’s musical direction?
Ray came in at the very end. I decided a while ago like I've done in the past with my band Slavior, I wanted to start a band that was basically based by starting off with a lot of the drum riffs and stuff that I record and the different rhythms. I always found it was easier for someone to write to that than me to try to take some kind of crazy drum part and shove it into somebody else's part. So I called Matt Guillory (Mogg/Way, James LaBrie), the keyboard player to see if he was interested and he said he was busy. But he turned me on to Vivian Lalu, who’s a keyboard player and composer in France. And we just talked, and I started sending him a few ideas, and he sent me back ideas of his and we just kind of knew it was magical at that point. We talked about the direction, how I wanted this to be very accessible, very commercial. I didn't want to do 12-minute songs, I didn't want to do Fates Warning/Dream Theater/Porcupine Tree; I didn't want to do the whole progressive thing. I wanted “hit songs.” I wanted to do something where everybody could enjoy it, everybody could get into it. Something that would definitely translate in a bigger live setting. And we just went about it that way. Philip (Bynoe), the bass player’s a really good friend of mine for years. So that was obvious on who I was going to have play the bass. Vivian worked with Joop for 20 years, the guitar player, so that kind of worked out really easily. And then it was just down to a singer. We dealt with a lot of guys; sent out a lot of demos and didn't get anything I liked. I just said, “Hey, I'm just gonna call Ray.” I don't know what he's doing, what he's not doing. If he's up for it, great. If he's not, well, at least I can make the offer. And it kind of rolled from there.
The songs sound proggy, but accessible. How did the songwriting process go? Were you able to all get together in the same room and jam or did you have stuff written out and you just sent files back and forth and the songs eventually took shape?
Most of it was just myself and Vivian going back and forth. I’d send them a drum idea and then he’d come up with a certain part. And then I would send him a different drum idea, like a different kind of feel for a verse or a bridge or chorus. We got the basic structures. The cool thing about Vivian is as much as he's a keyboard player and a composer, he has a lot of different guitar sounds and stuff with his keyboard, so he can actually deliver what we were looking to do. The original idea in the beginning was just to bring Joop in to play the guitar for the record and have him add some parts. He contributed a couple of really cool riffs, as well. So, it kind of turned into just all of us writing together. With the internet, obviously you can just send the stuff around and edit it and change it and stuff like that. So it worked really well. Obviously, I know Philip and I know Ray, but I've never met the other two guys; a lot of phone conversations and emails and all that kind of stuff. But we never did (get together) because of Covid-19. You have to remember that Covid-19 was screaming at that time.
It seems like more and more bands are doing it this way. But do you miss getting together and jamming and sharing a few beers and laughs?
That usually happens when you go on the road. I do better when I can sit by myself and come up with a part and then change it and then change it and then change it again and then change it and work on it again. The problem with what you're describing, and that's cool too, there's nothing wrong with that. But when you get into that… the first thing that I play, everybody's gonna go, “Well, yeah, that's great, that's cool.” Then they get used to that part and then we're all kind of stuck in that first part. You also have to remember you're talking about guys that have been doing this for a long time. We've all done that what you talked about, so we have that experience. I just think it's important that everybody works in the element that they feel most comfortable in. But either way, it's fine by me. But I know these guys here like to work at odd hours. So that lends itself to giving someone a part and letting them do what they want, and you get together and be creative. So it works out good.
How did you decide on the band name?
As you know, naming a band is always the toughest thing. That's the hardest part of this whole thing. We tossed around a bunch of ideas and one day we're just talking with Ray and he just says, “How about A-Z?” And it means a couple of different things; obviously, Alder through Zonder. Or you can take it as far as it covers all the musical bases; it has different styles in it. One of the reasons I liked it is that I didn't want to go with the classic, whether it is actually Alder through Zonder, like everybody names the band, or go with some cute little name. It just kind of worked out, especially after Hugh Syme started doing the art and he just popped that right in there. It all just kind of really came together. So it was a decision that we almost stumbled on, and it just kind of stuck.
As a drummer myself, I've always been impressed with your style, especially your cymbal work, your polyrhythms and fills. What type of technique were you trying to inject or achieve on this album?
I tend to approach all the music in its own way. I was definitely looking at vocals. I was looking at air; I was looking at space. But at the same time, between songs like “Trial By Fire” and songs like “The Silence Broken,” (with) crazy patterns, but very groove. It had to be groove. I didn't want to go off in left field. But also keeping in mind it’s a very solid groove, people have to be able to tap their feet. The whole test was when they get to the second chorus, do they already know the song? I got my drum stuff in there, but it was really just a matter of approaching it like I do all music. Just be creative, push the envelope and then maybe bring it back a little bit if it's too far out there. It's just a matter of being creative and playing for the song and playing for the vocal.
You mentioned your previous band Slavior earlier and I still have your self-titled debut album. A-Z sort of reminds me of that album and its style in certain spots. Is that just a coincidence or did you go back to that album as a reference point for this album?
As far as these two bands from how they started in the thought process was exactly the same. So, when you start songs with drum grooves — and drum grooves can kind of be crazy, and the music's written to that — you have that similar thread that runs between Slavior and this. But this was different. But I think what you're hearing and what you're talking about is a little bit of drums; coming up with patterns that you wouldn't normally think fits really nicely into that song. But if you start with a kind of crazy drum pattern, and then come in after it and write the music to it, that brings you to where you are. I would hope that what you're talking about is just my playing that goes from one record to the next record.
Since you've known Philip for a while, and of course Ray, what is the camaraderie or the musical chemistry like between the band?
What makes this band go is, we're all different. I’ve played in enough bands when I was younger, I played in a band where everybody's favorite band was Rainbow. All we ever did was listen to Rainbow and Deep Purple. Well, guess what? What do you think the band sounded like? Well, it sounded like Rainbow and Deep Purple! This band, people are coming from completely different spots. And I think it helps, not hurts. We're definitely different ages. I honestly think I’m as old as Joop’s parents, if not older. And I think that's the magic, that's the chemistry. It was so easy doing this. This was not your traditional band of fighting over parts. This was really smooth, easy and simple.
Your tenure in Fates Warning was when the band were at their peak (1988-2005) and your first recorded album was 1989’s Perfect Symmetry. What was your time like in Fates, especially the early days?
It was a big learning experience for me, I learned a lot. I definitely was ready. But I learned a lot because I've never done that kind of thing before, I’ve always wanted to but just never had the opportunity. It was great, truthfully. I was single. I didn't have kids. And it was a great time. I had my studio in North Hollywood, LA, and that was doing its thing and it was cool. It would have been great if we had bigger success that could have transferred on and moved through the years, but it is what it is. To me, it was great education and I loved being on tour. It was good.
You mentioned your studio. You’re also an accomplished engineer. What type of work do you get and what do you enjoy about it compared to playing music?
I get hired by a lot of bands that know Mark Zonder, they want Mark Zonder. I don't get hired by bands that need a drummer, I get hired by bands that want Mark Zonder to play on their record, or demo, or whatever it is. I enjoy all kinds of different music. I’ve done everything from country to heavy rock and metal or whatever. There's always a challenge. Some of the songs that come in are really simple, and you can just really jazz them up and they sound great. And then there's something that you have to really think about. I approach it all the same. It's just music. What do you think sounds the best?
Lastly, are you planning on touring for this record?
Absolutely! We would be playing tomorrow if we could. What we're dealing with is the whole Covid-19 backlash of the bands who got blown out and couldn't play in 2021, are getting the gigs now; they have contracts. It's tough right now. But we're looking ahead to both now and 2023. It's kind of a little different, where in the past, you record a record, and then three weeks or a week after even when the album was released, you'd be out playing. But those kinds of days have changed. So we're just looking to get things rolling. At the end of this year and the beginning of next year, we're already doing that. We already have the feelers out, we’ve had different offers. A lot of the magazines that I'm doing interviews with have their big festivals in Europe, and they're very excited about that. Absolutely, no questions asked with the whole touring. That's a no brainer!
A-Z releases on August 12th, 2022 via Metal Blade Records.