When the American Progressive/Heavy Metal quintet Symphony X first released the amazing “Paradise Lost” back in 2007 I was one of those people who felt that the New Jersey outfit had pretty much reached the pinnacle of their creativity. Three years later the band decided to prove us all wrong by releasing a studio album of equally epic proportions, namely “Iconoclast”, the promotion of which found them once again visiting the UK, this time as a headlining act. After many kind arrangements from the promotional team of Nuclear Blast, the band’s German label, I managed to catch up with drummer Jason Rullo and discuss all things related to “Iconoclast”, the possibility of finally witnessing the release of the first ever Symphony X DVD in the near future and also whether this is finally the right moment in time for the band to make that much-desired giant leap towards stardom.
By Yiannis (John) Stefanis
• Hi Jason- nice to meet you mate! I have to say - you have released a very good album in “Iconoclast”!
Jason: Thank you.
• I have to admit that I was feeling slightly worried prior to listening to the album as I was not sure whether “Iconoclast would manage to even compete with the mighty predecessor “Paradise Lost” – an album which, at the time of its release, seemed unsurpassable! What I realised quite quickly is that “Iconoclast” is pretty much its sister album – do you agree?
Jason: Yes, in certain ways they are.
• Both in terms of the sound and the approach you took when composing your material… Thinking back to the time when the songs first started coming together, do you remember having such a plan in mind - to create an album so closely connected to “Paradise Lost”, that is?
Jason: I don’t think so much for “Paradise Lost”, you know really…there’s always been a kind of natural evolution and this was kind of the next phase where we knew that this would have to be the next logical step. That was kind of a turning point, I guess, in a certain way of the direction of the band, so we did continue along that path and I think that yeah – this was kind of the next logical step following on from “Paradise Lost”. Yeah, a lot of people see things that way, as this being a close related kind of thing, but I think that this was simply the next step. We did have that in mind as far as…once we realised that we were going to have to write about the ‘machine concept’ and all that kind of stuff, we saw that the concept did fit to all those heavier riffs and the more groove-orientated stuff that we started doing in “Paradise Lost”, so yes – I guess it is fair to say that.
• “Paradise Lost” was the album that kick-started a process which finds you becoming much more popular as a band and reaching certain levels of exposure and good positions in music charts around the world – especially in the States which, as far as Metal is concerned, are a very difficult market. Did you at any stage, prior to beginning the work on “the “Iconoclast” material, feel under pressure to keep that very momentum going? Was your new record company pushing you towards a certain direction?
Jason: No, no. They really just let us do what it was that we were going to do. I think that they trust that we were always self-produced and that we can pull things through, but the pressure we did put upon ourselves automatically, you know what I mean? It did not really matter whether “Paradise Lost” was number ten or number one in the charts; of course it was somewhere in the middle, but that pressure is always on ourselves. We always strive to put out something better than the last thing and just try to challenge ourselves, you know – keep things interesting for us too. It’s not as simple as going “oh, we have to write a better album” – it’s “where are we now and what can we do”. Hopefully it’s a reflection of us growing and maturing as people and as musicians and our plan to continue going towards such a direction. It’s a self-imposed thing that happens automatically!
• Two things that are clearly audible to those who have been closely following your career all these years is that your sound has become much heavier and your compositions, though initially coming across as simpler than those you recorded in the past, are more intricate but in a very ‘subliminal’ way. That, to me, is the biggest proof of how much the band has matured. Now, from the point of view of a drummer, the person who is normally responsible for being the backbone of any composition, do you find that this new approach with regards the song-writing process provides you with more space to express yourself?
Jason: Hmm, let’s see, it’s…I mean, it’s not really that different, honestly, in terms of that because, for me, the material is so structured that I always play within the framework of what we have created. When I am writing this stuff, when I am writing my drum parts, I am thinking and trying to obviously come up with what is musically fitting the best. We have this tendency of recording first and then we rehearse the material and so sometime we go like “oh you know what; maybe we should have done this different, this break here and there”. That kind of stuff comes along later and, for me, within that there are a few spots where certain fills, for instance, I will do on the record and every night on stage because these are the types of fills that the song requires. Then on other spots there will be more space for me to breathe and perhaps try some different things, and so I will insert something like a little jam part in order to kind of branch out and make things slightly more spontaneous, which is something that I like to do as well. Having said that, this does not happen very often because of the framework of the material but, I just in general have more fun playing the new stuff – I really like playing the new album for some reason. I mean, I always enjoy what we’re doing but the new stuff is really…everything is such a challenge in the beginning because you’re trying to get all your parts down, figure it out, play it right and make it second nature – make them comfortable. Once that happens you get them to sit in your comfort zone and, for this record, it has been a lot of fun doing that for me and I am feeling really happy with the drum parts. Everything flows really well and like you said before alluding to the more subtle things that are going on in the music where they might sound straight forward but they are actually odder – however odd that sounds even! A lot of that has to do with the riff itself but then the way I play on the top of the riff, you know, maybe just playing the high-hat over the bar line in a straight chord kind of thing. All those little things that you do to make it groovy, to make it fit better; there’s a lot of that on this record, so that’s a lot of fun for me!
• In a live environment, do you find yourself often thinking stuff like “I have been playing this song for so many days in a row, I’ll try and vary it a bit”? Do you allow yourself such indulgences?
Jason: Well, I do if I feel that I want to go for it, you know, but I usually do it in a…I mean, sound check is more of the time for that I think, time for me to mess around as much as I want. But, you know, once in a while I will get a little something and say “oh, this might be cool so I might as well try that tonight”, you know? But there are only really a few spots that I am comfortable doing that as I want the rest of the band to be confortable as well with the way they sound and they are supported by their drummer.
• Do you know what I really like about you guys? Most bands tend to have one very skilled musician who is normally the leader and everything revolves around that person. In your case, however, we have five very skilled musicians with strong personalities, the main recipe for arguments and tension; still you come across as a totally harmonious outfit. It is an amazing accomplishment considering that this specific line up has been together for eleven whole years! That’s quite commendable really!
Jason: Thank you…that is indeed amazing when you think about how many years ago we started this band - it’s incredible! We are lucky to still be here and we are really happy with the way things are. Yeah, you know, there’s something that…well, the whole is greater than some of the parts, you know? There is something great that happens when the five of us get together. Sometimes that kind of hits me as when we are playing, there’s this kind of energy and vibe that I feel and I think “yeah, this is what we’re supposed to be doing”, you know? It feels that way and it is a pleasure to play with four other guys with whom we can pretty much play whatever it is that we want to play. Yeah, I consider myself to be very lucky – that’s great!
• Tonight is I believe the last night of this European tour, right?
Jason: Well, except for Greece!
• Oops, I am not sure how I manage to skip my very own country of all places! Anyway, how has the tour been for you guys? Are you happy by people’s reactions?
ason: Absolutely! This tour has been great! This has probably been the best ever headlining tour that we’ve ever done in terms of a lot of things. I mean, number one - just the…well of course the crowds are the main thing. All rooms we played have been full, every show has been full, and we’ve had stronger shows in places like Germany where we haven’t ever really built up a strong following and this time we started seeing some better things there. I am sure that this has to do with Nuclear Blast being our label now, of course, and yeah – the reaction has been really strong and positive. We are looking out and we see the rooms full every night, the reactions are great, people seem to really like the new material and there are a lot of new faces in the crowd that we can see and a lot of young kids and that is obviously a very beautiful thing! And the routing was good - you know when you are on tour there’s a lot of stuff that people do not think about in terms of what bands tend to go through. Just having a good routing plan is great. We’ve had gigs where we went backwards and forwards through the Alps every night for three or four nights as we were all like “what the hell are we doing”, you know (laughs)? “Can’t we just stay in Italy for a few days”? That’s what we did this time; it really was better…the whole travelling situation was better, all the bands got along very well and overall it’s been great! On the side, we had a lot of free time to do some sightseeing – see some amazing places that we never really got the chance to see before. Overall it’s been great - killer.
• Last time you guys played here in the UK you were supporting Dream Theater and being a massive fan of that band entitles me to say that you really blew them off stage during the gig that took place at the Wembley Arena. Naturally, I assumed that next time you were to play the UK, it would be in a similarly-sized venue and so I was surprised to see you booked at the O2 in Islington. Now, this is indeed one of the best sounding venues in its category and the intimacy tonight will be quite rewarding for us fans of Symphony X so I am looking forward to that. In terms of the future, though, do you reckon that you guys have achieved a certain level of popularity here in the UK that will enable you to play in a larger venue next time round?
Jason: I don’t know; I guess that we will see tonight if the room is going to be full. Pre-sales have been very good and so this ought to be another full room show. Yeah, that’s the idea; it’s kind of “you’ll see what you get once you’re there” kind of thing, I guess. Of course that’s what we want and that’s what the objective is here so I guess that time will tell. I mean, we have always been kind of a strong word-to-mouth kind of band; people will see the band live, tell their friends about it and next time they will come back to see us together with their friends. That’s always worked for us in the past. We’ve always seen some sort of at least slow and steady growth. Of course, when you do the arenas you wonder things like “how much is this going to help us” and stuff like that. We’re in a kind of similar sized venue as it was last time that we headlined here so…I don’t know – I don’t know how much things have changed since then and it’s really hard to actually tell sometimes! I’d like to think so; I’d like to think that next time it will be a venue that is a little bit bigger.
• Fingers crossed! Another strong attribute of this band is your willingness to involve your fans in things, like for instance the video competition which you guys orchestrated for “Electric Messiah”. I watched it yesterday for the first time and I was quite impressed by the inventiveness of some of the fans of this band. Are you happy to use such media in the year 2011 in order to further promote the band’s music – using the Internet as an ally?
Jason: Yeah, sure! The Internet is definitely a great tool for that but also a huge credit ought to be given to our label as this was an idea that Nuclear Blast had for doing this videos to which we said “yeah, this is a great idea”, you know? We always like involving our fans into things, make them feel like they have an active part to play in helping us grow. We have always done several competitions on our website and I think that each time we do that we make them feel more connected to the band and that is a good overall thing. That thing worked out really well and it was incredible as a lot of people put a lot of time into that and it was really cool to see what people could come up with. Some people have obviously different tools at their disposal and you get to see who is capable of doing what and everything, you know? Yeah, we’ve never been an unattainable kind of band; we’ve always been kind of accessible, I guess you could say, for our fans and we really like it that way, within reason of course. I think that this was an overall very positive experiment, to do this whole video thing, and we did get a lot of positive feedback from the people who were involved and who were really pumped up. I am also pumped up to know that we were the ones picking the video after we watched them all…yeah, I think that it was a great idea and I really like that kind of stuff. We have also had a street team in the past, you know – always having people getting involved on a local level and everything, so…
• You know, one thing that many fans have been expecting from Symphony X and it’s really surprising that you haven’t had one out yet, is a live DVD. There are bands out there who release a DVD after having had only one album out, you know what I mean? Are there any such plans?
Jason: Yeah, we’ve been talking about it for a long time now and it is something that we want to do but I think that because we’ve never done it before it is the kind of thing that we really want to do the right way. So, we’ve talked about maybe doing it with…I don’t know whether I should ‘keep it in the bag’ or not but…there is a possibility of maybe doing something with an orchestra or something like that. That’s a lot of logistics involved as the amount of time needed to score the music for an orchestra and then rehearse and then have it at the right place - that is, like, half a year’s worth of work. Otherwise, yeah, you can just tape a few shows and release them on a DVD and stuff but we’ve figured that we have held out this long and so we would like it to be something a little bit more special that just see the band performing live. On the other hand, I think that it is important to have something to see the band live, to have such material accessible to people in such a format. I believe that it will definitely help us as we are such a very live band – we really are! People really get it when they see the band live, you know? Many people tend to say “oh, we heard the record but we didn’t know if these five guys can play this stuff live” and then they come to our shows and say “oh my gosh, you can play them after all”. So, having that live element out there I think that would really help the band. It’s something that we have talked about, Nuclear Blast is really interested in it and we are definitely trying to figure out the best way to do that. Hopefully and realistically, you know, maybe next year sometime we will be able to record it, but it’s certainly something that we want to do – yeah!
• Jason, I believe at this moment in time you are at a very important stage in your career as a band and the next step will elevate you to a position much higher than the one that you currently hold.
Jason: I hope so! I mean, I think we kind of feel the same way. You know, we have been doing this or a long time, like you mentioned before, and yes, the band has always been growing but we do wonder whether we will ever get that shot, that huge tour to really expose us to those people who have no idea that we exist. I think that this is a combination of those factors and we are in that point where we think “so, what’s next”, you know? Something’s really got to give! Yeah, we are making a living out of this band and we are touring and stuff but we feel that there can definitely be more for this band in the future…what can you do? I mean, we just…all we can do is play our butts off and hope that our management will do all the right things (laughs). I do think that this is a very important year and we are kind of waiting to see what will happen. I don’t even know what the album sales have been so far in Europe but if I judge by the people that show up during our shows then then it must be going well. Yeah, we will have to wait and see how much this fire spreads from this tour.
• Being an American band, do you believe that the key to making that extra step lies in whether you will become bigger in your own country? Is the US a key factor in your future?
Jason: Yeah, but I think really in the States it’s mostly about the media, so it’s about promotion. With the right promotion, you can sell anything you want to sell, you know what I mean? I mean, yeah, it has to be good – at least most of it (laughs). It’s such a game and there are so many factors involved! In the States you have…how can I say this…
• …If you have a good PR guy supporting you then all problems are solved, right?
Jason: Yeah, you know, there are so many different levels of management, but most importantly, the label has to decide that they really want to push you – that’s really the bottom line. The have to say “yes, we believe in this band so much that we will do this, that and the other thing” and Nuclear Blast has been pretty creative so far and we are still waiting to see what they will do with the videos, if we are going to make videos or not for this album. Of course MTV is nothing compared to what it used to be, but it’s still good to have a video online. Yeah, it’s a combination of things and the bottom line with regards the States is that it’s really all about promotion! It’s about having the money behind you, having somebody say “yeah, we are going to support the crap out of this band” and if it’s good and if it’s solid enough then it will catch on I think – it’s just a matter of exposing the right people to it.
• With the videos for “Paradise Lost” you really spoiled us both in terms of content and production. Is it worth, you reckon, in the year 2011 for you to spend ‘X’ amount of money for videos that will most likely only be featured in places like YouTube? You did mention that the MTV is not remotely as huge as it used to be back in the early 90s…
Jason: Hmm… I think that if you can do it reasonably then it’s worth it, you know? We did those two videos quite reasonably; we did them in Serbia actually and so the cost was pretty low and thus made them better value for money than most others out there. To do these kinds of videos in the States would have cost five times that. So if you can do something like that then I think that it is worth it. Of course then you have to figure out how much the costs will be but I don’t think that it can hurt putting them on the Internet. I mean yes, it’s free on YouTube but the fact that is there means that it is available for people to watch and it looks so professional, it is the new material and so you still want to have it there – you want to have it out there I think, you know?
• Jason, what can I say - you are definitely a band with a plan! You are taking things one step at the time and the end results are pretty rewarding, so all I can really say is keep up the good work. Thank you for your time, I hope that you will enjoy tonight’s show and, as a fan that is truly inspired by your music, I hope that you will continue to record music of that quality for years to come.
Jason: Thank you, I appreciate that.