Buffalo, NY based composer Al Kryszak is releasing his new, tenth studio album entitled “Soft Clowns of the Sea” on February 2nd. Rocking Charts talked with Kryszak about his musical upbringing, starting his career, influences, and more.
Read the interview after the musical break below.
Let’s start from your early music beginnings. How did your musical career begin? When did you start playing? Which groups have been your favorites as a young man? Please tell us something more about your early life.
Thank you, first of all, for supporting independent music. My music career started with a bluff. I was at a babysitter’s house, 7 years old, and she saw me eying their piano. Mrs. McDonnel said “Do you play, Alan?”. I said “Yes, but only scary music”. I never touched a piano, but proceeded to invade her suburban spinet with angry “vampire music”.
She politely smiled, (hand on the phone) and 15 years later, I played my first solo electric guitar score for “Nosferatu” at Carnegie Hall, LA Directors Guild & The Riviera Theatre.
As far as first serious instruments, my songwriting brother, Joe, started me off on some guitar chords, and I taught myself piano before photocopying every Prokofiev, Stravinsky, Shostokovich & Ligeti score I could get my hands on. I continued in piano & guitar, studying composition at SUNY Buffalo, with Morton Feldman & Lukas Foss before getting a Masters & writing film scores for Turner Classic Movies, KINO Intl. & Lincoln Center.
As a split person, I was moved by more personal songwriters like Lennon, McCartney, Neil Young & Peter Gabriel, but I was completely blown away by the different guitar styles in Steve Hackett, Allan Holdsworth, Hendrix, Jimmy Page & Al diMeola. Page & Townshend really taught me how to orchestrate, how to realize that this physical line I’m playing, might be great in cello & piano versions.
As I wrote more concert music like the Piano Concerto, I became drawn to soloists & how they interact with an orchestra. As a guitar player & hockey goalie, you learn how to function alone, but you’re not lonely (The voices tell me funny stories).
How did you go about kicking off your solo career? Who was the most influential when you started your musical journey?
Concert Music, or better-named “New Music.”
About early influences, I always gravitated to albums I could just start, with headphones & fall asleep to, huge journeys like “Wish You Were Here” & “Larks Toungue In Aspic”, & a fateful night where I fell asleep to Gentle Giant live on an 8-track (8 hours of Playing the Fool while sleeping may have caused minor drain bamage).
It’s cool when I realize I unconsciously lifted an Electric Guitar tone from Neil Young’s “After The Gold Rush”, or I hit a high 8v echo note that reminded me of Hackett’s “Voyage Of The Acolyte”, because those were the albums that taught me to be fearlessly confessional & orchestrate mood, respectively. And those albums made me want to make a seemless headphone journey like “Soft Clowns…” tries to be.
After 30 years of solo playing, conducting & composing, Atlantic Screen Music was a huge break this year, signing me for the last 30 years of concert & film music, as well as solo prog/alt/rock songs & my NY band REV.
In the beginning, did you have some “fixed” tempo in composing songs or everything was a product of jamming, improvising?
That’s such a great question that doesn’t come up a lot but is so ingrained with concert music & Prog classics. I think about how tempo determines the production, and spend a lot of time on drum mixes, balancing bass range with my baritone guitar’s lows. The songs performed with Mike (Drummer) are frantic & first-take run-throughs. I love polishing the surfaces & layers in production, but only if it’s based on a solid, live foundation. The way I toss new tracks at poor Mike, where I have 3 weeks to learn my riff & he has 3 minutes, always amazes me. Prog is so dependent on groove since we love to fall into spacey ponds & never come up for airtime. “Hold Them All” is a slow drive with space in it, so I produced a more spacious drum ambience than the fast-clipping “Conclusion”, Track 18.
How would you describe your music on your own?
It seems that being immersed in new & classical composers, as well as post-1965 rock, would merge into a ‘classical-sounding rock deal’, but I have an irreconcilable split personality where I want to drive a guitar part into the ground, but write a clarinet concerto that takes you somewhere else.
Your new album, Soft Clowns of the Sea, is out on February 2nd. What were the biggest challenges when working on it?
Well the nice thing about being unknown is nobody cares when or IF you finish your album. I set my own artificial deadlines because working in your own studio can be like oil paint that never dries: it no longer cost me $200 an hour so you can dick around with a record and never make a final decision. For better or worse, I plow through an album like a nature photographer, capturing 2 things: moments & instincts. Everything else is out. Visually, I couldn’t figure out an image, but my youngest son, Neil Kryszak provided 7 powerfully evocative photos for the 6 panel CD design.
I perform on acoustic (Taylor), baritone electric guitar (Danelectro) & fretless bass, but I challenged myself to explore the identity of my baritone, deciding not to play a single note on the Strat. This brought some earthy, low colors, with fretless bass in unison with baritone, & solos that land lower than usual. These colors fit the theme of trying to stay above water while you are travelling from horror, to anything other than your point of origin. Refugees are time-sensitive in history: certain nationalities are adorably adoptable, others are feared. I think a balance of protection & charity reflect the U.S. that grew up after a rough childhood in England.
The challenge for “Soft Clowns…”, acoustically, was that I was fighting with huge, Downeast maine winds flowing through my windows, alternated by the frogs, called ‘peepers’, that sound like a chorus of insane Irishmen with slide whistles. I eventually compromised, featuring frogs on track 1 & wind on “Sun In Your Eyes”, because nature had something to say, too.
What has changed for you when it comes to writing new music — Soft Clowns of the Sea in particular?
“…Clowns…” is musically different than the last solo album “Lullabies For People Who Don’t Need Sleep”, because I brought drums back in to provide some trippy & some solid rock tracks, kind of like pillars, intercepted by the baritone, acoustic & fretless bass instrumentals. As far as extra-musical content, The baritone guitar-based song project deals with current ‘human climate change’ in America, where I unapologetically visited my teen Prog roots with tracks up to 15 minutes long, to let you leave headphones on & watch things develop at their own pace, like Floyd, Genesis, Yes & Crimson taught me.
How do you see the US progressive rock scene?
I don’t ever fit well into scenes of any kind. Not because I’m particularly original or fascinating, but eventually I open my mouth & words come out, words that remind me that life is short so you better believe in something. As a former un-dateable teen Prog guitar boy, I recall Khan from Star Trek said it best: “Go, or stay, but do it because it is what you WISH to do!”. So I just stay with music. Jim Morrison knew it, and my awesome piano professor Yvar instilled that you always need to do your absolutely best work, even if there is one person in the audience. In My Prog Scene, there is one person in the audience & I’m going to play the shit out of that baritone for them.
Do you consider yourself a part of any specific cultural movement, however peripheral?
Well, as a Polack, with my last name on more than one Nazi War Camp role call, I feel an obligation to be better than the silent 1930’s folks were. “Just a little Nazi” or “Just a little white-supremacist” is not OK, and unless I’m writing purely instrumental film or concert music, my anger over fraidy-cat white boys changing our nation’s laws will show up, and I’m hopefully on their shit list, because they’re on mine. You can’t be anti-terrorism & invite historically murderous groups over for tea.
In “Soft Clowns…” songs like “Won’t Catch Me Sleeping”, “Time Without Guilt”, “Hold Them All”, and the guitar tracks, chronicle a father calming his son as they drift off in the night sea, from a destroyed past to an unwelcoming future as permanent foreigners. Since complaining doesn’t quite cut it, I also directed a documentary at University of Maine at Machias on the subject. “Who Made You In America?” discovered so much more depth & tolerance when people are met on an individual basis, from Boston to rural Maine, where I live.
Are you also involved in any other projects or bands?
I burned out a bit in the /80’s, playing for $15 & snow in my guitar, but I missed working with a band. I now write for & play in a rock trio called REV, based in Buffalo, my hometown. You can’t swing a dead chicken wing without hitting a great musician in Buffalo. My avant-garde cellist & flautist down the street. The Ukrainian Docenko brothers: violin & piano masters in Kenmore, where I played street hockey. After Nirvana let me turn my car radio on again, when the spandex, eye shadow hairbands were replaced by the hard core honesty of Pearl Jam, Rage Against the Machine, Tool, Radiohead & Foo Fighters, I said “I got to get ME one of them there rocky roll bands…”.
So I connected with Rob Mazurkiewicz (bass) & Mike Brydalski (Drums) to form REV. They let me really dive back into songwriting, since I had been focused on film & concert music since 1986. 2013’s “The Restless Are Natives” let me hit some harder grooves, and 2011’s “Liz Estrada Book Club” was a long-awaited Prog dream of mine: to write, orchestrate & produce a narrative double album like the classics: Quadrophenia & The Lamb…. (And what a perfect time to put out a double CD, just when music is free for the clicking).
So, what comes next for you?
I just signed Atlantic Screen Group in London, which is amazing after 3 decades of writing, producing, recording, mastering & designing everything on my own. I hope to expand film scoring projects, since I teach the subject at UMaine Machias & really like the way that “Prog Rock’s” long, narrative approach serves a gradually unfolding film soundscape. “Soft Clowns…” is my 10th album, but the first one with a label (Filmtrax) & distributor (BFD/The Orchard). After years of hand-cutting color CD labels, it’s amazing to have these folks get my work out while I’m still young enough to hear it, and young enough to know which room I’m in. I’m grateful to be able to realize the sounds in my head, and that they haven’t disowned me, so I’m planning more noises soon.