Interview: Robert McClung of TELERGY

Telergy, a progressive rock project led by songwriter and producer Robert McClung, has been very prolific over the last ten years releasing four studio albums since 2011, the latest being recently launched “Black Swallow.” As it is the case with all previous albums, “Black Swallow” is once again a concept album featuring over 50 musicians that contributed to its final shape.

The mastermind behind the project Robert McClung himself answered our questions.

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? Please tell us something more about your early life.

My Grandfather was a country musician in the 1950’s, right as rock and roll was starting to happen. He toured with allot of great people from that era including Johnny Cash, Hank Williams, Chuck Berry and Buddy Holly. My Grandfather used to sit outside on a bench swing we had under a large apple tree in the back yard. He would play guitar and sing songs for me. I was entranced. I wanted to be like him so badly. I asked my mother for a guitar, but she was totally against it. She didn’t want me to have the hard life of a musician that my Grandfather had had. When my Grandfather moved out of our house to go live with other relatives far away, he gave me his guitar. My mother was very angry, but my Grandfather told her, “This is gonna happen whether you like it or not. You can’t stop it!”

I started learning all the music from my parents record collection. 70’s rock like Pink Floyd, Fleetwood Mac, Aerosmith, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Black Sabbath, etc. When I got into high school, I became very involved in musical theater. Writing music for children’s theater productions, arranging and performing in theater pit orchestras. I got to work with Roy Rogosin, a theater and film music composer, arranger and conductor for the popular singer Johnny Mathis. He took me under his wing and taught me allot about arrangement, structure and musical theory. He introduced me to composers like Andrew Lloyd Webber and John Williams. During this period, I was also getting into heavy metal bands like Metallica and Megadeth. I loved the heaviness and intensity of metal, but I also like the intricacy and complexity of theater and classical music.

I played in a plethora of different bands of different styles. Some doing originals, some doing covers. I started to be more influenced by progressive rock and metal bands that had a theatrical style of presentation and made storied concept albums. Bands like Kansas, Yes, Genesis, Rush, Savatage, Queensryche, Spock’s Beard and Dream Theater. Bands that blended the aspects of the different genres I liked. These were the biggest influences on what Telergy would become.

How did you go about starting Telergy? Who was the most influential when the band started its musical journey?

​Telergy started as a bit of an accident. There wasn’t any clear plan. I was actually at a very low point in my life and musical career. I had done lots of different things, but had no success. And none of the things that I had done really represented the style that I heard in my head. I didn’t have the resources at the time to do what I really wanted. Then a very generous person came along and gave me a new computer that I was able to build my own home recording studio around. Once I had that freedom, I just started writing frantically, without a plan for what it would be. A friend of mine heard these early ideas and said it reminded him of the biblical story of the Exodus. He said it was like a movie soundtrack to a movie that didn’t exist. It made perfect sense. As I began to develop it into a full-fledged concept album and brought in the other players, I realized I couldn’t put it out under my own name. There were far too many other people involved. Since the music is primarily instrumental, the name Telergy (the act of communicating telepathically without words) seemed to fit. That’s how it all started.

I’ve already mentioned many of my influences here, but I’d say the most influential band of all would be Trans-Siberian Orchestra, which grew out of the band Savatage. Paul O’Neil was an absolute genius! The way he blended heavy metal, classical and theater music into captivating storytelling was a massive influence on my own musical direction. I should also acknowledge the incredible songwriting of Criss and Jon Oliva, who were a huge a huge part of that sound. Trans-Siberian Orchestra also taught me that a “Band” didn’t have to be a set group of people. It could be any number of players, from any background, who could add to the overall piece. Which gave me a huge sense of freedom.

How would you describe Telergy’s music on your own?

​Words like diverse and compelling come to mind. My sister describes my music as “An audio roller coaster ride”, which I think is pretty accurate. I enjoy music that takes wild turns and twists and always keeps the listener guessing. The stories also force me to take some pretty wild musical paths to best represent things. It’s not the type of music that many people can appreciate. The average listener wants something under three minutes with a consistent rhythm, a repetitive chorus and some catchy lyrics that they can relate to and hum along with. I throw all those things out the window. Allot of first-time listeners to my music are just simply baffled. It’s so far outside their conceived expectations of what music should be they can’t really accept it at all. That’s fine with me. I’m not trying to make music that appeals to the masses. I want to please my own artistic sensibilities first and foremost. If other people just happen to enjoy it, that’s just a happy bonus for me.

Telergy - Black Swallow

“Black Swallow” continues the Telergy tradition of releasing concept albums that follow certain story. This time you decided to tell the story of Eugene Bullard. Elaborate on how did you set on picking up this subject.

I was first made aware of Eugene’s story in a short social media post by a history related page. The one paragraph description was so captivating I had to research and find out more. What I found was such an incredible story. I was amazed that this hero with such an exciting life wasn’t mentioned in history books or didn’t have a movie made about him. I knew I had to use Telergy to bring his legacy to a wider audience. I visited his grave in New York a couple years ago. It was a very moving experience. I just hope I did his story justice.

How does the concept actually influence the music and vice versa when you work on a Telergy album, or to be more specific, how did the story of “Black Swallow” influence the musical side of the album during the creative process?

The stories for every Telergy album force my writing down some unique paths. In the past it has included folk music, middle-eastern music and Jewish music. All of which had to be woven into the progressive rock/metal base that Telergy is built upon. With Black swallow I faced even more of these challenges. Since Eugene came from the southern state of Georgia, I had to incorporate blues and gospel music from that region. Since he was a drummer in a big band jazz group in the 1920’s, I had to incorporate that. Since he ended up living in France, I had to bring in French music. Since he was in the military, I had to include military style musical ideas. And somehow, I had to make it all fit into theatrical, progressive, symphonic, rock/metal music!! It was quite am arduous task as a writer, but I think I pulled it off.

Speaking of tradition, another thing Telergy has come to be known for is the guest appearances of many musicians that have been involved with rock and metal scenes for many decades. This new album is no exception. What does your initial contact with musicians look like? How all these collaborations come to be?

I’ve been in the music business since I was a teenager over thirty years ago. I’ve had lots of time to make friends and connections. Many of the people involved with Telergy are people I have known for decades. I just have to ask them if they want to join in. With people I don’t already know, I can usually get in touch with them through mutual friends or their management. At this point Telergy has become fairly well known and my reputation often proceeds me. When I ask players if they want to be part of it, many of them are already familiar with my work and appreciate what I do. And since I make no profit from Telergy (I give all proceeds to charity) they are even more open to working with me.

Tell me about the writing and recording sessions for Black Swallow.

I started writing shortly after the last album, Hypatia. Writing took about two years. I had a kind of storyboard set up and began putting together musical ideas for each of the story sections as they started to gel in my head. Once the basic framework for each tune was in place I began recording.​

Most of the recording was done at my home studio here in New Hampshire. Most of the orchestra musicians live in my area, so they came over and recorded their parts one at a time. Which took several days each for some people because there were so many layers of parts. For people who don’t live near me, they either recorded their parts in their own home studios or pro studios in their area that I arranged for them. Then the files were emailed to me to be added to the puzzle. Some artists had very busy schedules, which meant I had to wait many months before I could get their parts. There was one group of artists that was coming through my area in Boston on tour. They only had a few hours to spare. So, I booked time at a studio near the venue they were performing. I picked them up off their tour bus and rushed them over to the studio. They recorded amazing tracks in record time, then I zipped them back the venue for their show. Another artist was unable to leave their home, so I brought a mobile set up to their house.

At no point were any of the musicians ever in the same room playing at the same time. Which is the case for all the Telergy albums. To get that many people in a room at once is a logistical nightmare. I prefer building up the layers one at a time, like musical Lego bricks.

What is the most important thing for the structure of your songs? Is it a riff, a melody line, vocal arrangement?

Yeah, as a guitar player it usually is a riff. The funny part is, many of those initial riffs get completely drowned out by the massive mountain of parts that get put on top of them. If a melody comes first it’s usually something that I came up with on violin. I rarely ever use vocals at all. I try to keep things primarily instrumental. When I do include vocals it’s usually choir vocals, sung in Latin. Just because I need to make my life as difficult as possible, haha!!
For more info about Telergy and to purchase “Black Swallow” visit the project’s official website.