A Few Words With...Frank Wyatt

Interview & photos (except photo 1) by John A. Wilcox

Composer, keyboardist, saxophonist - as a founding member of the wonderful Happy The Man, Frank Wyatt has worn many hats. Wyatt & HTM co-founder Stan Whitaker have recently released the CD Pedal Giant Animals and started another project called Oblivion Sun. Wyatt graciously sat down with ProgSheet to give us a tour of his musical career. Roll up! Roll up!

PS: What was the very first instrument you played & how old were you when you played it?

FW: The upright piano at home was my first instrument, banged on from time out of mind, probably from when I was four years old or so. I didn't have any lessons on piano until college though, and my required keyboard class for the music major program at Madison College came far too late according to my instructor, Barbara Smith. She said I had already learned how to play just about everything the wrong way, but since it seemed to be working for me, she didn't try to change my technique and passed me anyway. My first real musical instruction was on the clarinet in third grade. Jerry Lyles was my instructor, and he was "instrumental" in my developing a keen interest in music. I changed over to saxophone in the eighth grade, when Don Knox became my instructor. He is the single most influential person in my musical career. I have never met another person as exuberant and truly filled with the spirit of music in all its forms...he is a great teacher. I still visit him when I am in southwest Virginia.

PS: What drew you to progressive music?

FW: I met Stan Whitaker in a music theory class at Madison College in 1972. Dr. George West was the instructor, and it was the first day of class. I remember there were perhaps sixty students in this very large room, and Dr. West was trying to feel out the class by playing two notes on the piano and seeing who could name the interval. At one point in the exercise a voice shouted out "Dominant seventh.... Hendrix!!" and that was Stan. I made sure I met this skinny guy with long hair and we became close friends right away. Stan had just moved from Germany, and had an extensive collection of European music albums. We arranged to be roommates immediately after meeting, and so I was able to listen to all of this fabulous music that I had never heard before...Strawbs; The Nice; Hatfield; Heads, Hands and Feet; Coliseum; Gentle Giant; Yes; King Crimson; ELP; Jethro Tull; Van der Graaf Generator; Pink Floyd; PFM; Soft Machine; Genesis; Procol Harum...on and on the list goes. So without a doubt, Stan was the one who introduced me to progressive music. Now, remember, the genre was not identified as progressive in those days...I believe the first time I heard that term was on a sampler recording in the later seventies called "The Progressives". Art Rock and Symphonic Rock were some of the terms we used, but we never really could settle on what label to put on our own (Happy The Man) music. �

What drew me to this style of music then, and still draws me to it today, regardless of what name we use to describe it, is the feeling that is manifested within when I hear it. Bear in mind that this is entirely subjective, and what illuminates me may not do the same for someone else. We do, mere mortals, have common interests and reactions among us though, and that is why there are followings for the different kinds of music. Certainly some kinds of music are more appealing to the masses than others, and the progressives are generally well behind the curve of popularity at any given moment in history. This is probably true for any type of progressive art, not just music, but dance, painting, prose, architecture, etc. I believe what we are calling progressive music within the rock genre is closely parallel to certain progressive compositions in the classical world. It is the nature of the composition that sets it apart from the ordinary, and it is logically differentiated according to the time in which it is created. Environment defining exception...for example, consider Stravinsky's 1913 premiere of The Rite of Spring. This work tested the audience to the extreme given the musical environment of the day. Had I been there, I would certainly have considered the work progressive. Today however, the piece is considered a great masterpiece of the twentieth century, and is not nearly so shocking to the ear. So, with his experimental and adventurous compositional techniques, Stravinsky used the tools of theory and arrangement to express his interpretation of his environment in his own way, quite different from the other music around him. This adventurous and free thinking aspect of being "progressive" is a powerful component of my own attraction to the genre. Who wants to compose strictly by rule and rote? In academic settings rules are surely good as they give a foundation of understanding to the student, but when we attempt to express our innermost feelings, there should be no bindings to our heart, no manacles on our hands. Progressive artists, it seems to me, tend not to be overly concerned with compliance, and stretch the creative experience without inhibition. This is an attractive alternative for a composer.

PS: How did Happy The Man come together? Who met who and how was the direction of the band forged?

FW: Stan met Rick while he was in Germany. Stan was in a band called Shady Grove, and Rick was an MP in the army, stationed at a base where Shady Grove performed. They became friends, Stan moved back to the States, and I met him at school. Rick would correspond regularly. It was sort of a waiting game for Rick to be discharged from the army and then come join the band in Harrisonburg, VA. While we were waiting for Rick, Stan and I were writing music, and one evening at the student union we saw a local band playing. The keyboardist was just amazing, doing Copland�s Hoe Down every bit as good as Keith Emerson ever could. This was Kit Watkins of course. He is still my all time favorite keyboardist and a great friend. He was recruited into the band, and Stan and I threw all our furniture out of the dorm room so we could set up gear in there and practice. We would eventually stop going to all of our classes except Jazz Ensemble, and worked at various ridiculous jobs in town ( painting pocket book handles comes to mind) while living in the dorm. This of course resulted in failing grades and late withdrawals from classes, but we were focused on the band...nothing else mattered. Rick eventually joined us, and his friends from Indiana, Mike Beck on drums and percussion and Cliff Fortney a vocalist and flautist, came out to the east coast to complete the original line up of musicians. There were others in the Happy family though...and our direction would be shaped by the entire company, not just the players. �

The theater department at Madison had recently acquired this wonderful instructor from New York University, Ed Kinestrick. He was an intellectual and emotional director and is probably the smartest person I have ever met. He became involved with the band as a mentor, coaching us in speech, lyric composition, stage sets, and many other theatrical aspects that would make our performances productions rather than simply concerts. In the early days we did have large productions, with dancers, light shows, interactive audience performers, parades, you name it. I remember once having costumed actors rappel from a balcony into the audience, while a midget friend of ours led a parade of candy tossing circus players about. In the song Fangs of the Forest, dancers dressed as trees emerged from within the crowd. We rented the Rockingham County fairgrounds for a Halloween party one year...we all dressed as clowns, and had a record crowd...perhaps the thirty six kegs of beer had something to do with that. �

Our creative lighting was put together by a dedicated crew, John Hornberger...photographer and optical mechanic, Jeff Garringer, a fine artist and our metaphysical guru, and Steve Witt, a film aficionado and dancer. The dancers were from the Madison college modern dance school, headed up by Nancy Joe Morrissey. We had several road crew and management members as well...Mike Gianotti, Tony Cipriano, Kenny Bailey, Lloyd Halverson....and others I may have forgotten. We were usually about fifteen strong going in to a show. The direction we had chosen was simply forward....we would practice about forty hours a week, all living together in warehouses, band houses, farm houses, wherever we could manage to rent. We were trying to communicate with the world at an archetypal level...perhaps pretentiously given our youth, but nonetheless sincerely. It was a great time for us...the music was flowing like water from a spring. Unfortunately, there was very little market for this kind of art, and we were doomed to fail without some support from somewhere.

PS: How did the deal with Arista come about?

FW: We had moved from Harrisonburg to northern Virginia in 1975. At some point Cellar Door became our management company, and arranged for an audition for Arista in NYC. Clive Davis himself was there and we were pretty excited. After the show, which was at the Ritz I believe, Clive offered us the deal and we accepted happily. This turned out to be less rewarding than we had expected as it turns out. There was still very little market for our music, and Arista's interest faded after poor sales of the first record. We were dropped after being sidelined by the label's major talent, artists like Barry Manilow...hard to compete with that kind of popularity.

PS: Give me background on a few songs. How did Carousel go from a long piece to a much shorter piece?

FW: Carousel was written from an inspiration I had at an amusement park somewhere in Virginia. As I was watching the carousel go round and round it became mesmerizing, and I started thinking of how we looped our way through life much like that...over the same ground repeatedly. There are many changes on our journey though, so I chose the carousel's chariot to represent our physical surroundings, something that could be changed as it revolved, thus the original title, I Carve the Chariot on the Carousel was an attempt to describe our passage through time, shaping our reality as we go. There was a romantic aspect to the song as well. In the original full version, two content lovers are represented by a lofty flute melody and a repeating piano chord structure beneath. As the relationship deteriorates, the music becomes more aggressive and atonal. The version recorded on the Arista release was just the heavy section. This was Ken Scott's idea, and it seems to work fine as a track on the LP. �

I have always been very interested in time, not just how it is perceived, but the physics of the dimension, or the impact the force has upon the other dimensions, whatever the true case may be. I also used the cyclical imagery of the helix in another song, Time is a Helix of Precious Laughs, to illustrate our motion through time. This was not an original concept, but was derived from a science fiction title, Time Considered as a Helix of Semi-Precious Stones by Samuel R. Delany. Again, the romantic element is present in a rather transparent lyric content that tells the story of a young woman who is oblivious to the forces of nature around her. The point of the song was to suggest that we are all unaware to a great degree, and where we do have concerns they are perhaps misplaced. I was saying we should live more in the moment, and qualify our travels through life by marking the happy moments; that we truly exist in a timeless state when we are lost in the magic of a laugh. Most of my lyrics were abstract stabs at explaining my feelings about a belief in a higher level of existence. I was very much into the metaphysical literature during these early days of the band, and really just let my thoughts go in the writing. There was some consideration of course, but I admit to being sententious. It didn't really matter though...I was writing from the heart, and there is some armament in that at least. It occurs to me that I am unchanged in that respect, as what I am writing even at this moment is just stuff pouring out onto a page without too much deliberation. Hopefully, if not noteworthy, it will at least make an entertaining reading.

PS: How was the compositional work divided up between you & Kit on Befrost? Also, what inspired the lyric?

FW: Kit wrote the music and I wrote the lyrics to Upon The Rainbow. The inspiration for the Lyrics came from several sources. I was reading a book called The Music of the Spheres by Jamie James, which was part of an ongoing study of music and science which has really been a lifelong endeavor. In the theory of celestial harmony first considered by Pythagoras, mathematical principles are used to study nature, the heavens, and music, showing that they can be studied in the same way. I believe this is true, and these concepts are an overlay for the world as we know it. I was also reading some Norse mythology, and loved the Befrost representations of a rainbow bridge that allows us to transcend this physical plane by traveling via light to Asgard (my interpretation). The physics of light that are represented in the rainbow are the same kind of harmonic mathematical expressions that occur in music, and so the song became a way for me to tell this story about how we might gain enlightenment through the study and ultimately the understanding of music in all of it's aspects.

PS: Another song that got shortened over time is Open Book. It has a bit of a baroque feel. What mood were you trying to create with it?

FW: The much shortened song Open Book was part of a very long piece that I wrote as a theatrical production. It was titled Death's Crown, and was only performed three times that I can recall. This production had all the features I mentioned earlier, dancers, actors, projection...the whole nine yards. The story was based on Shamanism and the Tarot, and while there was no real anthropological time period associated with it, the concept did dictate that it would be set in a pre-modern environment, and so the instrumentation for some of the sections was baroque. The short Open Book section is a good example of that using recorders, acoustic guitar and harpsichord. There were no samplers when we did this so Ken Scott brought a real harpsichord into A&M for the session. I loved it. I had never played a real harpsichord before that and will never forget how exciting it was to feel the keys plucking at the strings. Later in the arrangement the modern instrumentation gets layered onto the classical acoustic instruments, and it the result is this striking, powerful "Ars Nova" sound . Ken had the idea to use a mallet on a tubular bell and dip it into a container of water to attenuate the pitch.We used one of those tall ash tray stands from the lobby at studio D and that effect really contributed a lot to the climax. So back to the point, the mood I was trying to create in this baroque section was one of reminiscence. The main character has just been executed, and the preceding requiem has left us saddened and empty, so now, as his astral body has left the physical, the mind takes over and our man is revisiting mostly pleasurable moments of his Earthly life experience.

PS: Ibby It Is is a favorite with pretty much every HTM fan. Who or what is Ibby and how did he/she/it rate a song?

FW: Ibby is my Pinocchio. He is different in that where Geppetto used wood to model his puppet, and then love to make him real, I envisioned Ibby as a cartoon character, and assembled him from colored light. Ibby was never made real by his desire to be human, perhaps for lack of love, but certainly because as he approached humanity, he was repelled by it. In his spiritual ascension Ibby discovers that the burden of responsibility is too great, the sacrifices of his freedoms too painful, and the overwhelming options given humans too confusing for him to bear. As such, he abandons his quest just as he approaches the moment of transformation, and is set free once more into his flatland physics. It would be a great pleasure to actually animate the character and properly tell the story, alas, there is no budget for such a project, and no volunteer team to bring Ibby to life. He is destined to be a thought, with a really cool soundtrack!

PS: While Crome Yellow Shine is another Wyatt/Watkins number. Did you each work on sections of the song, or was it less defined than that?

FW: While Crome Yellow Shine is actually part two of a three part composition that I wrote, based on an exploration of semantics and the concept that the map is not the territory; the word is not the thing. Part one is also recorded on the HTM Third album, At The Edge Of This Thought, and part three has not been recorded. Kit's contribution to the song is the melody line in the introduction and ending section. As it was a substantial component to the song's identity, I felt it was worthy of a co-writer's credit. We normally would not claim credit for our contributions to songs except as an arrangement credit, leaving the writer's identity to the person who brought the concept to life. There were a few exceptions where songs were actually co-written, but that was not the norm for HTM. The inspiration for the track came from Aldous Huxley's first novel, Crome Yellow. I was not directly commenting on the book or it's content specifically, but on the idea that while literature like Crome Yellow exists, then there is hope for the spoken and written word to communicate ideas effectively. This hope has since become less positive, as we deteriorate into hyperbole and slang.

PS: Around the time of the first album, there was a meeting with Peter Gabriel. What songs were played, and why didn't that collaboration come to fruition?

FW: I don't remember all the songs we worked on, but I do know we did Down The Dolce Vita and Slowburn. It was really great playing that with Peter and then later hearing the finished version on his LP. He was totally professional and a great pleasure to work with. He is still a genius way ahead of this time in my opinion. There is so much to hear in his recordings... amazing depth. There were a few reasons it didn't work out for us to be his band. First of all I recall he was looking for more of a hard hitting drummer. Mike Beck was this fantastic percussionist, but didn't really like to play the kit all that much. Secondly we were just getting the confidence to start believing we could make it ourselves, and so we were rather naively insistent that we be allowed to keep our own identity as Happy The Man. This was probably a very big mistake in retrospect, but it didn't seem so then.

PS: In the years between Crafty Hands & The Muse Awakens, what were you doing musically?

FW: I didn't do very much really. When the band first split up I was fairly traumatized by the whole thing. It was more like a family to me than just a working environment, so it hit me hard. I moved up to New York with Ed Kinestrick and started producing an off off Broadway version of Death's Crown, called The Hanged Man. We had some of the same dancers that had performed the show in Harrisonburg and it would probably have kept me in the business if we could have maintained financing, but we didn't even get off the ground and I had to take work where I could as a carpenter and such. I became a construction worker for the next fifteen years or so, only playing the piano when one was around, and not really thinking that I would ever get back into music.

PS: HTM gets back together in 2000, minus Kit. Why did Kit take a pass, and how was David Rosenthal chosen?

FW: Kit was actually very much into making the new HTM cd, but he didn't want to play live. He has been proven correct in his analysis of the live situation in that we have had very little success in performing. The band simply isn't popular enough to generate the kind of sales to support live performances. It costs so much to do a show you really need to sell lots of tickets, have some tour support, or have a deep basket of popular merchandise or you will not be able to do it. We tried...we failed. It's heartbreaking really because we absolutely love to perform the music live, and would really have liked to get it back to the performance level we had in our college days, with full on productions, but those kinds of shows are even more expensive and are simply out of our reach. David was chosen because he was a fan of the music, and he also loves to play live, not to mention the fact that he is a fantastic keyboardist.

PS: Was it a deliberate decision to have Rosenthal's parts on The Muse Awakens CD stay within the Kit vein, or just a happy coincidence?

FW: I don't recall ever saying "Hey Dave, try to sound like Kit!". You would really have to ask David if he was contemplating that on the new compositions. I know he certainly covered the old tunes with that in mind, so perhaps just by getting into that mindset colored his new work to some degree, but he is without a doubt as original as anyone else in the band and stylistically has a much larger palette than I do.

PS: Tell me the story behind Il Quinto Mare.

FW: Il Quinto Mare, (The Fifth Sea) is a fantasy story of mine. It takes place in an imaginary world with all the fantasy trappings; dragons, magicians, knights in shining armor, unicorns and the like. It is an offshoot from another larger work that has not been recorded titled The High Places which is composed of five parts and is vocally intensive. The main idea for The Fifth Sea was to try to capture the image of the castle up on a cliff where the last King who supports the "Old Ways" of magic and natural law is besieged. I was trying to portray all the energy of the waves crashing at the base of the cliff and the swirling waters in the wind through the first movement, and then after transitioning through a series of events (motifs) that were to represent the troubles the King and his followers were having, I wanted to send the characters into their sunset on calm, lapping seas, with the legato ending in thirteen. As an aside, that odd time signature came from listening to a sailboat's main sheet slapping against the mast while at anchor in Kawaihai as the hull swayed in the water. I know the sound effects may be somewhat contrived in that piece, using bell buoys, lapping water, waves crashing and gulls throughout the composition, but it seemed appropriate to use every tool available to help paint the soundscape.

PS: A follow up to Muse has yet to come together, and now you & Stan have Oblivion Sun, named after a poem of yours. What brought this project together & tell me a bit about the other players.

FW: Oblivion Sun was the band that formed after Stan and I recorded the Pedal Giant Animals material, a collection of songs we hope to release by Christmas 2006. The songs on PGA were some of the extra pieces that we had written for HTM but were never able to get rehearsed or performed for whatever reasons there were. On that project a few of the songs required additional instrumentation beyond what we could do ourselves or in the sampling domain so we called in our friends Chris Mack and Pete Princiotto for a rhythm section. We had so much fun doing the recording that we wanted to keep playing together, and as HTM is so spread out logistically we had a lot of time available for local work, so Oblivion Sun was born. Bill Plummer who helped record the drums for PGA and is working on the mix is also a great keyboard player and songwriter, so he joined us in the band; Pete couldn't make rehearsals so far from his home in McLean, Virginia, so we found bassist Dave DeMarco in Baltimore was agreeable to joining yet another band; Chris Mack stayed with us on the drums, and that rounds out the lineup.

PS: Noodlepoint has a very HTM sort of feel to it, reminiscent of the 1st album. Was it originally written as a future HTM piece, or specifically for this project?

FW: Noodlepoint is one of Bill Plummer's songs, so it was not written for Happy The Man. Bill had the bulk of that tune written already when OS formed, and finished up the arrangement along with the band.

PS: Will Oblivion Sun be a touring unit?

FW: Well we certainly want to be, but already we are feeling the same kinds of financial pressures that made it so difficult for HTM. We have only played out once, our inaugural show at Orion Studios in Baltimore. Since that was a local show, and Win Krozack from PRS Guitars kindly donated his PA and services for us, we were able to pull it off. Since then we have tried to book a three date outing with NewEars up in New England, and it fell apart. You have to wonder why it is so difficult to just go out and play. Al Baillargeon from NewEars has probably the biggest heart in the business for promoting prog acts...and he works tirelessly to bring acts to New England, but with this kind of fiscal pressure there was no way anyone could make the gig work. Certainly the costs go down when you can string together a tour of dates, and that's what we will try to do, but it is very very difficult to pull it off in the progressive world. The booking and business end of music can easily be really painful for musicians...I personally can't deal with it anymore...it stresses even the best of friends, and should be left to the professional booking agents... they get paid to handle the hard negotiations, of course with their fee it costs even more to do a gig!!

PS: Can HTM fans still hold out hope for another studio CD in the future?

FW: If I have learned anything from my experience in the music business, it is never to say never. Who would have thought that HTM would ever make another recording after all the time we were in limbo? Anything is possible, in fact another HTM cd is far from impossible.

PS: You've recently relocated & have a spiffy new studio. Give a little background on the studio and what it has to offer!

FW: Well, it is a home project studio, but it is very comfortable for me. I have collected some gear over the years, and I love doing the carpentry thing, so I think I have put together a really nice room for what I do. I expect to record my solo stuff there, and the live room is certainly large enough for a band...it's just a question of whether anyone will have the time or inclination to travel to Pennsylvania to use it. I want to try my hand at engineering some outside projects as well, and Stan and I talk often about producing some other acts. The studio is a 48 track digital setup, using all Tascam recording gear (SX-1, MX2424, DA78HR, DM24), Logic, and Samplitude. I use Gigastudio as my sampling program, and have been working on getting an orchestral template up and working. I build my own computers. There's a very nice Yamaha baby grand, some Kurzweils and saxes, assorted microphones and stuff like that...you know, a studio! It is almost completed...I will be working on it some more after the Oblivion Sun cd is done. There are a lot of things happening in the real world that keep the music from flowing as easily as it could. I am concerned with Peak Oil, the insanity of war, the destruction of our beautiful Earth and the deceptions of our elected leaders. I keep trying to learn more every day and want to try to do something to improve our human condition... maybe my music is the way to accomplish something in this respect... I just don't know how yet.

PS: Please tell me 6 CDs you never get tired of listening to.

FW: That's probably the most difficult question of all for me. I listen to so many different kinds of music, and love so much of it. I suppose if I had to make a list this evening, it would be:
Selling England by the Pound ~ Genesis �
Close to the Edge ~ Yes �
The Rotters' Club ~ Hatfield and the North �
The Firebird Suite/P�trouchka ~ Igor Stravinsky �
Appalachian Spring ~ Aaron Copland �
Labyrinth ~ Kit Watkins �
Islands ~ King Crimson �
The Civil Surface ~ Egg �
Three Friends ~ Gentle Giant �
Pawn Hearts ~ Van der Graaf Generator

...........oops...that's more than six.....


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