Progsheet - A Few More Words With...Frank Wyatt

Interview by John A. Wilcox

How we deal with adversity says a great deal about us. Happy The Man / Pedal Giant Animals / Oblivion Sun composer / performer Frank Wyatt has chosen to handle his challenges through music. His website: has become his audio / video creative playground. Subscribers will get an inside, extremely private look at Wyatt and his work. Join Frank Wyatt & Progsheet as we discuss this new endeavor...

PS: Let's start with the release of The High Places. How was your health & state of mind at that time?

FW: When we started recording THP I was fine, at least I thought I was fine and I felt okay. The project was a rather ambitious undertaking for me particularly because we were going to record all the tracks and do the mix at Crafty Hands, my home studio. This would be the first time I tackled a project this large without another studio or at least other recording locations involved. Of course the whole band was chipping in to help set it up and install new software and hardware. We borrowed and bought microphones, worked on our rigs and pretty much dedicated the first few months to filling in all the blanks that my little studio environment presented. Then the learning curve for the software and plug-ins started. Up until then I had been using the Tascam SX-1 hard drive recorder and console interface for any work I did at home. This was a perfectly fine solution offering 16 tracks in a nice self contained package. The editing interface was very clunky though, and The High Places arrangements would eventually use over 100 tracks on some of the pieces so it was time to upgrade. After much consideration and trying a few platforms we decided to go with Cubase. The reasons for that decision are many, but that�s a topic for another whole discussion, and I seem to be wandering further away from your question. So, we got things up and running and into laying down basic tracks, learning how to do it as we went, and about six months into actual recording I had a random finding of kidney cancer. The doctor said it could have been there for a long time, and I wouldn�t feel it, which was the case. After some short time they decided the way to go was to remove the kidney, which delayed the project a couple months. My state of mind through the whole affair was still just fine as everyone in the band was completely understanding and just waited for me to recover from the surgery and we picked up right where we left off. The project was finished and released in January of 2013, about a year and a half all in, which for us Happy The Man guys is actually pretty fast!

PS: How did your health effect the status of the band & where was Stan's health at that time?

FW: At the time of recording THP, Stan had been through his treatments for the adenoid cancer and was carrying on with all his usual enthusiasm for life and music. He is my dearest friend in the world, and I can�t express how much I admire his tenacity through his cancer ordeal. He also is a great comfort to me and my �go to� phone call when my own cancer trip gets too heavy. There were no plans to change anything with the band at this point, we were just doing the best we could with the cards we had been dealt. As far as we were concerned we were making more music, recording it, taking it on the road wherever and whenever we could.

PS: What decisions were you facing as your health issues progressed?

FW: A couple years go by, I�m getting tested on a follow up schedule every six months to make sure the cancer is gone with my kidney removal, feeling just fine and happy to be alive. I have a small woodworking shop and I am building really sweet sounding speakers. These are high end, remarkably awesome sounding, audiophile quality, beautiful speakers designed by Troels Graveson and Tony Gee among others. They have great online websites where they share their designs with DIY speaker enthusiasts, and I talked with them and got permission to build and offer a few of their designs for sale. There was never really any market for this as the speakers were prohibitively expensive to build, but I was really into creating beautiful systems that sounded wonderful and was never into making a lot of money anyway, I just wanted to pay the bills and enjoy making things and playing music. The shop was expensive to run, though, and I had a few employees off and on depending on the project at the time. We did a few kitchens, some custom projects for sound installations, and a really nice Masonic Lodge renovation that I designed, probably the high point of my woodworking career. When the kidney surgery happened it slowed things down at work and I got behind on everything. I had to lay off my guys, and though I was never behind on paying any of my bills, it was a lag in cash flow I would never recover from. I had to decide to close the business in 2013 after they found the cancer had come back.
I was on one of the regularly scheduled trips to scans and doctors for follow up exams when the tide turned. I had been to the cat-scan lab, and got a clean bill of health. I had visit with another doctor and on a whim said, �Hey, you want to look at my cat scans?� I had them with me on a cd to take to my next doc. This guy said sure, and after looking at the pictures awhile says, �I don�t agree with the lab�s report. I see something going on in your lungs�. Well, that floored me, and a couple months later I am having lung surgery. I had a great surgeon, a very nice woman who did her best. She told me she couldn�t remove the largest of the invaders without taking out a whole lobe of my lung, and that wouldn�t save me anyway, so she left me intact. Enter the oncologists. (This is one of the most surreal moments of my life, and I can�t say it was drug induced as I was equipped with the latest model pain pump devices that injected the drug directly onto the nerve local to the surgery site, instead of putting me in a systematic narco state which I hate.) I remember after the surgery still in the hospital bed, my wife Mindy sitting beside me. These two dudes in starched white lab coats levitate into the room. They are upright in standing positions, but the float into view at the foot of my bed. I recall that they were beyond clean and spotless, they were pristine, with glowing white ghost like auras surrounding them. You know the muffles unintelligible sounds you hear when Charlie Brown�s teacher is lecturing? That�s what happened�I sat fixated on these fully manifested free floating phantasms as one of them spoke, and I didn�t hear a word clearly until the last few��life expectancy two years�, and they floated out of the room. I turned to Mindy and asked,� Did you see that?� This was February, 2014. So now I did have to make some decisions. The shop had no employees, so I set a plan in motion to get everything auctioned off and gone so I could officially be out of the leased building. That took eight months. I told the band I would not be able to do anything more until I had figured out what was going to happen to me for sure, so Oblivion Sun went into hiatus mode due to Frank�s health. I started getting all my affairs in order so Mindy wouldn�t be left in a lurch should my spirit exit this reality soon. After the surreal visit in the hospital I chose to look into other options for my oncology trip. I talked with Paul Smith from PRS Guitars, a dear friend, because I knew he worked with Johns Hopkins raising money for cancer. He introduced me to the proper people there and I started the long process of trying to get on some kind of clinical trial that might have a chance of beating this nasty cancer. I tried a year of natural diets and supplements as there was nothing else to do, and now starting in March I was accepted into the active arm of the clinical trial Checkmate 214. I have every expectation that this treatment and my own stubborn resolve will beat the cancer.
Now you have to realize that through all this crap, physical effects of the surgeries aside, I have felt just fine! There are no physical symptoms of the cancer yet so I have been able to carry on getting things done fairly efficiently. I needed to have some income, obviously, so I went back to work as project manager for a small construction company in Northern Virginia. This meant being away from home five days a week as it was a hundred mile drive, so I moved into a room down there. I was able to bust ass for eight months there and with the salary and funds raised from auctioning all my tools was able to get my finances in a reasonably manageable state. Then winter came, I was laid off and I am back home. Thankfully! It was horrible being away from my house, instruments and wife during what could be my last days. Of course now I have no income, and not a rat�s chance in hell of getting a job, but I�m home, back in my studio and at my piano, so I do what comes naturally�I start playing!

PS: That segueways us nicely to this new project. You have a new site going live on March 7. What will the site offer?

FW: Since I am out of work and in the middle of a health crisis, I have to look at my options closely. I need to be as optimistic as possible to take advantage of this...treat it as an opportunity. I always wanted to be able to just hang in my studio and write music, read, work on creating lyrics, ideas, concepts, and here it is right in front of me. Not the way I had imagined it, but here it is nonetheless. I like to build sci-fi models, and I watch a few YouTube channels of guys building kits, showing their techniques and tips. It occurred to me that perhaps there would be some folks out there that might want to watch a song being made. I could video the steps I take to put together a song like these other guys were putting together model kits. Also, in a similar fashion to the modeling channels, I want to offer content relative to the environment I have created, my home studio. I know there are others out there with home studios, and I want to offer tips, techniques, gear reviews and links to other studios to share ideas. Finally, I am going to share my archives of concerts; a lot of old Happy The Man shows that I have collected over the years included. These recordings are generally not the best quality, but there is material there that some folks might not have heard before.

PS: What did you have to learn to present the site we will see?

FW: I have a substantial knowledge of audio, mostly self taught and learned from experience, but I am pretty confident around sound. I decided early on to make this new website video based to a large degree, for a couple reasons. First, it is far more engaging than the written word and should keep people's attention, hopefully entertaining them. Secondly, I believe the videos will suggest more interaction with the viewer than I could. If I were to write about my workstation, the article would only contain the descriptions of items that I thought relevant. An audience of viewers will probably spot many things in the video that I did not consider writing about, and perhaps offer comments. I felt pretty confident about accomplishing the idea when I started building the site. Wow, Was I out of touch with websites. The last sites I built were Frontpage based, which is no longer supported. So the first hurdle was learning Wordpress basics. I had to find a theme that supported a video based presentation, then I had to find a membership plugin and learn about gateway integrations. I tried some downloads and was not happy with the speeds so I had to learn about Amazon S3 for hosting, and Cloudfront for serving content on the edge. After getting the infrastructure in place and working I started on the marketing plan. I read a few books about Internet advertising and YouTube channel monetizations and blah blah, and decided to use a simple hub and spokes model with the website being the center of the wheel and social sites circling around to support and feed visitors to the site. This required learning a host of other techniques to properly integrate the social sites, set email registrations and lists, get the anti-spam laws covered, etc. Then there were the analytics to implement to monitor any results. I am actually keeping my fingers crossed that all of this will work!
Next I had to create some content. Simple, right? Well as it turns out you can't just grab a camera and start filming. I mean, you can, but you probably won't be happy with the resulting video. I certainly wasn't. I was lucky enough to have one fairly decent camera, an older model Sony, but it shot in HD and let me plug in an external microphone. But my first video sucked. The lighting was horrible, the background was horrible, it was not properly scripted, and most surprising to me, the SOUND was horrible. This was really surprising to me. So I had to learn from scratch how to make a nice video. I'm not saying that I have accomplished this yet...I am still working on it for sure. I have decided on Adobe Premiere Pro CC for the editing software after trying a few other programs. I have only begun to discover all it will do, but have successfully made some nice sequences using it so far. It will be awhile before I get the production quality up to the standard I envision as I will need better and more gear. But that's okay...the journey is what the website is about. The studio and gear reviews section will be all about this "learning how to do it", the good and the bad.

PS: What can a subscriber expect to see / hear on that very first day?

FW: I have put at least some content in every part of the site. It's my full time job now to see that more posts are provided on a regular basis. I think that's very important so visitors coming to the site will get what they are expecting. The volume of content will of course grow over time, but you have to start somewhere. There are a couple piano jams from my YouTube channel, a song download, some about content, the video collection page where I am compiling all the videos I can find of my bands and videos of other members from my bands, and a studio and gear post. In the Backstage area the first weekly installment of the first project song as well as a concert download from 1975 are posted. I want the Backstage videos to be very high quality and I am hosting them on the Vimeo platform in HD. To keep everyone up to date on content I have started a newsletter email that I will send out weekly with what's new on the site, and I will post the same information on the social sites.

PS: What keyboards & such will you be using to create this music?

FW: The controller keyboards I have in the studio are a Kurzweil K2600, K2500, and a CME UF80. Except for the onboard Kurzweil sounds, all the keys are sampled, and I have literally hundreds, if not thousands of sampled sounds including the Arturia Mini V, Analog Lab, Atmosphere, Ivory, Miroslav Symphonic, and many more, the list is quite long. I plan to review some of these vst instruments in the studio and gear reviews. I will list them all when I get around to that.

PS: Will there ever be any guest musicians joining you?

FW: Yes I do plan to get some of my friends in the studio to play on some of the projects. I can�t say when or who just now, but it certainly is on the radar.

PS: Will all the music be instrumental, or are there plans for vocal pieces as well?

FW: I want some vocals in the projects too. It will not likely be me singing mind you, unless it�s on a backing track. I have several tunes with lyrics that I would like to hear recorded someday.

PS: Will we ever get the chance to hear a complete Carousel?

FW: The complete Carousel was performed live at Cellar Door way back when. I think there is a recording somewhere in the archives. I will try to dig it up and post it on the site when I find it. If you are asking if the Carousel concept will be further developed, that too is a possibility. Ed Kinestrick and I discussed the possibility of using the circus as a theme for a show and the idea still comes to the fore occasionally.

PS: Has doing this transparent work in front of the cameras changed any aspects of how you write or perform?

FW: So far it has not changed the way I write. I still compose on the acoustic piano pretty much exclusively. There are moments when I am in the studio at the keyboard workstation checking out sounds when I will be inspired by a patch. These are far and few between though. I don�t write music intentionally really. I just play the piano�there will be phrases I hear from chords that I am putting together that sound pleasing to me, so I play the over and over, and they will morph into some kind of pattern, that eventually becomes a complete idea. I�m not sure I could pull it off if someone said, okay sit down and write a piece about this or that, this long, in this key, etc. That�s not how I do it.
Performing for the cameras in the studio is completely new to me. I have only ever performed on a stage, with a band or ensemble of some kind. I might have played a few solo gigs but that�s not my normal performing environment, so I guess you could say it�s changed how I perform for sure. As of this writing I have produced the first two parts of the first backstage project. Demonstrating the process is completely different than just sitting down and playing the piano part, and when it gets to the arranging stage, what I am discovering is that a lot of what I do in the studio is not all that entertaining to watch. Technical issues with capturing the process aside, it takes me probably twenty to thirty hours to flesh out an arrangement from a piano idea. I can�t possibly record all that, so I am working on how to capture the important steps and leave out the redundant grunt work. For example in this first project, in one step I show how I get a time signature established, but as my compositions usually have so many signature changes, I only demonstrated a couple, then I spent several hours off camera editing the score to fill in the rest. I�ve been trying to keep the flow of the video consistent through this process. It�s definitely a learning experience, and I feel like it will get better and better as I figure things out, and I get feedback from the viewers.

PS: What's the very first new piece people get to hear?

FW: The first piece is called Leaving. It is the most recent song idea I have completed, so it was the obvious choice to start with.

PS: Please tell me the story behind it.

FW: Well it�s pretty much what it says. After my diagnosis I felt pretty sure I would be �leaving� pretty soon. The first few months I went through a roller coaster of emotions. I�m told this is typical. I didn�t play the piano at all for some time, thinking there were far more important things to take care of. Everything was squeezed under the pressure of a couple years left to get it done. I wasn�t ready at all. It�s amazing how many things you put off for whatever reason. I always had a tomorrow to look forward to, so it was easy to be relaxed. Not so any more. The first few months had me spinning internally. After I made peace with my situation and myself, the piano was there for me as always�the doorway to other places through the sound. As it has always been, the piano is my great escape from reality. So the first song that came from my renewed interaction with the instrument was Leaving, and it is about that. Leaving. I�m not as resigned to the idea of leaving anymore. I�m fighting, but I�m not afraid now.

PS: Have years of recording & performing changed your writing process in any way?

FW: I like to think I have learned a few things on the journey. In bands, I will write a piano piece then play it for my mates. I sometimes hear some other parts and sometimes not. I have always tried to be unattached to the arrangement that follows; trusting the others in the group to do what they hear with the music, and through a back and forth interaction determine what is best for the song. As my studio developed, I was able to start adding more parts myself, so single ideas became more fleshed out. The High Places was one of the first projects I recorded a complete demo version of, with many parts and completed lyrics ready when I took it to the band. Now, trying to do solo projects for the studio site, I am using that multi track technique all the time. The risk of course is that the music will be too one dimensional. The flavors that the other guys added to the recipe made the songs what they were. I suppose time will tell if my new music will stand on its own.

PS: Let's talk about a friend for a moment. If you had to sum up what's unique about Stanley Whitaker in 3 HTM/PGA/OS songs, what ones immediately come to mind and why?

FW: The Stumpy Shuffle - I just love the happy imagery this tune evokes in me. I can visualize an animated army of little cartoon dudes marching to the beat, coming out of the Stencil Forest sort of like the �Keep on Truckin'� figure. It�s very unique in that way�I don�t have a visual suggested so strongly by many songs. In The High Places Stan�s voice just nailed the emotions of the whole concept. It�s like he believed it�he was there. He got what I was writing about, and sang it. In The March Of The Mushroom Men his guitar just sings. It�s him coming through the guitar�that piece is so strong and genuinely delivered. It�s unique to hear such a beautiful melody so powerfully delivered. Of course I love all of Stan�s work. It was very difficult to choose songs�I really just picked the first three to come to mind!

PS: With the work on your lungs, will you still be able to play sax on any new pieces?

FW: Lungs are okay so far. I don�t know how things will progress�the plan is for this immunotherapy to cure me and have a happy ending! I have plans to do a saxophone quartet for the studio projects though�it should be a hoot!

PS: At The Edge Of This Thought and While Crome Yellow Shine are parts 1 & 2 of a 3 part work. Any thoughts of giving us part 3?

FW: I honestly cannot remember the third part. It must have washed away in the flood of time. I do have plenty of ideas left though.

PS: In our interview several years back, you said you never get tired of listening to these albums:

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

At this particular moment, what would you add to that list?

FW: I have been listening to Animals As Leaders. I would add Arnold Bax to the list, his tone poems just knock me out. Also, after seeing them live, I have become a big Marillion fan. Steve Hogarth blew me away with The Invisible Man.


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