The third album of Mother Turtle has been one the most pleasant surprises for any prog fan in 2018 (our reviews here). However, the most difficult thing wasn’t just the fact that Zea Mice was better than Mother Turtle and ΙΙ, but also that the band managed to evolve under different and theoretically rather inconvenient terms. Kostas Konstantinidis, the band leader, a disarmingly honest and always enjoyable speaker answers to our questions.
Questions: Kostas Barbas, Tasos Poimenidis
Translation: Alexandros Mantas
First things first, congratulations on your new album Kostas. Probably it is the best thing you have done so far. How did things for the turtles go in between your two last releases?
Thank you so much! I don’t know if it’s our best effort, since it’s us who created it and therefore we’re most inappropriate to judge it, but sure enough it’s very different from anything else we have done so far. Fortunately this time there wasn’t any members’ come-and-go, therefore things went somewhat more smoothly. We did several shows in our hometown thanks to which we financed the production of our third album, but also we managed to cut our second album in physical form. Moreover we made an appearance on the national TV at the show Volume Sessions which was very important for us since our music got the chance to reach people who otherwise wouldn’t have heard of us.
Why did you opt this time for a fully instrumental album?
It was mainly my decision, to be honest. I think of myself primarily as a guitarist and secondly as a singer, so this double duty was wearing me out at times, especially when it came to live shows, since not everyone is Geddy Lee. Of course when we started rehearsing some ideas for the third album, the dominating view was that vocals would be, one way or another, unnecessary and maybe, which was the way things happened, we could add some abstract dashes of vocals where they would fit well. The option for a permanent singer was on the table for some time, but finally was discarded because we would outnumber even Leningrand Cowboys.
Even though lyrics are absent this time, can I hazard a guess that there are certain concepts behind the titles of the songs and the album as well?
But of course! Generally, we love word play. So, Zea mays is the scientific name of maize. I had spotted it back in my high school days and I jotted it down for future use as a band monicker. Finally, even though Zea Mays never materialized as a band, a momentary flashback during the recording sessions occurred in my mind and by changing slightly the word “Mays” to “Mice” it made its way to the visor of the album.
So, the titles of the first part have to do with the maize since “kukuruzu” means maize in Russian and the mystery farmer in the beginning of the album recites us his personal drama that his hens ate the maize he wanted to eat so bad himself. Cornhub is one more word play involving a well-known domain with self-improvement tips.
Part 2 is in its entirety a small feature of the town we live in and its history. Sea Mice is a direct reference to Thermaikos Gulf, while Zeitenlik is an allied military cemetery of those who perished in the WWI and the largest necropolis of the Balkans containing almost 20,000 graves of the Eastern Army. It’s a shocking place which, like every military memorial that wars leave behind, generates you a train of thoughts. In Thessaloniki back in 1916 converged people from virtually all over the planet to fight and ultimately die without even knowing the cause. Kipling’s and MacDiarmid’s (who served in the allied forces himself) poems convey accurately the sense of despair and Vermins comes next where we crawl with them in the trenches, but also on Zeitenlik’s soil and finally Fourward which is also a word play combining the order that gives a higher official for attack with the song’s four position in the second part of the album. Nostos is surely the return back to home, to homeland wherever it may be and the sense of safety that brings this return.
Which were your sonic influences, with regard to production and which with regard to composing when creating Zea Mice?
Contrary to the 80s aura of our debut album and the 70s of our second one, I think that there’s mainly a 90s feeling both in production and compositions here. Ozric Tentacles for starters, together with Porcupine Tree of the Signify era were main influences. Aside them, we definitely examined how some bands grafted traditional influences onto their music. As for myself, I was listening from Trilok Gurtu and Mahavisnu Orchestra to Area and Estradasphere. Moreover, I had a very concrete idea about the direction of the album, I wanted to gain insight in what Miles Davis did in Bitches Brew, how he directed the rest band members and after this, how did he pull off together with Teo Macero to put together this masterpiece. Also, Santana in Lotus era, their most trip one and the more contemporary Oresund Space Collective were in the playlist. Finally, Socrates are in my view the biggest domestic school and Spathas’ playing a huge influence for me, it was the basis that Nostos was built upon.
Could you describe us the procedure of composing and arranging the material? I guess that the cementing of the line-up for two successive albums played its part?
In II the addition of the saxophone and the violin took place when the material was already completed, therefore we strived to strike the right chemistry with all these solo instruments. Now I think we are in a pleasant stage to know exactly what we should expect from every member when it comes to composing the material. I know, for instance, that Alexis on the violin can find as simple as that the appropriate phrase that lacks from a given part and Babis on the saxophone has a knack to improvise. The fact that the drums and the bass provide a solid rhythm section make mine and George’s role on the keyboards instantly more obvious and we know when we should solo or play a riff.
We followed a different approach of composing and arranging in every album. In the first one the songs were written after exhausting rehearsals and we went in the studio knowing beforehand what we should play, down to the last note.
In II almost all of the songs were written by me, because of the members’ changes and assorted other problems so that the existence of the group was hanging by a thread. Therefore, I took it upon me to salvage the situation writing the material at home and arranging with the rest of the guys in the studio.
In Zea Mice we had once again prepared some parts, yet most of the album took its shape in there relying precisely on the chemistry which is developed among us all this time. All these schizophrenic choices fell upon Kostas Kofinas on the console to handle them, putting his endurance through its paces every time.
It seems that being part of Mother Turtle has done the world of goods to every one of you as musicians. Is the creative process in a band the dream of every musician?
I think so, for my part at least. In Mother Turtle if I come up with an idea I will never dictate what George should play on the drums or Alexis on the violin. General guidelines maybe, but everyone will compose his parts in their entirety. Scores are not around (excluding the saxophonist who will sit down and do it, driven obviously by a masochistic instinct) and we all rely on our memory. As a result, when it’s about complicated compositions, then you have no other choice but get into deep water and consequently improve according to the needs of the band. The roles within the group are absolutely distinct and we all bend our efforts to serve the composition itself than indulge in endless technical acrobatics which provoke, to us at least, yawning.
A jamming feeling percolates the compositions. Is it an educated guess that the best part of what we hear was initiated by improvisations in the studio and then fleshing these ideas out?
Almost all of our songs are written like you said, but in Zea Mice there is the following paradox: it’s simultaneously our most carefully prepared beforehand album, but also the most impulsive. Things started to roll indeed by some jam sessions which by pure serendipity had a quite similar style. All the ideas are based upon Balkan rhythms and scales, so after we defined the blueprint we winged it from there following our instincts. So when it came to recording time, we just went in and developed these ideas live in the studio and he piled up more than 60 minutes of music from day one. As a result, we had a surfeit of material to sift through, but we had to chuck out a lot of stuff.
You work with the same producer from your first album. What is this that makes Kostas Kofinas such an invaluable collaborator?
Kostas is now indeed a member of the band. After so many years he knows exactly what we have in mind and how we would like the music to be, regardless that he’s not a prog fan. He thinks that Zea Mice is our poppiest moment, no less! We appreciate no end the patience he shows and his incredible diligence about every detail something that I don’t pay too much attention, being the chaotic personality I am. Therefore, I’m really pleased that there’s someone who will take care of this. In this album, putting together the pieces of the puzzle was indeed a very difficult task and with almost 300 different channels it took him vast amounts of coffee to carry it out. The procedure was also difficult for us because every track had many layers and because we recorded it based on the concept that it’s a single song but some ideas could work in more than one part. The role of Kostas there was indeed what a producer should do. He took initiative and put everything in the right place which was no mean feat since we were also in the room and he needed us like a hole in his head because he had to focus to do it right and we have a tendency for becoming rather goofy, to put it mildly.
Despite that progressive rock is the basis of your sound, yet you draw influences from other styles like jazz fusion. What do you like to listen to and to what extend these things affect Mother Turtle?
Progressive rock is indeed the music that everyone in the band listens to, some more or less of it. Aside that, George Filopelou, our bassist is in a fusion kick lately, listening to Tigran Hamasyan and Dhafer Youssef whereas George Baltas, our drummer, is probably the most “all-around” listener. He can listen to everything, from Nile to pop. Naturally, this comes out in his playing and personally I’m delighted that he can adapt to anything we come up with. George Theodoropoulos, our keyboardist suffers chronically from Rush-virus and generally is fond of the more melodic aspect of prog whereas our violinist, Alex Kiourntziadis listens and plays to everything, from songs of Pontus to fusion. Our saxophonist and flutist, Babis Prodromidis listens to and studies primarily jazz and generally things you’re prone to listen to with dimmed lights, wine and your other half in your arms. Personally, I listen to as much music as I can that my tight schedule permits, mostly 70s progressive rock, but also classic rock along with anything else that ticks my fancy, regardless of its style. I think that all this stuff affects our playing and the approach we compose songs, for sure.
Every album of yours has its own character and style. Do you believe that differentiation is part of the essence of progressive?
I think that the element of surprise is the quintessence of prog. I admire immensely artists who take their chances and differentiate their sound from album to album like Frank Zappa for instance, a huge influence of ours. I see no reason whatsoever for self-fulfillment for an artist, especially when they don’t belong to a label and daring not to experiment when nothing important commercially-wise is at stake. Sometimes the experiment works and some others not, but one way or another we’ll try different things, at least for as long we’ll exist as a band.
Nostos that closes the album is, in my opinion, your best song so far. How difficult is it to blend elements of traditional Greek music with rock?
I don’t know if I can give an objective answer to this question for a simple reason: we never studied a bit traditional music, nor do we listen to it. I suppose it’s “easy” because the rhythms and scales of the Balkan Peninsula, and generally Eastern stuff are elements with which we’re constantly in contact, from local festivals to two-a-penny hits that are all over the place. For, say, an American the result may sound exotic and sure enough takes carefully study to reproduce it the way it should sound; but if you ask any given Greek musician to play something like that, they will do it on the spot, without too much trouble.
What’s your opinion about the increasing number of Greek rock bands that blend traditional Greek elements?
I think it’s positive, meaning that a certain sound is gradually taking shape, and if there was a plan behind all this, for instance a label to promote this stuff, it could characterize and unify this scene, like in Norway. For the time being this is something unfeasible and sure enough not all these efforts are up to the mark.
Sometimes, the sheer addition of a traditional instrument is not enough to improve a composition. The composition itself should be interesting and have potential, so as not to end up too loose. I’ll come out and say that I prefer those where the sounds of Greek tradition emanate from electric instruments to those where the traditional instrument is involved and has a leading role. I deem that the arrangement requires subtle and careful treatment and simultaneously it takes deep knowledge of musical tradition itself and therefore things are getting tough and you could easily be drawn into safe solutions which illustrate nothing more than a seemingly different sonic approach while, on the other hand, lurks the possibility of ending up to results of dubious aesthetic. Mode Plagal, Takis Barberis, Iasis but also the more contemporary propositions of Babel Trio and Apolis are for me ideal illustrations of blending elements of traditional Greek music with more modern musical styles.
Once more you opted to self-release this album. Is this the only choice for you now? Will a physical form be available this time?
I think it’s indeed the only option for us now. Firstly because of the artistic freedom and secondly because of obligations (work, married with children, etc.) we would never be in position to meet the demands a label would have.
This path has its difficulties of course because you’ve got to put your hand in your pocket and invest on every release, something that for a band like Mother Turtle is a veritable achievement. The income from sales is insignificant and as a result we have a hard time and we can barely finance our next release, especially when we have to spend money on a physical format which also won’t bring money home and there is a pretty large quantity of them left. Taking all of the above into consideration, we figured out that if we want a fourth album, which is what we want, then we’d better skip the physical format this time and if it ever materializes somewhere down the line, it will be done when we can afford it.
Any plans for gigs, hopefully in more venues and more frequently this time?
This is something we’d like for sure. We love playing live and it’s obvious from the live feel that our studio albums we want to convey. Yet, due to the financial difficulties aforementioned, we’re really hard pushed to cover the expenses, especially when the club owners that invite you to play can’t fork in part of the expenses. Therefore, it’s easier for us to perform in our city and nearby places where we don’t have to stay overnight and thus avoid costly transportations. We can do nothing else but make a wish that things will be different this time and we’ll be able to visit more places.
I’m daring to ask you if there’s already new material for the next album. Shall it be different this time, too?
The ideas alone that didn’t make their way into Zea Mice are plenty enough to make an album. There’re also leftovers from our previous ones. But we have already started rehearsals for new material. My personal desire, and I think it’s a bet, is to come with an LP, or an EP, with simpler compositions, shorter in duration. I’m really jealous of those who can tell a story within three or four minutes and convey certain feelings. For us who are used to more stretched-out cuts, something like that would be a real challenge. Of course something completely different from what I’ve just described may come out in the end. We function a bit like the Monty Python’s sketch with the Spanish Inquisition: “You never expect the Spanish inquisition!”
We wish you good luck with the promotion of the album because it surely deserves to reach a wider progressive and not only audience.
We thank you too for your time and the positive feedback.