Axel Rudi Pell - 03/11/2008

UNITOPIA is a musical adventure comprising the vocal and song writing skills of Mark Trueack, the production, song writing, keyboard & vocal skills of Sean Timms, the guitar & vocal prowess of Matt Williams, the bass and vocal talents of Shireen Khemlani, the combined drum/percussion batteries of Monty Ruggiero and Tim Irrgang and the remarkable multi-instrumentalism of Mike Stewart.  Based in Adelaide, South Australia they released their debut CD 'More Than a Dream' in 2005 to critical acclaim. The independently released album is a unique mélange of Progressive Rock, Classical & World Music, able to keep the listener enthralled & challenged by the scope of the material, lyrically, musically & emotionally.  

With great commitment, the band returned to work. ‘The Garden’ was written, demoed, recorded, mixed and mastered in three years. “’The Garden’ is a more coherent, mature album, more firmly placed in the progressive rock genre. It is far more lyrically and musically intricate than ‘More Than a Dream’,” says Sean Timms, who produced the album together with Trueack, adding: “Whereas ‘More Than A Dream’ was recorded over eight years in three different studios, ‘The Garden’ was finished in one studio in three years. This means that there is a lot more consistency between the tracks.”

 

The result is a concept album which takes its listeners on a fascinating journey through space and time. From the opening track, “One Day”, to the opulent, more than 22-minute title song, from “Journey’s Friend”, the expansive beginning of the second CD, to the final “321”, this double album keeps its listeners in permanent suspense. “The songs do tie very nicely together and have a flow to them,” Timms confirms, explaining its thematic background: “The overall message that the album conveys is one of redemption. It is an album about hope coming from despair. Whereas ‘More Than A Dream’ was predominantly concerned with where the world was going and pointing the proverbial finger at the ‘higher powers’ – the government, media and authoritarian leadership –, ‘The Garden’ is much more concerned with getting our own lives right before we criticise others. It’s much more introspective and asks the question ‘What do I need to change in myself in order to elicit a positive change in others?’” A truly sensitive question which is reflected in every note of Unitopia’s wonderfully lyrical music.

 

 

‘The Garden’ was recently released through InsideOut Music in Europe, and so we did an interview with Sean Timms, here you can read what he had to say.

 

Congratulations on your new album ‘The Garden’ which was recently released in Europe! Of course we’d like to ask you a couple of questions about it.

 

First of all, I’m not familiar with your band so could you tell me something about Unitopia. How did this band come together? Could you start this interview off with a short introduction of the members and the origin of the name of the band for our readers?

Hi Eugene. Thanks for the interview! We are constantly surprised by the fact that people really enjoy what we do! We take great pleasure in creating our music and it’s fantastic when we encounter people who enjoy listening to our music as much as we enjoy creating it.

 

First off… let me say up front that Unitopia is not a metal band. We do have some heavier sections to our music, but we’re not what I would call metal. There are classical, world (ethnic), jazz and rock elements to our music as well. We would appeal to listeners that like a lighter side of prog. Our songs are intricately arranged, but we try to make them accessible to a wider audience by using strong melodies and hooks. We’re from Australia, and we have six members. Mark Trueack - Vocals, Sean Timms (myself) - Keyboards, Backing Vocals, Mandolin, Acoustic & Lap Steel Guitars, Banjo, Matt Williams - Guitars, Backing Vocals, Shireen Khemlani - Bass, Backing Vocals, Monty Ruggiero - Drums, Tim Irrgang - Percussion.

 

Unitopia began in 1996 when a mutual friend who ran a CD store introduced Mark and myself after realizing we had similar musical tastes. We caught up over a meal and a few beers and discovered many similarities, not only in music, but in our sense of humour, our movie and TV tastes and our joy for life and concern for the environment. As soon as I heard Mark sing, I knew that we had to start working together. A date was made for Mark to come over to my studio and immediately we began working on the track which was to become 'Take Good Care'. This formulated into an energetic and exciting song writing partnership that culminated in the completion of our debut album 'More Than A Dream'. Mark and I would get together sporadically over the next few years. This was due to high levels of commitment each of us had to our own jobs and other areas. This is why ‘More Than a Dream’ took so long to complete. (9 years!)

 

During this time Mark and I realised that this was getting much bigger than the two of us, so we decided to expand the project into a band. We gathered together the cream of Adelaide’s musical talent into what we now know as Unitopia.

 

We have a great group of people in the band. We all get along very well even though our personalities are so different. Shireen, our bass player is very quiet and reserved, but she has a dry sense of humour and some of the quips she can come out with are hilarious. She’s also very self deprecating. She loves Latin music! Mark on the other hand is larger than life in every way. He’s 6 foot 6 inches tall and built like a truck! He has no problem talking to anyone having been in sales for most of his life. Mark loves any music! Monty our drummer is a bit of a dark horse and can get very moody and sullen, but we have ways of snapping him out of it. Just give him a pair of drum sticks and he’s as happy as Larry. Monty loves jazz-rock - Spirogyra, Steely Dan and Al Jarreau. Matt, our guitarist is one of the most easy going people you would care to meet and loves good ol’ straight ahead rock, as is Tim our percussionist who enjoys pretty much anything if the concerts I’ve seen him at are any indication!  Me, I can get a bit intense sometimes, so Mark will always have a joke or a gag ready to lighten me up! He’s definitely the band clown! I love to listen to singer-song writers like James Taylor and Al Stewart. What is common to all members though, is their commitment to their craft. They are all excellent musicians. World class, but without the ego. I think that that translates onto the album very well. Each member has a chance to shine, but they don’t get in the way if it’s not warranted.

 

The name Unitopia was about the fourth name we came up with. The first couple of names were Magoo and Uni-T. This led to an amalgamation of two words, Unity, meaning all together and Utopia, and ideal place. Thus Unitopia means all together in an ideal place. Our website describes it more fully: UNITOPIA - (yu-nih-to-pi-E): meaning living together as one in a place of ideal perfection especially in law, government and social conditions.

 


How did you launch into writing material for ‘The Garden’ and how much time did you spend on the songs?

‘The Garden’ took about 3 years to complete from start to finish. That might seem like a long time, but seeing as ‘More Than a Dream’ took 9 years, we were really flying along! Mark and I both have full time jobs, so we can’t put the amount of time into Unitopia that we would like. We’re hoping that ‘The Garden’ is successful enough, so that we can justify spending more and more time on our music.
 

I guess the biggest problem we face is lack of time and money. Pretty much like everyone else I’m afraid. We would love to do this full time, but because there is only a very small market in Australia, it’s not financially viable. This means that both Mark and I work full time to support our families. We’re fortunate that I own and operate a recording studio otherwise we might not have ever recorded any of our songs. This being the case, we wrote, demoed, recorded, mixed and mastered the album entirely in our spare time. Imagine what we could do if we were doing this all day! That is a dream of ours. To write, record and tour Unitopia full time. After completing ‘More Than a Dream’, we realised that this wasn’t the end, but just the beginning. We started writing new material straight away!


Did ideas come easily so that you just had to write them down or was it more of a careful composing thing?

Our ideas come very quickly. Mark is a real ideas person. They just keep on flowing right out of him! I take those ideas and make them a reality. That’s what I’m good at.

Lots of things inspire us to write our songs as well. We really love what we do and can’t wait to get down to song writing.


What were the goals you had in mind when you started to write songs for ‘The Garden’, any elements you definitely wanted to have on the album?

We really wanted The Garden to be a prog album, but not in the traditional sense. We like to make our music complex and challenging, but at the same time accessible. We love to write good melodic songs and then place them in a progressive rock framework. Also, we like to add elements of world/ethnic music as well as classical and jazz.


Was it a conscious decision to do it this way?

Probably more so for me than it was for Mark. Mark doesn’t mind what style we write in as long as we’re writing together. We’ve even written a lullaby for children!


In song writing, what is the utmost important ingredient for a song according to you and is there any typical way that a Unitopia song comes into being?

I’m a huge fan of singer-songwriters such as Neil Young, James Taylor and Shawn Colvin, so for me, the most important ingredient is the actual song. Then comes the arrangement. Firstly though, you need to have a good melody, strong lyrics and an interesting chord progression. Forget all of the solos, instrumental breaks etc… What will grab people’s attention is a really good song. That’s what we strive for as much as we can.

There is no typical way that a Unitopia song comes together. We just get together and start writing.

 

Could you please describe the implications of the title ‘The Garden’?

‘The Garden’ is the title of the 2nd track on CD1 and is our longest piece to date running at 22 and a half minutes. The song began as an idea I had after seeing advertising for the Adelaide Fringe Festival’s ‘Garden of Unearthly Delights’ and my fascination with Hieronymus Bosch’s painting ‘The Garden of Earthly Delights’. Using both for inspiration, I began to write lyrics that depicted a strange, fanciful and wondrous place where one could go and totally forget their inhibitions, indulge their every whim and fulfill their every desire. Exploring this idea further, I wanted to convey the notion that sometimes the things that feel pleasurable are not always good for you. Thus a constant struggle is waged between the pleasures of life and looking after one’s mind, body, soul and emotions. This struggle is what Mark and I focused on during the writing of the rest of the piece. The eventual outcome is that the catalyst of the story finally overcomes the ‘dragons’ that prevent him from claiming his future and enters a realm of peace, grace and freedom. The story is allegorical and uses concrete forms to convey the more abstract and spiritual notions of the song.

 


Who was responsible for writing the songs and the lyrics on this album and where do you get your inspiration from?

 

Mark and I write most of the material. Our guitarist Matt has collaborated with us on 2 songs, “Love Never Ends” written for my wedding to my lovely wife Amanda, and “When I’m Down”.  In the mid 90’s while Mark was living in Sydney, he wrote a couple of tracks with local producer Matt Coxhead. One of the tracks was “This Life” which I always liked, but we rewrote the chorus, changed the key and tempo and a few of the words to bring it into the Unitopia style. Matt’s heard the different version and he’s very pleased!


Apart from those 3 songs, all the rest were written by Mark and I.
Mark and I have similar music tastes in a lot of areas. We both like Genesis, Peter Gabriel, Pink Floyd, Yes, Moody Blues, Marillion, Alan Parsons and a lot of the newer prog bands out there such as The Flower Kings, Spock’s Beard, Porcupine Tree and Frost. Mark also likes John Martyn, Kate Bush and the more electronic side of music such as Jean Michel Jarre and Vangelis. I tend to prefer the singer - songwriters such as James Taylor, Al Stewart and Paul Simon as well as some of the big 80’s stadium acts such as Heart, Toto and Ambrosia. I also love listening to Prefab Sprout, Alison Krauss, Shawn Colvin and Nicolette Larson. We both have very varied tastes! As far as inspiration from other artists, it can be anything. A chord progression, a sound, a lyrical topic or even a general philosophy. We don’t think about it too much, we just get into the studio and write.

 

Who was responsible for the lyrics on this album and where do you get your inspiration from? What would you say are the main themes in your lyrics ?

Mark and I write all of the lyrics for Unitopia. We come at things from a different angle to each other. Mark will sing and improvise lyrics that come straight from the heart whereas I will spend a lot of time on the lyrics and craft them as well as I can. It’s very important for me to be as poetic as possible. Inspiration for Mark, comes from matters of the heart, whereas my inspiration comes from reading, observing and life experience. The main themes of our lyrics do vary, but in general we like to state a very positive attitude in them. There is way too much negativity around us, so we like to keep things positive, even when all looks bleak, there can still be a light at the end of the tunnel. Some listeners may think that’s a bit un-cool or simplistic. That’s OK, but it won’t change our approach to our lyric writing. We want the listener to be uplifted by our music and writing positive lyrics is one way to do that.


Is the music written independently of the lyrics or do you try to reflect lyrical ideas through the music?

It’s whatever feels right at the time and it also depends on who has come up with the idea in the first place. Mark might have a line or two of lyrics or a concept going around in his head. He will sing it to me and I will start putting music to it. At other times, I might have a chord progression or a piece of music that I have written and Mark will start improvising a lyric and melody over the top of it. Sometimes we just ‘jam’ in the studio and see what we come up with. More rarely, one or the other of us will write a pretty well complete song that they will present to the other.

What comes first, lyrics or melodies? Is it like you sit down and write a new song because you need more material now or do you wait until you get an idea?

What comes first is the idea. Then all else follows, but not in any particular order. We are never short of ideas, so we write songs whenever we get together, or sometimes we write separately and then bring the song to the table the next time we get together.

Do you have any favorites on ‘The Garden’, songs that you think are somehow above the others?

I really like all of the tracks on ‘The Garden’ and have different reasons for doing so. E.g. “One Day” I like because it’s so simple and “The Garden” I like because it’s so complex! Work that out! If I had to pick a favourite track it would change all the time. Mark’s favourite track is “Give & Take”.

 

How much time did you spend in the studio on ‘The Garden’?

As I own and operate a recording studio, all our time is spent there. It took us 3 years to complete, but during that 3 years, we wrote all of the songs, demoed them, added all of the live parts including vocals and then edited, mixed and mastered them. It would probably be hundreds of hours if I were to add up all the time that was spent on the album.

What do you think are the main differences between your previous album and the new one ‘The Garden’?

Our first CD, ‘More Than a Dream’ took us 9 years to finish because Mark and I could only get together very sporadically. It’s more of a project album than a band effort. The CD is a  bit less cohesive than ‘The Garden’ due to the fact that we were still experimenting with our sound, we didn’t have a set roster of musicians (we just used anyone who was around at the time) and we weren’t setting out to write a progressive rock album. I think we’ve matured lyrically, thematically and musically quite a bit since we started working on ‘More Than a Dream’. We have a lot more of an idea now as to what we want to write and how we want to convey our music and message. Even though MTAD was very well received, I feel that ‘The Garden’ is a much better effort from us musically and lyrically.

That being said, there are still some very strong songs on MTAD that we’re very proud of. Justify, Still Here, the title track and “Lives Go ‘Round” (which is the opening track on the latest CPR3 compilation release) to name a few. I would describe the new album ‘The Garden’ as a more coherent, mature album, more firmly placed in the progressive rock genre. It is far more lyrically and musically intricate than ‘More Than a Dream’. With our 1st CD, Mark and I were learning about one another, what we liked, what we didn’t and what we wanted to get out of the Unitopia partnership. For the most part, it was a labour of love…something we did in our infrequent spare time. We weren’t necessarily recording an album…just writing a collection of songs for our own enjoyment. This collection became ‘More Than a Dream’ and it was only after it was released and we saw all the positive responses we got from all around the world that we thought “Maybe we’re on to something here!” Don’t get me wrong…we were very passionate about the project, but didn’t quite see how much a part of our lives it was going to become. As we wrote and recorded the songs, we gathered people to play on the tracks as they were available. Consequently on MTAD there are 2 drummers, 3 bass players, 2 guitarists, numerous session backing singers as well as a host of others.
 

We wanted the new material to be a lot more cohesive and we also wanted the players who played on the CD to be a part of the live band as well, so Mark and I set about recruiting the best possible players to be involved in the new project. This became Unitopia the band. We now had a vehicle for playing the Unitopia music live as well as in the studio. The players who play on the CD are the ones we tour with! Also… ‘The Garden’ was written, recorded, mixed and mastered in 3 years. This means that there is a lot more consistency between the tracks. Mark and I were also getting together a lot more frequently so the pace of the whole process has been increased.
 

During the latter stages of MTAD and the beginning of ‘The Garden’, I went through a marriage breakup. This gave me a lot of free time to devote to Unitopia as well as a lot of emotional material from which to draw when writing lyrics. Whereas MTAD was recorded over 8 years in 3 different studios, ‘The Garden’ was finished in one studio in 3 years.

These days, Mark and I have a very clear idea where we want Unitopia to go and this attitude reflects in our songs and their arrangements.
 


Have you received any feedback on the album yet?

Yes! So far the general concensus is that people either love it or hate it! I don’t think that’s a bad thing. I would rather have a strong reaction than no reaction at all! I’m just talking about reviewers here. As for the fan’s reaction, it’s been very positive and encouraging. Maybe we’ll keep on going!


Are third party opinions (press, fans, etc.) on your music important to you? Or are your music and band the only things that matter?

Initially, Mark and I started writing together purely for our own enjoyment, and that fact hasn’t changed. What has changed is that now we have a lot of other people that really enjoy what we do as well. We consider that we now have a certain responsibility to them to continue to create high quality music that they will enjoy for a long time. Not everyone is going to like our material. That’s OK…we’re fine with that. What does annoy us a bit is destructive criticism. Whenever I write a review, even if I don’t particularly like the style of music, I will always look for positives and try to remain constructive regarding the negatives. It’s very easy to take negative critique personally. However, we do what we do and don’t make any apologies for it. We have to stay true to who we are.


Overall, are you pleased with the outcome of the songs or would you have liked to have changed anything in retrospective?

I think as a musician there will always be elements of the whole effort that you’re not completely happy with. That’s to be expected. But that’s all part of learning, growing and getting better at what you do. I’m sure there are elements of ‘Close To The Edge’ that Jon Anderson might be less than thrilled about, but it’s still an amazing work!

Overall though, we’re very pleased with the outcome and we are very proud of it.

What do you think is the difference between Unitopia and other bands in the progressive / symforock scene?

There are a few differences that I feel Unitopia has that are different from other prog/symphonic bands. Number one, we’re from Australia. That gives us a unique perspective as we’re one of only a handful of progressive rock bands from this country. Number two, we like to incorporate ethnic/world, classical and jazz textures into our music to create a unique blend of those styles that is uniquely Unitopia, and thirdly, we appeal to a larger female audience than some bands due to the fact that we write songs that are more sensitive in their delivery and structure.
 

What is your opinion on the Australian scene these days, is there anything missing in the progressive / symforock scene?

The Australian progressive rock scene is nearly non-existent. We have a handful of bands that are creating good progressive rock and that’s about it. Namely Cog, The Merlin Bird and The Third Ending. There IS a market for progressive music here, but it’s very difficult to get anything through the media as prog seems like it’s a dirty word here. The culture is totally different in Australia to Europe or North America unfortunately.
 

As far as what’s missing in the current prog scene, I would say that some prog bands these days lack a little of the pioneering spirit that made prog bands of yesteryear so good. Bands like Yes and Genesis were trail-blazers. We’ve lost a bit of that and sometimes ride on their coat tails a bit too much. I include Unitopia in that as well. We will however still continue to create music that although prog in nature, is something that’s hopefully a little different to what’s already out there. Whether we’re successful at it or not, time willl tell.

 

Who are your greatest influences - both in terms of composition, as well as your guitar /bass / drum playing?

Mine personally are all the great keyboard players throughout history. Most notably, Wakeman, Emerson, Banks, Moraz etc… Compositionally, Gershwin, Stravinsky, Thomas Newman, James Taylor, Jimmy Webb, Al Stewart, Thomas Dolby, Kate Bush, Lennon and McCartney and Sting. Monty our drummer has always been a big Porcaro and Gadd fan.

Shireen our bass player is a huge latin fan. She loves Pastorius and Laboriel. Tim our percussionist loves Porcaro and Portnoy. Matt our guitarist is a big Satriani fan and Mark loves Peter Gabriel and John Martyn.

 

Can you tell us a little about yourself and the kinds of things that motivate you in your writing, your poetry, and your lyrics? What are you personally into?

The things that motivate me primarily are my faith in God, my love for music and my desire to make the world that we all live in just a little bit better place, by doing what I can on a personal level. I love keeping fit by teaching and learning karate. (I’m a probationary 2nd dan black belt) I love my wife, Amanda and my family. I love collecting comic books. I have a nearly complete Marvel Comics collection and most DC comics from the 1970’s on. I recently picked up a Superman #4 from 1940 while I was in New York. I love reading…anything! Mark enjoys spending quality time with his wife and two daughters. He’s been a keen surfer in his time and loves taking long walks along the beach. (seems like an ad for a personal!!!) He loves singing and will sing at the top of his lungs whether there’s an audience or not! He loves movies and TV series especially Doctor Who and James Bond.

He also wants to leave the world in a better place than which he found it in.

 

What have been the highlights and low points throughout your career?

I think that the release of ‘The Garden’ by InsideOut is definitely one of the high points for us as a band. I can’t think of any low points. I don’t tend to dwell on them, but instead turn them into positives.

 

Which album has been your biggest musical influence, one that made you think “this is what I want to do!”?

I remember as a teenager, my father bought me ‘Journey to the Centre of the Earth’ by Rick Wakeman. That album totally blew my mind. You can really hear the orchestral influence that Rick Wakeman has had on my writing in Unitopia’s music. I still tour with an array of keyboards that would make Wakeman proud! I love the grandeur, the showmanship and the amazing technique that he brings to his music. That’s the album that got me into keyboards, orchestral arrangement and the progressive concept album.

Other watersheds of enlightenment at that time were’ Close To The Edge’, ‘Tales From Topographic Oceans’ and ‘Relayer’ by Yes, ‘Supper’s Ready’, the ‘Seconds Out’ live version by Genesis, ‘Please Don’t Touch’ by Steve Hackett and ‘Even In The Quietest Moments’ by Supertramp. You could also add ‘Trilogy’ by EL&P, ‘The Story of I’ by Patrick Moraz, ‘Tales of Mystery and Imagination’ by Alan Parsons and of course, ‘Six Wives’, ‘Arthur’ and ‘No Earthly Connection’ by Wakeman.

Are there any particular bands that’ve been a big influence in your song writing?

In the prog genre there have been many. Yes, Genesis, EL&P, Alan Parsons, Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin, Wakeman, Moraz, King Crimson, Steve Hackett, Jethro Tull, Kansas, Peter Gabriel and The Moody Blues as well as many of today’s neo prog bands such as Marillion, Spock’s Beard, Neal Morse, The Flower Kings, Frost, IQ, Dream Theater and Porcupine Tree. In other genres, I really like Prefab Sprout, Toto, The Doobie Brothers, Thomas Dolby, Shawn Colvin, Al Stewart, James Taylor, Nicolette Larson, Kirsty MacColl and Neil Young.

What can we expect from Unitopia in the near future, any touring plans?

We would love to tour in the near future!!! It all depends on the sales of the album though. If you want to see us live…please do your part and go out and buy the CD! Living in Australia has some wonderful advantages. We have a low cost of living, it’s a beautiful country and it’s very safe. A disadvantage though is it’s remoteness to the rest of the world. It costs a lot to travel overseas from here so we would need to be sure that a tour would be well received and financially viable. Our dream is to tour Europe and North America next year if possible.

 

Where do you see the band going within the next couple of years, and where do you see the band’s musical direction going for the next album?

I think that the next couple of years will be very important for the band. Hopefully, ‘The Garden’ will sell well and we’ll be able to tour overseas. It’s critical that we keep the momentum going that we’ve strived so hard to achieve. As for the next album, it will definitely have a concept to it. We already have a clear idea and have written a few songs for it so far. I can’t say much more than that as we want it to be a surprise and we’re not that far along yet.

 

Any last statement you'd like to share with us?

Yes…thank you for your interest in our music. It’s greatly appreciated and we are honored and humbled regarding the attention that our music is getting. It’s exceeded all expectations. Please let us know if you like our music (or even if you don’t) we’re very approachable! Better still…join our eWeb newsletter and we’ll keep you up to date with all things Unitopian! We hope to be able to meet you in person when (and if) we tour next year!

Thanks for your time!

Eugene Straver

 

 

Members:

Mark Trueack - Vocals
Sean Timms - Keyboards
Backing Vocals, Mandolin, Acoustic & Lap Steel Guitars, Banjo
Matt Williams - Guitars, Backing Vocals
Shireen Khemlani - Bass, Backing Vocals
Monty Ruggiero - Drums
Tim Irrgang – Percussion

 

Albums:

More Than a Dream (2005)
The Garden (2008)