PROGRESSION SPECIAL—COMPLETE DAYS BETWEEN STATIONS ARTICLE
Los Angeles duo’s forthcoming third album brings intricate themes to freshly revamped sound
B Y J O H N C O L L I N G E
B Y J O H N C O L L I N G E
Considering what Sepand Samzadeh and Oscar Fuentes have endured in life, progressive rock might seem a curious genre of choice for musically processing some pretty hairy personal experiences. Folk, blues, gospel … heartrending tales of loss and redemption arguably belong there, not amidst parping synthesizers, acrobatic meter shifts and searing guitar solos.
But the more you learn of their well-informed, philosophically attuned worldviews, the more sense it makes. These are bright dudes who might wear their hearts on their sleeves but are abidingly mindful of the big picture, sifting all through an existential filter. In other words, prog’s propensity for complexity suits their similarly involved (evolved) ruminations.
They call their Los Angeles-based act Days Between Stations, a collaboration that began in 2003 and is set to issue its third independently released studio album, Giants, this summer. As on past efforts, Samzadeh (guitars) and Fuentes (keyboards) have surrounded themselves with star guest talent, this time joined by Yes’s Billy Sherwood (bass/drums/vocals), singer Colin Mouding (XTC) and singer Durga McBroom (Pink Floyd).
Returning to provide the album’s symbolically illustrated embellishments is legendary artist Paul Whitehead, known for his work with ‘70s progressive pioneers Genesis, Van der Graaf Generator and others.
Primarily a studio entity, Days Between Stations approached sessions for Giants intent on lending its music a bolder sense of spontaneity. It rocks harder than before, featuring impressive chops with Sherwood providing key input compositionally and as producer.
Of course, it wouldn’t be a Days Between Stations album without serving ample food for thought.
Progression: Why did you title it Giants?
Fuentes: “I wrote a song called ‘Giant’ a few years back, as I was watching my father struggle with dementia. My father was like a giant to me, larger than life. It was really hard to watch his world shrink as he became more dependent on others, and to see him literally physically shrink. As we began discussing ideas for this album, both with Paul and Billy, we expanded the concept. The basic idea is there are people among us who are giants. Not literal giants, mind you. Gandhi was a tiny man physically but also a giant. Martin Luther King. Tesla. But also someone's mom, dad or sibling – the unsung giants.”
Samzadeh: “The album also addresses ‘giant’ life matters affecting us all one way or another—personal growing pains and spiritual awakening, politics, war, science, religion … ”
"Least we forget, Oscar is of Mexican descent, he has a wall to climb over," cracks Samzadeh. " And I, being of Iranian descent, am confined to house arrest.
Sepand knows of what he speaks, citing his upbringing in Iran during the eight-year Iran-Iraq war—how the constant fear, civil strife and deaths of loved ones remain indelibly stamped on his psyche and, by extension, his music.
During the album’s recording his marriage soured with a baby to raise and another on the way. He had a recycling company to manage while also serving as City of Los Angeles Building and Safety Commissioner, a post he lost three years into a five-year term for defying what he felt were politically corrupt practices.
“I also witnessed firsthand the rollercoaster of emotions unfold between Billy Sherwood and Chris Squire,” whose untimely passing led to Sherwood’s role
“The theme of the album actually revolutionized my life,” he says. “It all started when I went with [Whitehead] for lunch one day. I rarely open up to anyone but Paul, being a dear friend and very wise, heard a mouthful from me. I had no idea Paul’s perception of our conversation would show up in the cover art. I really was like Gulliver, tied to the ground with all the elements of my life on me or beside me. Paul depicted my legacy as it looked to him then. It hit me very hard; I did not want to remember my life this way.
“What ensued for me was a barrage of change on the spiritual front. My marriage needed to end. My career path had to be redirected. Politics, I found, was a bargain between beggars I had no control over. So once again, as in Iran, I accepted it and lived within its parameters. Through all this I realized that what really mattered to me was happiness. But first, I had to define it. That also began with Paul through meditation, which I thought was a bunch of fluff before. Meditation is a ‘giant.’
Samzadeh continues, “The theme for our new album, in my view, is the collapse, rebirth and eventual rebalancing of life. History not only happens in parliaments or battlefields but in the daily pilgrimage to discovering yourself and those around us. As Allan Watts said, we are all a bunch of sticks that lean on one another. We cannot know who we are unless we engage with others.
“When you read historical accounts of our various reincarnations in culture and civilization, religion and government are nothing but constructs. But the ‘giant’ thread weaving through us all is our humanity, and how we deal with one another on good days and on bad days.”
Progression: What else informs the new album lyrically?
Fuentes: “Our brainstorming sessions covered so much ground, from Greek myths to ISIS and the whole mess in the Middle East, from Plato’s allegory of the cave to, like I said before, the unsung heroes of our lives. It's all in there! I'm hesitant to paint too detailed a picture, but I'd say one of the overriding concepts is the idea there literally is a battle going on in our world, and I do believe this, between forces of creation – artists, doctors and everyday heroes from the cook to the housewife – and destructive forces represented by the likes of ISIS, dictators or shameless demagogues.
“It all comes to an epic conclusion with [closing track] ‘The Common Thread.’ It may come off as hokey or delusional, but I really believe that what you put out into the world, whatever you create, does fight all this crazy negativity and destruction. So call me a hippy, I guess: it's all about love! On another level, we talked a lot about the revolt of the giants against the ‘heavens,’ from Greek mythology. I'm not sure how much of that comes through, but on the song ‘Giants’ that was meant to illustrate despair mortals feel when they lose someone, or face their own mortality.”
"The theme for our new album is the collapse, rebirth and eventual rebalancing of life. History not only happens in parliaments or battlefields but in the daily pilgrimage to discovering yourself and those around us."
Days Between Stations never has performed live but hopes to, eventually. Sepand and Oscar consider their creative partnership akin to a marriage, with Sherwood and Whitehead as adopted family members. “Lest we forget, Oscar is of Mexican descent, he has a wall to climb over,” cracks Samzadeh. “And I, being of Iranian descent, am confined to house arrest. Eh, Mr. Trump? So, where can we perform? Your parents have sex, you are born somewhere and then you have to pay for it. Now, that’s ‘giant.’”
Living in the sprawling Los Angeles area poses opportunities and obstacles, musically speaking. Whatever progressive community exists appears quite small, the two say, but they admittedly haven’t pursued much networking.
Fuentes played with a “progressive-leaning” band in the ‘90s called Shannon’s Closet. He recalls a once-thriving indie coffeehouse scene catering to adventurous acts that disappeared once Starbucks took over. “I don't really get around much anymore, to quote Duke Ellington, so I'm not an authority,” Oscar says. “But I think there's a tiny bit of a prog scene in Los Angeles, maybe, with bands like Lobate Scarp and Djam Karet.”
One distinct advantage of megalopolis living for Days Between Stations is access to luminaries like Sherwood and Whitehead, with whom the duo has forged close personal ties.
Introduced to Sherwood by a musician friend, Fuentes and Samzadeh credit the ubiquitous maestro with helping them find their musical identity. “Billy sat in the producer’s chair, which was great because now I could watch a master work while he pushed the shit out of me,” says Sepand. “This new album has a rock edge. It’s more traditionally arranged, sonically raw and live sounding. It’s just Oscar, Billy and me playing the instruments. It has a jam vibe rather than our usual long sonic texturing and atmospheric movements.
“I feel we needed to prove to ourselves we could play and hold our ground. It’s an evolutionary steppingstone into what will be next for the band. We finally have found our element, and I feel so much excitement for our next album as well.”
Connecting with Whitehead seems an act of manifestation, stemming from Oscar’s lifelong love of the artist’s iconic cover art. “I had a framed print of Le Orme’s Smogmagica album cover in my room. I remember mentioning how cool it would be to get someone like Paul Whitehead involved with us. And the next thing I knew, Sepand had found a way to contact him!”
Whitehead also did cover art for 2013 album In Extremis, whose (Latin) title references the last illness before death. He appeared in the video for Peter Gabriel-like track “The Man Who Died Two Times,” sung by Moulding. The band’s web site homepage features a comical photo of Paul in a hospital bed with Fuentes and Samzadeh smiling over him in angel’s wings.
Sepand says Whitehead has been like a big brother to him as well as spiritual mentor. “For me,” adds Fuentes, “one of the greatest things about this relationship is that Paul has become a real friend. He's a great guy, just very interesting and fun to be around.”
Progression: Please describe the creative process for Giants—did you write songs first and then record or work them out spontaneously in the studio under Sherwood’s watchful eye?
Samzadeh: “I had the least amount of influence on this album. I think I’m the one that adds the weirdness, the eclectic and unconventional ideas. I had so much happening on the personal front, I basically showed up and played. I didn’t have time to compose or experiment with ideas or sounds as much as I would have liked. The only song I wrote was ‘The Gathering.’ Oscar had all the ideas and completed songs which Billy and I then would rape and pillage into completed form.
“But honestly, just watching Billy work is breathtaking. He did something critical for our musical growth: he is very instinctual and can identify raw inspiration, which might be in a song’s first take or even sometimes the practice take. It requires incredible confidence and talent to do what he does. Through that we really got into ‘the zone’ where we performed at our best, on the spot, on demand.”
Fuentes: “I’d say it was a little bit of both. ‘Giants,’ ‘Spark of Life,’ ‘Another Day’ and ‘Witness the End of the World’ already existed as demos I recorded over the last few years. Except for ‘Witness the End of the World,’ which pretty much retained its overall structure, the other songs were tweaked in the studio – sections added, shuffled, removed.
“The fast pace at which Billy works meant a lot of things we would have labored over—certain parts or solos—were done off the cuff. A Hammond solo at the end of ‘Another Day’ is one of the favorite things I've ever done. The guys really pushed me to just go for it and I think we used the second take of that.
“One more thing about lyrical themes reflecting our life experiences: My contributions on this album had a lot to do about coping with death and, like I said before, the idea there is a ‘spark of life’ fighting ugliness in the world. My original lyrics to ‘Witness the End of the World,’ which I just couldn't make work, were about losing my black cat Matisse, who was like my shadow. You can look for Matisse on the album cover.”
Progression: What do you hope listeners will get from your work?
Fuentes: “Hopefully that it's sincere. We're not really in it for the chicks and the fame! Seriously, I'm very surprised sometimes how people react to our music. There always is a faction that sees this kind of music as retro or pompous. Those judgments often are influenced by superficial aspects, such as instrumentation —‘Oh, he's using a Hammond now, they're aping Emerson, Lake & Palmer’—or just the ‘ambition’ of wanting to say something meaningful on a grander canvas. You could be breaking new ground in other ways, but the minute they hear a mellotron, it’s ‘game over.’ So, I just hope people see we're really wearing our hearts on our sleeves. For me, there always has to be an emotional connection to music and I hope we connect with people emotionally.”
Samzadeh: “I hope listeners find a companion in our music. There is nothing like music that grows with you as you grow over time. Apart from that, speak for yourself, Oscar – I’m already famous, it’s just that no one knows me yet! You also are saying that after shows I can take the girls home and you don't want any?”
Days Between Stations already looks forward to album No. 4, ultimately hitting the concert stage and dabbling in other artistic endeavors including film scores.
Fuentes recently began work on his first solo record and is doing a project with Ken Coffman called Vagabond Empire. “To break the ice we recently recorded a version of Kansas tune ‘Down the Road’ with David Wallimann on guitar, Randy George on bass and Jimmy Keegan on drums,” Oscar says.
Himself having studied film scoring and orchestration at the University of California Los Angeles, Fuentes confirms soundtrack work with Samzadeh on two upcoming short films: one a Mexican-produced love story called Y Recibir, the other a documentary on French photographer Jean-Paul Bourdier, Being. “We've also talked about doing more mixed-media sorts of things, collaborations with artists, sculptors, etc. This could be in a live setting, as well.” But, like his partner, Oscar sees the follow-up to Giants taking top priority. “I'm excited to get cracking on the next Days Between Stations album,” he says. “I would love to see us release stuff at a slightly less glacial pace.”
Sepand seconds the motion, noting that he believes their shared experience on Giants tapped a new wellspring of creativity.
“With three albums under our belts I feel we have come into our own. So I don’t want to pre-think the music at all next time, just let it come out and see where it will take us,” Samzadeh says. “I definitely want to play live and make a live recording in a controlled audio setting. But most of all, I can’t wait to get back into the sandbox with Oscar again!”
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