SIL­VER LIN­INGS

Los­ing singer Dan Tomp­kins could have spelled the end for In­dian quin­tet Sky­har­bor, but with new vo­cal­ist Eric Emery, they’re tak­ing the op­por­tu­nity to push their pro­gres­sive metal into the main­stream.

Prog - - Intro - Words: Eleanor Good­man Im­ages: Ar­gon Pho­tog­ra­phy

Sky­har­bor were right in the mid­dle of their crowd­fund­ing cam­paign for sec­ond al­bum Guid­ing Lights when they got the news: their singer, Daniel Tomp­kins, was re­join­ing his old band, Tesser­acT. While he pledged to carry on with both bands, gui­tarist and band­leader Ke­shav Dhar knew there would be lo­gis­ti­cal dif­fi­cul­ties and braced him­self for the worst.

“It didn’t feel good,” he re­mem­bers to­day, talk­ing over Skype from his home in New Delhi, In­dia. “We were fi­nally pitch­ing our­selves as a band that means busi­ness, and not just Dan Tomp­kins’ side project, and then this hap­pened. But I knew ex­actly what was go­ing on in his life be­cause we’re very close friends. Ob­vi­ously Sky­har­bor weren’t mak­ing money, and he needed some­thing to give him se­cu­rity to pro­vide for his fam­ily.”

They tried to make it work, with the un­der­stand­ing that Tesser­acT would take pri­or­ity, but Sky­har­bor ended up can­celling some com­mit­ments and turn­ing down shows. When Tomp­kins pulled out of Scan­di­na­vian dates in early 2015 for a last-minute chance to play in an igloo in La­p­land with Tesser­acT,

leav­ing them to play in­stru­men­tal sets, it be­came clear the ar­range­ment wasn’t ideal. Tomp­kins bowed out.

“After­wards he ba­si­cally emailed every­body say­ing it was un­fair to us, it wasn’t go­ing to be healthy for the band go­ing for­wards, and it made sense that we look for some­one else,” says Dhar. “Which is what we were do­ing not just with him, but our old drum­mer

Anup Sas­try as well, be­cause he was in In­ter­vals and Jeff Loomis. It was a night­mare. You can only say no to so many things be­fore the of­fers stop com­ing.”

Thank­fully, Sky­har­bor quickly found new singer Eric Emery, based in the States. The vo­cal­ist had trained as an en­gi­neer with Johnny K (Dis­turbed, Plain White T’s) and worked on a Grammy-win­ning gospel record. In a sort of djent game of Chi­nese whis­pers, he was rec­om­mended by Aus­tralian pro­ducer For­rester Savell (who had mixed Guid­ing Lights), who knew about him through thenPe­riph­ery bas­sist Adam ‘Nolly’ Get­good, who had seen him cov­er­ing Kar­nivool on YouTube.

With Emery and drum­mer Aditya Ashok now in the ranks, the band are poised to re­lease their stun­ning third al­bum, Sun­shine Dust. It takes the prog metal of their for­mer records and adds more hooks, push­ing into ac­ces­si­ble ter­ri­tory with­out com­pro­mis­ing on the tech­ni­cal riffs or the sense of hope­ful ex­u­ber­ance that make them great.

“I’m re­ally proud of it,” smiles Dhar. I think it’s a pretty eclec­tic mix of all the direc­tions we’ve trod water in over the past years, but with def­i­nite in­tent and pur­pose this time. We’re pleased as punch.”

The seeds for Sun­shine Dust were sown four years ago, to­wards the end of the writ­ing process for Guid­ing Lights. A con­cept al­bum of sorts, touch­ing on Tomp­kins’ ex­pe­ri­ences as a fa­ther, it felt like one long cin­e­matic piece of mu­sic, so the band were se­lec­tive about their ma­te­rial and shelved any­thing that was “a lit­tle more ex­per­i­men­tal or weird or un­safe”. When Tomp­kins had left and the new mem­bers were in place in June 2015, they be­gan build­ing on this foun­da­tion in earnest.

But a new singer brought new chal­lenges. When Tomp­kins wrote with Sky­har­bor, he would take the mu­sic and “go to town” on it, record­ing a near-fin­ished part. Emery, a fan of al­ter­na­tive bands such as Tool and In­cubus, took a dif­fer­ent ap­proach. He pre­ferred to mum­ble a rough melody into his phone, ask for feed­back and col­lab­o­rate on it. Even­tu­ally, though, the guys found a mid­dle ground and set­tled into a rhythm.

“I can see where he comes from, be­cause in that scene, their thought process is ba­si­cally that if you can play the chord pro­gres­sion on an acous­tic and just sing your melody, the song should be able to stand on its own,” says Dhar. “But we come from a prog back­ground, and what we like to do is pay at­ten­tion to all the minu­tiae. So even when we’re demo­ing, we like to go in depth with all the lit­tle de­tails. It took time to get used to each other’s way of work­ing, but it was never dishar­mo­nious.”

By early 2017, their third record was fin­ished, but the band were still with­out a la­bel or fund­ing. They were re­luc­tant to put their hand out for money again so soon af­ter Guid­ing Lights, so de­cided to go it alone, mix­ing it in-house and get­ting the art­work ready. When they landed a dream sup­port slot with Deftones, it seemed like the per­fect mo­ment to un­leash their cre­ation on the world. But then they started hav­ing sec­ond thoughts.

“We were this close to up­load­ing the tracks and mak­ing it live, and we had an emer­gency meet­ing,” re­veals Dhar. “We asked our­selves, ‘Are we re­ally happy with what we’re do­ing?’ And the an­swer was: not re­ally. We were burned out on the ma­te­rial, hav­ing done it all our­selves, and hav­ing no ob­jec­tive per­spec­tive. We were also ask­ing our­selves what our endgame was. If it’s all about the money then sure, we can put it out now. But if this is about some­thing big­ger, like if we re­ally wanna break into the Amer­i­can mar­ket, we’re not gonna be able to do it by our­selves.”

Around then, they started speak­ing to the guys who would be­come their man­age­ment, Jay Tav­er­nese and Lewis Cosby from Em­pire Reign. Cosby used to play bass in Amer­i­can alt-rock band 10 Years and, un­der their guid­ance, Sky­har­bor signed with Good Fight/eOne. The la­bel of­fered to fly the band any­where to re-record their mu­sic with a pro­ducer, so they chose Savell and went out to Mel­bourne, Aus­tralia last Novem­ber.

“It felt a lit­tle un­nerv­ing at first, like, are they just tak­ing a dump on all this ef­fort we’ve put in? I felt a stab of re­jec­tion,” Dhar says. “But once that passed, it was great. I didn’t have to think about whether I’d done a good or a bad job, I could just be the song­writer or gui­tar player and let this headache be han­dled by some­one else. It was a huge re­lief.”

It was the first time the quin­tet had worked in the same place, rather than re­motely. They recorded for a month, ris­ing at 6am ev­ery morn­ing for a swim and some break­fast, be­fore hook­ing up with Savell. He and co-pro­ducer Luke Wil­liams, drum­mer with Dead Let­ter Cir­cus, would lis­ten to the songs and dis­sect them, tak­ing parts from verses and re­ar­rang­ing them over cho­ruses.

“THE IM­AGERY IN MY MIND WHILE I WAS WRIT­ING SUN­SHINE DUST WAS POSTAPOCALYPTIC CHAOS. A METAPHOR­I­CAL NU­CLEAR BOMB HAS GONE OFF, AND IN THE AF­TER­MATH THERE’S A MO­MENT OF CALM.” Eric Emery

“It was pretty hor­ri­fy­ing at first!” ex­claims Dhar. “But we looked at each other and shut up, stepped out and let them do their thing. When we walked back in and heard what they had in mind, it was great.”

For Emery, a self-con­fessed “night owl” who wasn’t a fan of track­ing his vo­cals at

11am, it was the best mo­ment of the ses­sions. “I loved it,” he says. “I know it’s hard for some of the guys be­cause they were watch­ing their ba­bies get de­stroyed, but I like to see where songs go. A lot of song­writ­ers are so mar­ried to their ini­tial idea that they hin­der the po­ten­tial of the song.”

While Sky­har­bor’s pre­vi­ous records were lyri­cally in­tro­spec­tive, Sun­shine Dust looks at the world around it. Dhar has been trou­bled by the so­cial un­rest that’s rip­pled through In­dia since a new govern­ment came to power in 2014, split­ting so­ci­ety along re­li­gious lines. While he tries to re­main apo­lit­i­cal, he’s rat­tled by the “vi­o­lence and dark sus­pi­cion” he’s ob­served around him.

“We’re see­ing peo­ple lit­er­ally get killed over sus­pi­cion of car­ry­ing beef in their lunch­box,” he tells us. “Ev­ery now and then, you’ll see there’s a Mus­lim guy on a train who’s go­ing some­where, and the train sud­denly gets boarded by a gang of Hindu guys. They ask him what he’s got in his lunch­box, and re­gard­less, even if it’s just lamb or some­thing, they beat him to death. This mob lynch­ing has got worse and worse and worse.”

They also no­ticed tur­bu­lence in the US, with shoot­ings re­ported in many cities they played. When Emery started pen­ning the words, there was a lot of “Trump stuff” go­ing on, and it turned into an “ex­is­ten­tial look at where we are”. Some songs are open-ended, while oth­ers have spe­cific mean­ings – sin­gle Dim is a po­lit­i­cal song that ref­er­ences ly­ing lead­ers. Mean­while, the clos­ing ti­tle track of­fers a bleak yet hope­ful out­look.

“The im­agery in my mind while I was writ­ing this al­bum was post-apoc­a­lyp­tic chaos,” ex­plains Emery. “All this bad stuff has hap­pened, a metaphor­i­cal nu­clear bomb has gone off, and then in the af­ter­math there’s a mo­ment where ev­ery­thing’s sort of calm and peace­ful. You can look around and go, ‘There’s a pu­rity to this, and maybe there’s some hope.’ So, the Sun­shine Dust is lit­er­ally the dust par­ti­cles of the de­bris sparkling in the sun.

It’s about find­ing your own in­ner strength.”

While the likes of Dream The­ater con­tinue to rep prog metal in the main­stream, fol­lowed by ris­ing tech metal fig­ure­heads like Tesser­acT and Pe­riph­ery, Sky­har­bor con­cede that it’s dif­fi­cult to make a liv­ing in this niche space these days.

“It could be be­cause the djent thing is kind of on its way out,” Dhar muses. “When it was fresh, ev­ery con­ver­sa­tion about new bands on the block was about Tesser­acT and Pe­riph­ery, and the same goes for An­i­mals As Lead­ers.

But now these bands are vet­er­ans, it’s pos­si­ble that things have cooled down. I also feel that the way a band could ex­plode in the 90s and early 2000s isn’t re­ally a thing any more. It’s a much slower and more grad­ual process now.”

With Sun­shine Dust, Sky­har­bor hope to break genre bound­aries and broaden their ap­peal. Thanks to the new parts they’ve writ­ten, the melodies Emery has cham­pi­oned and Savell’s crit­i­cal eye, they have a record that could ex­pose them to big­ger and in­creas­ingly di­verse crowds.

“I think it’s a sig­nif­i­cant step into a more main­stream world,” says Emery. “We love prog and be­ing as­so­ci­ated with it, but we feel there’s some­thing more there. Dan’s ap­proach seemed to be sup­port­ing the mu­sic more, but I want to be a singer out front, singing awe­some hooks that peo­ple are gonna be chant­ing in their car. It’s open­ing doors for us, and we’re talk­ing to a lot of bands we wouldn’t have been able to if we’d stayed in Prog Town.”

That Deftones tour last March/April was a huge coup for the band, fol­lowed by a North Amer­i­can out­ing with kawaii met­allers Babymetal in May. It’s all fuel for their mis­sion to con­quer the US mar­ket. Cur­rently Emery – who has just left Cleve­land to open a stu­dio in LA – lives there, along with gui­tarist Devesh Dayal. Dhar is in New Delhi, while bas­sist Kr­ishna Jhaveri and drum­mer Aditya Ashok are from Mum­bai. They make it work with the help of What­sApp, Drop­box and planned re­hearsals, but ad­mit that the time zone dif­fer­ences can be frus­trat­ing.

“I’m okay not be­ing able to re­hearse, but for me it def­i­nitely af­fects the song­writ­ing,” notes Emery. “We no­ticed the dif­fer­ence when we went through that pro­duc­tion phase in Aus­tralia, be­ing able to sit in the room.

The ideas that were flow­ing out would have taken three months to come up with on the com­puter separately.”

Now the In­dian con­tin­gent have three-year US visas in their pock­ets, they’re eye­ing up the po­ten­tial of re­lo­cat­ing if things go well enough. “A lot of it boils down to fi­nances,” says Dhar. “It costs about £1,000 for one per­son to fly from In­dia to the States – that’s nuts. So when you’ve got three peo­ple to fly, that’s £3,000 be­fore you’ve even reached your des­ti­na­tion. It would make things a lot eas­ier if we were all based there.”

Tomp­kins’ de­par­ture could have spelled the end for Sky­har­bor, but in­stead they’re soar­ing into a bright new fu­ture of lim­it­less po­ten­tial. They’ve found that ray of light cut­ting through the dust par­ti­cles.

“Stuff’s been hap­pen­ing so fast lately,” mar­vels Emery. “It’s cool to take the next step and see what hap­pens. My goal is to get the band as pop­u­lar as we can be.”

Sun­shine Dust is avail­able now via eOne. See www.sky­har­bor­band.com for more in­for­ma­tion.

“IT’S A SIG­NIF­I­CANT STEP INTO A MORE MAIN­STREAM WORLD. WE LOVE PROG AND BE­ING AS­SO­CI­ATED WITH IT, BUT WE FEEL THERE’S SOME­THING MORE THERE.” Eric Emery

SKY­HAR­BOR: THE NEWLOOK BAND ARE TAK­ING THEIR FIRST REAL STEPS OUT­SIDE OF PROG TOWN.

SKY­HAR­BOR WITH NEWSINGER ERIC EMERY (SEC­OND FROM LEFT).

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