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.
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).