Latest release: Sunshine Dust (eOne/Good Fight)Website: http://skyharbor.band/
Progressive metal band Skyharbor is a true international band with members from both India and the United States. Now with three albums under their belt and plenty of global touring experience, their solid work ethic and pragmatic approach now sees them playing in Australia for the first time. They will be touring here as one of the many feature artists on the tenth edition of the mighty ProgFest. Skyharbor’s third album titled Sunshine Dust is both a great album and also very listenable making it widely accessible to a broad range of genre fans. Their appreciation for the growing Australian progressive music has seen them collaborate with established artists including on their latest release. The album also demonstrates an enhanced awareness of musical style changes and the evolving nature of song construction within the progressive metal scene. Loud Online caught up with founding guitarist Keshav Dhar to discuss all things progressive.
You’re coming to Australia very soon as part of the ProgFest 2019 which is the 10th anniversary of the festival.
Yes, that is true and we are really looking forward to it.
There is a huge line-up. Are you familiar with the bands on the bill?
Oh yeah, for sure. We’ve toured with Monuments and we’ve crossed paths with The Ocean in 2013 when we played with them at Euroblast in Cologne, Germany. We also keep close tabs on what is going on in Australia. For us, the cream of the Aussie scene would have to be Karnivool, Dead Letter Circus, The Butterfly Effect and Cog. We’ve always been big fans of those fours bands. We try to keep an eye on what is going on. I have been following Chaos Divine for a while and I think they do some really cool stuff. So I think that the Australian scene is putting out some of the freshest music that you here today. So I am really excited to check it out. Circles are also really good friends of ours.
The prog tag is an interesting one because Skyharbor’s music is quite diverse.
Honestly, I don’t mind. I think that prog used to be this dirty word that you used to associate with the exclusively privileged and highbrow, wanky guitar, you know, very self-indulgent song writing where it was less about the song and more about playing a hundred miles an hour or within some bizarre time signature. It used to be about that and then there was this wave of bands that made it cool because they made it all about classy song writing. Personally, the band I go to in this regard is Karnivool. When they put out Themata it was a great rock’n’roll record, there was nothing prog about it at all. Then they put out Sound Awake and we were like, ‘hold on a second, this is not like anything I’ve heard before.’ It is long and it has got the indulgences but it is so well crafted. Those songs get stuck in your head for days and you don’t wonder how they played parts but how they thought of these incredibly tasteful parts. If that is what prog means now then I am proud to be associated with it.
One of the funny things is the style now has verses with busy guitar lines such as tapping runs on top of the rhythm figure. That would have been unheard of in a lot of progressive music say twenty years ago.
Yeah and the chorus is a section that we feel gives a song a signature because most of the time we all remember songs by their choruses. It is something that we’ve always tried to…not even consciously making the chorus be simple, hook filled and memorable but it is more a case of that the space for experimental, crazy and left-field is during the parts like the verses and bridges. Those parts are now more about the experimenting and so it all sort of comes together to speak in one sort of collective voice. It is to spit out that one collective moment when the chorus comes up during the song. Song writing is basically all about that. We never think about the technical side of it and we barely have guitar solos in our songs. There are maybe around five guitar solos in our entire back catalogue. That tells you something when we’re still considered prog.
Indeed. The song ‘Ethos’ from Sunshine Dust has a small guitar solo on it.
I don’t think that even counts. Most purists would say, ‘that’s not a guitar solo!’ Ha-ha.
Well, you did work with the drummer from Jeff Loomis’ band, Anup Sastry [currently touring drummer] so there’s some guitar pressure there.
I know. He was a member of the band for a really long time but there’s a surprise about that which we can’t talk about right now. Yeah, we did work with him for a while and we had a different line up as of around four years ago. It was a different band and we were definitely in that space where we had all the musical tools at our disposal. We don’t need to prove to anyone that we can play, I mean, we know that we can play and I think that everyone also knows that we can play our instruments by this point. It is more like, what can we say with all of this flash and technique that is actually meaningful? When it comes to shredding and just being balls out technical, we cannot hold a candle to a lot of the other acts that are out there and ones that are even playing at this festival. We cannot begin to match up to them in terms of pure technicality but I think that where Skyharbor makes its mark is within the song writing. We have always been a song writing kind of band and we try to write memorable choruses which is what works for us.
Even in the instrumental song ‘The Reckoning’, you’ve still got the same approach to keeping a melodic line running through, it similar to a vocalist line and phrasing.
Right, yeah, absolutely. I mean, you nailed it. That is basically what it is about. I think that even on this record, maybe the most indulgent song might be ‘Disengage / Evacuate’ which is sort of the middle song on the album. That can take a while to get into but even in that song, there is nothing that is technically outrageous. There is a complete disregard for the top forty charts and the cookie cutter styles of song structures. Playing it safe is basically something that we don’t do. We like to take risks but we take them not keeping in mind being flashy or having to impress people with skills. That seems more or less like circus tricks to me. It is more about what can we say that will stick the listener long after they are not actually listening to the song? What will still stay with them afterwards?
One thing I’ve noticed in songs like ‘Synthetic Hands’ and the title track is going into heavier interludes after the second chorus or post chorus.
Right, I do feel that as we write more and more, since we have put out three albums, I think there are certain things that we unconsciously gravitate towards in how we put our songs together. It is not necessarily good or bad but it comes from something that I learned a long time ago; Anup said to me that my song writing seems to be a lot about tension and building tension but there isn’t enough release. That stuck with me because I realised that he was right. There were a lot of build ups which were not quite as satisfying when they concluded because all of the attention was on the build ups so when it came to the release parts, it tended to sometimes fall slightly flat. So, this is something that we have been working at more and more; having moments of intensity and then pacing our songs in such a way that it reaches a peak at a particular point and so when the pay-off comes, it is the most satisfying that it can possibly be to listen to. Also with structures; as we are tending to write shorter or more concise songs and trimming the fat a little bit. The second album, Guiding Lights, had a bigger average song length of around five to six minutes long whereas here, the average length is between four and five minutes. So, we are trying to be more careful with how we pace things.
The interaction between the two guitars is well done. Between yourself and your other guitarist, Devesh Dayal, who does what for core functions? For example, lighter harmonics against heavier rhythmic parts.
That is interesting that you say that because there aren’t any fixed things because both of us write equally. I can see how we might have more defined roles if it was one person that did most of the writing and the other person was say a second guitar player. There you might have so many layers and then say, ‘okay, you pick what you want to play’ but in our case, we both write songs both by ourselves for the band and also write songs together for the band. There is no rule to say that I am the rhythm guitar player and Devesh is the lead guitar player. I might, if there happens to be a lead part in a song which I have written, I would usually play it. Or it could be the other way around, there have been times where I have written a lead part but Devesh just plays it because I might feel like playing something else at that point in time. We always ask each other and can tell when some parts clearly need two guitar players playing the same parts or riffs. If there are parts where there a not defined guitar parts then we’ll ask each other what we feel like playing and pick that and then put the rest on the backing track. That is kind of how we do it.
Are you using seven or eight string guitars on the songs ‘Dissent’ and ‘Menace’ or are you just down tuning a six string massively?
‘Dissent’ is a seven string guitar song and is in dropped A tuning. But with ‘Menace’, here is another thing that I think is unique to our band, I write on a six string guitar. I play seven string guitars when we play live because Devesh writes on the dropped A seven string but I always write on a down tuned six string in a dropped B tuning. So, we are both in different tunings but we write the same songs with our differently tuned guitars. So, ‘Menace’ is one of those songs where it initiated with Devesh writing one riff on a seven string guitar and then I wrote a bunch of parts on my guitar and then we just put it together that way. There are certain parts that only I play because I came up with them on my particularly tuned instrument and there are some parts which he obviously has to play because he came up with them on his guitar and I physically cannot play those parts in the same song because of the limitations of each other’s guitar tunings. For those moments, when we do the sound design stuff and the layers and leads, then the other person does it.
That is intriguing. A lot of bands all tune down together identically with little variation. If you go right back to The Stones, you’ve got Keith Richards preferring to use open tunings on what is effectively a five stringed guitar.
Right, yeah and I also feel that it adds that much more flavour and character to the music. The possibilities change with more parts but if everything else you do is essentially being painted with the same tools or musical colours, so to speak whereas if you put yourself into a different sort of box and then give yourself a different set of limitations to work within such as a different guitar with one fewer string and a different tuning you can say, ‘alright, I know the key of the song, so I can make parts for it’ but it will be different than what I would come up with if I were using that same guitar that I used for that same old part. It puts a fresh perspective on the song which would not otherwise be there. So that I think is really cool. We actually started doing this back with Guiding Lights but on that album we would write full songs and then present them to the band and there were only a couple of song where that collaborative thing happened. On Sunshine Dust, we took it to the point where it is almost like every song has the dual six and seven string guitar thing happening. There are no eight string guitars yet, we just haven’t gotten to that point yet.
A lot of progressive metal bands have really embraced the digital amplification modelling world such as Kempers [amplifier profiler] and Axe-FX [Fractal Audio amplifier modeller and effects processor].
Oh yeah, we’ve been using Axe FX from the very beginning, in fact, from the days when it was just a studio project. I knew that the limitations and logistics of where we live and the fact that we have to tour and all of these things just means that we need to downsize our live rigs as much as possible. Even from just the creative aspect; I live in an apartment in a very, very crowded city as I am sure you know. We don’t have the luxury of being able to mike up a cabinet in our backyard or in a garage and just crank it to eleven and really feel it. We would get thrown out in no time. So we all had to figure out ways of being able to get the sounds that we want and be able to do it quietly which I think is where technology has really been such a gift. With things like the Axe FX I have never once thought, ‘oh man, I really wish I had an amp, a cabinet and a whole bunch of pedals’, I mean, I have got this one black box that can do literally everything that I want it to do and I am good. Between this and the laptop, my tone quest is over; I actually stopped nerding out about tone and the whole tone quest that guitar players go through. Mine ended a long time ago which is wired because usually guitar player will never be 100% satisfied, they are always looking for that next piece of gear that makes sounds that excites them. But, in my case it is like, ‘dude, I have barely even scratched the surface’, so many years after owning this unit there are still new crazy things that I can get out of it. So, I couldn’t be happier to be honest.
It is still a lot of fun to be able to crank up a loud Marshall amplifier and cabinet stack.
Oh for sure, I won’t disagree with you there. At shows, I think down the line if we had a system of say A and B rigs then we could use it for different territories. We tour the States a lot so it would just be nice to have a couple of cabinets that we can just leave there that we don’t have to travel with because it is the travelling or flying with heavy gear that basically fucks us up. There is nothing like it if we could actually have cabinets on stage, especially bass cabinets. Holy shit, you know, having that powerful low end just rumbling all across the stage is just a crazy, great feeling.
Have you picked up live performance and production tips from touring with more veteran bands like Lamb of God?
Ah, I think… this may not be directly related to the music itself but one thing that I noticed immediately is how bands that really do tour heavily, you know, bands that made their career on heavy touring and weren’t at their peak in the nineties and born with a silver spoon up their ass, the mentality in those bands is extremely working class like they know that there is no real place for airs and graces or arrogance and ego. Even if there might be because everyone has a certain degree of ego and emotion but there is no chip on their shoulder and everyone understands that it is a really hard industry. Bands make far less than what the actual minimum wage might be. It took Skyharbor six years of being out on the road before we actually saw any money or before we actually went home with some money. It was literally the case that the first time we ever made a profit on a tour was on the last tour we just finished in November, 2018 and even that profit was very low. It was barely anything; just enough to be able to pay maybe one month’s rent at home. So it is one of those things that we realised very early on about going abroad. In India, if you look at the scene here, it is very nascent and what we were used to seeing here was if a show was put together or a festival was organised, everything would be taken care of; the artist would have flights booked and all they had to do was show up at the airport at the correct time, a car to pick them up at their destination, be driven to the festival, get sound checks with all the gear and backline set up plus get catering, hotel rooms and then getting dropped off back to the airport. I used to think, ‘well, okay this is it, a great thing to do, we are living the rock star life.’ We all kind of took it for granted until we started touring internationally and we were just like, ‘okay, hello, this is now what we were expecting,’ because you have to figure everything out for yourself, literally every last detail. The only thing that you get is the stage. Ha-ha. So you get the stage and you get to be there so it’s like, ‘alright, let’s make everything work’ which is one of those reasons when we got the Australian deal and we got the invitation to play ProgFest and we have heard from everyone that the hospitality in Australia is so crazy and how they take such good care of you; now we are able to appreciate these things and so much because we realise just how easy it was to take this kind of stuff for granted back when we were wide eyed kids who didn’t know any better. Having been around, having really struggled on the road and really roughed it out, spent weeks sleeping in a van or sleeping in hotel room floors, we really appreciate the fact that Australia know how to do hospitality right and we are not going to take that for granted which is why we are so excited to come back to Australia and actually play shows for the first time. We usually don’t talk about planning as show until a few weeks before it but we have been talking about what we want to play for ProgFest since the middle of November almost, we are that excited.
Summer gets hot here too. But you’ll be one of the few bands on the bill that won’t be too hassled by temperatures of forty degrees Celsius.
Yeah, oh man, that’s child’s play. In the summer over here it gets really brutal and yeah forty to forty five degrees days are pretty common. If it is going to be that hot, well, the good thing is that there is the Gold Coast at the end of it.
Finally, is there a particular song on the most recent album that stands out for you?
I would say the title track because it expresses every aspect of Skyharbor. It has got the beautiful, emotive parts and it has also got the big, you know, powerful choruses, and it has also got all of the riffy stuff in there. It has the fun, riffy groovy things towards the end with the heavy bridge and stuff. It also has the collaborative aspect with other artists because that was one song that came from Dead Letter Circus – we wrote the chorus melody with Eric [Emery – vocals] and Luke [Palmer – Dead Letter Circus co-guitarist] played a guest part; if you hear that really pretty natural harmonic acoustic part that happens in the bridge, that is Luke’s playing. We’ve always had a couple of really memorable guest appearances on every record and we’ve saved them for the real choice moments. I think that we knew that this song was where we wanted it to be the most special. So I think that song represents the most where we are at this point in time, which is why all of us really ride with that one.