Latest release: Underworld (Nuclear Blast)Website: www.symphonyx.com

New Jersey prog gods Symphony X are finally on their way to Australia in October for what is shaping up to be one of the most hotly-anticipated metal tours of 2016. We decided to catch up to bass player Michael Lepond for a chat about his time in the band and his thoughts on their writing process.

It’s great that Symphony X is finally going to be in Australia this year.
We’ve been wanting to come down for many years, but there’s always been something that’s fallen through with an offer or this and that, but we’re finally going to play and we’re really excited.

Is there anything from the back catalogue that’s a particular favourite of yours?
When I first joined the band I immediately became a big fan myself, because since I didn’t play on some of the early material I could really come in as a fan. I really like the Divine Winds of Tragedy album. I think there’s some really really great songs on there – I think my favourite song is “The Accolade’, that’s a really great one. Those first couple of albums before I joined the band are just phenomenal. It’s very hard to find a song I don’t like on there.

When you were first approached about joining Symphony X, what was that early time like for you?
That’s a really interesting story. In the 1990s I was a local struggling musician here on the Newark scene in New Jersey, USA. I played in bands and I was primarily a hard rock, blues player. What happened was, we all used to hang out that this one heavy metal club and a bunch of us were regulars there. THere was one guy who happened to be friends with Michael Romeo from Symphone X. One day he approached me and said, “Symphony X is looking for a bass player, I think you’d be perfect”. At that time, 1999, I wasn’t really that familiar with the band but I said, “Have him give me a call”. Michael Romeo called me and we set up an audition. He sent me the Divine Wings of Tragedy album and I was supposed to learn a couple of songs and play them at the audition. So when I put in the CD I thought, first of all, Wow these songs are amazing! and second of all, They’re super hard to play. This is going to be a mountain to climb. So at that point I said, “You’re either going to do it, or just put the bass down and go sell shoes, or something”. I decided to do it, and I practised and practised for hours a day for two weeks straight. I went to the audition and wasn’t expecting to get the gig. I was just happy to meet these guys because they are really awesome. I get to the audition, and I felt really great because I was able to keep up with the band and I did a really great job. What happened after that was they gave me a second audition with two songs from Twilight on Olympus and then I went from playing in small bars to the bar tender and his girlfriend to, all of a sudden I was playing in Brazil in front of 1000 people. It really was a dream come true.

Was that a big shock or was it something you could just take in your stride?
It was a lot to take in! The front show I ever did with Symphony X was in 2000 in Sao Paolo Brazil and there was 1000 people there and for me, on stage, it didn’t feel like it was real. I kinda felt like I was in a movie. I couldn’t really process it because I had never really played in front of more than 100 people so I had gone from nothing to having people screaming and singing your songs back to you… It took a while to really get used to it.

It does sound like one of those plucked-from-obscurity stories that don’t happen in real life.
Yeah, and it really happened like that. It really did take a while to really process the fact that all of a sudden there was people who were idolising me. Now I really get it and I appreciate it, but then it was just so much to take.

17 years later, is there still moments that blow you away?
Oh yeah. Occasionally we will still play a show that makes you go, Wow. We played, just a few years ago, we played a festival in Bogota, Colombia. It’s a free show that the government puts on. The amount of people there was just mindblowing. It was somewhere near 200,000 people. It was like one of those crowds that you see on TV where maybe the Stones are playing, and you can’t see the end of the crowd. That was really amazing.

Symphony X is known for concept albums with very deep and involved story lines. Has there ever been anything you’ve been presented with that you’ve been less than enthusiastic about?
As time goes on and all the concepts that are cool get used up, it kinda gets harder and harder to find concepts. When we think about adopting a concept for an album, it’s gotta be powerful. It’s gotta have some real substance. It can’t feel silly to us or funny… it’s gotta be very serious. That’s our criteria. Specifically, we haven’t tried any concepts that didn’t work. We have to think about it, and think about it until finally we say, Yes, the sounds sound like this muscially, so  this concept would work with it. …Actually there was one concept that I had presented to Symphony X, I had presented perhaps trying Shakespeare, but that fell through the cracks. Everything else has worked great for us.

So do you think about concepts when it comes time to do a new record, or are there ideas floating around all the time?
I guess that depends on who you talk to. Michael Romeo, when he’s done with a record, he doens’t think about writing at all until the touring is over and it’s time to write again. He goes into writing mode then. Me, on the other hand, things to write about and concepts is always going through my mind.

How long did it take to bring Underworld togther? Was it a long record to do or did it come together quite quickly?
For Symphony X it was a little faster than normal, but for your average band it was still too long! From the beginning of the record until we finished it took a year. The writing took about six months and we started with just music. Michael Romeo would write a bunch of riffs or songs that were just music and we would all and we would all be listening to see what they were sounding like and to put a concept in our minds. That’s how we did it first, tossing around possible ideas. Michael Romeo came up with this idea for the album of combining the Greek myth of Orpheus with Dante’s Inferno. It was kind of a dark love story and the music was sounding like that as well. It was kind of like the Odyssey but instead of being on the ocean, it was a journey through hell.

When you hear about a band like Motörhead doing an album in eight weeks, do you sometimes wish you could finish an album that quickly?
Oh I know I do! It’s frustrating because we put out a record and then we’ll tour, and eventually your touring cycle ends. If we could turn around another record real quick like Motörhead, we could put it our real fast and go right back on the road. With Symphony X, we sit home for a year! We don’t do anything, we don’t tour. We just write. That’s kinda frustrating, but for the kind of band we are where the songs are very complex and there’s a lot of layering and a lot of thought that has to go into the songs I guess we don’t have a choice. It is what it is. The results are always great, and Underworld is no exception. It’s one of my favourites.

With the time you have between touring and release, do you have time to pursue other passions outside of music?
When we’re on our downtime, what all of us do it usually side music projects! Usually when I’m home I love to go see bands. I tend to stay in the whole music vibe. I’ll do a solo album, I’ll go check out bands, I’ll do work for other bands. I like to stay active musically, but there’s nothing like playing on stage with Symphony X! I do miss it very much when we’re off the road.

11/10: Max Watts, Melbourne VIC
12/10: Metro, Sydney NSW