TRANSATLANTIC's Roine Stolt (Interview): "There is a fair amount of ego going on in this band"
Roine Stolt has been a key figure in Swedish progressive rock music for decades. The guitarist, singer and songwriter first appeared on the scene in the mid-1970s with his band Kaipa. The 1980s mostly saw him doing session work (as well as two albums with Fantasia), at the very end of that decade he embarked on a solo career. One of his solo records ("The Flower King") led to the foundation of his well-known group The Flower Kings, a band that has released 14 studio albums so far.
Stolt is also a member of the prog supergroup Transatlantic, consisting of former Dream Theater drummer Mike Portnoy, vocalist and multi-instrumentalist Neal Morse (ex-Spock's Beard), Marillion bassist Pete Trewavas as well as Roine on guitars. Transatlantic have just released a new album called "The Absolute Universe" – and it's no exaggeration to say it is a BIG album. It's so big that the band decided to release it in two different versions: a full-length version called "Forevermore" (90 minutes long) and a shorter one called "The Breath Of Life" (60 minutes). We're not talking about shorter edits here – but different versions, different lyrics and sometimes even different members singing the parts. Those who want it all can buy a third edition called "The Absolute Universe: The Ultimate Edition" that includes both versions as well as 5.1 Surround Mix with visuals and a documentar,y. Definitely quite a lot of proggin'!
Hyperlocrian.com called Roine Stolt in his studio in Sweden to talk about the dynamics behind the prog supergroup, big ideas and equally big egos, the working process, Roine's approach to guitar solos, gear and other things.
It's been seven years since the last Transatlantic record "Kaleidoscope". When did you start the Transatlantic engines again?
It has always been the plan to do one or two albums and then take a break. All the other guys and myself, we are always involved in other stuff. For Mike that's been The Winery Dogs, Sons of Apollo, Neal has his own bands, Pete is always working with Marillion. Two years ago, we started talking about the possibility of doing a new album. But there is a long way from talking about doing it to actually coming together – because of all our individual schedules with our other bands. We found a month when everyone could free up some time, that was in September 2019. You decide to start working on an album and then everyone starts looking into their material. What material do I have? Can I write something new? It's a process that normally takes a couple of months before we actually start working together. You look into what you already have and what you can write for the band. It's a long process. This time was very different: It was the first time we didn't record in the United States.
The main reason for that was that it is more difficult lately to work in the USA. Even recording an album is considered doing work, so getting into the US from Sweden and England means having to get a work permit. Ten, fifteen years ago it was pretty easy to get it, but these days it's a very long and tedious process. They keep asking for lots of paperwork, proof that you are what they call an extraordinary alien", which means you have to be a magnificent entertainer of sorts. It's kind of silly, kind of crazy. We decided that we don't even want to try to get through all the paperwork so we wanted to find a studio in Europe. We started looking for something in England, which proved to be a bit expensive and difficult. The biggest studios these days are closing down, some of the legendary studios in London are closing. It proved to be difficult for us. Finally we found a place in Sweden. We had the material and went into the studio mid-September 2019. That's when we got together and the real work as a four-piece unit began.
Did you come to the studio with ideas and fragments or already finished, written parts? I wanted to be certain, so I spent a couple of weeks writing material beforehand. I had almost one and a half hours of music, Pete came in with maybe half an hour and Neil something like 40 minutes. We wanted to be sure that we really have something. But when we get together, there is always music that we make up on the spot by jamming a little bit. Someone has an idea, a chord sequence, a riff, we try that. To have written music means to be on the safe side – so that we don't go into the studio and nothing happens and things are a waste of time. We want to be certain that we have something. I went a little bit further, I even did my vocal stuff and some arranging and orchestrating to be sure we have things that already sound like a record. It worked pretty much the same way as on the other four albums. We don't decide what we record beforehand. We look at the ideas, decide what parts we are going to use and start to put the pieces together. I haven't been in a band that works like that. Transatlantic is very special. In the first days, we didn't have an idea how things will turn out in the end. We just trust that along the way we'll come up with something. As we did, of course. Even with two albums.
So you built the framework in those ten days.
Yeah, writing and tracking, structuring the music. These ten days were spent making what is now Forevermore, the green album. That album was later cut down a little bit, and changed up to the shorter version. Forevermore was the initial writing session, the initial idea. Then a lot of time passed. We recorded it, then all of us toured with different bands. I went out with The Flower Kings, Pete went out with Marillion, Neal did gigs with Flying Colors and maybe the Neal Morse band – all of that before we got into the finishing stages, wrapping up the album, doing the final lyrics, the final arrangements and orchestration.
I mean, if you really wanted to, you could make a full album in ten days. I went home and did my guitars in five or seven days, then I was finished. Some of the vocals I had already done in the initial writing sessions. Nowadays you have so much time and so many options, it's easy to get lost and go on and on, polish your album. The main reason it took a lot of time was that everyone was busy with other stuff. Ten days, I would say, is the basis for what you hear on the album. I've done my stuff here, guitars, vocals, some keyboards. Neal did his vocals, keyboards and some acoustic guitars in his studio, Mike did drum tracking in his studio and Pete did some bass overdubs. You can do things without being in the same room. I don't need someone to babysit me while I'm recording guitars and I don't need to babysit Neal when he's doing his Hammond organ. We know what we're looking for. It was kind of odd, when we came from the ten studio days we had instrumental stuff. We had ideas where the vocals would go, I had some vocals and lyrics ready, but there were a lot of spots where we didn't have any vocals at all. Sometimes we recorded the same vocal parts, that's why on one version I am singing one part and on the other version Neal is singing the same part. Or Pete. Sometimes the different versions have different lyrics for certain sections. It all sounds very complicated (laughs). It's a strange way of doing an album, but this is what it is and what in some strange, mysterious ways we managed to pull off. But I have to admit that for me there are still some question marks. Do I really know this album? Do I know all the parts? I'm not sure. It's for the fans to find out.
Transatlantic has existed since 1999, on and off. Has the dynamic within the band changed over the years? You have compared Transatlantic to having four chefs in a kitchen.
It is. There is a fair amount of ego going on in this band. I am as guilty as the others. We have very strong ideas, there have to be a few clashes of ideas. One guy wanting something, the other guy going into a different direction. And no one is going to give in, that's why we have two different versions of the album. Because I wanted the album to stay as it was. The Forevermore version felt very natural. Neal wanted to cut it down, and we couldn't agree. Then Mike said that we can actually do both. The dynamic over the years hasn't changed that much. Of course you develop your social skills as a human being over the years. How you handle, I wouldn't say conflicts – but how you handle disagreements. Should I remain stubborn? Or can I give him this, so he can give me that? It's a little bit of give and take. For me personally the most important thing for this record was the structure of the songs and the mix. I had the idea of a slightly bigger sound with the bass more in front, like some of the older prog albums. With Yes you always had Chris Squire's bass guitar very loud. I feel that in Pete Trewavas we have a fantastic bass player. He should be heard and not be pushed back that much. So I tried to force that a little bit and I tried to force not having this big wall of sound all the time. Also having the drums slightly more ambient than the regular prog metal sound that is usually very compressed. I was looking for a 70s sound. The sound sits very fine with the style of music that this band makes. And then you have Mike Portnoy who is very much particular about other things, like: How do you divide the songs? What are the titles for each part of the songs? How do we do the artwork? How is the layout done? I think we all have our different areas in which we're keen to decide things. We're all very different people I'd say. But for some reason, in the end it works out in a beautiful way.
"I'm not a snob when it comes to guitars."
Tell me a bit about the guitars you used. You've played your modified Telecaster Thinline a lot in recent years, did you use it on the new record?
The Telecaster, Thinline definitely. I also used my old Gibson Les Paul from 1953 for a few things, it has a very special sound. It's not the greatest guitar to play, but it has that great, bity Les Paul sound. For leads, not rhythms, I used that one. I also have a Gibson ES-335 that's modified with True Temperament frets. It also has that singing, but at the same time a percussive ring to it. It's a slightly more mid-rangy sound. I've also used a Fender Stratocaster Custom Shop for things where I had to use the tremolo bar. And my old Parker, also for the tremolo stuff. Normally I have a few guitars with me and I grab one randomly. Many times it's the Telecaster, but I'm not thinking much about it. I grab it, plug it in. Right now I'm working on new The Flower Kings stuff and I usually grab the Tele. It sounds great and it is easy to play. I don't put much thought about what sound I'm looking for. I know I can get the sounds I want from it. I'm not a snob when it comes to guitars. If I find a guitar that's very cheap but sounds great, then fine.
And regarding amps? Well, in the studio I have Orange cabinets, small 2x12s. I have a TH30, a 30 watt amp – which is more than enough, I usually run it on a low power setting. It's a loud amp but you can get a distorted sound on low levels. Normally I don't crank it up much. I also use Mesa Boogies. They did an amp called Transatlantic for a while, it's an old tube amp, a really loud one. I can get Vox sounds out of it, I can get Mesa and Fender sounds out of it. Two days ago I did a guitar session for a friend and I sent him the files. He said: You sound different, almost like Brian May. I said "Yeah, I used the Mesa in the Vox setting". I can't say what it is, but it has a setting that sounds like an AC30. That's something I use on a regular basis. Not super loud amps, but I know them and that's the most important thing. After a while you know how to dial in your tone, you know your standard settings, which pedals you can use. I'm not the guy who changes amps all the time. I have had these for a while. I mean, I have Fenders and Marshalls, but they usually just sit in the warehouse. I'm happy to stick with what I know sounds great. I'm not the guy who buys new floorboards or amp modeling stuff all the time.
What's your approach when it comes to recording guitar solos? How much is thoroughly composed, how much happens in the moment – and what do you look for in a solo?
I never compose a solo, I have to say. Usually I record something 100 percent spontaneous. If you look at the new Transatlantic record: I think I did most of the main guitars on that album in five to seven days. Most of the solos were first takes. Some of it may be a take and then I find a bit I don't like and then go back and fix it. Or I try another take. But I never ever go back and think about what notes I'm going to play. I don't even think about which chords I play over. I know the song, I've heard them a few times – and then by instinct I know the chords and play over it spontaneously. I've been in bands, I've been jamming a lot and so I've developed a good ear for harmonies and what I can solo over it. I like to keep it that way, because otherwise you start showing your chops, things that you calculated. Scales or something like that. I never practised scales. I never tried to emulate someone else. Of course, if I listen to Joe Bonamassa and I hear him play a great solo I say: Oh that's great. Or Eddie Van Halen or Allan Holdsworth. But I'm not trying to learn someone else's solo or structure my solos to fit a song or to be impressive. I'll say 99 Percent is super spontaneous. I've got to be honest, sometimes I even use the guitar solos from the demos. Because when I did them in the studio, they didn't come out as exciting. I've done that with the Flower Kings and I've even done it with Transatlantic.
Yeah. Besides that, I don't think there's the perfect solo. And if there is, you're forced to play this exact solo live and everyone expects that same solo. That's not my kind of thing, if I may say so.
"I can even play a bad note, I'm not ashamed of that."
You said that you didn't practise scales. How did you build up your chops when you were a young player?
I think I just picked a few phrases of whatever. Could be B.B. King, could be Frank Zappa or Peter Green from Fleetwood Mac. I hear some bending, some small phrases – and just picked it up by ear. I just took it and put it in the back of my head. Sometimes it pops up during a solo. By jamming with people and probably playing all the wrong notes. It's a process of hearing what I'm playing. It's not like my fingers are randomly walking around my fretboards. I can hear the phrase in my head and I know the fretboard well enough to be able to play it. I know how to improvise, take those ideas and phrases and bend them and twist them. It's not structured, it's floating. I never feel stressed about solos at concerts. I enjoy it, it's the best part of the evening. I have all the freedom in the world, I have a great band backing me up. I can go anywhere, I can play whatever notes I want to play. I can even play a bad note, I'm not ashamed of that. But I can also play a lot of great notes. I can build something up, I can tell a story my way. Just being on stage and creating from nothing, build a melody, build a solo: that's a very special moment. It's something I look forward to.
So it's about knowing the fretboard and being able to translate your thoughts onto it.
Anyone can learn certain phrases. You can teach a child a Mozart phrase, a Keith Jarrett phrase. It's a series of notes. Give them time, they'll learn it. But you have to ask them to tell you something, to come up with their own phrases, melodies, stories. There's a world of possibilities.
When you're not working, do you still take the guitar just for fun and play for leisure? Well, not that much. It could be when I change the strings or I have some new gear I'm tweaking, some adjustments or something, then maybe I'll sit down for a while. Or when I'm sending files and have to wait, I pick it up. But not much. There's so much playing anyways.
When the time comes to tour again, I suppose there's a lot of relearning parts of the new record? Yes, that's true. I mean, it's work. You take a week, ten days, and re-learn the parts. I've done it so many times. You pick up a song you did 15 years ago. You don't remember the lyrics, the melody, the structure. You listen to it, re-learn it. It's a test of your memory capacity. You got to be bright, sharp and sometimes you got to take a walk and get some fresh air. I'm sure it's going to be okay.
For more info about Transatlantic and their new album "The Absolute Universe" see their official website.