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    Posted: October 23 2007 at 17:11

Interview with Marc Carlton

Fresh from releasing his new album, I caught up with Marc Carlton to get the low-down on ‘Ovriah’, as well as finding out more about this talented artist from Edinburgh.

How would you describe your style of music?

Ah, a notoriously difficult question! I think in terms of where my music is coming from, it can be described as progressive rock... that is, I freely employ a lot of different styles, approach the instrumentation with just as much care as vocals/words, and like to express pretty broad themes. But of course, compared with the sound of a lot of classic prog bands and even the neo-prog of today, there’s a huge difference. Perhaps the best description of my music is that it’s like a soundtrack without a film... a soundtrack instead to the various thoughts and feelings people have.

What inspired you to write ‘Ovriah’?

It was actually one of the first pieces of music I ever wrote. A number of years ago I had a story, and the themes in it were very similar to the things I was hearing expressed in classic progressive rock music. So I came up with the idea of making a kind of ‘symphonic portrait’ of the main character in this story, a piece of music that would describe him, tell his story, but also stand on its own as involving music that everyone could relate to. Unfortunately, at the time my demos for the track were just not working due to the limitations of my recording setup and also my skill as a performer and engineer. But at the beginning of this year I dug out those old demos again, and was really surprised by the quality of the composition behind the rough production. I decided pretty much straight away that the time had come to return to the piece and finally record it the way it was meant to have been.

Playing all the instruments, mixing and producing your albums must take a lot of effort! How long did it take you to make ‘Ovriah’?

From start to finish, ‘Ovriah’ took about five months to complete. The project was fairly unique for me in that I was recording material I had already been playing for years, with only a few tangents out into newer or more improvisational sections. So it all came together very easily, very methodically – the only reason it wasn’t finished more quickly is that I couldn’t work on it full-time, since I had other work to do.

Your use a lot of different instruments on the new album, could you name them?

All of the sounds came from acoustic guitar, classical guitar, electric guitar, plus one synthesizer keyboard. I have quite a simple setup, but synths are so powerful these days and I was able to create a large palette of instruments: all kinds of percussion, piano, there’s a harpsichord drifting in and out at the beginning, and I love the dreamy string pads – I use them a lot, to add that sense of space to the music. Subtle effects also helped diversify the guitar sounds, and some more variety was achieved there by physically varying the styles, so you can hear folky finger-picking and ‘the Venetian effect’, for instance, along with the more conventional riffing.

What amazes me is the quality of production on the album, how did you accomplish this?

It’s all thanks to computers, really. The whole process from recording, all through mixing, to final mastering can be achieved on one PC, and this is how I’ve been doing it for the last five years or so now. Most of the capabilities of a full studio are there in some form, and I used whatever applications I could to get the most out of the music while also trying to retain some of that authentic analogue sound... I’m very cautious about records sounding over-produced these days, and that taking away a lot of the intimacy of the music. It can be something as simple as dynamic range – how much the volume and force of the music varies: today we are hearing so many albums that start loud and just stay loud until the end, when a lot of quieter, fragile parts could add so much. What some listeners might find surprising is that all the parts on my albums are live audio – I don’t use midi or drum machines, so despite the somewhat electronic sound even the percussion is played in real time.

Mike Oldfield is clearly an influence on your music, what do you feel were his best works, and why?

Yes, Oldfield is without a doubt my musical hero. I would say his first few albums are among his best, they seemed to go from strength to strength. Most people know ‘Tubular Bells’, which is rightfully well-respected, but I definitely think he surpassed it with ‘Hergest Ridge’ and then even more so with ‘Ommadawn’. Those albums are just so immersive, and so moving. They were the worlds into which Oldfield himself escaped, and by recording them he allowed us to go to the same place. It’s not always a welcoming place – parts of ‘Ommadawn’ in particular are extremely dark and frightening – but it all rings true, it reflects life as we know it. He wasn’t writing love songs, or music to express his politics, he wasn’t trying to provide an image for people to buy into – it was something much more vital than that, a very pure music. My absolute favourite album of his has to be ‘Amarok’, though. It still amazes me that he created it in 1990, a time when the old sensibilities of prog were long gone, but with ‘Amarok’ I think he unexpectedly reached the pinnacle: it resembles the early albums, but it’s even more intense and perfectly executed.

Do you always compose your albums as complete works, or is each track a separate composition which stands in its own right?

I think my aim is somewhere in-between. I certainly compose each track to stand as an individual piece of music, but with each album I also set out with an idea in mind for the complete picture, the impression I would like people to be left with after listening to it from start to finish. So at each stage of writing and recording each piece, I am also thinking about the whole, and hoping the album becomes something more than the sum of its parts. ‘Reflex Arc’ was an interesting experiment in that regard, as I designed it to be listened to and reacted to in various different ways, with very little signposting for the listener (which is one reason why there are no individual track titles). You could listen to the whole album (or a chunk of the album from the start of any track) and get that continuity, but each track also worked in isolation and the listener can get a different impression - and often only notice the subtleties - when they hear a particular track out of context.

Your latest album is relatively short in the age of the CD, did you feel that making the tracks any longer or adding more tracks would upset the balance of the album? Do you feel that compact discs put unreasonable pressure on artists to record more material, leading to a reduction in the overall quality?

Strictly speaking, ‘Ovriah’ is really an EP or mini-album. It’s a single piece of music with a few sub-sections, and there was really nothing I could have added without over-stretching the concept or undermining it with unrelated tracks. So it helps to think of it more as a very long EP rather than a very short album! I do think the longer running time of CDs has resulted in more ‘filler music’ over the years, particularly for bands who specialise in short burst tracks and would be better off sticking to the old 40-minute mark. For progressive rock, however, the CD format has been great – there is a lot more room for tracks to breathe, they don’t have to be so tight. I am a big fan of long, slow pieces of music, and now artists are free to include them as part of even larger works.

How did you first get into progressive music?

When I was five years old, I caught the final song of ‘Ommadawn’ on my family’s record player, and for some reason was totally captivated by it. The memory of it stayed with me until I was a teenager, and so when ‘Tubular Bells II’ came out I bought that and got really into it. That was my awakening to progressive music, really, and also to the idea of composing and performing whole albums single-handedly.

At what age did you first start composing your own music and why? Was it anything in particular that inspired you?

At school, aged 14 or 15, I started messing around with music along with a friend. It was kind of a comedy thing, we’d record spoof songs, but all the while I was listening to some phenomenal music and was slowly starting to come up with my own little ideas. I had one of these portable Yamaha keyboards, and I remember I recorded a couple of full-length tapes with that which are unfortunately now long gone. A bit later I joined a more traditional rock band as a keyboardist, and we gigged a bit in our hometown. But by this point I had started to take music much more seriously and the band weren’t really making what I would consider real music, so I left that behind before long. When I heard Robert Fripp’s Soundscapes series of albums in the late ‘90s, I was just completely blown away, and I think that was the point where I knew I had to make a real go of creating something on my own.

How do you now feel about your older work when compared to your recent albums?

I seem to experience two conflicting states of mind whenever I listen to my earliest albums. The first is my immediate reaction that the sound quality is not great. I was working with tapes, I couldn’t do many overdubs, and there was nothing I could do in terms of editing the improvised tracks, so there is a much more limited range of instrumentation, and the odd bum note which stands out. But my other response, thankfully the stronger of the two, is that the writing was so strong back then. Those early compositions are pretty ambitious, there are many more complex ideas than exist on my newer works, and just a wealth of energy in the performance. Overall, the first two albums are perhaps my most challenging, and despite their technical shortcomings I am proud of them. I am looking to recapture the spirit of those recordings in future projects.

What is your favourite album out of all your efforts to date and why?

‘Reflex Arc’ is definitely up there. With that album more than the others I feel I was able to match the strength of the concept with good technical execution. I think the recurring themes added that extra narrative sense to the music, each track captures something different, and the whole thing flows very well. On the other hand... ‘Voices Through Endless Walls’ probably has the most adventurous and potent music on it. That’s a less accessible but perhaps more rewarding listen, I would say.

Which is your favourite instrument to play and why?

Probably the acoustic guitar. You can channel so much emotion into the playing of a guitar, even with a single note, and the acoustic has that natural, wooden sound. I am very interested in timelessness, and I would say the acoustic guitar has that timeless quality while still being fairly easy to learn!

Any instruments you would still like to master?

At the moment, only the flute... the ‘70s should have taught us that all real prog men can play a mean flute.

Who are your main influences?

Most of the big names of prog rock: Mike Oldfield, Genesis, Yes, King Crimson, Van Der Graaf Generator, Camel, plus their individual band members and various offshoots. The more electronic/atmospheric dimension of my sound has come from listening to Jarre and Tangerine Dream, and the cinematic side is courtesy of Ennio Morricone, Angelo Badalamenti, and Kenji Kawai.

What is your favourite song of all time and why?

I’m tempted to say Mike Oldfield’s ‘Amarok’, but that might be cheating since despite being a single track it is still album length! Failing that, my favourite single track would be ‘The Gates of Delirium’ by Yes. It’s an epic in every way, by an immensely talented band at their creative peak - their confidence comes through in the music. The lessons of war and peace are at the heart of human history, and this track takes you on a journey through all the extremes. It gets me every time, and the closing section especially is one of the best produced pieces of music I’ve ever heard.

What are your views on modern prog bands such as The Flower Kings, Radiohead, etc.?

I think a lot of these bands have something to offer. I have the likes of Radiohead, The Mars Volta, and Spock’s Beard in my collection; they are highly listenable and I’m glad that progressive music is still out there in some form. But honestly, I’ve yet to hear much from the last thirty years that truly compares to the giants of the ‘70s. It’s not a nostalgia thing, because I hadn’t even been born yet when all that happened, but purely from a lot of focused listening to a lot of music I think something pretty special was lost at the end of the ‘70s and has never returned. The focus has drifted away from strong melody and diverse instrumentation... music seems now to be very ‘flat’ and more about rhythm.

What is the future for artists when it comes to selling their music? Your own business model appears to be based on retaining control of distribution etc. How difficult is it these days to generate interest from the big record companies in your style of music?

To be honest I’m not sure at all what the future holds for the music industry. Right now, the bulk of it is revolving around music I simply don’t recognise or understand, and I don’t know how to approach that situation. I have contacted several record labels in the past with demos, and the usual response is that they don’t see the music as marketable. More recently, the internet has made it possible for myself and other artists to reach people via our websites and sell our work directly, so instead of trying so hard to get through to A&R departments I tend to focus more on making new music and sell CDs via mail order. The dream, of course, is to become a full-time musician, and to that end I don’t think I’ll ever give up on the possibility of larger deals and distribution... I have a feeling it could be a long road, though.

Tell us about the art work used on your CDs. Has the advent of the CD rendered the artwork less relevant than it used to be?

It’s probably the one thing that makes it such a shame CDs are so small compared to vinyls – we no longer get those big, lavish album covers. I wouldn’t say album art has become less relevant though, there are still a lot of great covers being produced out there. I have traditionally put a lot of thought into my own album covers, and used some of my own art and photography in addition to collaborating with other visual artists. I like the images to either match parts of the album, build further ideas on it in the same vein, or hint at the same concept in a different way. I definitely think cover art can be a part of the whole album experience; I miss it when I download music, and will probably always choose to provide it with my work.

Do you perform live? Any plans in that area?

At present I don’t play live. It’d be logistically difficult to achieve the right sound without further musicians, and playing to a backing track would seem to me to defeat the purpose. But I haven’t ruled out playing live one day, somehow. A part of me is still attracted to the idea of forming a band and seeing where that leads.

Have you ever considered collaborating?

Yes, the possibility of collaboration always strikes me as very exciting. I am already part of a duo called Bridge with the poet and musician Kate Toft, and we released an album last year. It’s a completely different experience, sharing the whole process of writing and recording with other people, and I think it can lead to some fantastic results. I am also very interested in writing soundtracks for TV, films, computer games and other media. I am sure there will be another Bridge project in the future, and I’ll be on the lookout for other opportunities too.

What are your plans for the future? What direction do you see your music going in? Is there anything already in the pipeline?

At the moment I’m working on a kind of sample CD of my music to date, with a track or two from each album plus remixes and examples of my soundtrack work which most people won’t have heard yet. I am also just starting the writing of a new album, which I am aiming to be a big step in the evolution of my music. I can’t say much about this yet, other than that it will be a lot larger in scale than ‘Ovriah’.

Thank you  very much for your time Marc!

To listen to/find out more about Marc's work you can go to: 

or you can stay right here and go to:

Edited by The Rain Man - October 23 2007 at 17:14
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Direct Link To This Post Posted: October 24 2007 at 03:52
Great interview Marc (and The Rain Man), some very interesting discussion there. Marc clearly has some excellent taste in music too! 
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Direct Link To This Post Posted: October 24 2007 at 04:38
outstanding interview, a very interesting modern musician's perspective

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Direct Link To This Post Posted: October 24 2007 at 06:13
awesome!! Clap
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Direct Link To This Post Posted: October 24 2007 at 07:37
Excellent double news!
1- I didn't know Charlton was included in the Archives
2- this interview
Just one question: since his music is very much ECM-like ( Tibbets or Metheny and much more so than Oldfield, really), what's Charlton doing in prog-related???
let's just stay above the moral melee
prefer the sink to the gutter
keep our sand-castle virtues
content to be a doer
as well as a thinker,
prefer lifting our pen
rather than un-sheath our sword
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Direct Link To This Post Posted: October 24 2007 at 10:11
ISKC Rock Radio
I stopped blogging and reviewing - so won't be handling requests. Promo's for ariplay can be sent to [email protected]
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