Forum Senior Member
Joined: March 04 2008
Location: Retirement Home
Posted: January 04 2012 at 09:33
Aethellis = Ellsworth Hall, is classically trained on piano and has performed solo in several places He has also been member of several bands including Tailwind, Sabre, Logos Affinity, Urban Nomads and Dolly-Dagger.
I got in touch with him for his story.
Your biography has been covered in your ProgArchives profile so let's bypass the biography details. But what made you take up music ?
My parents were a major influence. My dad loved classical music and my mom played the piano and the popular tunes of the day. My dad would buy me 45s of the Boston Pops and I’d play them in my room when I was about 2 or 3 years old; standing there conducting to them like I was on stage. I also loved the local jazz radio program (in Baltimore, MD), The Harley Show. So I assume they reasoned I might have an affinity towards music and I received a piano for my 6th birthday and they started me on piano lessons. My teacher for 12 years was John Hasslinger who lived right in my neighborhood and was a Peabody Conservatory graduate. He was a great teacher and a lot of fun! So I was in good hands and I particularly was interested in composing my own music after I began learning the classics. I also learned theory and improvisation in my lessons and I developed a greater appreciation for jazz.
But I think the positive responses I had to my original tunes in my repertoire classes and recitals with Mr. Hasslinger and also at school lead me to pursue composing more vigorously. My parents also did encourage me to take up the cello in 6th grade and I played that for 5 years. My parents continued to stoke the fires of my musical creativity as I received a Yamaha electric organ at age 14. My cousin was very talented and musical so I studied guitar with him at age 15. I later took voice lessons in my 20s to protect my voice. In college I studied drawing, film and video production at the University of Maryland and got my degree in that area as I always loved the visual arts. As I kid I drew comics and made Super 8 films. So moving into the soundtrack area was a natural combination of the visual and aural.
You have been and still is a member of other bands and projects in addition to running Aethellis. Please tell us more about these bands and projects.
Well right now I’m mostly focused on Aethellis although my bandmates date back to other bands from the late 70s and early 80s. In high school I was in the Stage Band where we played Frank Zappa and Hank Levy tunes. Some of my classmates were putting together a band and asked me to join telling me I played like Rick Wakeman. I didn’t really even know who he was at the time! I was more into Elton John! So that became my first performing band, The Good Earth which barely lasted a year. Another friend from high school was starting a band in late ‘75 and I’d just gotten my first electronic piano so I joined his band Tailwind which lasted 2 years. But most importantly it was in Tailwind I met Mark Van Natta when he auditioned to replace our rhythm guitarist in 1977. He had been in a band with drummer Mike Harrington before that; he also had a nice voice and we sort of hit it off and were together in all the other bands that followed: Sabre, Affinity (later Logos Affinity) and now Aethellis. We also formed Affinity Music Library in 1989 and sold royalty-free CDs of our original music for 10 years. Not to mention doing lots of custom scores for video and film producers.
I also met our bassist Erik Marks (and his guitarist brother Chris) through a mutual friend back in 1982 and I joined their band Logos for some gigs while my band Affinity was on hiatus. They joined Affinity a year later and stayed for a while but the personnel changed quite a bit up until 1993. We reformed the band combining the Logos and Affinity members in 1994 and played gigs and put out one album until that band dissipated in 2002. I had been frustrated with the lack of progress in recording our follow-up Logos Affinity album so I decided to just go off on my own, get back some degree of guitar chops and do my own thing which became the first Aethellis album.
Over to your two albums. Your self titled debut album was released in 2003. Please tell us more about this album.
As I said I’d been frustrated with the lack of progress doing the follow-up album to Logos Affinity’s AffiniLogue album. I just don’t think at the time we were coalescing very well and some members just weren’t into what we were doing. At times I could empathize with that. However, some things we wrote together were fantastic and it’s a shame they haven’t seen the light of day; it would’ve been a major evolution from the material on AffiniLogue. We did quite a bit of recording in the summer of 2002 and I had a few solo songs I was going to include, one of which was “Hubris” which ended up on the first Aethellis album. But I bought a new guitar (my first in many years) and decided to get my calluses back and got the bug to just keep writing on my own. I figured I could make more headway and get more material down that we might be able to do something with.
But the more I worked on the new material, the more I felt like putting it into a solo effort rather than a band vehicle. Parts of “Hubris” I had written in 1999. “Final Affinity” was originally written for a computer game back in 1996 but I revised it and added lyrics. “Saint Augustus” was quite an older tune that I’d recorded two earlier versions of in 1985 and 1988. Never properly released of course. “Portal” was also an older song I’d written in 1984 after a breakup with my girlfriend. I just extended it a bit for the Aethellis album with the end section in the 7/4 + 7/4 + 7/4 + 9/4 time signatures. “Tie and Handkerchief” and “Djibouti” were the newest tracks. “Djibouti” was inspired by a drum loop that I had recorded at one of our earlier gigs; I rerecorded that and it became the basis for the song which had a hip-hop flavor with jazz chords.
I realized at the time that several of the songs had catchy, pop music-like hooks. And I’m unapologetic about that because I like balancing accessible things with more progressive things. “Saint Augustus” does have a catchy chorus but also dissonant polytriads, a myriad of modulations and several time-signature changes. But I tried to keep things smooth and not so blatantly obvious as it suited the song better that way. The same for the other songs as well. It was a balance and was one approach for the one album. That said, for the extended songs I did want to state themes, variations and recapitulations.
I was pleased that “Hubris” hit 4 top ten charts at Broadjam.com in March of 2003. In two of those charts, the Progressive Rock and Maryland charts, it debuted at number 1. It remained in the Progressive Rock top 10 for 6 months. “Djibouti” got a fair amount of airplay. But “Saint Augustus” became a staple at our gigs as it always went over well live.
Then you took an eight years long pause before you returned with a new album. Why this long pause and what were you up to during this break ?
The pause was due to a lot of personal and professional events. Shortly after I finished the first Aethellis album I got married and we began rehabbing the house I in which I’d grown up and inherited from my dad. So establishing a new relationship, still working in a day job and working on the house put band considerations on the back burner for a year and a half. Then I left my day job at which I’d been for the most part of the past 15 years reviewing grants and programming, developing applications. I started to focus exclusively on soundtrack and video production work. I’d been doing soundtracks for films, videos and multimedia starting in the 80s and was doing that along with my day job and the bands. It was quite a load. So with the house finished I returned to music and video production. I had soundtrack and video production contracts for several years from 2005 -2008 and then began working for Stanion Studios on the Bait and Switch TV project which took a great deal of my time. I also was shooting and editing my own epic movie Beside The Manor Selby which was released last year. That took some time as I wrote, directed and scored that production which takes place during World War I. However I was still writing and organizing material around this time for the second Aethellis album. It just took longer because I had so many things going on.
You have just returned with your second album Northumbria. Please tell us more about this album. Northumbria is an area in England. Why did this album title ?
I chose that title because I love history and the first album’s “Saint Augustus” was a meditation on the Bishop of Hippo and his followers in the 5th century. So I thought I’d do another song dealing with life around that time and settled on the story of the Battle of Heavenfield in 634 after which Oswald, having defeated Cadwallon, became the king of all of Northumbria. I wanted to evoke the angst of that period with the chant-like vocals, distorted Hammond organ, and the almost march-like rhythms in the second section. The song “Northumbria” was also an attempt to move away from the smoothness of the first album and present something with a bit more raw edge, aggression and dissonance. That approach suited the battle section of the song. That said, I also wanted to have more choral-styled layered vocals since there was little if any of that on the first album. So I tried to make that the approach with my vocals for the Northumbria album.
“The Awakening” is something that Mark Van Natta and I had written way back in 1984 in his home studio. I’d just gotten my Korg Polysix a few months earlier at the same time Mark got his 4-track. I took my drum machine over as well and we just improvised the music and created this atmospheric tapestry. The Polysix arpeggiator was doing this bell-like loop in 6/4 over the basic 4/4 rhythm. We both really liked what we’d recorded but we never did anything with it. I thought to revisit it a few years ago and decided it would be a great track for the new album. So we rerecorded with Mark playing his wailing guitar parts which was quite a feature for me! It’s maybe leaning a bit more towards electronica than prog but what the heck; I enjoy dabbling in different genres and seeing what we can come up with.
“Dire Need” was another older tune I’d made a demo of in 1991. I’d just gotten my Kawai Q-80 sequencer and it was one of the earliest things I’d written with it. I was having a hard time at my day job, getting burned out, and the song was reflecting my need to break away. That opening bit with the brassy polysynth chords in 10/4 and 4/4 was something I’d been diddling with for years. The other parts of the song were somewhat of an homage to Eddie Jobson and UK. I loved their music and was inspired by some of the things on both the UK albums and the Green Album.
“The Penal Colony” was another collaboration with Mark. It has distinctive sections that one can tell are from two different people but we felt they were woven together well. Mark had written the suspended-chord section with the jazzy offbeat rhythm part and I added my more classical/Wakeman-y bit along with my bass part. We created the creepy coda together where I tried to get the most sinister sounds I could muster. I’d originally written the drum machine part on an old Yamaha RX21 back in the late 80 when we composed it. That older version did end up on the first Affinity Music Library CD. My buddy, filmmaker/pilot Joe Dwyer always loved the song so we did a new version for the end credits of his Shubian’s Rift motion picture. Further revisions led to the version on the album.
“Without A Sound” was a song I’d written back in 1982 but again it was never released in any form. I was writing quite a bit with a friend back then, Erin Gill, who was in our band Affinity for a few years. I had been in a romantic mood and was in between relationships and felt like writing a song from the perspective that I was in one. So I wrote the lyrics and she had some of her own lyrical ideas which seemed to work so we put them in. We did perform it live several times in the 80s. For the new version I took the more plaintive, simpler intro and revised to the 7/8 x 7 + 2/8 intro on the album. Just seemed a bit more proggy but still led into the song proper which is a love song. It doesn’t really stay in one key for long but I usually don’t when I write something. Mark always chides me and teases me for that! “Oh how many chords in this song, Ells?” Mark is great because he always brings me down to earth. Mark can write bizarre stuff and catchy pop material as well. He studied at Berklee (in Boston, MA) back in the 80s and wrote this whole piece orchestrated for a full jazz band in 5/4 and it was fabulous! We should do something with that!
“Celui Qui Soit La Bosse” is a quite recent ditty. I just had this bass line and couldn’t get it out of my head so I figured I should put it down and started playing funky guitar to it. Then it just evolved into a kind of funk piece. Erik Marks did a great job playing bass on that. I really wrote it for him in a sense as he is a funk bassist par excellence. It’s a simple tune apart from the opening burst of the tritone chords. I put some Moog-y synth leads to kind of lead it back to prog land but it is what it is. It’s a great live tune.
“Exchequer Prague” was an attempt at writing “progressive techno” if you will. It was written when techno seemed to be peaking in the early 2000s and I though I’d try my hand at it and see if I could take it a step beyond. So after the main melody was stated and restated with harmonies I thought for the new version a break into a jazz section would mix it up a bit. It ended with a rather comical musical motif and rather funny, sproingy sounds. I was trying to have a sense of humor about the whole thing!
“The Peace Path” is the other “epic” on the album. I already had the second section, the “pop tune” section but without vocals. That section originally started as a soundtrack for a project but I developed it further playing all the rhythm guitar on it and adding lyrics for Mark to sing lead with. It had a nice catchy rhythm that I liked and a nice melody based on the pentatonic scale. So I thought how can I take that melody and tweak it a bit for more exciting opening section? I took the melody line (which ended up with the words “I will follow you...”) and put it in 5/8 played on guitar and had it loop while the drums and bass come in. Then the synth restated the same melody before going off on a snappy lead alternating with the guitar. The slow piano section utilized many of the chords from the later pop section but with several modulations. Again I was trying to take material, state it with variations and recapitulations. Even though the first section is more properly “proggy” it still contains the motifs that are derived from the second “pop” section. Mark played a really nice soaring guitar lead on the second section. But it still felt it should have some kind of coda. So I started playing the opening 5/8 guitar riff but this time with an electric piano sound, building it with synth strings. Then I thought it would be nice if the drums came in, but in 4/4 over the 5/4 electric piano riff so they don’t quite mesh until every so often. Then adding the wordless vocals just helps the emotion of the music build and it takes off and makes a nice coda to the entire piece.
“Sounds Good” came out of several jams. We’d often start rehearsals in Logos Affinity with a warm up jam and Erik Marks would record them all on DAT in his studio where we rehearsed. There are hours of great stuff we should do something with! Anyway, we came up with some material that reminded me a bit of Little Feat and Erik came up with a nice break and bass solo. So we settled on the various bits, I went home and worked out some chord progressions. I brought it back to rehearsal and Erik had a major hand in arranging the sections and coming up with bass parts which were beautifully conceived. It was to be the last song on the album and it’s rather uplifting so I wanted to have both Mark and Chris Marks on guitar as they’ve always complemented each other live. Chris is a phenomenal classically trained guitarist and a sweet guy. He’s busy with several other bands but plays with us when he can and we always have a great time. The icing on the cake was Mike Harrington on drums sort of channeling Alan White in few places. That particular drum break that just sort of stops is something Mike came up with and he’s a huge Yes fan. So there you go!
I really enjoyed the collaboration with guys in the band who have been so sweet and supportive about playing my music from the first album live. I make sure we play any originals the others have written as well, if they want to. So it’s nice to get back to a more collaborative process this time around. I did play guitar and synth bass as well as keyboards but the other guys’ contributions are invaluable. And yes there are “digi-drums” on the album; the drums are basically a mix of me playing and Mike’s playing with what is called “drum replacement therapy,” and recorded drums.
What is the availabilities of your releases ?
The first album Aethellis is available as CD and digital download from various vendors including:
Northumbria is currently available on the Melodic Revolution Records label as a CD from CD Baby
and digital download from Melodic Revolution Records:
The album will be in full release early in 2012 and will be available at many places including iTunes and such.
How would you describe your music and which bands would you compare yourself with ?
I would describe Aethellis’ music as a rather eclectic mix of “traditional” progressive rock elements and other genres (hip-hop, jazz, electronica, pop). As a soundtrack composer I’ve had to delve into every genre of music to satisfy my clients and I’ve learned something from each genre. Sure I have a predilection for some styles more than others but think it’s healthy and challenging to incorporate elements from various approaches to music into the progressive rock world. It keeps it from stagnating. As far as comparisons, I suppose some things I’ve done have been compared with Tony Banks’ solo works and others with the Alan Parsons Project and Camel even even UK; these pertain to the first album. There’s not as much of a consensus yet for Northumbria although I’ve been told by some online fans that the title track itself mixes elements of ELP, Yes and Genesis. I would say I’ve certainly been influenced by these groups but some find comparisons with bands and artists that I hadn’t even considered (Kayak and Robert Berry for example).
But I’ve also been influenced by the classical and jazz improvisation training I had. I took the Promethean Chord that Scriabin based some of his harmonies on and wrote a piece around it for example. And I’ve always enjoyed McCoy Tyner’s playing. Those are just a few examples but they along with many others are woven into my musical experience. There’s so much great music out there to learn from and I try to create to the best of my ability but sometimes you just are in awe of what has gone before and think, “Geez, why can’t I do that?”
How is your creative processes from coming up with an idea to it's being recorded ?
It varies. Sometimes I’m driving and a riff pops in my head and I try to capture that when I get home. Other times I just sit and improvise for a while until I come up with something that I find appealing. Then I take those ideas and try to develop them into something thematically interesting. Other times I’ll have some other sketch I’d written but it didn’t go anywhere on its own but putting with some newer bit brings it to life. Then the recording process itself can yield some new ideas where I’m working on a part and become inspired by new sounds I’ve begun using or new synth plug-in. Then of course there’s the input of my musical partners; my band mates. Taking something we improvise on together can build into something quite appealing and beautiful. I think most musicians would describe similar experiences.
What have you been up to since the release Northumbria? What is your current status and what is your plans for this year and beyond ?
Well as the album was just released on Melodic Revolution Records, I’ve just being responding to lots of very kind online comments and we’ve been getting requests for airplay and such. Nick Katona of MRR has just begun “letting slip the dogs of promotion” as it were. He’s been fabulous with his enthusiasm and support. So there will be much more activity soon. I have begun rehearsals of the new album material with the band and we’re planning a album debut concert for Spring 2012 which will be videotaped with portions appearing on the Aethellis YouTube channel. There are a few videos up there now based on songs from the first album. We hope to have a “Northumbria” video later in 2012 although there’s a teaser video up now. So we’re looking at promotion and gigging the album the rest of 2012; get the word out so to speak. As for beyond 2012 the band will hopefully continue to perform and cast our net a bit wider from the tri-state area we’ve been focusing on here in the US. I’m hoping that the upcoming concert footage that we put online will reach out to folks in other countries since it may be a while before we play outside the US. I don’t know if and when there will be another Aethellis album. If there is another album I believe it will be even more of a collaborative effort. But I have many other video and soundtrack projects coming up in the near future and will devote my time to them in the recording area. But we plan to perform and gig for years to come!
To wrap up this interview, is there anything you want to add to this interview ?
Just to say thank you to everyone who have enjoyed the music and supported us both online and in person. It’s the people who enjoy the music and buy and listen and come to hear us that I am so grateful for. And thank you so very much for the opportunity to be interviewed!
Thank you to Ellsworth Hall for this interview
Joined: March 08 2012
Location: Maryland, USA
I just wanted to add that due to trying to keep the background part of the interview brief to focus on the new album, I didn't mean to give any former band members short shrift.
Hi to Bill Vencil, Joe Dickson, and Paul Hildner, whom I last performed with in The Good Earth and Stage Band in 1975/6. And to John Armstrong and Chris Sengstacke who brought me into The Good Earth.
Also let me mention "Another friend from high school was starting a band in late ‘75" who was Denny Dearth. Thanks to him my band career really got started upon joining Tailwind where Denny sang, his brother Ken played bass and sang, Jay Wise wailed on guitar and vocals, Mike Mercer played rhythm guitar, and the late great "Uncle" Brian Powell pounded the drums.
Ken left with void filled by Bill Myers and as stated Mark joined to take over for Mike. This configuration mutated into Sabre without Denny and ultimately included Steve Van Order on bass and Mike "Quick Draw" McGraw on drums (who used to do a fantastic Teddy Roosevelt imitation!).
There was Scott Noyle, Mac and Viki Ford in Affinity. And of course "Gordon Heckler."
I and just HAVE to mention my very close friend Joe Dwyer who played sax on "Celui Qui Soit La Bosse" on the Northumbria album. It wouldn't have been the same without his playing.
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