First hearing of this band through its symbiotic relationship with progressive forerunners Haken, To-Mera brings its own, uniquely dark approach to progressive metal, a genre I have long felt was in need of a good kick to the yarbles. Though To-Mera adhere to some of the more familiar traits of prog metal, they have a uniquely avant-garde leaning that makes their music more atmospheric and challenging that one may first expect. With a vast concept album recently released, I had some questions about the band, the music, and life in general. Band mastermind Tom McLean was kind enough to take some time to answer them!
Where did you get your name from? From what I know, it has an origin in the history of Egypt…
Julie gave the band its name. Every time I explain this it comes out a bit different, as the true origin of the band's name is lost to the mists of time, but from what I recall, the ancient Egyptians used the word 'To-Mera" (or some phonetic equivalent) to name their homeland, on account of the fact that the name apparently had a deeper meaning, encompassing magical and scientific elements. And so To-Mera was conceived as a band that would create "technical" (scientific") yet also "magical" music.
How might you describe yourselves quickly to listeners who have not heard To-Mera before?
Dark, emotive, occasionally challenging music.
How did you form as a band? Any uncanny stories behind how To-Mera became a musical unit?
When Julie left her previous band, Without Face, she returned to Hungary and attempted to form a new progressive metal band with friends back there. But it wasn't working out, so she returned to England, where she joined forces with Lee Barrett (original bassist who also ran Elitist Records, which signed Without Face) to go about forming this band. I believe they went through a handful of guitarists before I bumped into them at a train station in London (recognising Julie because I was a fan of Without Face). But at that time it didn't occur to me to offer my services as a guitarist, as I was under the assumption that their new band was already in motion. In fact it was until I ran into them again a few months later at a Dillinger Escape Plan gig (where I wouldn't even have been had a friend of mine not won some backstage passes from Kerrang at the last moment) that I learned they no longer had a guitarist. The rest is history.
To-Mera have often been described as a band that fuses genres and styles effortlessly. Is there a clear intention in you to take different styles and fuse them as such, or does this happen as a result of natural musical expression?
Perhaps at the beginning there was a clear intention to "mix things up a bit". As the core trio, Julie, Lee and I were all into the avant-garde side of metal, so we wanted to incorporate that into our music. Perhaps an early inspiration was a band called Ephel Duath (whom Lee also had signed to his label for a time) who were attempting the fusion of jazz and metal. I liked the attitude, and I suppose we were attempting to go down a similar route at first, but trying to make things a bit more melodic.
But after Transcendental it became natural for us to indulge in whatever we felt like at any one time. There were never any boundaries set as to what could and couldn't go into one of our songs.
To-Mera is not the only band you are engaged with presently; in fact, it seems like To-Mera is the meeting point for some very busy musicians with the tendency to be in multiple bands at once. Especially considering the sister project Haken has been quite prolific in of itself, how do you balance the responsibilities between this and other bands?
That's a fair question, but in fact I feel everything reaches its natural equilibrium in time, and it's not worth fighting it. Some bands will be busier than others at different times depending on where they are in the recording/ promotion/ touring cycle. We've always been respectful of each others' projects so it hasn't caused too much friction. That said, when To-Mera released "Earthbound" in 2009, we'd already decided to take a little breather as we'd found ourselves between a rock and a hard place, having effectively eschewed the industry that had built us up and, to an extent, knocked us back down again. Meanwhile, Haken was just emerging onto the scene, so it made sense to nurture that band for a while whilst To-Mera licked its wounds and recovered enough to work out how to proceed. I'd say my involvement in Haken almost certainly rekindled my enthusiasm to do another full length with To-Mera, so we feed off each other's energies I suppose.
On that note, To-Mera is often compared to Haken, due in large part to the fact that you share two members, and that you’re both at the forefront of the progressive metal revival. Do you think these comparisons are fair, or would you prefer To-Mera be seen as a wholly separate entity?
Richard and I are two sides of the same coin I think. Yin and Yang. I suppose we came to work together because we are both very passionate about pushing the limits of musical expression, and to an extent we both depend on each other to push and challenge the other. But I think it's probably fair to say that To-Mera is the dark to Haken's light. To-Mera has always been centred in the darker side of metal, whilst Haken has been more closely oriented to flamboyant classic progressive rock. One band deals with the darker side of human experience, the other more in uplifting fantasy. So they complement each other in that respect.
That said, it wasn't until after To-Mera's second album 'Delusions', that we joined forces as musicians, so if the bands had any similarity before that point, it was purely coincidental.
Vocals are often seen as a hit-or-miss point in progressive metal, but the vocal work in To-Mera matches the par of the rest of the band, offering melodies more challenging than what one would normally expect from a melodic singer. How are these vocal melodies written; is it done after the instrumentation is complete?
In the early days, certainly on much of Transcendental, much of the music was written to match the vocal melodies, but the dynamic gradually shifted in favour of writing melodies around the music. I've always found Julie to have an unconventional approach to melodic writing which, while some people find challenging, I've found to be a breath of fresh air. She's perhaps more of an intuitive writer than the rest of us, who are all music school nerds.
What is the experience of playing a live show like? What can audiences expect from To-Mera in the live setting?
We'd often joke that our audiences could expect amps to malfunction, microphones to feedback, keyboard power supplies to fail and strings to break, but I guess that would be focussing on the negative side of things! :) I think controlled chaos is a good way to describe it! :)
I’ve just spent the past week listening intently to your latest record, “Exile”- a really excellent album! How does it feel to have this album finally out to breathe in the world?
I'm glad you enjoy it! Creating this album really was a marathon. After I'd had my year away from music (2009-2010), I really had the itch to do another album with this band, but after the positive response Haken was receiving with "Aquarius", I realised how To-Mera had been going about the album production process in a grossly inefficient and compromising way. What we'd done up till then had been to record everything in recording studios, paying considerable amounts to sound engineers with limited time. As a result we always felt the time and monetary constraints always got in the way of obtaining the optimal outcomes on record. The way we recorded both "Aquarius" and "Visions" with Haken was totally different. Everything was recorded on our home computers, meaning we had the luxury of both time and money (in that it cost us nothing) to be as thorough as we wanted to when recording our parts. The end products are pretty immaculate in my opinion. So it was time to take this experience to making a To-Mera album. It took a LONG time to record everybody's parts and bring the whole thing together, but at last we can say we have an album where we did things our way! So in answer to your question, it is a HUGE RELIEF to finally have "Exile" out there. :)
What was the writing process behind this album? Did you have an idea for the album in mind before you sat down to write?
You're onto something there. We knew that we had a lot of frustrating experiences from our time together as a band up till that point to draw upon. Some personal, some professional, but ultimately we'd all had more than our fair share of unhappy situations to deal with as a unit, and really we wanted to make an album that celebrated the power of the music that brought us together in the first place, but also represented an act of defiance to any negative forces, be they internal (i.e. negative emotions) or external (i.e. state of the music industry, life in general), that threatened our right to exist as a creative entity. This led to the formation of the concept behind "Exile", which we shall deal with below ......
The first thing that really struck me about “Exile” was its concept, which I find really interesting. Unlike most concept albums- which seem to go the narrative route- “Exile” seems to approach concepts by employing abstraction and allegory. What can you say about this concept; do you think it plays a vital role to the album as a whole?
If I may say so, I've always felt Julie was a master of allegory. She buries herself in phiilosophy and self-help books, and has wisdom, be it direct or indirect, beyond many people of her years. In essence, the concept is loosely about a protagonist having undergone a traumatic experience, then trying to eradicate everything from her life that holds any associations to it, but then realising that by doing so she is deconstructing the essence of herself, and ultimately finds that it is better to accept all the pain and imperfections of her life than live in denial of it.
The concept was the very impetus behind writing the album in the first place. The music was very much written to fit the various moods and emotions of the story.
The question I ask every artist- what advice would you give to other musicians, particularly those who have not yet been noticed, or are still in the process of learning music?
To those who have not been noticed, I have one very important lesson from my own experience. It is far better to live with a creation that brings you total pleasure that few take notice of, than live with one that you are ashamed of that everyone knows about! Lasting success can only be attained in small steps. There are no shortcuts to building a strong house.
In terms of learning music - the process never ends. There is always more to learn. But make sure you're enjoying it.
Any tips for recording or songwriting?
For recording, learn to do it yourself as soon as you get the opportunity! The more you come to rely on others doing the job for you, the less power you will have over your vision.
Regarding songwriting, everyone has to find a method that works for them. If we all wrote music the same way, no-one would want to listen to anyone else's music!
Any favourite beers?
Hmmm .... I haven't been drinking much beer recently, but the last one I enjoyed was called "Poachers" by the Badger Brewery in Dorset, England. Has a liquorice flavour. Might be a bit sweet for my tastes now.
As long as it's not from a fast-food outlet, I'm happy.
What have you been listening to lately? Any favourite albums of 2012?
Funnily enough the album I've been listening to most recently came out in 2010, but I only got it a couple of months ago: - "We're Here Because We're Here" - Anathema. Beautiful album. Other than that, I think the only release of this year that got me really excited was "Radio Music Society" by Esperanza Spalding. Instant classic! "Rise of the Fenix" by Tenacious D was good fun as well.
What lies in your future? Touring Europe, perhaps?
The band's future is as certain or uncertain as any others. We're still assessing the general response to "Exile" before we make any appropriate plans.
To anyone who has shown any interest in the creative efforts of this band, I thank you from the bottom of my heart for giving a deluded composer "un raison d'etre".
Cheers from Vancouver! Best of luck on future albums, I’m looking forward to hearing what you’ll do next!
Thanks Conor! Best of luck to you too!
To-Mera's PA Profile may be found http://www.progarchives.com/artist.asp?id=3070" rel="nofollow - here.