A Very Fruitful Partnership

Although the debut album ‘Satellites’ by Silent Skies doesn’t immediately scream rock or metal it is interesting enough to be featured on HeadBangers LifeStyle. Especially if you know that it is a collaboration between Evergrey singer Tom Englund and Redemption keyboardist Vikram Shankar. ‘Satellites’ was already written and recorded in 2017/2018 so it has been shelved for a while so enough to talk about with the very talented and modest Shankar.

Vik, what we hear on ‘Satellites’ is basically piano/keys and vocals so there is no way of hiding. Was it a challenge to make this album?
,,A rewarding challenge, Tom and I thought it important to have all these core elements up front so you can hear all the details and make something intimate for the listener.’’

Shankar is no stranger to Evergrey material as on his YouTube channel he covered ,,Forever Outside’’, and on ‘Satellites’ there is a remake of ,,Distance’’. What makes them so interesting to cover?
,,For me, I am drawn to them for many years and why working with Tom was a dream come true is that Evergrey does something in the progressive world that is special. They are uncompromisingly heavy at times but very cinematic and emotional all at once, for me that is special. If you strip away the heavy guitars, drums and modern metal production you have very beautiful, emotional songs and I like exposing that on the piano.’’

The quality of a good song is that it stays strong even when stripped down.
,,I’m a huge fan of intricate production but if you take that away you should still be left with something strong. Look at Devin Townsend who put layer upon layer in the arrangement but if you listen to him playing it acoustically it is just as strong. That is what I admire in him. He is totally authentic and an example for me.’’

You were introduced to Redemption by Tom. Now you are working together. What makes it so that you and Tom have such a click?
,,That is interesting because in many ways we are quite different. Tom’s background is in heavy music and I studied classical and jazz music and got a degree from conservatory and film composition, so I got a very academic background, but we share a similar taste as to aesthetics. I was humbled when Tom introduced me to Nick [van Dyk] of Redemption and that is a very fruitful partnership for me as well.’’

Who’s idea was it to come up with Silent Skies?
,,It was initially Tom’s idea. He reached out to me in January 2017 out of the blue with the idea he and I could make this piano driven music with vocals, with very cinematic influences. He wanted to make, as he called it, visions for the inner eye, like when you put on headphones and you have this film that plays out in your head.’’

How did you compose the songs?
,,It was all organic and all of it we did long distance. Basically for the majority of the ideas I would write piano or synthesizer sketches and Tom and I would shizzle it together into a song. Something I always remind people of is that Tom is not only a fantastic singer, he’s an artist, he knows music so he has plenty of influence of how the musical side of things is going to go and there are piano parts that he actually came up with. Basically I did most of the music, Tom most of the lyrics, but we informed each other on almost all that we did which I think makes it a lot stronger result.’’

Your instruments of choice are piano and keyboards. What makes these so perfect for you?
,,I started playing the piano when I was around 5 years old and I studied vigorously classical piano and I studied piano through conservatory so I was schooled in piano playing. But when I was an early teenager I picked up the guitar and drums. I love those instruments as writing tools. Sit down with the guitar and come up with a riff and maybe turn it into a piano part. I love the piano for the dynamic ranges, high octave, low octave, and voicing things 3 or 4 parts at the same time. The easiest way to sounding like an entire ensemble. For me piano suited to that and I was always drawn to that.’’

What sparked your interest in music?
,,I was interested in and playing music as long as I can remember. I was four years old when my parents identified that I had perfect pitch. You hear a note and know what it is. I was never trained to do this, but I could play along with all the stuff I heard, so they put me in music instruction because of that and there was no looking back. I wouldn’t know what to do without music, this is how I communicate, how I am at peace. Fortunately, from that moment on I was allowed to commit myself to that life.’’

Who are your influences as a musician?
,,I’d say I have different influences for the different styles that I do. In classical music I was always inspired by Franz Liszt, Béla Bartók and Igor Strawinski, in rock music first by Keith Emerson and then by Jordan Ruddess of Dream Theater who was a massive influence. Alongside that Herbie Hancock from the jazz world as well as McCoy Tyner who played in the John Coltrane Quartet, plus the more modern composers as Ólafur Arnalds and Max Richter. As far as my piano playing concerns I am influenced mainly by progressive, classical, and jazz. All of this comes together to make what I do.’’
You write film scores, are no stranger to progressive metal, rock, classical, jazz. Probably impossible to answer but: where lies your heart?
,,My heart lies in music and I don’t see these things as different alien worlds of each other. I was first exposed to the music of Bartók and Strawinski and I already listened to the music of Rush and Dream Theater and heard resonances of jazz in prog and I love how all these things cross-pollinated and that is what I try to do in my music. I have another band, Lux Terminus, a prog rock trio driven by piano and during that album we have film score, electronic dance bits, jazz bits; I try not to hold myself back, there’s not much use in that, I’d rather just be who I am.’’

You mentioned Lux Terminus and in that band there is a Dutch connection: singer Anneke van Giersbergen and guitarist Timo Somers. How did that happen?
,,Both are people I look up to immensely. Anneke is probably my favourite singer if I had to pick one. I reached out to her just asking if she would do me the honour to sing on this song [,,Epilogue: Fly (IV)’’], and she did an exquisite performance. She took my song and turned it into something that gives me shivers, it is so impressive what she did, I cannot say enough positive things about her. And Timo is someone who I admire very much, and I think he is one of the most underestimated guitar players in music today. Delain was a great band but in their music you did not really hear for the most part what he is capable of doing. He is a virtuoso guitar player. I wanted to give him a chance to reach fresh ears in the progressive community. I had him do this climactic solo at the end of the album and that’s definitely one of the highlights of my musical career, to hear him soar on that bit.’’

‘Satellites’ was finished two years ago. Are you already thinking of or working on a new album?
,,Funny, we always had the ambition to do more than one album. Silent Skies is not a one-off project. We had actually written two albums. In 2018 I went to Gothenburg to record the piano for ‘Satellites’ and there are ten songs on the album, but I tracked nineteen. So we do have these songs and they are fantastic songs but not necessary ready for public consumption yet. Future albums are not only something that we are going to do, but people are going to be happy with how quickly we do them.’’

Do you consider yourself more of a solo artist or are you a team player?
,,I enjoy being a team player more than being a solo artist, that comes from someone who does both. Silent Skies is 50/50 artistically, I joined Redemption when the music was already written. Now I am co-writing for future albums, in Lux Terminus I am the captain, I write pretty much everything, but I am most happy when I am in a sort of 50/50 relationship. If I felt that I was so much of a genius and could do anything myself and it would be perfect that would be okay, but I am stronger when other people work with me so we can create something greater than I can do by myself. I think most artists are that way. A lot of artists are not comfortable with the baggage that it brings along, the interpersonal stuff, the compromises. I have been very fortunate that every band I’ve been in, I loved everybody I worked with.’’

What audience are you aiming for with Silent Skies?
,,It is targeted to different audiences, certainly there’s a bunch of Evergrey fans who’d love it and we appreciate that. They are having a deep connection to the music. People who appreciate the softer side, maybe Anathema fans but also the world outside metal and rock, the cinematic, classical or the more artistic site of pop music. Our strength is that the melodies are very accessible and appeal beyond metal, even if it is a small percentage.’’

‘Satellites’ is filled with beautiful music to relax to in the hectic world of today.
,,That’s a beautiful way to put it. As the world has become more and more insane, there is a bigger need for art to play a role. On one level it can be relaxing, it can take your mind off what is going on, so you can escape in the world of the art for a while. It also can remind you of the human community and the things that we all share because in tough times the first thing that goes away is our sense of community and the sense that we are all ultimately brothers and I love the fact that music can bring the people together. In times like these that’s exactly what we need.’’

There is no chance to play live at the moment, and Evergrey is also releasing a new album. Did you ever plan to perform live with Silent Skies?
,,Absolutely, we’ve actually talked about what it would mean for Silent Skies performing and of course there’s the logistics of the fact that I’m based in the USA and Tom in Sweden. Even before Covid-19 it was not the easiest thing in the world to get us into the same place to perform, but we’ve always been interested in performing live and I can promise that at one point, Silent Skies will be taking the stage. How that will be look like I’m not sure yet, but it will be cool.’’

Are you working on new projects now?
,,Quite a bit actually. In addition to working on material for a next Silent Skies album I have made a solo piano album that should be released next year. It is similar to Silent Skies but more in the classical vein, even more intimate but something I had to get off my chest. I’ve been writing with Redemption. I had the great pleasure of co-writing with Nick and I do believe that it is the first time that Nick actually had somebody co-writing Redemption music which was a huge honour for me personally. We have written quite a lot of music and it is going really well. I have an album by Threads Of Fate, which is much more on the metal side, darker, melodic death metal, symphonic sort of stuff, which should be coming out next year as well. And finally, I am working on the second Lux Terminus album, so there is a lot going on. But what else is there to do in times like these?’’

What does the fact that you can’t go out for touring do to your creativity?
,,Yeah, I know a lot of my peers for whom, without the constant touring cycle, it’s quite a damper on their creativity. I think you have to be in a decent state of mind to be creative, I think that for most people the idea creating through your depression is not something that may work so well as people may think it does. There are a lot of people I know who struggle creatively but I feel really lucky because I was not really touring as much as I was working at home, writing and recording. What I do outside of all these bands is session keyboards for people. I produce, mix, and master, so people who are sitting at home unable to tour will write records. It actually means that I am busier now than I was a year ago. Kind of a twist of fate but creativity has been flowing fairly well.’’

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