Last week I had the opportunity to speak with “power-melodic-orchestrated-song-oriented rock” group New England. Popular in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, New England has returned to headline a show August 15th. Its members include John Fannon (guitar, vocals), Jimmy Waldo (keyboard, vocals), Hirsch Gardner (drums, vocals), and Gary Shea (bass). The conversation was interspersed throughout a few hours of practice in a dingy, borrowed rehearsal space. Not ideal, but practical. Among forgotten bottles of rum, light-up Christmas decorations, and a ceiling of pipelines going who-knows-where, we talked about Chick Corea, types of influence, and how not to sound like Britney Spears. We even touched upon a funk group I used to play in; while my simpleton endeavors were embarrassing in comparison to these rock giants, talking was oh so worth it.

Adam Kaminski: So since we’re at a rehearsal, I wanted to start with the songwriting process. I think songwriting is something that’s very personal, so how do you make what you do as a band your own personal thing? How do you each make the songs your own?

John Fannon: Well I’ve been writing the songs up to this point, but it becomes the band’s song as soon as it comes in. Everyone has their own musical input and creative styles and that’s what makes New England, New England. It’s a process that we go through.

Hirsch Gardner: Often, John, you wrote the songs starting with just an acoustic guitar sitting at home one night, brought it to the band, and it turns into … well, all of a sudden you have mellotrons, drums, and bass, so it takes on a new character.

AK: So you guys write your own parts?

Jimmy Waldo: It kind of morphs around. John might say, ‘I’ve got this idea for a keyboard part,’ and I may go, ‘Oh, that’s really cool.’ Then all of a sudden I may hear a note and play that and, ‘Oh ya that’s cool!’ So it’ll morph off a little bit sometimes. But sometimes we keep it simple. Sometimes that’s all you need.

JF: It’s sounds, especially on keyboard, that really evolve. There’s such a palate of sounds, but our basic sound keyboard-wise was the mellotron. It goes with any creative band. If you’re original and you’re creating music and writing songs, then there’s a real creative process. I work with people in my studio who are very good players but they play in cover bands and can’t create a part. I think that goes right through history, whether it’s the Rolling Stones or Led Zeppelin or New England.

HG: I think we’d all suck if we played in cover bands. We really would.

JF: We did! At some point we decided that if we were going to be an original band and create our own style we had to stop playing clubs, so for two years we just woodshedded. We wrote songs and created the New England sound, and it all came together.

AK: We’ve been talking about the “New England sound.” How would you describe that sound without using genre or labels?

JF: It’s power-melodic-song-oriented rock.

Gary Shea: Ya. It’s orchestrated rock.

AK: What if you had to describe it without using the word “rock”?

JF: Power melodic song-oriented … music. I didn’t use the word rock there!

HG: I think the word “music” is important to all of us, because our stuff is really musical. Our songs have elements of heavy metal, for example, but it’s just music. The guitar and keyboard parts are intertwined and work so the harmonies work together. The vocal parts, too. There are orchestrated parts where the band’s doing hits together. All that speaks to a very musical band. Leave out rock. Leave out heavy. Leave out metal. It’s just music.

JF: And don’t say rock!

AK: Do you think your songs are still evolving? You’re rehearsing mostly old material, but do you think that you’re finding new parts to these old songs?

JF: I’d say somewhat, but for the most part we stay …

JW: … stay true to the record.

JF: I think when people hear a band —I don’t care who it is— the guitar solo’s part of the song and I want to hear that guitar solo. I don’t want to hear some jam session. I think we all kind of feel that way.

GS: We change intros around, put songs together, change the endings somehow, but with the main parts of the songs we stick to the parts. All the time. Year after year.

JF: Because that’s the music, you know? When we were younger we used to jam all the time. I think that’s probably how we all got our chops. You played 20-minute songs! But ya, I’d say it doesn’t evolve a whole lot. Our music evolves, but not within a song. Once the song is written and arranged we stick to that.

JW: And we work so hard getting it to that point. It’s not like we listen to it years later and say, ‘Ya, that part’s not great, why did we do that?’ We’re like, ‘Cool, man. I’m glad I played that.’ We’re happy with what we did so we don’t feel like, ‘Oh man we gotta change this, we gotta do something different.’ It just feels good to play this stuff. It’s funny. You said your band is jazz-influenced. I’ve seen Chick Corea and I remember thinking that there was going to be an incredible amount of jamming. With John McLaughlin playing, what was that band? Ah! Return to Forever! Anyway, the concert was almost note for note off of the record, except for certain sections which they built in. But the parts of the song that were really the song … note for note, sound for sound. He played it exactly like the record because, as I found out years later, it was all written out. They weren’t a freeform band at all.

JF: Ya, I mean, you do music. Does it sort of evolve day to day do you think?

AK: Mostly not … sometimes unintentionally.  Like I said, we were a jazz funk group, so if during a solo section someone did something interesting you’d want to follow that lead and see where that takes you, if anywhere, especially during the rehearsal process. Sometimes it takes you somewhere cool and sometimes, well, it gets ridiculous, for better or for worse.

JW: Oh, certainly during the rehearsal process! I’m sure if someone recorded all of the rehearsals before finishing a song you’d hear all sorts of variations. You hear people experiment during rehearsals, but as soon as you start making records, especially with a record company, it suddenly becomes a product. When people see you live they want to hear what’s on the record, so within reason it has to be like that now, or else the record company says, ‘Guys, we’re promoting this … and you’re playing this. What’s up with that?’ It doesn’t work. There’s a certain amount of business there. By default, the record rules.

AK: How do you think your new music compares to your old music? Your creation process?

JF: It’s probably a similar creating process. It still has the New England sound. It’s funny, we’ve all done different things over the years, but when we do New England it seems to be New England. I think it’s the chemistry between the four of us that doesn’t change.

JW: We’ve been playing together for so long that we just know what the other guys are going to do. They’ll send me a track and I’m in LA and I’m in a total bubble, but I’ll listen to the track and I’ll think of these guys playing so that guides me down a path. I think of them and I know what they would like and wouldn’t like.

JF: That’s an interesting evolution I think. We don’t live near each other anymore but we make music long distance, just cutting tracks and sending them to one another.

HG: And I don’t think anybody really short changes the creativity in terms of growing and being different. There may be a completely different drum track feel, and the drums and bass of course are the basic of any song, but yet it’s still going to evolve into a great New England song. The creativity aspect of it is always there. I think more so now than ever before because of the advent of  ProTools. If we had had ProTools in the studio 40 years ago … oh my god!

AK: Well certainly the music scene has changed since you first played music together. Do you think your new music will be pretty consistent with what you’ve made already?

JF: Oh absolutely. Most people —knock on wood— think our music is somewhat timeless and still rocks and holds up when you put the record on. And, frankly, I think our fans would be disappointed if we were anything but classic New England.

JW: I think you need to be true to yourself and do what naturally comes out of you and what feels good. Of all the things I do musically, this is my favorite thing, so let’s do this. I’m not trying to copy Coldplay or anybody. Of course I have influences because I like a lot of new bands that are out there. I like some Jack White stuff … I don’t like some at all. I listen to it and enjoy it and it seeps in here and there, but basically we start true to what we do and it’s just what it’s supposed to be.

GS: Oh, Britney Spears is doing this, so we have to do that too? We won’t. We like what we do.

AK: It’s interesting how different artists affect your playing. You mentioned a few notable influences but you also noted your band members as influences. While they both influence what you play, I think they’re tugging at different strings.

JW: Oh yes. Totally different ends of the universe. But the one common thread that’s been here since people started recording music is quality. Everyone is striving to make good songs with good production. Even the crappiest recordings — they didn’t have the tools but they tried. It’s still the same. Everyone wants it to sound good.

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