Stevie McLaughlin – Tasteful Empires

Friday, 18th May 2018

Songwriters often write an abundance of material when inspiration strikes. In the case of Sandstone guitarist Stevie McLaughlin, he didn’t want to see the fruits of his labor go to waste – thus in down time away from his main progressive metal act, he put together a solo album in Toy Empires. To the point that it’s truly a solo endeavor – all instruments, all vocals, all the production, and even the cover art came from Stevie himself. Still in that favored progressive rock/metal veneer, it’s his understated vocal range that makes Toy Empires so unique and fresh against those outings where the singing can fly to the heavens.

It’s not often that you hear everything from the Moody Blues to Marillion, Threshold to Solitude Aeturnus, Dream Theater to Fates Warning in an album, but those elements are present within this hour long plus platter. Reaching out via Skype we spoke to Stevie, who thankfully kept the talk slow and steady as to be able to transcribe accurately this thoughts through his thick Northern Irish accent. We discuss how this solo album came to be, the cover art concept, lessons learned touring with Tim ‘Ripper’ Owens, and concerns regarding social media, the truth, and so-called experts versus accurate facts.

Dead Rhetoric: Toy Empires is your first solo album. What was your approach to this record in comparison to your work within Sandstone – and describe the challenges in regards to recording everything on your own?

Stevie McLaughlin: I’ve always had a level set up at home where I can record demos. Most of the Sandstone songs that I contribute to the albums come from demos that I’ve done myself. I suppose a lot of the songs on Toy Empires in the back of my mind were going to appear on a Sandstone album – but Sandstone has been on a hiatus for the last little while. Myself and the singer have been working on some new material, but it became a wee bit obvious that I had too much new material for the Sandstone album. So I just decided to have a go at putting together a solo album. It started about fun and I didn’t think that anyone would really take it seriously, or think it was all that good to be honest. By the time I had it finished, anyone who heard it was going, ‘oh my god- it’s really good, you have to release this!’.

I sent it to the label (Limb Music), and they offered me a deal on this instantly. As far as the work process, I’ve always recorded a lot of the bass guitar and drum parts anyway – only to have them replaced later on by someone else in (Sandstone). A lot of that stuff is what I normally do, so the only thing particularly new was doing the vocals. I spent a long time on the vocals, re-recording until it eventually was good. I don’t think I’m the greatest singer in the world, but I gave a passable performance and I’m happy with it.

Dead Rhetoric: I would agree with the fact that your vocals on this, they are very different than what most people would hear from a progressive rock or metal album context. Did you enjoy doing more of the lower and mid-range vocals for this in comparison to what most people would have expected?

McLaughlin: Yes. I had to be very careful about that because I do have a limited vocal range. A lot of the vocal arrangements were especially designed in order for me to be able to sing them. I don’t have the traditional range of your average progressive metal singer, they are a fifth or sixth higher of what I’m capable of singing. A lot of things I was trying to stay within my range- a couple of times I went outside of my range, but as often as possible I tried to keep within a range that I was comfortable with. Obviously it’s a wee bit lower than what people in the genre are normally used to hearing.

Dead Rhetoric: Where did you want to go as far as lyrical content for the album?

McLaughlin: The lyrics are quite an important part of the way that I write music. Quite often, I have lyrical ideas before I have musical ideas. And as well, the artwork – so as the album started coming together and I started having one or two songs, I started getting ideas for the artwork. The idea of the guitar player standing in front of an open road, and the future in front of him- became an adage in my mind of writing the songs for the album. I tend to think about all of these things as not separate – the music is not separate from the lyrics, or the production is not separate from the artwork. I think of the whole thing as one entity.

A lot of the time when I write lyrics, I start writing and I have no idea what I’m writing about. Sometimes I’m just trying to find a rhyme, sometimes I’m just trying to make lyrics for the phrase. And then when I’m halfway through, I go so what will this be about? I never start realizing this stream of consciousness, but it ends up being about something that is currently happening to me. As I finish the song, I start back tracking and realizing what the lyrics are all about. Most of the lyrics on the album are about the way that I feel about certain people, and certain things in my life.

Dead Rhetoric: How did the cover art design come about with the skull looming over a scarecrow-laden, cloudy atmosphere, and the vision of a guitarist from the back?

McLaughlin: A lot of the small details for the scarecrow and the snakes and so on, those are like Easter eggs of fairly particular themes within the album. They were put in as an afterthought after the main image was put together to display different parts of the lyrics in the songs. The main overriding thing is an image of the beginning of the journey and the end of the journey, the skull represents life, and in the end we ultimately face mortality. The interesting thing is the open road in between life and mortality. That is what I sort of had in mind when I was doing the art work.

Dead Rhetoric: Would you say it’s always been important within the progressive metal/rock landscape that you delve in to always be aware of not becoming too self-indulgent and create proper connection moments in the songwriting through melody and harmonic hooks?

McLaughlin: Yes. This is the thing- I’ve always been drawn towards progressive music ever since I was drawn towards playing the guitar and heavy metal – it was the more progressive bands that interested me more. And the gateway towards progressive music was around the seventh album of Iron Maiden, where they began to get quite progressive before they went back to their roots. That’s the type of music that led me to other forms of progressive metal.

What I like about progressive music is the sort of song structures, the experimentation with time signatures and different tempos and arrangements. Quite often I find though the guitar solos and instrumental passages quite boring. I’m not trying in any way to say I’m good enough to have an opinion about this, because some of these guys are the most incredible musicians on the planet. But it’s like, enough already! Sometimes they go back into the chorus after a prolonged instrumental passage and you are like, ‘oh yeah, that’s the main chord progression we forgot all about’. You lose track. For me, if something is not really necessary for the narrative of the story, then I take it away. You may end up with ten-minute songs on my album, but that’s heavily edited down. If I was more self-indulgent it could have been a lot longer, but not as good.

Dead Rhetoric: Is it more challenging to write a good, compact five-minute song in progressive metal than an epic, ten-minute track?

McLaughlin: Yes, it can be. Sometimes with a more progressive song you can add the right elements until you find exactly what you are looking for- and take away some of the earlier elements. With a short, simple song, the actual core of the idea needs to be really good before you can start. I find it a wee bit more difficult to write simple, short, to the point songs because the core has to be fantastic. When it’s simple, there is no extra decorations to disguise the fact that at it’s core, it’s good. I still feel with progressive music you still need to find the essence of a song and what is good and necessary versus what is unnecessary and throw away the unnecessary parts.

Dead Rhetoric: Has your definition of what is considered progressive changed over the years?

McLaughlin: I’m a very big fan of Devin Townsend and what he does- but I’m sometimes surprised that people think that what he does is very different from what the older school progressive guys did. There is definitely more of a djent influence on the guitars with the more modern guys nowadays. I think a lot of bands are moving away from that nowadays and going back to more traditional guitar sounds. On this album I moved back to a more traditional, old school heavy metal guitar sound rather than the really tight, palm-muted kind of thing. We hear too much of it now, and don’t get me wrong- I love it, but I’ve heard it so much that it’s quite difficult to sound fresh.

Devin Townsend as a model for me, I think about it as the way things should be done – I’ve taken a lot of inspiration from him, not necessarily all in the music – just in the way he drives his career, the way he writes songs, and the way he presents himself on the internet. He’s my man at the moment.

Dead Rhetoric: Do you believe your personal consumption habits for music have changed from childhood to today – especially considering your workload as a musician?

McLaughlin: Absolutely. Obviously when I was younger before I became a musician, I used to listen to the music that was around me- AC/DC, Iron Maiden. Nowadays I worry that I only listen to music that is relevant to me and the type of music I want to make- contemporaries to me in this sort of progressive, heavy metal scene. When I become consciously aware of that, I decide that I need to branch out and listen to more music from different genres. Progressive music has something that really speaks to me and appeals to me. Things like Spotify have made it easier for me to discover new bands – I listen to quite a lot of modern, current progressive bands. I have a lot more bands to listen to nowadays than when I was younger.

Dead Rhetoric: Since the last time we’ve talked, you’ve been able to provide support across mainland Europe with Sandstone and also perform across the UK/Ireland with Tim ‘Ripper Owens. Any special takeaways or memories that you feel like you’ve been able to apply for learning/seasoning to make things better in your own live output or philosophy?

McLaughlin: Yes. It was a wee bit of a surreal thing that this even happened to us. I spent 50% of the very first tour with my knees shaking going, ‘oh my God, I am on the stage with Tim ‘Ripper’ Owens’. One of the things that I found was very important was an understanding how quickly and decisively you work on a set list. If tracks aren’t working, by the next night you can change the set or play different songs to blend together the perfect set that’s going to work. Tim is very good at working at that, what order tracks should be played in, what works and what doesn’t. I find that a very interesting thing to see first hand.

Also, I found it absolutely amazing to see how consistently good Ripper is as a singer night after night. Most tours, some shows you play fantastic shows and there are other times things don’t go as well, be it a not so good venue or lower turnout. Sandstone when we used to tour, it would be up and down. Ripper treated every show the same, even if one person came to see him, that person got the show. I learned a lot about professionalism and proper showmanship, treating people properly when you are on tour.

Dead Rhetoric: Can you discuss the importance of Rory Gallagher, Gary Moore, and Pat McManus to your outlook and approach on the guitar?

McLaughlin: These are the guitar players that I liked when I was 13,14 years old. When I was a beginning guitar player, I didn’t know how they got their sounds and how they were playing things – I was learning chords on an acoustic guitar. As I got older and I started learning how to play guitar solos and learning how to handle lead guitar – I started to realize that the way I was playing was heavily informed by the guys I listened to when I was young. My formative years of actually playing the guitar were when Van Halen, Steve Vai, Joe Satriani were the guys who defined what it meant to be a really good guitar player. For decades of my life, their definition of what was a good guitar player was my definition as well. As I got older really implanted in my soul is the really melodic, guitar hero type of player – Gary Moore, Rory Gallagher, and Pat McManus. I’ve learned how to put more emotion into the music. The Celtic nature is a wee bit closer to something within me that I try to express.

It’s important to be good at your instrument- but the pleasure of listening to someone like Gary Moore is that you know that he can play as fast as any other guitar player- but he chooses to be a bit more tasteful, and more communicative with the listener. It’s not all about look at me, look how good I am on the guitar- it’s very much about telling a story with the notes.

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