Silent Skies – Radically Honest

Sunday, 3rd September 2023

Returning with their third album Dormant, after last year’s beautiful and emotive Nectar, Silent Skies have much to say to the world. Thought-provoking, introspective, and reflective are all words that come to mind when listening to Silent Skies music, evoking an ability to really connect with the listener and provide a unique experience that may not be traditionally heavy in terms of sound, but one that is very much emotionally dense. Vikram Shankar and Tom Englund [Evergrey] are able to craft music that is a potent mix of poignant and exploratory. We caught up with multi-instrumentalist Shankar once again to discuss the new album, being creative with soundscapes and effects, some touching cover songs as bonus tracks, writing versus producing music, and much more!

Dead Rhetoric: What are you most proud of with Dormant, as your third album?

Vikram Shankar: I think I’m most proud of well, it’s simplistic to just say growth. I mean, that’s part of it. But the expansion of the universe is drastic for me. It’s difficult for me to think about other people’s perspectives and how drastic it feels to them. I have already seen reviews spanning the gamut from ‘this is a complete reinvention’ to ‘you made the same album all over again’ [laughs]. People listen to the same thing and can have such a different perspective. But I guess for me, personally, it’s a huge step forward. I was rethinking so many different aspects of my compositional process. And also the ways I make sound.

The idea of sound textures became a very defining character to the songwriting process and production. New ways to make sounds, and new ways to express myself. There are so many ways to express yourself other than just those twelve notes and how fast you play those twelve notes. A beautiful thing about being a musician in 2023 is that it’s so easy to access so many different sound colors – in hardware form as well as software form. I let myself loose and played every instrument you can imagine – from recorder to mandolin to modular stuff. Everything was fair game. That’s what’s awesome. There are no walls. Tom [Englund] and I both – if we want to do or say something creatively, we do it.

I think it’s important to be honest about what you do, creatively. The product is going to be so much better than if you artificially restrain yourself. I think discerning fans pick up on that. They can tell when you haven’t been honest. When you phone it in, or when you weren’t truly inspired, or this isn’t what you wanted to do but you did it anyways because you felt the fans and label wanted to hear it. It always pays off to be honest. We are always honest, but it took us some really weird places this time, which I love.

Dead Rhetoric: I was looking back to the last time we talked with the release of Nectar, and at that point you had mentioned you pretty much had all of this album done and you were working on two more albums. How do you keep that creative spark going, at such a quick rate?

Shankar: The funny thing is that I do remember saying that. We threw away most of that actually. Most of these songs were written in the first half of last year, or when we did a really intense process during October to February (of 2023) after Tom finished an absolutely insane, marathon tour in Europe. So we did end up writing fresh material, and that’s due to a couple of things. First, there is so much creative juice going on here, and I wish I could explain why or how. We have a lot to say. We inspire each other all the time. We are very active listeners to music that inspires us – from all kinds of genres: pop, electronic, jazz, rock, metal. When you draw from such a wide palette and are interested in so many different things, it’s not difficult to be inspired.

I have a few other aces up my sleeve, so to speak. I have my piano at my parents’ home in Cleveland. It’s my skeleton key to songwritiing. I can sit down at that piano and turn on the voice recorder in my phone and play for 5 hours and have an album. It’s so inspiring to play that instrument. On Nectar, I wrote five or six songs on that piano. I wrote about the same for this album as well. It’s a magical thing.

Being inspired by the gear also helped to stay fresh. I have a very close relationship with instruments. I guess it’s almost spiritual. I feel like instruments have something to say. Every individual instrument has a personality. People view guitars that way. I know a lot of people have a very close relationship with their guitar, to the point of naming them and describing their personalities. You don’t often hear that about keyboards. But I do feel that way. I think every keyboard has a special thing it wants to say. “Construct,” “New Life,” and “Churches,” off the top of my head, all came out directly from the instruments that I was using, and how inspired I was to be using these shiny new toys, so to speak. That’s a really big part of my process.

Honestly, I love software synthesizers and I use them all the time. But there is something very special about turning on an analog synthesizer and letting the imperfections guide you. Analog synthesizers, and the extreme example is modular synthesizers, they are unpredictable. They do all kinds of weird shit. You have no idea what will happen, and that’s awesome, because that’s what leads you to special stuff. I like to ride those waves as far as possible and capture the lightning in the bottle. I always have the computer recording, capturing those happy accidents. Then you get an album.

Dead Rhetoric: Going back to what you were saying at the start, in terms of finding these sounds, what was the most creative thing you concocted that made its way onto the album?

Shankar: I think my favorite example to share is on one of the bonus tracks, “Dancing in the Dark.” I have an old set of recorders from elementary school. It’s pretty common in elementary school to make you play recorders. I was pretty hardcore into it for a while. I got a four piece set: sopranino, soprano, alto, and tenor. I played them and loved them, then didn’t touch them for 20 years. I just happened to have them sitting in my closet. So I thought, what if I picked it up and just played something. So I played something and then I sent it through the modular synthesizer rig and started patching things: warping and distorting the sound.

I have a module that I can make noise with called Morphagene, which is like a way of working with physical tape but inside a module. You take pieces of tape and layer them together and play them in interesting ways to make sound collages. That’s what it does. So I made these really weird and interesting sound collages and put them through some nice hardware reverb pedals and stuff. That’s kind of emblematic of the kinds of stuff I did on this album. Just kind of very strange things that maybe at first you would think wouldn’t work, but then you make it work because you are stubborn [laughs] and it works.

Dead Rhetoric: How long does it take a happy discovery like that take? Are we talking minutes, hours, days?

Shankar: I think it depends. The initial ideas happen really quickly, but that’s the way it is with everything. Every initial idea happens quickly to me. I don’t spend that much time laboring over things. Especially if I am expressing myself in one of my own projects. Other work, like scoring and video games and stuff – that can be somewhat more difficult. But for my own creativity, it’s always fast.

Making it work, that can take a long time. The added complication for some of these things on the hardware end is that they don’t always cooperate in a normal way. When it comes time to make Silent Skies music and we have to put everything together, the jigsaw pieces have to fit into place. Sometimes the unpredictability can be a little bit of a nuisance. You really have to chisel things distinctly to make it work.

To go back to the recorder example, once I had done this whole thing, I had spent a whole lot of time making this thing happen – I realized that it was a couple of steps flat. The recorders were just a bit flat. It didn’t matter until I put all the walls of piano and nice things going on there, but then it was so grating. Thankfully, it was a relatively easy thing to fix in the box. It wasn’t too challenging to make it happen, but there are all kinds of things like that, like maybe after using a hardware reverb pedal and I didn’t notice it, but there are some really annoying noises or hiss that I have to be very careful about sculpting out. That’s the kind of thing that takes forever. Troubleshooting the happy accidents to make sure they are not chaotic accidents that don’t fit well.

Dead Rhetoric: How did you choose the three covers that sit on the album? They have very different feelings than the original to make them your own – how did you know how to make them fit Silent Skies while keeping the original song intact?

Shankar: It’s actually, at least for me personally as a musician, much easier to do that than to do a literal cover. I know that because I’ve done both. Before I was doing this stuff, I was doing a lot of YouTube covers and stuff. I would play metal songs on the piano, and that would be very laborious, because I would try to play exactly every riff and translate it to my instrument. This is very different. For a song like, “The Trooper,” we have the lyric already beautifully written by Steve Harris, we have a chord progression that we didn’t mess with, but we got rid of everything else. We just had the bare intellectual building blocks, and now imagining that we came up with those building blocks – how would we finish the song? What would we do to take chords and a melody and turn it into a Silent Skies song? Well, I will play the chords a certain way. I have a certain way of arranging chords – if I want to add intensity, there are certain things I will do if it’s a Silent Skies song. Honestly, that’s it! It’s quite a simple process at that stage.

I think Tom has a somewhat harder time with that, honestly. All of these songs, especially “The Trooper,” required a radical reshaping of the vocals. Not just for range reasons but for character reasons. Bruce [Dickinson] sounds like he is summoning an army, and that’s not what we are going for. I have never actually talked with him about this, but it was probably very challenging to do his contribution to these covers. I know the Bruce Springsteen cover was really hard for him. The reason it was hard is that people don’t give Bruce his credit. He’s actually really good at getting through words in a musical way. He writes a crapton of words and sings them in such a way that the melodies are memorable, but he moves all over the place. He doesn’t do a lot of melodies that are one or two notes. There’s lots of runs, very fast, delivering the words in a clear and earnest way that makes you pay attention to every word he is singing. A huge accomplishment on his part. Tom was telling me that it was the hardest song he had ever had to sing – to sing all these words and melodies and make them make sense and make people believe them.

All these songs, we respect and love them so much, so we don’t want to do anything profane or blasphemous. It’s not about disrespecting the songs – so paying tribute to them in that way, on his end, was probably very challenging. I’m happy to say that on my end it wasn’t!

Dead Rhetoric: Do you feel like you are entirely operating in your own space, given that it’s your third album at this point? I can’t think of too many bands that have a similar, soundscape approach.

Shankar: I think in so far as we are doing blends of things, at least in metal and rock, that aren’t that popular, I think so. I mean, sometimes it’s strange for me that I listen to so much music that does sound kind of like us, and if I let the insecure demons in my head, I feel like we are completely derivative. In my head, I feel like we are just doing what Olafur Arnards was doing five years ago or something like that. I think it’s the synthesis of all of our musical tastes that makes it very, I guess, unique. We come from such different places, Tom and I. I didn’t listen to anything that wasn’t classical music until I was twelve years old. Classical music was my life, it’s how I was born and raised, and it was my bread and butter. Still, to this day, if I am going to play something on piano, I am going to think about it as if I was reading something by Chopin or someone like that. That’s just how I think about piano, unless it’s jazz, then it’s completely different.

I come from that school, and I think about the arrangement of music that way. I have done a lot of orchestration in a classical context, so I think about orchestrations that way – how the elements are dispersed in an orchestral way. I think about elements are juggled in a very orchestral way. Very often in an orchestral piece, if you only have three things happening, you’ll probably have the melody played by three or four types of instruments, and it’s a blend of those instruments. It makes it sound a certain way. When I think about rock and metal and Silent Skies music, it is similar to that. Tom doesn’t think about any of that.

Tom comes from Evergrey and he has been playing in a metal band for 30 years. That’s how he views things. But when we meet in the middle point, which I would say is our experience in the human condition. We both have our share of demons, as do most people – some worse than others but most have some sort of demons they are dealing with. It so happens that Tom and I have very similar demons and have been through similar things in life, which is weird because he is nearly double my age. But we have been through similar things, and there are emotional resonances in what we write that have a very strong overlap. We understand each other. That’s what makes Silent Skies what it is. It manifests in many different ways, because we listen to so much music. We love so many different things and are inspired by many different things. So the result becomes, I suppose, unique. But we never think about that.

Honestly, I don’t think about myself as being unique or one of the pack. I’m just me, and I make what I make, and we make what we make. We make the product as good as it can be. Further considerations about where you fit in the scene I find can sometimes have a backwards effect of making you second guess what you do. I don’t think you should ever do that.

Dead Rhetoric: How do you and Tom collaborate working on music videos given the span between continents? I see a lot of splits on the screen with you and Tom in different parts for this videos this time around. 

Shankar: As you would probably suspect, the initial concept for these scenes did come from geographical distances. In the past, we had been able to surmount those. I filmed all of our past videos in Gothenburg with Tom. In this time, we stayed on our own separate continents to make it happen. There was also creative and artistic thought behind it as well. We really liked the idea of contrasts, and having each video showcase contrast in whatever form that might be. Because our music is often such a dichotomy between light and shade, artful and intimate, and all these things. So split things make you think about contrasts even when you aren’t totally conscious about them. You are thinking about the dichotomy between the two in what you are seeing. So it kind of became a happy accident that it worked really nicely.

Another additional challenge was we worked with another director besides Patrick [Ullaeus]. Patrick did film Tom’s parts, and on some videos he has more creative shaping and directorial input than others. We are releasing a video in eight days [from time of interview] for “Reset,” and Patrick had a very large role in shaping the narrative of that video. But most of the directorial work, and my parts, were done by Paul Moore, who is an American director who doesn’t do music videos. That was really interesting to us, because he is a film maker and a master of his craft. We wanted to see what it would be like to work with someone who doesn’t have a reliable toolbox and tricks for making a music video to see how he would approach a similar challenge. How would do something instead of resorting to the usual tropes?

What he ended up doing, because obviously it has to be a music video – you can’t make it not feel like a music video – but it’s different in his pacing and his choice of shots, since he isn’t always thinking about what is the most glitzy and exciting thing you could do. That’s not what he does. He doesn’t make glitzy and exciting, it’s always in a very stately and classy and measured way. So all of the videos that we have done, and “Reset” is similar – trying to do something different, because we have done a bunch of videos. I love Patrick – he’s a dear friend, a great director and fim-maker – and we are still working with him and plan to continue working with him. But it’s also nice to do something different. Just like the music – we like to try different things.

Dead Rhetoric: Given the emotional core of the music. How do you feel out how personal to be with the music – keeping it genuine but not making it so personal that one can’t connect to it?

Shankar: I will start my answer with the caveat that there is no right or wrong way to make music. I think if people want to organize soundwaves into whatever way they want to, do it, and for whatever motivation. To what we do, our music is radically honest. I think that maybe for some people, uncomfortably so. The thing is, I liken it to how I believe we should all be as human beings. If human things all go through trauma and all go through tough shit. If we bury that and don’t show who we truly are, those of us that truly struggle will feel that much more isolated. If we are going to look out at the world and see a picture perfect universe where everyone has everything well-put together, we feel like freaks because we are broken and they aren’t. But if everyone is honest about what they are dealing with and their struggles and life experiences, we understand that we aren’t alone. A lot of the things we are feeling are, to some degree, universal. There are others that are experiencing what we experience, and we can learn from it. We can suffer together and heal together.

I think, with my music, I want to do the same thing. I want to be honest about what we have been through and our life experiences. We hold up the mirror and what we can see may be very uncomfortable and that’s okay. We share who we are, with our blemishes. We share what we have experienced and how we have dealt with it in the hopes that someone can listen to this honest portrayal of who we are and see themselves in our lyrics and understand that there is a kinship between all of us. We all go through shit and have our demons. We can heal each other. It sounds cheesy, but I really think we can and should do this. Strictly from myself, not from Tom, I like making music to help people. I always have. I think if all I wanted to do was tickle my own ego, I would never have released anything. I think that by making music, I have a tool to help people. People have various tools that they can use to impact their community, and this is the tool that I have been given. I want to use it in a way that motivates me. I’m not that motivated to make strictly egoistic music. If I ever try to do that, I lose interest. There are better things I can do with my life. I don’t have enough love of myself in that egoist way, I don’t think I am so special and holy in that what I have to say is to the extent of the world is relevant. But I want to help people, and I believe if I share what I am honestly what I am through my music, I can do that.

All of that has to be balanced with the fact that we don’t want to think too much about what people want to hear, and all the stuff I already  said [laughs]. But it is important to me to try to help people. Some of my favorite musical experiences have been about helping people. I used to volunteer for the organization Guitars for Vets. For years I would just go to VFW outposts and just play for veterans. I wasn’t playing anything challenging or artistically interesting, just playing songs they knew and liked, and they would be happy. For a moment, they would have some reprieve from what they were dealing with. It was very healing and inspiring. I was very inspired by that experience myself and it’s something I will always remember when I make music. I always think about that, and what music has done for me. I think about when I was really depressed and feeling super bleak and what music did and how it helped me. If I have the ability to do that for one person, that’s enough for me. I am happy. I have made my mark. Of course, it’s not much of a career, but that’s fine. That’s what matters.

Dead Rhetoric: Coming from my own perspective, the older I have gotten the more I need to have something resonate. I need to have something I can connect with – I used to listen to so much technical death metal and that stuff. Nowadays, I’m just like, “yup” when I hear it. It’s amazing and musically impressive, but most of it doesn’t strike that same chord so it’s good have that balance of people like yourself, who want to just make something that is honest and meant to foster those connections. 

Shankar: Music is a dialogue, I really think. I am profoundly uninterested in making music where I am talking at someone. I would much rather talk with someone. I’m also not interested in stating answers so much as provoking questions. I feel like these kinds of communal interactions is what makes me love music as a listener and as a performer. Even as a listener, I’m not really interested in music where it feels like they are talking at me and there’s no interest in how I receive it. I tend to tune out a little bit when I perceive that.

Dead Rhetoric: I hate to say this, but I’m a teacher and what you are discussing is more or less summing up teaching [laughs].

Shankar: Yeah, I understand. In teaching, I would imagine, there are different didactic methods and ways you can foster conversations in different amounts to feed truth into the head. Certain people are receptive to certain things. Like I said before, there’s no wrong way to make music. Some people absolutely love music that isn’t bluntly didactic. That’s great, honestly! Sometimes I wish I could do that. Sometimes I wish I could enjoy it. I also wish I could make the same album ten times over with no change in being fulfilled. There are people that way and I love that for them! I wish I could do it, it would be so much easier and less stressful. But no, I have to be restless!

Dead Rhetoric: How does your mindset differ when you are writing music versus producing it?

Shankar: I think the one thing I always think about is intent in bringing things to fruition in the best way possible. The difference in producing is that it isn’t my universe. I am bringing someone else’s universe to fruition and it’s very personal to them – not so much to me, but very personal to them. When I am producing a band, I very often think, this is their life. Or if they aren’t professional musicians, I think that about this being the thing that makes them happy when the rest of the world beats them down. They make music that makes them happy. This is so important to them and I am part of making that journey happen. I love that, because it has a certain element of responsibility. It’s important work, but not as emotionally taxing as making your own universe come to life.

That’s another reason I love doing video game scores. In video game scores, I am very literally making other universes come to fruition and it has nothing to do with what I would do. I am currently working on the score for a Warhammer game for Space Marine 2. At no point do they ever say, ‘what do you want to do to make this Warhammer music?’ It’s completely irrelevant. We know what Warhammer sounds like, the sound of the franchise is very clearly defined. Make that, as well as you can, with your own artistry and your own skills/creativity, but that’s the universe you are working in. I really enjoy that, and I think it makes life for me as a musician a lot more bearable. I can’t be trapped in my head too long. It’s not a nice place to be trapped [laughs]. It’s nice to escape every now and then.

Dead Rhetoric: What plans do you have for the rest of the year, with Silent Skies or anything else you are working on?

Shankar: Silent Skies – we had started album four and five, especially four, but we kind of put it on the back burner a little as we finished Dormant, which is a very logical and normal thing to do. But I think we have three or four songs already. I think we can go full steam ahead. I want to play live. I want to play live so bad! I love playing live. I don’t play nearly as many gigs as I want to. Thankfully I have started to play with Pain of Salvation on keyboards, so I get a little bit of the live itch scratched. Tom and I have been talking so long about playing live – what a live show would look like, how we would want to do it – it becomes more and more challenging with the number of instruments you have. Now we are at the point where we are thinking – if it was to be the two of us with a macbook, would that be very interesting? A song like “The Real Me” has like 140 tracks. So would there be 138 tracks and two dudes standing on stage with a very minimal amount of work? That’s not super interesting to me.

At this point, at minimum to me, we need a drummer/percussionist, a bassist/synth bassist, at least one other keyboard player and preferably two, a guitar player – since we have guitar in our music now. At least one string player – we have worked with Raphael Weinroth-Browne on every album but I would like to have other string players as well because he overdoes himself so much. I think on the song “Dormant” he sent me 32 tracks, maybe 40.

So we need a lot of people to make this thing happen. It’s tough, but we really want it to happen. In the meantime, I’ve got some other stuff going on. I am finally finishing Lux Terminus 2…5 years later. It’s been a long time. There is always creativity coming out. I am so restless and have so much I want to say. Even when I was a teenager, I could never do one type of music, I had to do it all. I played classical and rock, jazz and metal, electronic music – I always had to do it all. I love having different projects where I can do it all. If I ever get tired of one thing, I just go in another direction. I wasn’t very inspired to make prog music for a long time, which is why Lux Terminus never happened. It’s such technical music to write and I wasn’t feeling that. Instead I wrote three Silent Skies albums. But now I want to be technical again.

We already talked about certain qualities of music that we find appealing to listeners and I still feel that way, but I have a very interesting relationship with technical music. I don’t necessarily think there is an obvious dichotomy between very technical – being technical doesn’t mean you have no feeling. I find that my favorite technical music has a lot of feeling – primarily excitement and euphoria, but also chaos. Technical music can make you feel a lot of things. I love it! I have always wanted to make it. It’s a very big part of what I want to do, but I didn’t feel like making prog for a while but now I’m back at it. We will see what happens!

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