Interview With Karl Groom & Mac By Mike Exley

Mike Exley talks to Threshold’s Karl Bloom about getting below the sub-surface and why the hell his band aren’t more supported in their home territory.

‘Go right to the wire! Fight for what you believe in; don’t give up, even when the whole world seems stacked against you. Get to the threshold. Cross right over it.’ We hear those sentiments so many times in our industry; but, if a band could ever be said to have a more appropriate name, I doubt I could find it. And, here we are, once again at the Underworld as this UK band returns to their home country and steps into a venue half the size they’re used to playing in abroad. Another chance to get intimate with their hard battling UK fans who really have to go to the wire to see them on this trip? Or just yet another slap in the face for a band that has a huge following abroad and a track record that would shame many? 

I know we should be talking about music first and foremost. Threshold formed back in 1989, have one of the more stable line up’s in the British scene with only bassist Steve Anderson being a new face since I last touched base with them and have an impressive CV that includes quality albums such as ‘Critical Mass’ (Inside Out 2002), ‘Hypothetical’ (Inside Out 2001) and a live DVD/CD album that was breathtaking (‘Critical Energy’). But I’ve been wanting to corner Karl Groom for some time on the thorny question of just why this band doesn’t actually rate articles and hype in their own country – even in Classic Rock where you’d think they’d thrive – so we have to start with that. Vocalist Andrew ‘Mac’ McDermott sits in.

Guys, when you formed the band (out of several other projects including Shadowland and Mercy Train which also included members of Pendragon and others too many to mention here), you must have thought that the UK was going to be the first place to embrace you? Pendragon virtually invented the progressive genre that later spawned the chart topping Marillion, IQ and a whole bunch of bands who took that form of music abroad with aplomb? And your new album ‘Subsurface’ released just a month or so ago already has ‘Album Of The Month’ accolades from 7 different countries under its belt?

Karl “Yes, that’s true but I believe that that’s really down to this country itself in many ways; and the popularity, or lack of popularity, of our genre of music as a whole. It’s been getting better over the last few years; Bloodstock – where we’ve now played several times – has really helped with that, but getting people to come and see this type of progressive music, is never going to be easy. I don’t want to label the band, straight away, in the first line of this interview, but our style of playing just is not the throw away type of thing English people seem to like and when people do go to a show, and then see twenty or so people there, it really doesn’t inspire anyone to try and make it better. People have to get a bit deeper when they watch our stuff, so I guess we’ve gone out of our way to avoid playing in our own country, ha! ha!’

Mac “I think you’ve got to be realistic. The record company have no problems with you going to Europe to play, having the bus and some comforts, but playing the UK, you’re driving in a transit van with little or no facilities when you get there, and it’s really pretty unpleasant.’

You’ve generated most of your following by word of mouth, from what I’ve read? Your web site must carry much of the praise for that?

Karl “Yes. And really most bands should realise that they have very little to fear from making their web sites work for them as a promotional tool. We’ve done loads of downloads, albums specifically for the web site, stuff like that and it’s no different to someone like Kazaa having your album where someone can download it for free. You have to look at it as positive promotion because, if people like what they hear and buy the finished product, you’ve succeeded. The only thing that annoys me, are the Russian web sites that copy the stuff and then sell it. It’s then such an inferior product that it hurts the band and I find that really hard to swallow!’

You mentioned some of the web site releases there – do any of you out there have ‘Replica’ or 2003’s ‘Wireless’ – but what also so amazes me is that you also seem to have so much time for other projects. Everybody in the band seems to be doing something else as well?

Karl “Well, you can only be so busy. Threshold works very well from album to tour, album to tour; but you have to have other outlets because we don’t do that many multiple tours for a record. Richard (West – keyboards) and I both produce. I recently did Dragonforce. Johanne (James – drums) plays with his own band and Mac’s working on a solo album.”

Mac “Ha!Ha! That’s like the proverbial dinosaur around here at the moment; I think, at the last count, there were about seven versions. No, I like to keep the voice busy because lots of different music stretches the range and makes me a better singer in the long run.”

Your production work is well respected, Karl. But, does it benefit the way Threshold works as well as give you a more dynamic CV?

Karl “Of course. Everything you do has that effect, but where the production work really helps, is that you understand your own sound better. Dragonforce is a big guitar-metal sound. Something like John Wetton is more of a classic sound, but each one has their own mood. I recently did a Middle Eastern record with sitar that is a crazy sound, really discordant at times. They all affect the ear in different ways. The only problem it does give me, realistically, is on the writing side. I love to work with sound but I have to be really careful to separate it from our band, because writing can be a nightmare if I’ve just done a record and then, have that same sound running through my head. I tend to write on keyboards, drum machines, and possibly, then guitar, but what is important is avoiding the formulae, so that you’re constantly stretching yourself.”

One of your ‘grand’ projects recently – 2004 - was the ‘Critical Energy’ DVD. With a new member (Steve Anderson) and a set that is already quite long enough, how did you approach that?

Karl “Really like the closing of a chapter. Very carefully! We’d been playing a lot of the old songs for a long time, Steve had got used to those of course, but there was the added need to capture them with 5.1 technology; surround. So, positioning the microphones was very important and setting up the stage. Then, there was a lot of pressure on the night. The record company had said that they would only really fund one shot at it, and I admit, there was a little bit of touching up afterwards, but I think it captures us as we were then, and that’s important. We changed the set completely on this last European tour, so Steve then had to learn another whole two hours of music. It’s a tough life, ha!ha!”

Having closed the chapter though, you still implied recently that there was a connection between that period and what came later on the ‘Subsurface’ album?

Karl “Hmm. Not really. What was more important this time around was the immediacy of the material. Some ideas may glance back, but most were written only three months or so before we actually recorded them and they hang together very well as an entire album. Songs have to fit together as a musical concept – they have to develop an idea, move the listener right through to the end of the album and complete the story. I don’t want to lure anyone into thinking this is a ‘concept album’, it isn’t, it’s just that the musical concept of a Threshold album is all-important. I think its wrong to go back to say 1994 and try to push a song from that era into the sound of 2004. Leave that song, with its own story in the correct historical position and concentrate on the ‘now’. By all means redo tracks for web site / fan club releases, but a new album is new material and a new feel. What we do for Inside Out is a Threshold studio album; it’s never going to be a remix project or stuff like that. The last release we did for the fan club was an acoustic album. Inside Out would never have gone for that.”

“If I had to be honest, the only loose connection I can think of, is between the lyrical angle of ‘Falling Away’ (from 2002’s ‘Critical Mass’) and the new album, but there’s loads of changes too, the obvious one being that that album had loads of lyrics on it from John Jeary who, of course, left the band. And this one has many different ideas from many different sources.”

OK. Let’s move on to lyrics. Who’s the main protagonist, then?

Karl “Well, apart from the odd thing by Mac, that would have to be Richard. Richard largely picked up where John left off, not in subject matter, but in the actual process of lyric writing. I think the last lyric John actually wrote was ‘Fragmentation’ from ‘Critical Mass’ and that will stand as his legacy. Richard likes his politics, how people use power, how the media particularly uses its power and how politicians manipulate people using the media. ‘Mission Profile’ starts off by raising fundamental questions – it could be seen as an anti war song – and ‘The Art Of Reason’ possibly carries on the debate, but people with fundamentally opposed opinions will be able to read into it whatever they want. When we started doing the press for ‘Subsurface’, it actually got quite surreal. The American interviews were booked and we were like, how are they going to react if they think those ideas are anti Bush, or anti war? We actually fell foul of that once before – on the first album we had a track called ‘Siege Of Baghdad’ – and some people got a little hot under the collar. We don’t play it anymore because it’s got air raid sirens in it and stuff like that. I think, this time, we’ve dodged the question a bit more. Some people in America seem genuinely happy to be in Iraq – the oil people, the industrialists who are set to get the rebuilding contracts – but we’re neither one way nor the other.”

For me, one of the successes of Threshold is the immense power that lies within the music. Something some progressive musicians forget. What comes first in the creation of your songs? Guitar, drums?

Karl “Basically, we try to treat the guitar and the keyboards as an equal share in the writing process. There has to be an equal split between the three areas; vocals, solos, riffs and keyboard runs whilst maintaining the very British feel of the music. Very few progressive bands came from this country originally – and many who try to take influence from here end up being power metal which isn’t really how we approach it, so it’s quite an unusual mix. I blame everyone in the band in the early days for our sound. John wanted to play Rush, Richard wanted to play Queen, I liked Testament and Genesis and no one could agree, so we just started writing with that mixture of influences and waited to see what came out – we still do. There was no ‘progressive’ music scene back then. When Mac joined, I think he was playing in a party, reggae band – so it really hasn’t changed.”

Your live sound often seems more dynamic than the albums? Is there a fundamental difference between how you approach a live audience and the work ethic in the studio?

Karl “No, not really but in the studio I’m always of the opinion that you need to let each instrument breathe far more. In our style of music there’s much more going on than in the ‘normal’ rock and roll scenario. The demands of the keyboard, the guitars, the drums, the vocals; all are quite different and live you have to make the most of the venue, the acoustics and the physical size of the equipment you can carry. Inside Out are very supportive of what we do in both scenarios and that’s great.”

Inside Out is quite a diverse label. How do you guys fit in?

Karl “Well, we’d known the main guy there for quite some time before we signed; we were on GEP before that; and really it makes much more economic sense being signed to them rather than a UK. label or a US. label because we sell most of our product in Europe. When the pound started to get really strong against the Euro, we’d find that we got less and less per album than on the original imprint. Some of their stuff is radically different to ours, but they let us get on with the writing and they don’t interfere with the direction, so that’s great.”

Although Threshold has been around since 1988/89, I still see you as a band progressing, not safe in many ways?

Karl “To a certain extent but I feel very comfortable with where we are at the moment. I don’t mind going out and supporting, co-headlining or actually headlining our own dates; since Mac joined (in 1998) we’ve largely had the responsibility of headlining, but that’s just how it goes. The last band we supported as such was Psychotic Waltz, and now, on the last tour we’ve just completed, one of their guys (Dead Soul Tribe) came out with us. You can never tell in this business. If the manager of Dream Theater phones up and says they fancy having you on their tour you don’t worry where you’re gonna be, just how well you can come across to that kind of crowd. The odd country still brings its problems; we currently don’t have a licensing deal in Japan because the label that had carried the first four albums went under when they had the economic slump there, but you deal with that as much as you can. We’re yet to tour there by the way if anyone’s reading this, ha!ha!”

A US magazine said famously of Threshold that you were the ‘perfect band recommended for anyone who remembers when rock had it all’. Now, that could either be a good epitaph or a wonderful slogan?

Karl “ God, who said that? I think I remember that, actually? There was this wonderful pizza analogy in the same piece, which said that our sound reminded this particular person of a pizza because there were so many flavours to it?? What was all that about? To us, it’s just about keeping the music flowing and fresh. Inside Out have mentioned that they’d like more regular output, so we’ll probably be doing another album in a year or so – I know that the main thing is that we have to be really pleased with an album before we hand it to them, and I certainly was with ‘Subsurface’ – but we’ll see. You always feel that the last album is the most complete, but for me, this truly is that album. We go on from here.”

So, Threshold step back onto a UK. stage and once again convince everyone that they really should be given more respect at home. I know it’s not easy to believe me; the band don’t go out of their way to work the UK underground like many of their peers and it is difficult to give them the support they deserve when many others work much harder up and down the country. But talent has a way of winning through in the end, and this band has loads of that.

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