Interview for Classic Rock Society Magazine Oct/Nov 2009

I did quite a lengthy interview for the Classic Rock Society ... enjoy...

Paul Cusick’s bio reads that the “………British born multi-instrumentalist started his solo music career in 2009 with the release of his debut album "Focal Point". Previously Cusick had spent years as the lead guitarist in several bands, but in 2008 his new year's resolution was to step out from behind his guitar and concentrate on his own song writing and production skills.”

Paul, your bio’s rather enigmatic introduction to you could come across that you wanted to either forget the past or concentrate on the present. For those who like to know an artist’s background, what was your earlier musical genealogy?

Forget the past, concentrate on the present? Mmm….no help needed on forgetting things as I don't have the greatest memory... Actually, the present is what it is because of what's passed before. So my musical present is I suppose a culmination of my musical past:

Looking back I started to learn guitar at school under the careful tuition of my art teacher Bob Greenwood, a great blues player, who used to have us fetch songs in to him that we wanted to play. He would transcribe them for us, and then patiently teach us how to play what we heard. I think he transcribed most of "Heaven and Hell" by Black Sabbath for me.

At school I joined my first band playing the obligatory Status Quo tracks. At University I played in a couple of bands covering tracks by Marillion, Van Halen, Queen, Alan Parsons etc. These bands were just for fun and I don't think we played more than a handful of gigs. Some people say when you join a band you get girls. Actually I just found rehearsal nights were nights that could be better spent with girls (laughs).

After University I moved to Leeds and joined my first serious band. We were a three piece that went by the name of "Aura". Our set list included some self penned prog numbers, but we never failed to impress with a combination of covers from bands such as World Trade and Rush. I loved playing songs such as "Freewill", "YYZ", "Spirit of the Radio" and "The Pass", among many others. Alex Lifeson is one of my guitar heroes. We also combined that prog set with some popular songs by The Police. I remember I especially had a soft spot for the track "Synchronicity II".

As a three piece band it was my role as the guitarist to fill the atmospheres between the rhythm and the vocals. I think it was this requirement that helped define my guitar style. Echoes, Volume swells, Violining etc. Atmospheric sounds that turned the electric guitar from a rhythmical/ lead instrument into an ambient background instrument that harmonised with the vocals. The technical requirements of songs by Rush were thrilling to play but I really enjoyed the textures I was starting to create within our original material. But unfortunately other life demands forced me to leave "Aura" and shortly after I moved to York.

I gave up on bands for a while and started to learn my way around PC's and audio recording. But software and computer processing speeds were pretty slow 10 years ago, well they were on my home PC, so to satisfy my creative appetite I decided to look out for a new band.

I remember replying to a small ad for a band called Gabriel, a 5 piece rock band fronted by vocalist “extraordinaire” Marc Atkinson. They were looking for a lead guitarist to replace their then departing lead guitarist Colin Elsworth. He was a technically fantastic guitarist, classically trained with all the tricks needed to play most styles you could imagine. He was about to head of for the Birmingham Conservatoire of Music to pursue the craft of classical guitar.

At that time Gabriel were promoting their recently completed album "Ascension". An album that I think many of your readers may be familiar with. If not, they should be. Not only does it feature the great song writing and voice of Marc Atkinson, but guests artists such as Bryan Josh and Heather Findlay from Mostly Autumn. One particular track "Faith and Betrayal" featured an epic guitar solo by "BJ", which I remember was actually part of the audition. Anyway Gabriel needed a replacement that could cover both Colin's and BJ's guitar parts and for some strange reason I got the job.

Gabriel continued for a few years, gigging, writing new songs, releasing a couple of CDs, but drummers came and went, different members got involved in different side projects, and the momentum for the band eventually ran out. At one point our keyboard player Andy "Rob" Swann decided he would step in to play drums. To provide live drum practice, Gabriel then played as a 4 piece cover band called "Ripped". As Ripped, we just played great rock songs, U2, Train, Lenny Kravitz, Feeder, Coldplay etc - that was fun. But the fun eventually fizzled out so we stopped gigging.

After Ripped I played guitar on a couple of Marc Atkinson's solo studio albums and for a brief period joined the ranks of Riversea, a new Project he had started with keys man Brendan Eyre. I was actually in the process of writing songs for ‘Focal Point’ when we (Riversea) were offered a support slot to “The Reasoning”. We accepted the gig and then realised a set of songs had to be written and rehearsed for our debut gig at The Robin in Bilston.

To our surprise Riversea went down a storm. Sometimes you can just tell when an audience gets your songs, and the audience that night got Riversea. Unfortunately it was starting to dawn on me that I did not have enough time to both finish ‘Focal Point’ and give Riversea the commitment it needed. So I bowed out of Riversea to concentrate on my own album.

His bio continues: “Within four months Cusick had received record offers from two separate progressive rock labels. This interest gave Cusick the confidence to continue writing and recording his debut album, whilst still maintaining his career as a Chartered Civil Engineer.”
It seems quite impressive getting offers from rock labels without any previous solo track record. How did all that come about?

Yeah, and surprising. It was January 2008 and I had decided, for my New Year’s resolution, to concentrate on writing my own songs. I didn't know at that time I was going to be doing a full blown solo album. I had just created a MySpace site and uploaded a couple of songs for a bit of a laugh. Some were instrumentals and some were rough demos that featured Marc Atkinson on vocals. A couple of tracks had even been rehearsed by Gabriel, but I guess the guys never really got my songs and I've never been one for pushing them on anyone.

The problem I encounter when I write a song is I actually have little confidence in what I write. Don't get me wrong, I know when my guitar parts work, that's why I enjoy playing guitar. But as a song writer I struggle with my art. And on the vocals front... well let’s just say I feel a little uncomfortable hearing my own voice. I guess most of us have that sense of embarrassment when we listen back to a recording of our own voice..., how many times do you record your answer phone message before you are happy for it to be heard by others? Imagine that amplified with the added dimensions of pitch, lyric and melody!

I don't envy the role of vocalists at all. It takes balls bigger than space hoppers to stand in front of a crowd and open your voice. As a guitarist you stand behind your guitar. It's a six string wall of defence.
Anyway I digress..., where was I? I told you I had a bad memory...., oh yes MySpace….well I started to get feedback from complete strangers that they liked my songs and some were asking where they could they buy them. This made me wonder how to proceed? The early demos featured Marc on vocals, and he kindly offered to sing on my album, but I knew if I was to proceed with a "solo" album that I would have to face my fear and sing myself. I mean Marc's voice sounded great on the demos but his style of singing didn't convey the feelings I had in my mind for some of my songs. I could have used Marc on some tracks and me on others, but again I kind of felt driven to try it myself.

My first attempt at vocals was on ‘Big Cars’. I used a voice affect that made my voice sound mega phonic. It's a trick used by many artists. It adds a certain quality to a voice but at the same time hides pitch problems. Anyway I recorded a working demo of ‘Big Cars’ and hired a session drummer, Phil Robertson, to play drums. I then emailed some Prog Rock Radio stations and asked if they would consider adding my song to their playlists. To my surprise I received offers from 2 Prog Rock labels.
I hadn't expected that sort of interest. It took me completely by surprise. Remember the idea for Focal Point was only starting to form in my head and the degree to which I was going to develop it had still to be finalised. But I was starting to think I should do the best I could within my limited resources.
I remember Marc and Brendan (Riversea) were supportive of my idea to have a go at a solo project, and Brendan was actually more enthusiastic about my offers than I was. I had been emailing both of them mp3 after mp3 of rough demos / instrumentals trying to gather feedback and to gain perspective on my ability, but the guys in Riversea were supportive and instrumental in giving me the push. (By that I mean encouragement and not that they kicked me out)

It seemed strange having 2 offers on the table and no album. Kind of a horse before the cart situation. But, in hindsight, it was only the feedback from labels and friends that made me persevere with Focal Point.

My partner, Theresa, says I hide my light under a bushel and I think I needed her blessing before I started the real work on Focal Point. During the time I subsequently spent on my album, she had to look after all the things that need looking after for a family to function.

Chartered Engineer and rock guitarist appear to be two ends of the spectrum. How do you balance both vocations?

I don't sleep! (smiles). In reality I can't balance both. I have managed to burn the candle at both ends for ‘Focal Point’ but that was only possible because I had support from my family. I am quite lucky in that I work as a freelance consultant engineer, my hours are flexible. I can work as much, or as few, as I decide. With work I decided, shortly after my dad died, that I wouldn't wait until 65 to start enjoying my retirement. He died young, well before he had time to enjoy his retirement, so I have decided to have a semi-retired life. Hence my flexible "reduced" working hours.

I am lucky enough to enjoy my work, and my music is really my only serious hobby. I would love to say I have mastered the balancing trick, but in reality I still need my professional careers as a consultant. Unless of course ‘Focal Point’ sells enough copies to justify me concentrating solely on my music. That would be a dream come true. I have ideas for album 2 and several songs are already written but..., well only time will tell.

Paul’s bio continues: “Cusick's guitar style has been compared Steve Hackett, David Gilmour, Steve Rothery and Steven Wilson. His songs draw upon the sounds and audio landscapes created by bands such as Pink Floyd, Peter Gabriel, Porcupine Tree, Chroma Key and Nine Inch Nails. However, the long instrumental pieces that are sometimes associated with the progressive rock genre have been replaced by catchy vocal melody lines akin to those evoked by more mainstream rock artists such as Coldplay and U2.”
There are a lot of names in that description to make the typical CRS member’s mouth water at the prospect. Do you feel lumbered, embarrassed or inspired by these comparisons?

Honoured! By far the biggest comparison people are saying about my music is it sounds like Pink Floyd mixed with Porcupine Tree. How can I not be flattered by those sorts of comparisons? If I was being compared to artists that I hadn't heard of, or artists who I didn't enjoy listening to, then I would be worried. But to be mentioned, in a complimentary manner, in the same breath as Dave Gilmour, Roger Waters or Steven Wilson is simply an honour.

I am also being told I sound like bands I hadn't previously heard of. OSI springs to mind. I have since become a big fan of their music, and fans are always introducing me to new artists. I love it.
There is a downside, when fans of other bands get all defensive of their idols and post messages on forums insulting my music, belittling the comparisons made by others. Everyone's free to have an opinion but some of the comments posted are insulting and can be quite personal. I never started comparing my music to other bands, it’s the listeners who make the comparisons. Objective comparisons I can read and respect but why some choose to send nasty emails I’ll never know. If people don't like my music then why do they listen to it?

But on the whole, as I said, I am flattered by such favourable comparisons and touched by the number of compliments people post on my Facebook page.

Actually when I think about it I'm actually in shock at the feedback my album has generated....,

For his album, as we’ve heard, Paul sang and played all instruments himself, apart from his friend Alex 'The Groove Monster' Cromarty on drums, with Andy Edwards (FROST*, IQ) a guest drummer on the track 'Touch'.
Was it your decision to be as self-sufficient as possible with the album, Paul?

Yes. My nature is to understand how something works. I created as one of the first UK online dating agencies just because I wanted to learn about the web. I then created the network because I wanted to tie in web design to civil engineering. I have renovated numerous properties, tinkered with classic cars and had a house built in Florida. I just like doing new things. Life's too short to get stuck in a rut.

On the music front of things I love playing instruments. By choosing to play them all, I gave myself the freedom and time to experiment to my hearts content. Home recording techniques can now provide studio quality audio. It was the same with the production of the album. When you're paying hundreds of pounds a day for a studio, it makes sense to save money and do as much of it as you can at home. As I record songs the whole process is dynamic. The freedom to make changes by yourself, in your own time, is invaluable.

Obviously I had limitations..., I can't play the drums. I can programme them, but alas drums are an instrument I'm yet to attempt. Anyway, when you have friends like Alex willing to help, you willingly accept their skills. He is a star and we’ve known one another since his drumming days in Gabriel. He is without doubt a world class drummer that the world has yet to hear about.

But eventually, the recording of the drums and the final mixing I did with John Spence at Fairview Studios. You have to know your limitations.

On the artwork side of things, I had a strong idea of what I wanted, but initially I didn't have time to create the artwork. As luck would have it a facebook fan, Martin Roberts, offered to help. His Photoshop and design skills were great and we struck up a creative relationship that just worked. Our ideas gelled and we quickly gained respect for each others point of view. I love the artwork included in the CD booklet. It’s great to have a visual representation of every song. Other people offered their help as well, Mark Nowicki a graphic designer from the US and Paul Newsom a photographer from York all volunteered their art to the project. T-shirts will be next but I need to find a company I can trust to work with on that front (hint).

On the distribution front it would have been great to take my completed album and hand it over to a third party, but when I started to look into the record contracts I had been sent, there were certain terms and conditions that I considered worked strongly in the favour of the record company. I know certain clauses will always favour one of the parties to a contract, but my concern was they could hear my music and use their expertise to decide how successful my album would be for them, but I had no tangible proof as to how successfully or otherwise they could distribute my music.

The idea of signing years or albums away to an unproven entity was unappealing. That's not to say I wouldn't sign if the right offer came along, but how could I determine how good an offer was if I didn't understand its practical application.

So, as is my nature, I researched the role of record companies and distribution companies and decided to do it all myself. I guess the internet has empowered the artist with the potential to do as much as they want. I combined what I learned with my background in web design and set to work promoting Q Rock Records

I also picked up advice along the way from "bigger" artists and players in the music scene, and that advice favoured my decision to stay independent.

So, what does your immediate independent future hold? The CRS had been expecting a Riversea gig earlier this year which turned out to be a Marc solo. Might we see Paul Cusick live in one form or another perhaps?

I’m having a rest. My kids are on their summer holidays so I’m spending time with my family. I’m continuing to work on promotion and distribution for Focal Point and I’m in discussion with a video production company about a possible video.

If all keeps going well, I’ll be working on a second album over the winter and then next year I will be looking for a band to gig both. I need two albums so I have enough original material to play decent gigs. That’s my plan, but a lot can change in a year. Who knows what opportunities may appear in the future?
Eighteen months ago I would never have dared to dream I would be sitting here in summer 2009 having written, recorded and released a solo album on my own record label. And to my great surprise Focal Point is also an album I’m immensely proud of.

I have learned so much along the way. From the mechanics of recording and production to reconfirmation of the spirit that exists in others to freely give help and support.

But the greatest lesson I have learned is that I can do it. I can make a News Year’s resolution and stick to it (laughs) it’s probably the first time I’ve managed that. The journey so far has been fantastic and I believe it is only the start.

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