Skyharbor have been making serious waves in the Tech/Prog Metal community since releasing debut album Blinding White Noise in 2012, have been touring the globe with other powerhouse examples of the genre to raving reviews, and have recently released their third studio album Sunshine Dust in September of this year. Now coming to Australia for the first time to play the 10th anniversary of Progfest Skyharbor are set to light our shores on fire!
Metal-Roos: Thank you for speaking to me! How are things in the Skyharbor camp at the moment? It must be an exciting time!
We’re definitely over the moon! We’re more excited for this show than any other tour that we’ve done for a really, really long time…the last time we were this excited, we were going to Europe with the Deftones, because of the band we were with. But this time it’s ‘oh my god’ exciting. The fact that we came to Australia to record the album a year ago and it was such a glorious experience, living in the Gold Coast for a month and a half, just experiencing the life of Australia, living in the studio with, in my opinion, one of the best producers of this generation (Forrester Savell)…so, we just couldn’t wait to play shows Down Under, we would have loved to that time. But we were on the wrong visa and didn’t wanna get into trouble, but this time when the opportunity presented itself we jumped out it. A lot of Aussie fans have been following us since the Blinding White Noise days, since 2012, so a lot of people have been waiting a while to see us. We’re only bummed that we only get to play 40 minutes. But you know, we will try to fit as much into that from all the albums that we can.
M-R: How long are Skyharbor in the country for? Any time to do sightseeing?
The fact that it all ends in Brisbane is really cool. Forrester lives nearby, Brisbane was the city we landed in last time since we recorded in the Gold Coast, and you can’t really explore it in one go… you have to have repeated visits. If logistics and finance allow it – you guys live in a pretty expensive country! Hahaha So after the Brisbane show I would love to go hang out with Forrester again and just see the Gold Coast again that’s definitely on my list.
M-R: How have the fans been reacting to the new material?
It’s been mixed. I think a large percentage of it is definitely positive, but they’re also a significant amount of people who I think, are still finding it hard to get used to a different singer… and the fact that their styles are so different and also musically we’ve tried to do something a different than last time. Guiding Lights did so well, and it was such a labour of love, by the time we were done with it we were so drained and burnt-out, we pretty much expressed what we had to express in that sound. We wanted to start fresh and do new things, which is why this felt almost it away like a first album. We said what we wanted to say with the long proggy thing and now we wanted to explore something else. Some songs might be hit or miss for some people and some people might connect with them a bit better than others, but I have to say overall people are very positive. People have said that they can’t look beyond the fact that it isn’t Dan singing, but I think over time as they listen to the songs more and more and get used to Ethan. The fact that they’re even willing to come back and listen to it again and again means there’s something there that’s got you, which is what it’s all about and we’ve done our jobs.
M-R: So, you’ve recently toured both Europe and the US, and now here, what are some things that excites you about coming to new territory. Is there anything you dread?
Well, in Australia we don’t dread anything, we just know it’s going to be incredible, all we have to worry about is put it on a really good show. The fact that this is Progfest, there’s so much stuff that’s already in place and we don’t have to do a lot of logistical nightmare stuff. On the touring front, we have been trying to break into the American market for a while, I think Skyharbor and our management realise there’s a great deal of a crossover artist with more accessible bands, that’s why we are doing the kind of support tours we have, we went out with Tremonti, we did the Babymetal thing and obviously Deftones last year. They’re all huge bands and I can see how fans of them might like us, there’s certainly an accessibility to our sound, which means we’ve always had to keep in mind the fact that we’re not playing to a prog audience. But this time they’re coming to listen to the proggy stuff, we don’t have to hold back when it comes to playing deeper-cuts. We can play some more of the outlying songs, the bizarre experimental songs, we don’t have to worry about it going over people’s heads. We just had a poll on Instagram last night from our Australian fans, about what songs from our first album do you want us to play and we got a myriad of different responses. I mean we can’t play the whole debut album, so we let the people choose what they want to hear and the amount of engagement was crazy, everyone had a say. We were like ‘cool people want to see this’!
M-R: The Line-up for Progfest is absolutely stacked this year, is there a band that you are keen to see? Have you heard the local talent? (Chaos Divine, Circles)
I’ve been keeping my eye on Chaos Divine for a while. I’ve been going to Forrester’s discography and all the bands that he’s done which aren’t Karnivool or Dead Letter Circus or Cog, I came across them and I thought they were doing very cool stuff, the first album of theirs was fantastic. They’ve got a good future ahead of them if they keep it up, so I’m excited to see them. Circles are playing as well, we played a show with Circles in the UK in about 2013 and they’re obviously good friends. We used to be labelmates at one point we were both on Basick at one point. Are Caligula’s Horse playing as well? I don’t think they are, but there’s so much good stuff, it’s not just the Big 4 are playing, in fact none of them are playing… there’s no Dead Letter, there’s no Butterfly Effect, no Karnivool, but I’m still excited as hell to see the all these new young bands were clearly influenced by these trail blazers. I think there’s a wonderful energy in the Australian music scene, in a weird way it helps that you are so isolated from the rest of the world. You flourished in your country your own way, without taking many cues from what’s trending necessarily worldwide.
You know when Forrester was recording with us, when we were getting started and planning out the album he was like, ‘what so you want to do on the album that you hadn’t done before? what kind of sound were we looking for? Do you have a vision in mind or do you want me to do my thing?’ I knew that we were an Indian-American outfit but there was a reason why we’re in Australia. I wanted to make this album sound as Australian as possible. Those Big 4 bands, we were influenced the most by when it came to writing this specific record: Butterfly Effect was huge, we were rinsing Final Conversation of Kings and Karnivool’s Asymmetry and Sound Awake have been played to death! All these ground-breaking albums, we just wanted to bring out that Australian flavour as much as we could in our new album.
M-R: Getting to Sunshine Dust…Is there some a concept behind the album?
It’s a slightly sensitive topic, there is a darkish theme that runs through it. I mean, we’ve never really considered ourselves to be a political band, but at the same time, I feel like it’s impossible to just completely disassociate yourself with what’s going around all around you. Music is an escape when it comes to these things… you can disconnect from all the bullshit we see around us. As adults as people that are been directly affected by the shit that we see around us. There’s some really messed up things that are going down in the US, in India, there’s a nasty undercard of very undesirable energies that are coming to the surface, and these are things that thought we were going to get over decades ago. We’re better than this, but in 2018 it’s like we’re taking huge steps back, not just in America but basically everywhere. We acknowledge that rock music in a place like India is music for the privileged. At the end of the day there’s a language barrier and it’s not the kind of music that caters to the masses that’s Bollywood over that’s the popular stuff. We’ve sort of grown-up aware that we come from a comparatively more privileged position. But it allows us to be able to be cognizant of the things around us and maybe not so caught up and dependent on the machinery, the political and government machinery of our time. We’re still able to be comfortable and at the same time think about these things. It affects us that much more because when there’s issues like vigilantism, communal tension, religious tension. I mean, it’s 2018, we have interstellar space travel and we’re here literally trying to kill each other on the basis of the most inane bullshit. So, that stuff has found its way into the music, directly and literally, like the song Descent was basically a lash out at religious nut-jobs. I get it, you’re free to do your thing, there’s nothing wrong with believing what you want to believe. But, when you start shaming other people and trying to control other people’s lives based on that, that’s where it gets messed up. I think religion has been doing it for a long time. I believe it’s bleak and toxic, an awkward elephant in the room to address when you having conversations about these things and which is why I think the only outlet that we have is the music and that’s how it made its way there. Having said that it’s not a political album it’s just a reflection of the times that we live in… just like Guiding Lights was a celebratory thing. A lot of the songs on that album are about Dan celebrating he just had a brand new baby, where with this album all our circumstances collectively are struggling and dealing with the world at large.
M-R: You decided to re-record Sunshine Dust from scratch. That must have been a hard decision for the band, what was it that drove that choice?
I think there was a bit of everything, Blinding White Noise was completely self-produced, my very first body of work, a solo project which featured a singer. Guiding Lights we were writing collectively, the three of us wrote all the music and Dan wrote all the vocals, but when it came to production we recorded it ourselves then we gave it to Forrester to mix. For Sunshine Dust we found ourselves without a label, our contract with Basick was up and we knew that we didn’t want to jump into another thing straight away. We wanted to try the DIY thing for a little while which of course means that we have let it very little in the way funding. But we wanted to give it a shot. We thought that we could do it because we did it the first time but what we didn’t take into account is when there’s five people with strong opinions all trying to do this over the internet in different time zones the communication was just miserable, horrible, to the point where things were getting lost in translation. I was left with the responsibility of mixing it. I sort of did it, but in trying to address everyone’s feedback I lost my own perspective and I think at the end of it none of us knew what sounded good anymore. In hindsight it didn’t really sound as good as it could have, when I listen to those recordings now I think ‘I’m a way better engineer than that, I wouldn’t put that out there’. It was just a case of severe burnout. We were about to release it when we did the Deftones tour, we wanted to launch the album with the Deftones tour and make a big thing out of it. Everything was set up and ready to go, we had uploaded the recordings to the platforms. All we had to do is hit the release button, but we called up emergency meeting to have a conversation about it. We thought it was difficult, but we needed to really be honest, everyone’s was ok with it, no one’s overjoyed with it, is this the best version of what it could possibly be? The answer was no, so we thought let’s just wait a little while longer get some opinions from people in the industry. We knew we had no objectivity left, so we had conversations with managers that we sent the record to and all the feedback we said was you know there’s some really good songs on it. It could be taken to the next level, not in terms of the sound but of the songs themselves, the flow of the album.
M-R: What made you want to work with Aussie producer Forrester Savell on Guiding Lights in 2014 and again with Sunshine Dust?
It’s one thing when you look at his discography. It pretty much speaks for itself and when you have something like that on board…some of the most influential records you’ve ever heard which made such a difference in your life, like, ‘oh my god I’m actually working with this guy’. But it never felt like that, he just brought this real big-brother, parental vibe into the room, like he was the extra band member, the voice of reason, he never got agitated, always just super calm and objective, while inspiring creativity. He was pretty demanding at times in terms of performance, but it never felt stressful, it was always amazing. I think part of that is down to his demeanour. It’s just so relaxed, he’s always going to around with a resting bitch-face and he really gives nothing away with his expressions, but it was wonderful, very inspiring. We got five people spitting out ideas left and right and disagreements happen. When you’re on your own even if one band member is like agreed to be like the producer. The eventual guy who makes the call, at the end of the day everyone knows that no-one is fully objective. You’re always seeing something through the lens of your instrument or whatever you’re coming from, so having that sort of voice of reason was very cool.
He’s just a great guy for someone who’s worked with such incredible bands you might expect it like a little bit of an ego. We went in there thinking oh my god he’s going to be so demand he’s going to have such high expectations… but he was such a sweetheart it was just a real bonding experience he felt like a big brother more than the hard ass and the in the producer seat.
M-R: Are you completely satisfied with the end result? You must be…
Yeah, for sure. They say that art is never finished, and if we had been able to be in Australia while he was mixing maybe would have been able to achieve a few things which, you know, when you’re discussing things back and forth via email a lot of things can get lost in translation. But having said that I was able to take a long period of time off from the album once it was done and submitted. I didn’t listen to it for a very long time just to reorient myself and not get completely fried. When I came back and heard it, I heard it all the way through and I thought to myself ‘damn, we did really good’. I mean, I can see people who got attached to the last album and find it very hard to get past the new singer. We talked about this before, but when I heard it objectively, I wasn’t listening from the point of view like ‘this is the band I love because Dan Tomkins was in it’. I was listening to it as a fan of a collection of a really good songs and I thought we did a really good job. There were songs that didn’t eventually make it to the album and I’m glad they didn’t because we didn’t have enough time to really give them the loving attention that they needed, but the one that we did I think we maxed them out. Maybe in hindsight when we start performing these songs live, jam them more and more, little things might come up and we’ll keep improving on them as we go. That’s another thing we like to do, we’re not very particular about having the live show being a carbon copy of the record it’s more an improvement on it. Wherever we feel like ‘I wish we had this idea when we were tracking it’, if we feel like it makes the song better, we always go for it, but I’m proud of this. I think we’ve written some really good songs.
M-R: Dissent’s video is quite striking, is there a story or meaning behind it?
Not so much actually! It’s interesting because we spent a lot of the budget that we had on the video for Dim. When it came to Descent we weren’t able to film ourselves or have something really intricate. We took on the challenge of seeing what we can do on a tighter budget, but whatever we do we make it tasteful. So even though it’s like glitchy, quirky and got this old-school industrial vibe to it. It kind of goes with the song, a bit of an outlier on the album.
We make the album first and then decided what singles we want to put out. We were pretty hesitant to put that song out because it was such a strange song. We thought it might be best left on the album, but the label was very particular that they loved it. They really wanted us to put that one out because it was so different, because it would be controversial. There’s a little bit of rapping in it, a bit of screaming, a bit nu-metal, you can create a few talking points because the prog snobs will be like ‘what the hell is this’. At the same time a lot of people thought it was really cool, as long as it gets people talking… that was our objective.
M-R: Well, it definitely got people talking… just curious, have you ever gone against everyone’s advice and delved into the comment section of your YouTube channel?
You know what? There’s two ways you can look at something like this, you can take it to heart and get really upset, believe they hate you. But if someone’s taking the time to listen through a song and then post a comment, it comes from a place of caring on some level. Their reaction to the song may not be very favourable at first; they’re describing their first opinion, but for me what would be most disappointing if it just went by with no one really engaging with it, or if people heard it and didn’t bother to say anything because it did nothing for them. Even if it rubs them the wrong way, that is still job done to me. The purpose of all art isn’t to make someone feel good all the time, it’s also to make you feel uncomfortable. We can write songs that make people feel really emotional. In our back catalogue are songs like Patience, we have anthemic songs like Celetial, these big emotional songs, but we hadn’t really explored the darker side, like a song when you listen to it you don’t just feel angry, but it disturbs them. Sometimes it comes across as, well, what the hell is this? But the fact is that you took the time out to make a comment and I am betting they would have gone back and heard it over and over again to try and understand where the bands coming from. I choose to take that positive side, at the end of day we made the song for ourselves. We’re not out there to please anyone and everyone has every right to express approval or disapproval.
M-R: The track The Reckoning stands out as a killer instrumental. Is there a story behind this track? Any specific reason for no vocals?
It’s not like we didn’t try! There actually is singing on it, but it’s not singing. Eric sang through a whole chain of guitar pedals, so it doesn’t sound like a voice. But it was a voice that was used in a very cool way, an textural element, not really like a vocal whatever vocals are there they’ve been so heavily process to the point they don’t sound like vocals at all. That song is interesting because our drummer basically joined our band as the electronic producer and not the drummer. When he took over from Anup, our old drummer, he was basically a Drum-n-Bass producer who also played drums. We always like to explore electronic music and incorporate bits into our songs, cause we always like to try new shit out. We wanted him to kick-start a song by himself so we could have a different palate to work with. We’ll roll with that and will try make song out of it. I mean we know if we start something, yeah, it’s going to be a Skyharbor song… we kind of know what a Skyharbor song is. If we try doing it a different way, where you start it off, thinking what will I do? What would the Skyharbor version of this electronic industrial song. So, he came up with this blue-print of the first half of the song and we just rolled with it. We took it into the studio one day, it was gloomy and raining outside, which really helps out with the mood of the song. It’s got a really eerie cloudy vibe to it. We were holed up inside the house and just working on this song and I think it was affecting us in some way. We just took that idea and rolled with it. Devesh wrote the bass line and then I came up the guitar parts on top of that and program the drums for the heavy part, and then Krishna who’s the bass player came up with a bunch more synth lines. That’s when we started realising that we got something really cool and it’s not a typical song, there’s no verse, no chorus. It’s just a glorious piece of music that’s great. When we took it to the studio with Forrester we wanted to experiment to see if we could have proper vocals on it and we tried. It just seems like it was unnecessary, the song stood on its own without lyrics. We just rolled with it and it fit beautifully.
What’s it like running a studio in New Delhi? Are there any challenges you face because of that position, that others may not?
It is difficult. We did touch on this earlier… being in this rock music space with the English language, it is the music of privilege people. At the same time, it’s the music of the young people, so we’re talking kids anywhere between 17 and 22 which the large part of my clientele. These people are just at a college or just out of college. Basically, they’re not earning money, the band is a hobby, it’s not something they really pursuing as a full-time thing. That’s the first thing, your job is basically someone else’s hobby, so that’s obstacle number one. Obstacle number two is these kids depend on their parents. The culture in India is like, your parents support you financially right up until the time you graduate from college, but then, you obviously start earning your own living. I don’t know, for whatever reason, maybe just a daily drudgery or maybe it’s just the fact that they don’t see much of the ceiling of the long-term opportunity of playing in a band because the audience is very small, very niche. When you get into the grind of nine to five, families and stuff like that, when you’re an 18 to 22 year old kid and strapped for cash, that means I can’t charge what I feel my work is worth. Obviously, I have to look for other opportunities which means, trying to get into Bollywood films and getting into the actual machinery and like the industry behind stuff so we can actually pay my bills. Otherwise you’ll be getting to this zone, I love what I’m doing, working with artists that are really doing some cool stuff. At the end of the day a certain degree of resentment can creep up on you, if you feel like you’re not being compensated for your time and effort and there’s just nothing I can do about that. If I double my prices then I won’t have any clients, I wouldn’t get the work, they just wouldn’t be able to afford it. But fortunately every now and then a really good project will pop up with a budget which is reasonable. So, I can actually put my energy into it and but not just like get this done quickly so I can move on to the next one.
So, you recently toured India, how was the home-crowd reaction? How would you compare touring India with the rest of the world?
Oh yeah, in that way it has been really good cos they know that we’re kind of like a homegrown product. I think there’s definitely a sense of pride in that one of their own has gone out and is still doing things on the world stage. I mean obviously nowhere near like a household name but still getting recognised outside of our own shores. We don’t take it for granted, it’s very humbling to know that people come out and support us because they want us to keep going. That’s a good feeling. The last thing on our mind is ‘are people going to come to a show’ we know people are going to come to a shows so it’s awesome.
Actually, India is very much like Australia when it comes to touring. When we got the offer to do Progfest, one of the things that really made it seem viable to us was the fact that everything is taken care of. Which is something that I’ve heard of from other bands that played Australia as well. The hospitality is incredible, you get great accommodation all of this stuff is taking care of really well, which is so rare. It is absolutely not a thing if you go to Europe or the States. Every single thing has to be sorted out by the band themselves. The only thing you get is the stage and the PA. You have to get everything else yourself, you have to figure out how you’re going to get to where you need to go. All the gear is sorted out by you, every single factor of touring besides the stage and PA has to be sorted out by the band, which is fine, it makes me really self-reliant. I really appreciate the value everything and make you work really hard and understand all the things that go into it. In India it’s another thing that we sort of take for granted. I think a lot of bands have a misguided vision of how it’s like to tour overseas. Sometimes bands have this gripe that ‘we’re in the wrong country’ or ‘we’re playing the wrong music in the wrong country because no one gets us’.
I will say this, there’s a reason why bands like Karnivool haven’t gone out for a while. It’s a lot of stress, the amount of logistical nightmares that you have to go through to make something like that happened, the expenditure and everything. Most bands from India wouldn’t last if they try to make it out and tour regularly. Once the glamour wears off within the first thirty seconds and then you’re making less than minimum wage, and have bills to pay… they do it once, now they’ve had the experience then peace out, we can’t do it again. We go back to India and have all these things taken care of, flights booked for every show, hotels taking care of, catering, basically everything is taken care of. That makes us really appreciate how privileged we are to experience such things and all the bands I know that I’ve toured India say the same thing. All the American bands say ‘dude, that was an amazing experience’ and the same goes for Australia. The hospitality is so incredible you just feel like you’re on vacation, you’re going down to play music to people that really love what you’re doing, the vibes are great, you don’t really have to worry about anything. Just show up in the lobby of your hotel, you get picked up, driven to the gig, driven back, driven to the airport. As far as taking things for granted, we really appreciate them. We feel grateful for everything that we have, but that’s why we’re extra excited to come play in Australia there’s no struggle. It’s going to be an absolute blast.
Interview Date: 2018-12-16
Interviewer: Jonathan Hurley