Machines Of Grace: An Album Twenty Years In The Making
by Bryan Reesman on Dec.23, 2009, under Hard Rock & Metal, Music Musings
Machines Of Grace drummer Jeff Plate (l) and singer Zak Stevens (r) wrapping up an appearance on Sirius Satellite Radio's "The Boneyard" with Eddie Trunk. (Photo © 2009 by Bryan Reesman.)
Vocalist Zak Stevens and drummer Jeff Plate are perhaps best known to the world for their work with the mega-successful Yuletide metal ensemble Trans-Siberian Orchestra (TSO), whose spectacular Christmas tours have made them arena sensations, while their latest album Night Castle hit #5 on the Billboard Top 200 albums chart. You can hear Stevens sing back-up vocals on three songs on it, while Plate played on the new album and is on their current tour. But serious metal mavens know that the duo go back over 20 years to their time in the Boston-based metal quartet Wicked Witch, a group that played approximately 250 gigs in their three short years together (1988-91). While they recorded a three-song demo, their music never got an official release. Things came to a halt in 1992, when Stevens was enlisted to sing for Savatage (Plate joined up two years later), for which he each appeared on four studio releases (Plate on three). Since then, Stevens has sung for Circle II Circle while Plate has pounded his kit for TSO, Chris Caffery and Metal Church (until their recent dissolution), and they have both appeared on every TSO album over the last 13 years.
Despite their success in the metal world, something nagged at the duo to resurrect the ghost of Wicked Witch. They recently brought back original guitarist Matt Leff, enlisted new member/bassist Chris Rapoza and contacted their old soundman Paul David Hager, who has since gone to engineer pop sensations like the Goo Goo Dolls, Avril Lavigne, Pink and Katy Perry. Rechristened as Machines Of Grace, the hard rockin’ quartet re-shaped and recorded the tunes that made it onto their new self-titled album, which is available through their website store, iTunes and Amazon. Old school in feeling and more modern in sound with many nice acoustic touches, it’s a rock solid album for fans of what Stevens calls “pure rock ‘n’ roll”. They also played live again this past summer. On a recent press trip to NYC, Stevens and Plate had drinks with ADD and talked about their reunion and plans for the future, which includes a possible tour next year once Plate ends the TSO East Coast tour and Stevens has free time from Circle II Circle.
Fans of the band should know that I’ll be giving away a few copies of their debut album soon to ADD’s e-mail and Facebook subscribers. Sign up now!
Zak Stevens live with Machines Of Grace. (Photo credit: Mark Horning.)
What do you remember about the Boston metal scene back in the late Eighties?
Zak: I remember Providence, Rhode Island being very prominent.
Jeff: In our first year of existence we played 150 shows. We were playing every club.
Zak: New Hampshire.
Jeff: Connecticut. Rhode Island. Anywhere. Honestly, at the time, there were enough clubs to play because there was a pretty good scene out there.
Zak: In the late Eighties and early Nineties there was still a great club scene. I remember that in Providence, Rhode Island we kicked ass.
Jeff: Providence was kind of like our home away from home. Club Babyhead. Lupo’s Heartbreak Hotel.
Zak: The Living Room. The Channel [in Boston] was a great place to play. We built our following because we played so much. When you came to see a Wicked Witch show, it was the Wicked Witch crowd. When we came off stage and another band came on, the place emptied out. That’s how many shows we were playing. If we could play that many shows now, I would be the happiest person. I want 150 shows a year, Jeff.
But you can’t do 250 shows regionally anywhere anymore.
Zak: No. I want it across the country, starting in March. That gives you a month to recuperate your back from TSO.
Jeff: Shake the snow out of my hair.
Zak: I’m not taking any excuses.
After Wicked Witch broke up, you were asked to join Savatage.
Zak: Yeah, I got lucky. There were probably about 100 demo tapes flying around, and I will give credit to the late Dawn Oliva, Criss Oliva’s wife who died a few years later. She kept playing the three-song Wicked Witch CD over and over and wouldn’t even give Criss a chance to listen to others. “Forget that crap, this is the guy you want!” She got me the damn gig. I give Dawn Oliva as much credit as any of them for giving me the shot to get the gig. A lot of people don’t know that. [Writing on a napkin.] I’m doing up a contract for Jeff.
“I, Jeff Plate, will do 150 shows with Zak effective…”
Zak: I’ll put my birthday. “March 5, 2010. With MOG, to get famous.”
Jeff: I’ll have to run this by my manager.
Zak: You don’t have one. I am your manager.
Jeff: I’ll have to run this by my wife.
Zak: You’re right. However, since I’m divorced –
Jeff: So I have a manager.
Zak: Here you go, Jeff, here’s your contract. Just sign right there. [Jeff casually glances at it.]
He’s not signing it.
Zak: But here’s the thing. As far Circle II Circle, we had a four album deal. Now it’s time for number five, and we don’t know what’s going to happen. [Slides napkin to Jeff] So here you are. Sign at your leisure.
Jeff: I’ll look it over, Zak.
Zak [slightly exasperated]: You’ll look it over…
How do you take something that’s 20 years old, finally record it and make it fresh and not a piece of personal nostalgia?
Jeff: The answer we’ve been giving for that is that we never had a chance to record the stuff back then. When we were writing it we all felt very strongly about the music. It was four of us in a rehearsal room writing this stuff, recording it on cassette tapes, listening to it and trying to do some demos. In effect, the saving grace is that Paul Hager used to be our sound man back in the club era. Paul has gone on to do bigger and better things with the Goo Goo Dolls and Avril Lavigne. When the idea came to re-record the stuff, we called Paul and he was all for it. He was able to take something that we had all originally grown up together with, and everything he knew as far as production, recording and engineering, and brought that to the table and put a sheen on it. At the time we were a little harder edged, maybe a little more abrasive, so he cleaned up the edges on that and made it a little more polished and a little more accessible to more people. As far as the nostalgia thing, I loved this stuff ever since we wrote it and have always listened to it. It was unfinished business. We had some very good material that never saw the light of day. As everything seems to come full circle, we knew at the time we had something fairly unique, and to this day when you listen to the newer rock this music stands out from that. It leans toward it a little bit, but it also leans toward the old-school kind of music.
It reminds me of melodic Eighties songs with stripped-down Nineties production. What’s interesting is you could have added additional layers of vocal harmonies onto this stuff, like what Savatage did with the song “Chance,” but you didn’t.
Zak: Those counterpoint melody vocals were indicative of something we discovered on the Handful Of Rain album, and this [Machines Of Grace] is pre-Savatage, so I didn’t want to allude to those elements. This represents the pre-Sava era. In talking about what makes this different, the production element is there, however having the chance for me to go back and vocally turn this thing into… What it really comes down to is the fact that the writing was really outstanding. I don’t care if it was 17 years ago or yesterday. I thought my job was to really bring this thing into 2009, replace the lyrics where needed and tweak things. Where you had a scream in ‘89 you don’t need a scream now. You don’t know which one of these things I redid. You’ll never know. It was all over the place. For some of the stuff I had to do, we were given [sound] board tapes work where I could only hear 20% of the vocals I was singing. So I had to do rewrites. With something like “Innocence”, which we recorded as an acoustic track when it used to be a full-blown, loud, distorted type song, that give me the chance to completely rewrite it. It had to have a different melody and completely different harmonies. The fact is the musical component has the strength to be timeless. It’s that kind of rock. It’s what I call pure rock. You could play it 20 years ago or right now, and it’s still going to rock. Everybody had their individual job to make sure that it came into the year 2009 and made sense. It’s going to be competitive now, and that’s it. That’s all you can do. Being the vocalist I probably had the biggest opportunity to do that, to rewrite a lyric or a vocal harmony where I wanted. I didn’t overload it with counterpoint vocals because it’s Machines Of Grace. It doesn’t really call for that, in my opinion.
Jeff: We would’ve changed it too much if we tried to do too much with it.
Zak: I’m the guy who had to change it the most, and I did very little.
Jeff: A lot of the comments I’ve gotten from doing some drum interviews is that you can tell they’re real drums, which for a lot of people is quite refreshing because now you go into a studio and play acoustic drums onto a track, then you trigger something else on top of it and ‘verb or gate the hell out of it. And it doesn’t sound like a real drum kit by the end of the day. This sounds like a set of drums in a room with a bunch of microphones, and that’s exactly what it was.
Zak: Paul Hager knew he was going to put his sheen on it and use everything he learned in the last 17 years into this, but when the question came, “What’s the overall feel that you want on this record?” The only overall feel we had was we played 250 shows. We didn’t have a chance to go record a lot of this stuff, so it had to sound like a live concert. He was there. He knew how it had to sound. The production came out sounding like a live show. We were happy with it. It’s the way we wanted it to come out.
This album was recorded in four different states and mixed in another. How did you get this to sound live when you guys weren’t even playing in the same room?
Zak: Paul Hager. [laughter]
Jeff: it started with the drum sound. We did the drum tracks at Pyramid Sound in Ithaca, and in their heyday they did the early Testament and early Overkill stuff. It’s a great drum room, and we came out with a great drum sound. Then we went to Matt [Leff], who did his guitars [in Nashua, New Hampshire], but I think the foundation was a good acoustic drum sound. Paul made everything fit around that.
Parts of “Innocence” have a 3 over 2 feel that’s not easy to tackle when you’re not in the same room.
Jeff: For that song in particular I did my drum tracks in two days. There were a couple of songs I was going to try to nail in the following third day, including a song called “She’s Addiction”. Real fast double bass, and honestly I went into the studio and couldn’t nail it.
Zak: That was one of the more dated songs anyway. I didn’t know if I could bring it into the now. It’s probably better that we didn’t.
Jeff: Matt said to record the parts for “Innocence,” and that used to be a balls to the wall metal tune.
Zak: And that’s the one that we did acoustic. It’s very modern, and that was one of Paul Hager’s ideas, too. “Do it acoustic!” He comes up with these great, wild ideas.
Jeff: It turned out to be one of the favorite tunes on the CD for a lot of people, especially girls. Girls love that song.
Zak: This is a band that I can sing love ballads in. I can’t do that in Circle II Circle. This is the band that I can do stuff like “The Moment”. Girls love “The Moment”. I can sing about heartbreak and problems and losing a love. That stuff just doesn’t seem to come up with Circle II Circle. But I love the fact that we can do it with Machines Of Grace. I love the fact that we hardly had to change the music at all, yet it’s still very competitive. [to Jeff] When we get together to write a song, me, you and Matt we can write a damn good rock ‘n roll song.
Jeff: Going back to the original question, that’s why we wanted to redo this.
“Innocence” has the theme of regret tempered with acceptance of the past. Is there a specific event in either of your lives that that song is tied to?
Zak: It’s mostly me personally. Like “The Moment” – there are some things in life that are going to be challenging, but you don’t want to one day think that you never even tried it. Never even gave it a shot. I don’t ever want to live with the fact that I never tried to pursue a dream, something that I really felt was a personal dream of mine. That’s what “The Moment” is about. We were partying pretty hard back then. I was partying my ass off. You have lyrics [from "Bleed"] like: “I can’t face the morning/another night takes me into the light.” We had a great time. But maybe there’s a little regret about that. “Innocence” was totally redone. It goes back to our time in Boston. Unusual as they were, they’re times I will never forget.
Jeff: These were rewritten from the original lyrics. The original lyrics were different.
Zak: They were nothing like this. I had to redo everything. This is a completely different melody and words. The lyric, “I guess it’s just the way things work out” – it worked out that we got to do this record now. “And the solitary way I feel inside” was the fact that I was pretty much ending out my divorce at the same time I was finishing this record. That was the end of a 13-year marriage.
Doing this project now is kind of like going back to an old lover.
Zak: Exactly. We could go line by line, and I could bore you all night. There are so many things that go into these songs.
What about “Just A Game”?
Zak: “Just A Game” is about life in general. Playing the damn game. Jeff and I were talking earlier about how you want to say things or express your opinion about something you don’t agree with, but you know you have to play the game for a while in order to not come across like an asshole. When it gets into the part about life’s just a game, this is about the fact that sometimes people think that life is preordained and laid out for you. I decided I didn’t want to know about that. I don’t want to know about the girl reading the crystal ball telling me, “You’re going to make your 17th album and have a heart attack onstage.” I don’t want to know the future. I’m talking to the soothsayer here. Keep it to yourself. Things happen for a reason. I don’t want to feel the additional pressure of you giving me my future. If you tell me life’s a game, I’m a player. Just keep playing on.
What is the most personal song on this album?
Zak: Probably “The Moment” because it was really about me being scared that if I didn’t try to fulfill my dream and left it behind that I would feel so bad that I would be the most depressed ass that ever lived.
Jeff: It’s interesting how that song was written back then, and you can take the meaning and see how it pertains to something a little bit different now.
Zak: It could have even had to do with the fact we didn’t get a chance to do this album and never got the chance to come to New York to do these trips for press [back then], and that I didn’t try hard enough. That I feel like I let myself down. In that way and other ways, “The Moment” is the most personal song for me.
You guys are doing so many different projects, so artistically how does Machines of Grace fit in with everything else?
Zak: You have to give us time. It’s going to play out in time. I think to answer that question right now, we’d probably be guessing at best. The way things are rolling right now, if they keep rolling this way I think it’s going to be good.
Jeff: For me personally, from Savatage on I was always the drummer. With Machines Of Grace I was involved with the arrangements, working out the songs, going over the riffs with Matt and piecing things together. Zak and I did some of the lyrical work together. For me, this fills the void of being hands-on in the band. Metal Church, Savatage, Chris Caffery, any of that stuff I have input in, I’m not such a hands-on part of writing it.
The spectacle of TSO live. (Courtesy of www.trans-siberian.com.)
So as Zak is also a drummer, do you think we’ll see a Godsmack style drum-off between the two of you?
Zak [laughs]: We probably could.
Jeff: It’s hard enough to afford to get my kit to a gig, let alone his kit, too. Maybe he’ll have a little cocktail set he’ll pull out. But that’s a very good possibility.
Zak: We talked about it years ago. We talked about when we were playing in Boston. But we always decided that we didn’t have a set big enough to have two drum kits. In order to do that you almost have to have one of those big expensive sets when you’re touring around, and you’ve got to have enough room on stage to slide the other set on. For real, you need a rolling drum riser and a crew to pull it on. It needs to be completely miked up. It takes a lot of work.
Jeff [laughs]: I think a lot of things need to happen before we can even think about that.