The latest album from Scottish proggers COMEDY OF ERRORS, Spirit, has been rightly praised in many quarters as their deepest and most thought provoking work yet. Issue 212 of Rock Society featured an interview with frontman Joe Cairney, which touched on the album, but for those who would like to delve a little deeper the band have released the following Q&A with the band’s keyboard player Jim Johnston, the man behind the intensely personal subject matter of the record… read on…
It seems that Spirit has been a subject you have been struggling with for quite some time. When did you come to the conclusion and found the clear view that the subject would mostly fit to the benefit in the way you have created and recorded the album?
Jim—I have always written from an emotional perspective. Nothing could possibly have affected me more than the subject matter.I knew from the outset that the scale was going to be massive – over a full album in fact. I had an idea of the shape and the arrow of direction as well as thematic material and lyrical ideas. It involved a lot of hard work to refine these ideas in such a way they would interconnect. A 45 minute continuous piece needs to be unified from start to finish. The concept was already there and the lyrics would simply come from the heart. However the music had to have a strong sense of direction and unity from start to finish.
And was it from the start the intention to write the music from a more classical approach than from a modern pop rock prospective?
When I get the time to listen to music it IS usually classical – which I have had a love for since childhood. I was determined NOT to write a concept album that consisted of various unrelated songs joined together just to extend the length. This is indeed a concept album but I wanted to create something where the musical themes and motifs would relate and develop, and appear in different forms as the piece progresses. Everything relates to everything else in this piece and I tried to make every note relevant. This would help to create musical unity in such a long single piece. As many classical symphonies are constructed along such a pattern I suppose it was inevitable that I would do the same. I probably would have called it a symphony if I did not think that may have sounded a bit pretentious to modern ears ! My only regret is the fact that we had to split the 45min part 1 into 10 separate tracks–an iTunes necessity, even though each track flows seamlessly from one to the other. My preference though would be to forget the song titles and have everyone listen to it start to finish. It is only then I think the listener can get a sense of the whole journey musically, lyrically and emotionally. This demands an investment of time and concentration from the listener and depending what you want to take from music, I think some listeners who are unprepared to do this may not get out of it what they could. It is also emotionally very demanding but I hope that the uplifting second half of the main piece may give consolation for those experiencing loss or life changing events. Personally I think it’s the most ambitious and best album we’ve ever done but it may be only later that it is accepted as such.
Where did you find the inspiration to write and compose Spirit?
I have been reluctant to elaborate on this because it is such a private matter, but I think it’s obvious to anyone listening that it came from the death of a very close family member. I suppose I tried to express the shock, the anger, the grief and the loss; but also to express the hope against hope of some sort of inexplicable meaning to all this hence the album flowing from darkness to light. I also wanted to express the beauty of the spirit of the person involved despite the pain.
Was it hard, with the load of the subject, to first write and later to record the album?
It was hard to write but, as I always had in the back of my mind a vague idea of how it should be, then I made consistent progress towards what I ultimately wanted. Recording was only difficult technically. Ideally I would have loved to have recorded it live with a top European orchestra and choir! Comedy Of Errors don’t have that many euros though !
Through the lyrics you read/hear about an unexpected loss, and a search for the reason why God takes without ever explaining why. Did it waver your faith?
I am not religious in a conventional way, but I when I hear transcendent music I am convinced against all reason that there may be something beyond our corporal existence. The pain of loss is so great that I cannot allow myself to think otherwise. I know all this is scientifically irrational but I can’t help myself. I hope one day it will be revealed that there is a reason for the apparent randomness of life’s events. When bereavement happens it is natural there is anger and ‘God’ for want of a better word can be an easy target. If I have faith it is one which comes and goes and I have as much doubt as faith. None of us know for sure, but we have hope. The alternative is too painful.
Do you consider the return of Mark Spalding to the band as a gift for this album?
Mark’s guitar playing is a gift for any album. He hit a situation at one point where he felt he hadn’t enough time to give the album the focus he felt it deserved. We waited though until he became available again and now we have the luxury of two great guitarists in Mark and Sam.
There are some nice duo guitar solos on the album. Were those already written or later added to the album, after Mark returned?
A lot of the guitar lines were penciled in but just as guides. Some of these ideas we used and built on and some were left blank for the soloists. We didn’t start recording guitar until Mark was back.
On the albums Disobey and Fanfare & Fantasy you already experiment in the instrumentals with the classical approach of writing music. Can these instrumentals be considered as ‘finger exercise’ for Spirit?
No. However the songwriting I would say has become progressively more sophisticated…. I hope. Inevitably time and experience should improve the quality of music. The classical touches and references I suppose reflect my influences. However that is something from which all writers can learn…especially in form and developing thematic material.