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BEYOND AND BEFORE BIG SKY speaks with Steve Nardelli of the SYN

by Robert Silverstein

Leaving the pop music spotlight in London for the fashion business in the middle of the Carnaby Street heyday of the late ‘60s, singer-songwriter Steve Nardelli has really been making up for lost time since reactivating his mid 1960’s band The Syn. In 2004, nearly 40 years after the Syn began, Nardelli began recording with Peter Banks again and, in 2005 in yet another Syn lineup, with Chris Squire. Evoking visions of the first two Yes albums, the results can be fully appreciated on two groundbreaking Syn albums with both Chris Squire (Syndestructible, 2005) and Pete Banks (The Original SYN, 2004). For those familiar with the history of the Syn and how that whole scene somehow morphed into the original 1969 Yes, the circumstances behind the ‘04-'05 Syn reunions were quite sad. Original Syn keyboard genius Andrew Jackman passed away in 2003 leaving Steve Nardelli to finally strategize a well planned reimplementation of the Syn legacy for a whole generation of Yes fans who completely missed the early works of Nardelli, Squire and Banks in the ‘60s Syn. Nardelli followed Original Syn and Syndestructible with a DVD of the January ‘06 Syn U.S. tour and an underrated album of rock protest songs with several Dylan-esque Nardelli originals called Armistice Day. In the aftermath of the ‘04/’06 Syn reentry, Squire and Nardelli had an ill-timed break up, leaving fans to ponder if the original Syn will ever record again one day. Much to his credit, Nardelli has forged ahead these past few years. His Umbrello Records imprint, based in London and New York, has released several CD and video on demand releases by diverse artists, including a Bob Dylan tribute CD from U.K. songstress Julie Felix and a prog-rock CD by K2 featuring guitarist Allan Holdsworth. Nardelli’s latest and possibly greatest music with The Syn can now be heard on the April 2009 release Big Sky. Building upon the progressive ideals of his mid 2000’s reunions with both Banks and Squire, Big Sky allows Nardelli to fully realize his compositional and band leadership skills. One of the most underrated of the original ‘60s English rock poets and singers of the 1960’s, Nardelli has composed and created an engaging batch of new Syn songs for Big Sky, co-written with guitarist and Big Sky producer Francis Dunnery. Also taking part in the Big Sky sessions are the highly regarded former Yes keyboardist Tom Brislin, Echolyn guitarist Brett Kull, drummer Paul Ramsey, Theo Travis (sax) and Dorie Jackson (backing vocals). The first Syn album to feature the core lineup of Nardelli, Dunnery and Brislin, Big Sky is a unique, 21st century mod / prog rock album that’s just as inclined to draw on electronica, acoustica, World Beat, jazz and lyrical, Dylan-esque folk. Ten tracks clocking in at 54 minutes, Big Sky is a myriad of musical treasures on a big musical canvas. Tastefully complimenting Nardelli and Dunnery’s new songs on Big Sky, Brislin’s Wakeman style mellotron-etched flute keyboard sound is as stylish now as when he served as the keyboardist with Yes on their Symphonic tour of ‘01. Taking his place as the latest guitarist / producer in Syn history, Francis Dunnery makes a consistent presence with his tasteful back-up vocals and chiming electric guitars. If you enjoyed Syndestructible back in ‘05, then you’ll find a lot to admire on Big Sky. In the spirit of classic masters—from Dylan to Lennon—the Syn’s Big Sky takes it's place among the great albums of 21st century rock.

{The following interview with Steve Nardelli took place on the afternoon of March 15, 2009 in New York City - editor}

MWE3: Where does Big Sky find the Syn now in this decade?

SN: I think what’s interesting about Big Sky is that it's an album which is definitely very much of the 21st century. If you look at the musicians on it—the influences from different generations. From Tom Brislin, who’s a young 35 year old guy to Francis Dunnery, who’s like 45 and then to me and my generation from the ‘60s. That mix of influences has created, actually an album which is very much 21st century. And yet it has all the hallmarks of a Syn album. The kind of thing we were doing in the late 60’s, prior to the evolution of the band, when it became Yes. It’s still got that Syn element about it, which is almost Beatle-esque, I think in the construction of the songs and the way they develop. So I think it's quite interesting. It is definitely an evolution in terms of the band and it's certainly a new direction. But it's a new direction for the 21st century. We call it neo-prog or mod-prog but at the same time it's very much based in a Syn ethic in terms of the music, and the way it's constructed, and the arrangements. And I guess that comes a lot from my song writing which has been a consistent in the history of The Syn. So there’s always gonna be that element to it. But at the same time, as I say, different people have come in and added the different musicians with different influences they bring with them. It still ended up with this album, which is very Syn like. But it's not like Syndestructible though, interestingly.

MWE3: Francis said he wanted to build Big Sky around your voice as the primary instrument.

SN: He said that to me. He said, ‘These are great, fantastic songs.’ He thinks I’m one of the top three rock vocalists in the world. Fran is a big fan of mine, my voice yeah. And he said, ‘It's very important that people hear your voice ‘cause it's so good.’ He felt in Syndestructible it was too much about everything going on around. The voice was just an instrument on Syndestructible. He said that, ‘And yet, the most important thing on Syndestructible is your voice, if people listen to it. It was the best thing on Syndestructible.’ That was his opinion.

MWE3: It seems like you were going for that a little bit towards the end of the Syndestructible lineup with Chris. You were going for more of the song, rather than a prog-rock style.

SN: Well I’ve always been a song man anyway. So I believe in the song and the melody. Lyrics are also very important. So there’s that to it. Because Francis produced the album so there’s a lot of his influence on it, although it's multi layered. The songs sound simple but if you start to take them apart and see how they’re constructed, they’re actually very difficult and very complicated in their own way. Funnily enough. But there’s a simplicity to them as well, so they’re very easy to listen to. I think the album will appeal to a lot of different genre of music fans. Not just prog for the sake of being prog.

MWE3: How is Big Sky different from Syndestructible...

SN: Well, the songs are actually very similar to the songs I wrote for Syndestructible, interestingly enough. In terms of, that’s how I write. It’s more to do with what you do to a song. If I play you a song on the guitar with me that's singing it with guitar, that’s a basic song. What changes is the same as like what...we talked about Yes of course. If you listen to when Jon Anderson sang a song, it was Jon on guitar saying this is my song. It’s very simple. It’s what happens after that in terms of the way they arrange it, take off in different directions musically that changes the elements of the song. The reality is, the song writing is the same, so there’s no difference between the songs I wrote for Syndestructible...they’re different songs of course, but they’re songs that I wrote for Big Sky. Came from the same source.

MWE3: We’ve talked about that key Syndestructible lineup. It’s interesting that now you should work here in New York with Francis Dunnery. He says he’s a big fan of yours.

SN: Well he’s a big fan of mine, but I’m a big fan of his! I met him a few times, with Pete Banks. We were working on a potential project with him. I introduced Pete Banks to him on a project I was doing with Pete Banks. A separate project to the Syn. And that’s when I first met him. And then when we did the More Drama tour we
needed a guitarist and I brought Francis in. So if we’d have done the More Drama tour, which never happened, Francis was going to play with the Syn on that tour.

MWE3: That’s the tour that didn’t happen?

SN: That was the one with Steve Howe playing. And Alan White with his band, called White and the Syn and then the bands coming together. All the bands coming together to create basically a Drama lineup. A Yes Drama lineup. Steve Howe, Jeff Downes and Chris, Alan White. It was all mixing together.

MWE3: So that was supposed to happen before Syndestructible came out? I heard Syndestructible in October 2005.

SN: Yeah. The More Drama tour should have happened in August.

MWE3: It must have been interesting hooking up with Tom Brislin for the Big Sky sessions. I saw Tom play with Yes.

SN: The Symphonic Yes tour. He’s a great keyboard player. A phenomenal keyboard player. And when I was thinking about a keyboard player, he was the first guy I thought of. I went to see him play a couple times with his band, Spiraling, and then I invited him to join. I liked his Yes connection because it kept everything in the keep that connection. He’s done a great job on the album. So that really worked. Again, a bit like I met (Paul) Stacey, through his studio, I met Bret Kull through his studio. Getting to know Bret Kull, and he’s a fantastic guitarist and musician, based out in Philadelphia, he came on board with us on guitar. He plays with a band called Echolyn and he introduced his drummer to us, who joined us. Two great musicians. A guy called Paul Ramsey, an actually phenomenal drummer. It sort of organically grew into this fantastic group. Of course on backing vocals, rather than replace Chris with a copy if you like—one thing we don’t do is that, Syn have never been copyists—we went for a girl singer. Someone called Dorie Jackson, who’s the most beautiful, fantastic singer. And last October, Francis was touring the U.K. and I did some dates with him. And just me, Francis and Dorie acoustically on stage. Absolutely brilliant. It just worked fantastically well. So we invited Dorie up to Philadelphia last January to do backing vocals on the album and they’re absolutely perfect.

MWE3: So the live show for the Big Sky 2009 tour starting in April will have a full rock sound?

SN: We’ve got two guitarists, bass, Tom on keyboards. We’ve got Erica Brillhart playing on mellotron and additional keyboards. And then we’ve got Paul Ramsey on drums obviously and me. There’s seven of us on stage.

MWE3: So you’ll still be able to play a Syn rocker like “City Of Dreams” with the Big Sky band?

SN: Yeah, we’ll do it in our own way. It’ll be a different way ‘cause it’s different musicians. So we’ll do the songs in a different way. We haven’t decided which songs from Syndestructible to do. We’ll definitely do “Cathedral Of Love.”

MWE3: With new arrangements?

SN: Yeah...

MWE3: That song originally had a great arrangement. Paul Stacey is credited with being the producer of Syndestructible...

SN: He’s the main guy, with Gerard. Mainly the production was more to do with Stacey. He’s got a big talent, Stacey. He’s fantastic.

MWE3: Why did you call the new album Big Sky?

SN: I think really its about looking at the bigger picture and not get dragged down. It’s very much lyrically an album of today, when we’re faced with so many problems. Francis calls it the “Obama” album. (laughter) Because he’s saying this is a time of change now. And that’s about the bigger picture. No matter how bad things are now, how they appear to be, if you look at the bigger picture then we can make it better. A chance to get it right. There’s the track called “Big Sky” which says it all. Open your eyes to the big sky. Like looking down at the rubbish, the difficulties we face at the moment, which are massive for most people. Let’s do it again, but let’s do it right. Francis describes it as an album of hope, the hope that we can do it better.

MWE3: Back to comparing Syndestructible to Big Sky...

SN: That was definitely a 20th century album and this is a 21st century album. I think that’s the difference between the two albums. Both lyrically and the way it's musically constructed. I’m really proud of Syndestructible. I think it's a great album. We put a lot of ourselves into the album. But we’ve done the same here. Big Sky has taken a year to make. There’s a massive amount of effort going in to it.

MWE3: Are they all new songs?

SN: All new. I write lots of songs. All the time. When it comes down to actually having to construct songs specifically to record, I take bits and pieces of different songs and put them all together to create. Every day I do something. So I pull bits and pieces of different songs to create the bigger song.

MWE3: How do you balance your leading the Syn with your work with your Umbrello records business? Do they compliment each other?

SN: I try to get them to compliment each other. They need to do that. Otherwise its very difficult. I try to keep everything pretty tight within Umbrello. I’m trying to go for quality, not quantity. You have to concentrate hard out there. The industry is on it's knees, as you know. And really, Umbrello is a vehicle for the Syn but then I’ve brought other elements into it and they overlap with The Syn. A lot of what I do with The Syn, overlaps into other projects. I’ve even made a track with the fans. The 14 Hour Technicolor Dream was a forum.

MWE3: You recorded “Reasons And Rituals” with the 14 Hour Technicolor Dream band. Does that fit in with the Big Sky sound?

SN: It’s much more symphonic then I think what we’re doing on Big Sky. And I’m going to follow that theme, that’s called the 14 Hour Technicolor Dream. I’ve just finished writing what I describe as a prog-rock opera. And that’s something I’m going to do with the 14 Hour band. I’ll get The Syn involved with it but I’m going to make that a very big project after I finish Big Sky. That’s my next project. I’ve written it. It’s finished. It’s great. Full length. It’s big. It’s huge. Prog symphonic, that is, definitely.

MWE3: Does your work with The Syn take a different course from the work with Umbrello?

SN: The Syn does its own thing. It’s touring, so I’ll tour with The Syn. Meanwhile we have a lot of content coming out on Umbrello regularly now. We try to keep it very within one genre. Keep it nice and focused. We’ve got people like Allan Holdsworth on the label through K2. We’ve got John Paul Jones playing on the Julie Felix album. She’s like a U.K. Joan Baez, she’s a folk-singer. I had it mixed and mastered.

MWE3: Umbrello is also getting involved in video on demand.

SN: We’re already in that. On the video on demand, we put out the 14 Hour Technicolor Dream Band, the making of “Reasons And Rituals.” We filmed it. It’s only 21 minutes, the film and the track itself is about eight minutes. That went to number one in the charts. The film. On it is a performance of the song, in the studio. That’s included in the 21 minutes. It was very short and yet it was a number one seller. It beat the Rolling Stones, U2, Elvis Presley, 50 Cent. We were there for a week. And that was great. All the guys involved, because they were were fans of The Syn. They were good musicians though. They were good. Bret Kull did the production on that. The last thing I did was I brought them all together in the studio and did the last fixes, the last parts of it in the studio. And then Bret, we spent about five hours constructing the track. We put a lot of effort into it.

MWE3: Why did it take so long for you to return to the music world when the Syn finally reunited in 2004. I know you told me you never stopped writing, but no one knew about you...

SN: No one knew about. Well I wasn’t doing it. I’m just making up for lost time I guess now. And its all about timing really. I had that whole business thing going on, in other business’s for the last thirty years. And I am in business in different ways. I’m very into the building of eco housing. But that’s to do with saving the planet. The prog opera is all about that as well. And I’m actually doing a benefit with Chrissie Hynde, doing one of my songs. A song called “Prisoner Still.” It’s all about that. That’ll be in the U.K. later in the year. The Syn will be playing. Its being arranged now.

MWE3: The Original Syn album, the first reunion from 2004 was so great. I know Pete Banks got kind of disappointed afterwards about the business stuff. Here’s a guy who has such a great sound.

SN: He’s a great guitarist. He’s a unique guitarist. Got his own style. If you look at the history of Syn musicians, there’s a quality and a uniqueness about them. Chris Squire, going back to Andrew Jackman, our original drummer Gunnar Hakonarson. Phenomenal. And then the reformed band with Gerard Johnson, with Paul Stacey and his brother Jeremy on drums. Then Alan White comes in. Now it's Tom Brislin and Francis Dunnery and Bret Kull. The band has got a history. And it goes back to Pete Banks, he was the early guitarist for The Syn. The thing I feel about Pete Banks, his uniqueness is what makes him special. The thing about Pete Banks, when he plays, you know it's him. You recognize him. And that's a key to any great musician. Is to know them when they play. It's a trademark. Even with all those thousands of guitarists, when Pete Banks plays guitar, you know it’s Pete Banks.

MWE3: It’s kind of sad that Pete’s not playing with The Syn anymore, even with a cameo or an appearance.

SN: Actually, the three key guys from The Syn from the ‘60s, that are still alive now would be me, Chris Squire obviously, and Pete Banks. And I can see a time when we will come back together in some form. Either in the recording studio or in some way. I wouldn’t be surprised if that happened at some point.

MWE3: Getting back to The Original Syn album with Pete from ‘04, what made you want to record a new 3 part Syn version of the 1970 Yes classic “Time And A Word” with new parts?

SN: “Time And A Word”? Well that was Pete Banks’ idea. Pete wanted to do a song. You remember Pete Banks plays on the Yes album track. He plays on Time And A Word of course with Yes. So it’d be good if The Syn made that connection with Yes, that we’re so strongly connected to Yes that we do a Yes song. Like the Syn was the pre-curser to Yes, he comes back and does a Yes song. And it turned into an epic. (laughter) I wrote a middle segment for it, “Time In The Affairs Of Man.” So I put that in the middle and it fit very well. A different song, but I themed it into it. It’s great. We put a massive amount of work. It turned out really well, “Time And A Word,” I think. And the credit for that goes to Gerard Johnson. He put that track together. He’s the guy behind that track. And “Illusion” as well. “Illusion” is the other track, the opening track. Banks is all over it. I think it's the best thing Pete’s done for a long time as well.

MWE3: Do you still keep in touch with Pete?

SN: No unfortunately. I don’t know what it is, maybe its me. I seem to fall out with him. Maybe ‘cause I’m the singer (laughter) The singer always falls out with everyone. (laughter) There’s always something to resent. The problem is that you always have, when you talk about Umbrello. If you’re the guy who’s put them together, both financially and bringing the bands together, you end up having to wear two hats. You’ve got the record label hat, the business hat and then you’ve got the musicians hat. And musicians, they’re terrible complainers. There’s always someone to blame but its not them. (laughter) So its always someone else's fault. So anything that goes wrong, I was the target to blame. Bands always blame the record label. Because the record label didn’t do this, they didn’t market it. They’ll never say it didn’t sell because it wasn’t any bloody good.

MWE3: But the Original Syn album was such a good record.

SN: It did well though. It sold well. If you compare it to what record sales...see record sales are so poor these days anyway. Even the big sellers don’t sell like they used to. That’s what’s killing the music industry. And a band like Yes can’t even get a record deal. They can’t make a record ‘cause they can’t get a record deal. So what are they going to do? They can either do what I do. You can make your own label.

MWE3: Which they did anyway.

SN: And then they went bankrupt. They made Magnification and it went down the tubes. And the company went with it. And the problem is, it was their company, so unfortunately they weren’t able to blame the record label! (laughter) ‘Cause it was themselves. So it was a shocker. And they never recovered from that. And no record label will touch them. See, the problem is, to make an album, like Yes makes albums, the kind of costs they have...the record labels aren’t interested.

MWE3: Wasn’t making Syndestructible a big....

SN: Oh, we lost a fortune. We spent a lot of money on it. We put a lot into it. Spent a lot of money. I doubt we broke even. And we sold a lot of albums by today’s standards. It did well. It was a success for a prog-rock album. Sold better than anything Yes or anything Yes related in the last ten years, by far. In terms of sales. And whether they ever make another record or not... I doubt it. Because the modern technology doesn’t suit their way of Yes music. They need to go in the studio and do a symphonic thing. That’s what they do.

MWE3: One last thing on the Original Syn double CD. Did you end up taking back the rights to the early Syn singles, from the ‘60s, that were on the first CD?

SN: Yeah, I bought everything. I own everything. So I own that music now.

MWE3: You were talking about adding a new vocal to the early Syn favorite “The Very Regimental”...

SN: “The Very Victorious And Valiant Band”. When it was recorded, Andrew wanted me to do vocals and I just didn’t fancy it. I wasn’t doing that at the time. But in retrospect, (laughter) it’ll be kind of cute to do it now.

MWE3: It sounds like you.

SN: Yeah! Well it was my song I suppose...(sings) “Everybody’s sitting waiting for the show to begin, Everybody’s looking sad nobody wears a grin, because they...” I remember it. It’s funny, you don’t forget the lyrics.

MWE3: Do you remember recording those tracks?

SN: Oh yeah...

MWE3: There’s a real ‘60s vibe there but they still sound contemporary.

SN: Yeah, that’s cool. What did you think of “14 Hour Technicolor Dream”?

MWE3: Are you going to do that song on the new Syn tour?

SN: We do them all. Very ‘60s! Nothing changes. When you think that’s 50 years ago! (laughter) Well 40 years ago, yeah. Feels like 50 years. I wrote that song when I was 14. “Grounded” when I was 14. That’s first song I ever wrote.

MWE3: Did you have to do any tweaking in the studio on the original ‘60s Syn tracks?

SN: No. We had the original masters and that was it. They were recorded at Marquee studios. Where the Rolling Stones used to record. Again, Gerard Johnson put it all together with Martin Adelman, who was the original drummer. Who’s also a bit of a technophile.

MWE3: With the tapes and stuff.

SN: Yeah, we put it all together and created that. It was very interesting. Francis was listening to it the other day...

MWE3: Do you ever regret not recording more stuff with the Syn back in the '60s?

SN: Yeah, I do. Yeah, ‘cause we were a very good band.

MWE3: The Yes Album and Syndestructible are closer than you think.

SN: Oh, they’re close.

MWE3: Can’t wait for that Syn box set you were talking about to me.

SN: Yeah, there will definitely be a compilation.

MWE3: Like with “Reasons And Rituals”...

SN: All that stuff. It’ll all be on there.

MWE3: Maybe that remake of “Mr. White’s White Flying Machine.”

SN: I think we’re doing live, Francis wants us to do “Sunset Boulevard Lament.”

MWE3: I’ve got to catch up on some of the demo tracks after the unreleased studio tracks on the Original Syn...

SN: A few tracks on it were really rough...

MWE3: Like “I Can’t Explain.”

SN: That was The Selfs, that wasn’t like The Syn yet. That was The Selfs. But why we put that on there. It was Chris’ first ever recording. So that was the first time Chris was on tape. That was a band. I’m not on that that. That was this band called The Selfs.

MWE3: So the next project after Big Sky is the rock opera.

SN: I’m going to do the opera. I’d like to start working on a new Syn album as well. I’m just going to keep recording now. Keep making records.

MWE3: I think you should. Sounds like there’s some great music still left in you.

SN: Yeah that’s it. I’ve got a new album in my head for The Syn that I think would be fantastic. Again, another direction. Very Syn, but again taking it slightly in the other direction. That’s why I think I’m approaching The Syn a bit like The Beatles. And I think this new Syn album, Big Sky has parallels to the Beatles albums. Not that it sounds like the Beatles album but the way that it's constructed. White album era Beatles... or Abbey Road may be a better comparison...

Thanks to Steve Nardelli @ and many thanks to Richard Cervone
for his excellent photos of The Syn during a magical night of music @ Joe's Pub in NYC



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