You have jazz-fusion, New Age rock, progressive, and folk music and then you have Proud Peasant. A fully fledged ensemble of first-rate musicians, the Austin, Texas based band, led by guitarist / composer Xander Rapstine released Flight back in 2014 and after a series of ups and downs and assorted changes they released an eight-song 32 minute 2021 CD called Peasantsongs.
Mainly instrumental in scope, Peasantsongs as expected, continues onwards and upwards with Xander’s sequence of prog-rock and awe-inspiring symphonic rock magic that aptly displays U.K. prog influences like Gryphon, Mike Oldfield and King Crimson. In addition to the originals, Peasantsongs features assorted tracks that were previously available in limited formats as well as covers and unreleased tracks and serves as a stop-gap measure as they prepare their next full-length album, entitled Communion.
Assisting Xander on Peasantsongs are top players including fellow guitarist David Houghton on lead electric and classical guitar too. A trio of different drummers pound the skin for Xander and company and the album features a wide range of musicians on all sort of progressive symphonic rockattitudes. For example on track 6, “The Avatar” starts off as a neo-classical piece of music that escalates to an astounding crescendo that blends both instrumental progressive rock and heavy metal. Also the live instrumental classic by King Crimson, the almighty “Red” is resurrected and the result is quite pleasant and it’s a refined version of the KC original. The classics continue…
As expected, Xander Rapstine wrote most of the music on Peasantsongs while other tracks feature instrumental covers of prog legends such as Eloy, Manfred Mann’s Earth Band and, of course King Crimson’s 1974 instrumental classic “Red”, with the Proud Peasant version recorded live at VoyagerFest in 2015. With such a diverse assortment of original and cover classics, there’s hardly a note out of place. Recorded between 2015 and 2018, Peasantsongs is a fascinating assortment of progressive instrumental rock that will clearly suffice until the official release of the next Proud Peasant album Communion, coming soon to a CD player near you. www.proudpeasant.com
mwe3: Tell us something about how you like living in Austin, where you’re from originally, something about your name and place of birth. I thought Xander was short for Alexander.
Regarding my name, Xander is a nickname for Alexander. When I was a baby, my parents discovered Xander as an alternative to Alex, and I’ve gone by it ever since. Alex and Alexander aren’t names I really respond to.
Xander Rapstine: Well, that’s mostly a coincidence, I suppose. We intended to release the follow-up to our first album Flight, much sooner, but a lot of things happened. We were asked by the UK vinyl-only label Fruits de Mer to record a couple of covers for a 7” release called Cosmic Sound. That came out in 2016. Then, in 2018, I made a huge career change that slowed us down to the point that I actually put the band on hiatus. I also was going through some personal challenges, with my marriage falling apart and finally ending in 2020.
mwe3: Why do you call the album Peasantsongs? Is Peasantsongs the most eclectic album Proud Peasant has released? I read that you were planning a full length album called Communion but you released Peasantsongs as a kind of bridge with new stuff and rarities until Communion is ready. Is that correct?
Xander Rapstine: As we started to collect these non-album songs, like the tracks we recorded for Cosmic Sound, the B-sides for “The Avatar” single that was released around the time of Flight, and another cover track we recorded for a Fruits de Mer compilation, I had the idea that we should collect them all at some point in the future, and as sort of a not-so-subtle nod to the YES live album, Yessongs, the title of Peasantsongs popped into my head, and it just sort of never left.
After I started to get my personal life back together, I decided that I wanted to return to music, and although we had recorded a portion of the next album, Communion, I needed a way to reestablish our presence to our fans. This led to the idea of collecting the aforementioned songs, as well as a live track and an unreleased song, as a bridge to finishing Communion.
Xander Rapstine: Well first of all, thanks! I do feel like I am constantly listening to music from all periods and genres, but while I wouldn’t go as far to label myself a musicologist, I do think I love learning. And learning about music is really fun! Regarding the covers you mentioned, I came across the first 2 - Eloy and Manfred Mann’s Earth Band - back in the early 2000s as I was broadening my interest in progressive music.
Solar Fire was a huge influence on me personally, and the Earth Band’s guitarist, Mick Rogers is an influence on my guitar playing. When the head of Fruits de Mer asked if I had any ideas for songs to cover for a release, I immediately thought of “Daybreak” by Eloy. It was actually a single, and the second from the band with the same name that they released around the time of their second album, Inside. Because of that, it’s just sort of always been included with that album. I love that song so much, mainly because they managed to fit so many shifting moods in such a small amount of time, and it reminds me of spy music from an outer space thriller.
I also suggested an obscure song by the American band Pookah, but the label head wasn’t as enthusiastic. This led me back to Manfred Mann, and we ended up going with that cut.
Regarding Touch, I initially wasn’t that familiar with the band or their sole release. I had seen the name and the album came up. The head of Fruits de Mer was planning a 3-LP compilation and asked if we might consider covering something from them. I went and devoured the album about 3 times in a row, then came back with the suggestion of covering “Down At Circe’s Place”. He was overjoyed, and I only later learned that it was his favorite track on the album.
mwe3: Do you consider Proud Peasant to be a collective of like-minded musicians or a band, first and foremost a studio project. I ask because there are quite a few musicians playing with you on Peasantsongs. Is there a core lineup and have you performed live with Proud Peasant or is it mostly a studio project?
Xander Rapstine: This is a good question, and one that the answer to has changed over time. I suppose I still think of us as a band more than anything. I did from the beginning, but I’ve been forced to reassess this sentiment as time has gone on. As the other band members and I have gotten older, responsibilities arose that forced some of them to move on completely, while others had to adjust the amount they could focus on the band. Proud Peasant’s music has been more successful than I could have anticipated, but it’s still not viable financially, and it likely never will be. Because of this, the musicians who have come and gone have done so because they love the music.
We performed live from 2014 through 2017, and at that point we did have a fairly stable lineup that only changed occasionally as a member moved on. Now that we’re back to creating music again, we are primarily a studio project. But that may change if the right opportunities come along. We still have a somewhat stable lineup for the new music we’re recording, so never say never!
Xander Rapstine: I actually don’t have that many electric guitars. I own a Les Paul that is my default and a Warren Ellis tenor guitar that I use on a few songs on Communion. But I do own and play a number of other stringed instruments, as well as some keyboards from time to time.
While I do love my Les Paul, I’ve more recently fallen in love with the Telecaster and its ability to create raucous yet somehow quiet sounds, and that will likely be the next guitar I get.
Xander Rapstine: The original purpose of Basement Avatar Records was solely to release Proud Peasant’s music. As we were self-releasing the album, I did a lot of research and found that wholesalers and reviewers were much more likely to accept an album on a label, so I created my small business to launch the music, around the time we were recording Flight.
As time went on, there were other bands looking to release like-minded music in Austin and other parts of Texas. I will say that we’re not a true label that signs bands. We’re what I consider a “loan label.” If a band I like is looking to release something and they need a label name to help promote their music, I allow them to use the name. The hope is that it can be mutually beneficial. People who are interested in Proud Peasant might check out the other bands, and people who are fans of those bands might check out Proud Peasant!
The first band other than Proud Peasant to use the label name are my friends in the Austin band, Transit Method. They’ve been described as a grunge version of Rush, but that really doesn’t capture the intensity and ingenuity of their music. I also worked with my brother, Emil, on a couple of releases from his band, The Angelus, based out of Dallas. They are a sort of gothic post-rock, but just listening to them would likely give you a better idea than any adjectives I could come up with. I’ve also worked with Austin prog legends Thirteen Of Everything to release their long-awaited second album and a more recent progressive band out of Austin, Crocodile, who have released 2 amazing albums. Finally, Proud Peasant’s other guitarist, David Houghton, has a band called Silent Like Lightning. They’re a seamless mixture of progressive and post-rock, and he used the label for his band’s first release.
The name is inspired from my 2 brothers and I playing the Ultima series of video games on our old Apple IIE in our basement back home, where the main character is called the Avatar. I always felt like our parents really fostered our creativity in a supportive way, and a lot of the artistic discoveries I made were as a child in my basement, exploring music, books, comics, movies, video games, and art with my siblings. That’s where the label name came from.
Xander Rapstine: Thanks! I’m in my mid-40s now, but I really became interested in progressive music after hearing my older brother playing music like Rush and Pink Floyd. As a child, I was into the typical radio fare of the time, primarily pop and hip hop, but became a massive alt-rock fan in high school. In the background, however, my brother’s influence was starting to creep in, and Pink Floyd was really the band that broke down a lot of the conventional ideas I had about music. I also took violin lessons from the age of 4 until the end of high school, and while I never got very good at it, learning about classical music throughout the ages definitely had an effect on me.
Fast forward to college, and I suddenly had access to more music than I had ever known! I would go and check out music from the audio visual library at my university every weekend. I also had a friend in my dorm who was big into jazz, and that became the next thing I really explored. During my time in college, I was listening to such a wide variety of music, from death metal to free jazz, gamelan to outlaw country, polka to rap or chamber pop, and I generally found at least something I enjoyed from every genre.
This mixture of sounds kept moving me along from one new discovery to the next, and while I still love all types of music, there were a few styles that really started to overtake the others. Progressive rock has always just been my favorite, and I’m still discovering older and newer bands that enchant and mesmerize me.
mwe3: Tell us about King Crimson cover of “Red” on Peasantsongs. It’s from an interesting period of music history! Tell us about the two guitar sound on that cover and also something about the performance of the track at the VoyagerFest 2015? Who else played on that show?
Xander Rapstine: King Crimson is my favorite band. I own almost everything they’ve ever released, including EPs, compilations, and live albums. I had always wanted us to cover something by them, but as you likely know, their music is difficult!
VoyagerFest in 2015 was the product of a bunch of the local progressive musicians in Austin coming together to try and create something around our collective experience and goals. It included one of the bands I mentioned earlier, Transit Method, as well as a jazz fusion band, Circling Drones, and other Austin bands like Obnosticon and Opposite Day. Although the 2016 festival had more bands and better attendance, this first one was a great way to kick things off.
When we were asked to play the festival, I immediately thought that we needed to add something in to blow the attendees away, and I immediately thought of King Crimson. We only had a few weeks to prepare, and “Red” seemed like a riff-laden enough track to pull off, so we went with that.
The guitar sounds are from me and David Houghton, as we tried to split Fripp’s original parts between us - something that Fripp and Jakko seem to do in their current lineup anyway. I just remember it being a gritty and caustic cover set in the Texas heat that day. It was a lot of fun, and there were more than a few people who were shocked that we opened our set with it!
There’s no way that we could ever outdo Crimson, so we didn’t try to. We just tried to make it our own, and I’m especially fond of the vibraphone part that our keys and vibes player, Mark Poitras, added to the song. It’s really what sets it apart for me.
Xander Rapstine: Definitely a lot of overdubs on "The Avatar" - and most of our music. When composing that song as the first section of “Awakenings”, on Flight, I kept hearing this sound in my head that had elements of both a keyboard and a saxophone. I couldn’t really place it until one day I was actually at a bar where there was a lot of dub and reggae being played. I’m not sure who the artist was, but when the melodica sound came through, I immediately knew what the sound was that I wanted for that part.
As for the technique, I can tell you that I’m not much of a player. But anytime I take on a new instrument, I go and research the correct way to play it and maybe why it was used the way it was traditionally. I think it’s okay to break those rules, but for me, as it might not be my main instrument, I think it’s important for me to start with the rudiments. So I just try to do the instrument justice within the context I’m adding it into. I can tell you that the breath control aspect of it is quite challenging!
mwe3: Tell us about your upcoming Communion album with Proud Peasant. Was Peasantsongs a kind of bridge to the new album? Tell us about the material and direction you want to take on Communion as well as other plans for the end of 2021… and on to 2022.
Xander Rapstine: So yes, as I mentioned earlier, Peasantsongs is a bridge to Communion, but even more so a bridge to my return to actively making music.
Communion will have some of the elements of both Flight and Peasantsongs, but as I’m not one to make the same music over and over, it will have some new elements.
First of all, 4 of the 6 songs have vocals. Prior to playing in Proud Peasant, I primarily played in bands where I sang as well. It was never my intention for all of Proud Peasant’s music to be completely instrumental, but instead to tell a sort of story as part of a musical narrative.
Where the theme of Flight was squarely about establishing one’s identity, Communion is about the way that people communicate with one another. There is a third album in this sequence that I hope to record after Communion called Dreeing The Weird, which is about accepting mortality.
But back to Communion, the first song is called “An Embarrassment Of Riches”. It really sets the stage for the entire album, serving as somewhat of an overture. It and the next 4 songs on the album are all shorter than the songs on Flight, but longer than those on Peasantsongs, all clocking in between 5 and 7 minutes.
The second song is called “A Thousand Cuts”, and it features shred guitar, a saxophone solo, a drum and percussion breakdown, and a chamber music section.
The third song is “A Web Of Shadow”. In many ways, it’s our most conventional song, featuring a more standard song structure, although it begins with a mandolin string quartet played by me!
The fourth song is called “A Storm Of Swords”, and it’s the song that shows my Crimson influence most intentionally, but still offers up some strangeness drawing from other places, like Dave Brubeck’s “Blue Rondo a la Turk”.
The fifth song is “Shibboleth”, and it features some chamber pop akin to Jellyfish, The Hush Sound or The Cardigans, as well as a call and response keys and solo section.
The final song on the album is “The Fall”, and it’s an epic piece of music that’s around 20 minutes long. This one really covers all of the influences mentioned above, plus some surprises I’d rather keep under wraps until we release the album.
Some might say that this album will sound a bit more “modern” than the last 2, but I honestly don’t think that’s accurate. I believe that we’ve always tried to place modern sounds alongside classic ones, whether it’s the thrash section near the beginning of “Awakenings” cutting to the trombone pomp and orchestral arrangements of the successive sections, or the prog-metal of “Turbulence” following the chamber music of “Cencibel”. My hope is that once this album is out and people are able to listen to it alongside the others, listeners will hear the range of influence and style.
In any case, I’m extremely excited to bring this music out into the world! We’re about fifty percent done with the album, and we’ve got recording sessions scheduled through the beginning of 2022. I’m shooting for a late 2022 release, but as I’ve learned in the past, you never know what might happen…