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Saga’s prog-rock vision now ‘20/20’

Experiencing a resurgence of popularity with newest LP, ’20/20,’ singer Michael Sadler talked about all matters Saga, both past and present, in this interview.

Germany has taken its fair share of abuse from comedians for its deep and abiding love of the sonic artistry of David Hasselhoff. What people tend to forget is that, along with a thorough understanding and appreciation of the works of the giants of classical music, the country also was the first to throw its wholehearted support behind an upstart band from Canada called Saga that would engineer some of the most intriguing and dramatic progressive-rock anybody had heard since the heady days of 1973.

Heirs of a tradition that prized daring experimentation, unusual creativity and skillful musicianship as much as melody, Saga was formed in 1977 from the ashes of the Canadian rock outfit Fludd, taking Jim Crichton, Steve Negus and Peter Rochon to start with. A friend of Crichton’s, singer Michael Sadler, would also join up, and before long, Ian Crichton, Jim’s guitarist brother, came aboard. Rochon eventually departed, and Greg Chadd was shuffled in, until he was replaced by Jim “Daryl” Gilmour – rounding out the classic Saga lineup.

Sinewy, labyrinthine guitars, a solid and oftentimes melodic rhythmic underpinning, Sadler’s striking vocals and dreamy synthesizers all contributed to the Saga sound that caught on immediately in Germany and, of all places, Puerto Rico. In Germany alone, Saga sold more than 30,000 import copies of their debut album, while in Puerto Rico radio advertisements for a local stereo equipment store were buoyed by the single “Humble Stance,” which propelled Saga’s first LP to surprisingly strong sales there.

As for America, Saga had to wait until 1981 to make a dent in the States, as the gripping hooks and accelerated pace of the New Wave-tinged Worlds Apart – the band’s most commercially successful and critically acclaimed LP – and its driving singles “On the Loose,” now a staple of classic rock radio, and “Wind Him Up” practically hunted down a greater U.S. audience. Now, more than 20 years later and with Sadler back in the group after leaving in 2007, Saga – comprised of all the original members, except for new drummer Mike Thorne – is experiencing a resurgence of popularity, as anticipation for the upcoming release, 20/20, not so coincidently Saga’s 20th album, seems to grow hotter by the day.

Sadler recently talked about all matters Saga, both past and present, in this interview.

Why was it the right time for you to come back in 2011? What prompted the reunion?
Michael Sadler: When I left, although it was meant to be a permanent thing, I’m pretty sure if I search myself that I left the door open to perhaps one day, somewhere down the road, that I could return if it felt right. I don’t that there was anything specific. Jim Crichton and I kept in touch after I left and I kept tabs on what the guys were doing, because you can’t just walk away from something after 30 years and not have a vested interest in how it moves forward. I don’t know if I can nail it down to one specific time when we decided it was a good time [for it], but I do remember being on the phone with Jim in early January – I was speaking with him most of the time when I was gone and following the career of the band. I don’t know whether it was he or I … we were discussing how things were going for them and this and that, and one of us said jokingly, or I may have said, “You know what, maybe I should just come back and you can make a record with me and we’ll do sold-out halls again and be rich and famous again,” just for a laugh. And he went, ‘Yeah, ha, ha, ha.” And I think that kind of stayed with us, in our heads, and I think a week or two went by, and we talked again. And then I think maybe around the third call, Jim said, “Remember what you said a few weeks ago? I wonder … do you think maybe …” and one thing led to another, and we said, maybe it is the right time, and “Do you think it’s the right time?” We went back and forth.

I discussed it with my wife, obviously, because the initial reason for leaving … the decision to leave was a family one, to be with the family, to have a child of my own, and after 30 years – which is a nice round number – I thought it was time to get off the road and focus on that. I’d always wanted a child and I never wanted to be in a position where I was on the road when he or she took their first step or said their first words. I made it a point of waiting. I thought it was the time to do it. I discussed it with my wife, and I said to Jim, “Before we take this any further, before even thinking about it, run it by the other guys,” because if not everyone is onboard with the idea, then it makes no sense to do it. So once he’d run it by them, and I had discussed it with my wife, looking at the future … I mean, she turned around to me, and honestly, she looked at me and said, “You know what? Your son knows who you are and now he knows you’re a singer, and he knows you have to leave sometimes to do concerts, so you’ve got that bond in place.” He’s four and a half, or he was four at that time. And she just looked at me and she said, “It’s who you are. It’s what you do, and you’ve accomplished what you needed to do with your son, and if you feel the time is right with this band – not necessarily with Saga – it’s time you go back out and do what you do.” So, it was a green light across the board, with the both of us looking at the family side of things, and the guys saying, “Yeah, let’s do it,” I said, “Yep.” They had actually already started on the new album.

Oh, they had.
MS: You know, it was kind of weird, because … I mean, fortunately, Rob Moratti, had not really delved into it too far, as far as I know. I think he was working on preliminary melodies and one or two sketches of songs. When it was decided that I was coming back, and when we decided to make the announcement, I was basically handed pretty much a finished record, which was odd for me because I’d always been, since the beginning, a fairly integral part of the writing. For me to be handed music that I couldn’t touch was, “Oh, really …” (laughs) Every once in a while, I’d go, “Oh, I think that part should have been six bars instead of four,” or “maybe that should have been …” So, on one hand it was slightly frustrating; on the other, as a singer, being handed a blank slate like that and just being able to do whatever I wanted on top of it, it was very inspiring actually, because I was hearing the record like someone in the audience would hear it or one of the fans would hear it for the first time. So I was completely objective about it, because when you write something – and it takes a long time for the whole process and the recording of it and the arranging – you get a little bit too close. So hearing it fresh like that and singing it was great, because it was like I had the luxury – unlike most singers – of going in and in the headphones, it was pretty much a finished and almost mixed product. So to sing to it was very inspiring, and it worked out well.

Being away for a few years, did the time off give you a new perspective on songwriting or your role in the band? Did you want to address new themes in your writing?
MS: I don’t know consciously, but I would have to believe those four years, with the different things that I did, and just the fact that I suddenly had a child of my own, it had to have. I’m sure subliminally … I know I came back into the band with both guns blazing. There was a renewed energy in me, and the fun factor was way, way up there. Really, I was more than ready, but at the same time, a little apprehensive. I showed up for that first day of rehearsal not really knowing what to expect. Four years is a long time. You don’t know what people expect. Everyone’s going to change a little bit, but if you’re not changing along with the group, as it were, mindset-wise, then who knows? Have I grown apart? Am I seeing life differently … blah, blah, blah, that kind of thing. But I think what ended up happening was I brought all the positive things that ended up happening to me, subconsciously, into the band and within the first song, I felt like I had been away for two weeks. It just felt completely natural again, right from the get-go. So I knew at that moment that we’d all decided to do the right thing.

There’s a real weight to this new album that I really like, a real strength to everything from the keyboards to the guitars …
MS: You know what? Somebody called it “muscular” last week.

That’s a good word for it actually.
MS: I know what you mean. It does have some substance to it. I recognize that.

Was that your reaction to it when you first heard the record?
MS: I did, to a degree – yeah. My initial reaction was I listened to it … like I said I’m hearing it fresh, like any listener for the first time. And my overall impression was, I used the word “vintage,” but without referring to something old-fashioned. So it sounded like vintage Saga, but very fresh and very 2012. In other words, in terms of vintage, I was recognizing elements of the signature sound that got people excited in the first place, but juxtaposed into today’s framework, as it were, or mindset and approach to the way the record sounds. So, it sounded to me like the perfect blend. I thought, first of all, that the fans are going to be very happy and I do believe there is the possibility we could pick up a new fan base with this record. It just felt, like I said, substantial to me and I was very excited.

In many respects, 20/20 seems to be a classic Saga album in that there’s a real balance between the keyboards and guitars, with perhaps the guitars being more prominent than they’ve been in a while. Is there a sort of creative tension that exists between the two entities or has Saga always been able to get them to work together without too much divisiveness?
MS: Never, never. It’s always been the balance between the two, the good-natured wars between the two, but that’s built into the song. It’s like a “dueling banjos” kind of vibe but with keyboards and guitar. But, yeah, again, that goes back to the signature sound, the point being that we have always done that, and it’s not a matter of vying for position. What ends up happening is what is more suitable in that section of the song to put across the emotion that’s taking place in that particular moment. Is that better suited played by a keyboard or a guitar? Usually, it makes itself known pretty quickly in the writing process. It’s really not a conscious thing; the instrumentation makes up its own mind, as it were, what the song needs.

I know you came in a little late to the recording process this time, but what’s made the writing and recording process work for Saga in the past and have those same methods been utilized in the making of 20/20?
MS: As far as I know, from what I’ve been told by the guys when I asked them the same kind of question – because, obviously, I was curious – it appears to me it was pretty much the ideal situation that we like to have, the format being when you finish a tour or the downtime starts, in terms of when you start thinking about a new record, everyone does writing on their own. There are phases to the process, and everyone goes home and just writes whatever they want, as much as they possibly can, whatever inspires them – no parameters, no guidelines. It doesn’t matter. It can be slightly country in nature if that’s what you feel like. Whatever, you just come armed with all your ideas, bits and pieces, sections – not even full songs. Ian will show up with some great licks, and songs will be written around that – whatever. And we kind of review everything everybody’s been doing and find the most significant pieces that move everybody collectively. That’s the thing it’s always been, from Day 1, a democratic process in terms of what we decide to work on. It doesn’t matter who wrote it or who wrote that section, or whatever, because everybody’s going to contribute to the eventual song anyway. It’s just really a matter of all five have to like it and be inspired by it. We learned that a long time ago and live by that sentiment.

Say three people in the band really dig working on this particular song, and the other two are just playing it because they’ve been outnumbered. Those two are not going to give, first of all, their full creative input. Second of all, they probably won’t play it with as much passion when it comes time to record their part. So it’s much better all around for the sake of the song, for the sake of the band, and just the overall sound of the track that if everyone feels really strongly about it, that’s going to translate to the recording process. So, yeah, it’s just really a matter of a collective soul, to steal a phrase, but it really is that, and we put all the ideas on the table and it’s like a jigsaw puzzle putting parts together. And sometimes it’s a whole section, and you go, “Oh, you know what? That lick that Ian wrote, that one in E Flat for whatever, that could sit really nicely in that song.” So, yeah, and then we just take it from there, and we decide on which 10, 11 or 12 … depending on how many tracks are on the record. Then, the next process, obviously, is honing those 10 or 12 songs to the best possible recording level and off we go.

Was there a song on the record that was most challenging vocally?
MS: I consider them all a challenge, because I kept trying to do my style every time I opened my mouth (laughs). It is always challenging to me, fresh and whatever – a particular track? A couple of them are challenging in the sense of trying to achieve a certain thing I heard in my head, and it ended up being not as challenging as I thought. In the ballad, when the chorus hits, the choir-like voices that you hear …

“Lost for Words”?
MS: Yeah, “Lost for Words,” in the chorus, the choir there, I explained to the engineer what I was hearing in my head, and as we were doing it, we did a rough, and he listened to it, and he goes, “That’s giving me a 10cc ‘I’m Not in Love’ vibe.” And I said, “Really?” And I said, “That’s really weird, because as I was driving here, that’s what I was thinking I’d really like to achieve here,” that kind of airiness you heard in that song “I’m Not in Love” by 10cc, those voices you hear. I said, “I really wanted to get that kind of effect,” and he said, “Well, I think that’s what we’re building here.” But it was challenging to get it just right, without it sounding obvious like I stole it from that, or got the idea from there. I wanted it more to give that kind of feeling, you know what I mean? And apparently, it came across, because one journalist, unprompted, mentioned that, so I immediately said to the engineer, “Guess what? Remember ‘Lost for Words’ and that feeling? Someone picked up on it (laughs).” Someone knows where we stole that from (laughs). It was cool. But it was challenging in terms of achieving something you hear in your head is always a challenge, and when it works out, it’s great.

I want to get your feelings about a few of the songs on 20/20 and perhaps some description of how they came about, starting with “Six Feet Under.”
MS: Yeah, that was a fun song. I’m glad you picked that one. “Six Feet Under” was one of those tracks where even when I heard just the basic track with no vocals on it, it was screaming to be the first track, because you write the songs, you record the songs, and then you’ve got them all sitting there – almost the hardest part is getting the correct running order, because it’s so crucial. For example, there’s this rule that you don’t start a record with a ballad, unless it’s an album of all ballads. Then, you just pick the strongest one. But in a rock band setting, for my comeback album … yeah, let’s start with a ballad (laughs). That’ll go over well. But, yeah, it was one of those tracks, and then when I put the vocals on and I heard all the mixes, I tried about three or four different running orders, and each one of them started with “Six Feet Under.” Nothing else wanted to start the record, because to me, it was just that signature Saga – pounding bass, synth starting the song, and you put it on and you let the needle drop and you say, “Oh yeah. That’s Saga.” But, it’s funny. There’s some play on words in that song, and the title tends to make people … I guess their first impression is, “Ooooo, ‘Six Feet Under’ – that’s about being buried. This must be a really negative song.” But that couldn’t be further from the truth – it’s more like, “Six feet under? Not while I’m still breathing. Nothing’s going to hold me down” … that kind of thing. The whole record is … well, 80 percent of it is about that. It’s like, get over things and move on, move forward, be positive and reinforcing someone’s drive, and that kind of thing. There’s one line that says, “What a price to pay” or that’s what it sounds like. But actually, if you look at the lyrics, it’s “What a prize toupee.” I’m referring to someone laying on the couch, and they dress him all up and they put a nice toupee on him – little things like that are all throughout the record. Yeah, “Six Feet Under” was the undeniable opening track for sure.

How about “Anywhere You Wanna Go”?
MS: “Anywhere You Wanna Go,” with the chorus, again it wrote itself. It just wanted to be that … in fact, I was up in Canada, not here where I am now, but up at Jim’s house, actually going through the tracks with him. It was the first chance I had to do it with him sitting down before I’d done any vocals, and he had a couple of melody ideas in one or two of the songs that he wanted to pass along to me, and one of them was the approach to the chorus in “Anywhere You Wanna Go.” And from the get-go, it sounded right to me. We refined it a tiny bit, and actually, the chorus for “Anywhere You Wanna Go,” specifically the choir chorus, was recorded in Port Stanley, Ontario, in his house … or actually, I’m sorry, his brother’s house, just down the street. We recorded those big vocals there, and when I got to L.A. to do all of the vocals, essentially, we brought up those tracks – I mean, they were sitting there as a guide, so that I would know what parts I’d duplicated. When we brought up the tracks, we realized they were strong enough that those are the original tracks you hear. I may have added one voice on each … I think there are four voices on each of the parts, but I may have added one. I don’t know. I don’t rightly remember. I just remember bringing up the tracks and going, “You know what? That sounds strong enough to me. Let’s not touch it.” Like I said, that chorus was just bursting to get out; it just wanted to do that. If nothing’s wrong, don’t fix it.

I love the blend of heaviness and melody on “Spin It Again,” too.
MS: That takes some people by surprise, ‘cause they’re expecting [that heaviness] – especially when the verse hits, after the lick starts the song that way – but I think that’s a very quirky thing, again a signature thing that Saga does – when you least suspect something is going to happen. Yeah, we tend to do that. I like surprises, because we always have them.

How about “Till the Well Runs Dry”?
MS: That’s purely about drive – purely about passion and drive. And it can apply to … because I’ve been asked so many times – as one will, being in a band that has longevity such as Saga, going 30, 35 years – “How long are you going to keep doing this?” “Do you ever run out of ideas?” And essentially, the answer has always been the same. As long as it’s still, first of all, fun to do, as long as the creative juices are still flowing, as long as there is still something new to be done, as long as you’re still feeling creative, then forever. I’ll keep going onstage until it’s embarrassing, for example, for myself and the audience (laughs). And there will come a day, unless you don’t know when your cut-off is. Unfortunately, some entertainers don’t. It’s really about that, and I’ll keep going to the well till the well runs dry. I will never leave my sense of drive and passion, as long as there is still something to be had emotionally from what I do for a living. And I will keep going to the well and looking, and if one day I go there and I run out of ideas … if I attempt to write something and it sounds like it’s all been done before, then it’s time to go, “Okay.” I don’t foresee that actually ever happening. For me, I’ve always been in the creative arts, one way or the other. It will probably just translate to another genre or field in the entertainment business, but certainly, if songwriting dries up, then yeah, I’ll stop going to the well. I think that’s true of anybody who has that passion and drive. You keep going there and whatever it is that keeps you going, whatever strengths, whatever you need to get that strength to keep going or the passion or the drive to do it, if it’s not there anymore, then it’s time to move on or curl up and die or something.

Is “Ellery” a continuation of the story in “The Perfectionist”?
MS: It’s not really a continuation of the story, no. It’s unrelated to the story in “The Perfectionist.” It’s more a nod to Ellery and that song, and just using his name as a little “nudge, nudge, wink, wink” to the earlier fans. I mean, you could vaguely transfer it over, like, “How are you doing now? How did things work out?”… that kind of thing, but not specifically. It was left fairly vague.

What was it ultimately that made you want to be a singer and what was it that brought Saga together at the beginning?
MS: Well, Jim Crichton and I, when we formed the band, we had been in other bands, as well as another band together. I mean, personally, I had always sung. I went into a church choir when I was 8 years old, left the church choir when I was 15, as well as leaving school and home, and moved into a blues band, all of whom were a good eight or nine years older than me (laughs). This 16-year-old white kid from Oakville, Ontario, singing authentic Chicago blues – just imagine how much passion I was throwing into those tracks (laughs). I mean, I’d love to hear some recordings of that, but yeah, that was where it started. We actually progressed into kind of a more rock-y, and then rock-jazz fusion-y kind of thing. And then one day the drummer came back from the big city, came back from Toronto, and he had been to an actual record store – they still had vinyl; remember, this was the ‘70s – and came back with a record from a British band, it was an import, and it was called Three Friends by Gentle Giant. And I remember, I was home and he walked in, and he said, “Michael, I have to play something for you.”

And he put it on, and the first side went through, and I just looked at him, didn’t say a word. Then, he put on the other side, we listened to it, and then my first words were, “I don’t know what that is, but I want to play music like that.” It was my first exposure to, not just progressive-rock but also to probably one of the more ultimate progressive-rock bands on the planet. I thought, “What the …” and the funny thing is, we didn’t make the switch instantly, but it was a logical transition from what we were doing to that jazz-rock fusion thing. It lent itself to do it. And then I found out that the core of Gentle Giant was formed out of a band called Simon Dupree and the Big Sound, which was kind of a fusion-y thing. So, really, it was taking jazz fusion and adding more of a rock element to it, and it ended up being the Gentle Giant sound, if I try and dissect that.

Anyway, that pretty much put me on the road to the progressive thing, and then that band, we broke up. We did four different shows in our entire lifetime. That’s because our songs were 25 minutes long (laughs). Jim and I were in a band called Truck, which was pretty much a bar cover band, although our choice of material was Gentle Giant – anywhere from Steely Dan to Led Zeppelin to Gentle Giant. So it was a very eclectic bar band. That one broke up. I got out of the business for a year and a half – drove taxi, was a graphic artist, which just left a bad taste in my mouth because it had to do with management and being a sort of music purist, a prog snob, I hated the business side of the business and when that reared its ugly head, I ran. I said, “I don’t want to know about this.” He continued in another Toronto band called Fludd, which you may have heard of from the Toronto scene. They had two brothers – Ed Piling and Steve Piling. [Jim Crichton] was the bass player in that band in its last incarnation, and then the band broke up, and he called me one day and said, “I’ve written some songs, and I hate the sound of my own voice. Would you mind coming over with your wife? And we’ll have dinner and go into the living room and you can put your voice onto these songs for me.” I said, “Sure.” I was doing the graphic arts thing at the time and drove over, with the wife, and we had dinner, and then we left the dining room and went out into the living room, sang on a couple of songs, and I thought, “Well, that was a lot of fun …” blah, blah, blah, went home, couldn’t get it out of my head the next day during work, and halfway through the afternoon, I was going, “Yeah, I don’t know.” And I came home, and I was wearing a three-piece suit, and I said, “Who are you?” And I was thinking about the night before, and I said, “Who is this person?” And I’m looking and saying, “This is not me.” And I quit the job and I called Jim, and I said, “You want to go ahead with this, because if you do, I’m in.” He said, “C’mon down.”

So, from that, I started writing the next day, and we were using literally cardboard boxes to create the drum tracks on a reel-to-reel machine, to make sure we had drum parts. There was no such thing as polyphonic synthesizers at that time. There was only the mini-Moog. So, to create chords, pad chords, we would record one note on the mini-Moog at a time, and then figure out the chords, so we’d do the C, and then the E and then the G, and then you’d get a C Major, but we had to do it on separate tracks and then balance it all together so we’d have chords. So it took quite a long time to get the chords (laughs), but yeah, that’s where it all began. We took it from there and never looked back. We just said, I think it was unspoken at that point, but we were just going to do what made us happy for of all to play and try never to sound like anybody else, if at all possible. In fact, still to this day, if we doing any writing, we look at each other and someone says, “Oh, that reminds me of such and such,” we’ll go, “Fine, trash that part,” because we go out of our way not to try and sound like anybody else. I know that it’s going to come through every once in a while, because you cannot help but be strongly influenced by somebody and it’s going to come up. But that’s all part of your sound.

There’s a great story about Rupert Hine making you crawl up on the barn where Worlds Apart was being recorded to inspire you to sing a certain way for “On the Loose.” Talk about what led up to that and what you remember about being up there and singing.
MS: Oh, I’ll tell you a number of things Rupert did (laughs). He was so eccentric in terms of … I don’t know if you’ve ever heard his solo records, but my gosh, it’s pretty much whatever it takes to get what he’s hearing in his head. There were two stories regarding the vocals: one was “On the Loose,” and the studio itself, Farmyard Studios, the old barn is the live room, with the beams and it’s great for drum sounds obviously, and any ambient sounds, it’s fantastic. But, it had the beams and the roof and he wanted a sense of angst in that song, which you can put on like an actor does, when they play a role or whatever – “Sing this with angst.” Fine. But, you know what? To really get it right I want to put you in a precarious position, so he had me balanced on one of the beams, and they rigged the microphone up there, and you can see the picture on the inside of the vinyl sleeve – me in my beard and hanging onto a beam and singing “On the Loose” from up there.

The other thing he did on the complete reverse of that was in the middle of “Wind Him Up,” when the song breaks down and it gets very, very quiet, and there’s some very quiet singing, signing the chorus in a very low key. It just knocks it down, but it’s sung in very low-key in terms of delivery, he wanted a very intimate, “just woke up,” smoky … whatever kind of voice, not even thinking about it either – almost like humming to yourself but you’re singing the words. He wanted to get that effect across, so we did a few, and it was getting near the end of the day, and we tried a few, and then he said, “Okay, that’ll do for today. We’ll review it in the morning.” So, I went to bed, and the living quarters were across from the driveway – I guess they were the old stables, for the horses – but across the driveway, I’d say a good 50, 60 yards from the main building. And in the morning, I heard this slight tapping on the door, the kind where you’re not even sure someone is there or not. I didn’t say anything, and the door creaked open a tiny bit and in came the tape operator with a mic stand and boom. And he just looked at me and said, “Don’t move.” And down came the microphone to my face, head still on the pillow, he put the headphones on my head, closed the door, and immediately upon the door closing, I heard, “Good morning, Michael.” So, I tried coming up and he said, “Just sing when you know where you are. Here we go.” And I went, “Uh.” So it was like an eight-bar lead up, and then the tape op came in and I sang it, and then [Rupert] said, “Thanks very much. See you in a minute.” And I went, “Uh, huh.” And then the tape op came back in, took the headphones off, took the microphone away, closed the door, and I went, “What just happened?” Put my housecoat on, walked across to the studio, and there was Steve [Tayler], the engineer, and Rupert, and he said, “Morning, Michael. Listen to this.” And he played it back, and I said, “Oh my God, that’s exactly what you wanted, isn’t it?” And he said, “Yep.” And of course, preparing for it is not the same. That’s why they said absolutely nothing to me. That’s exactly what they wanted, and that’s exactly what they got. In fact, it was one take.

It’s like you needed a stunt man for that album.
MS: (laughs) Among other things, yeah.

Was there a moment during the making of Worlds Apart where it became apparent that you were working on something special?
MS: You know what? It did have a vibe to it. I think what sealed the deal in terms of what you’re talking about is, we were sitting around working on … well, let’s put it this way: “On the Loose” was finished, except for the chorus … everything. The verses were sung, and I was still not quite happy with what I saying in the chorus. The melody was set in stone. I still wasn’t quite happy with it. So, we were actually sitting around in the lounge area and just kind of bouncing around ideas, just throwing these phrases out. And I remember the manager, at that moment … it was one of those things where he is not strictly a musical person, in terms of knowing how to play or understanding what it takes to play or anything like that. He’s not like that. He’s just one of these people, like most of the people on the planet, who just knows what he likes, knows what he likes coming out of the speakers, and it’s a pretty good gauge of what other people like. And he’s looking at it that way. And I remember he turned to us, he knew we were working on “On the Loose,” trying to get it right, and he said …and he, in fact, looked at us and said, “You know gentlemen, I know …” – he didn’t say, “I think”; he said, “I know” – “… if you get the chorus for this right, you’re going to have a hit.” And he said the whole record is starting to lean this way. “I know if you get the chorus right, this will be it.”

And he was right. We weren’t thinking, during the process of making the record that, “Oh my God, we’re working on a hit record here.” But by the same token, in retrospect, when I think back there was a definite vibe around that studio. There was some fairy dust flying around that … there was something intangible that was being attached to this record as we were making it that you can’t describe, that you can’t plan, that you can’t manufacture. There are millions of records like that … well, not millions. But there are lots of hit records through history like that that were not … a person or persons, or a band, didn’t set out to make a hit record, but it just clicked. And those are classic records. And each one of those people will probably tell you that something was going on in the studio that was beyond their control. It became an entity of itself. It takes on a life of its own, and everything you’re doing is feeding it, and you’re doing it naturally. It’s undeniable. So, yes, there was a degree of that going on, but do you think you’re working on a hit record? No, because it’s almost like you don’t want to … it’s almost as if that word were mentioned it would take away the magic. Then it becomes a thing, where “Oh, yeah, we’re working on a hit.” No, you’re just being taken in and then going along for the ride with this thing. You have no control over it anymore.

How do you remember hearing that your debut album had really taken off in Puerto Rico?
MS: Here’s the thing … well, Germany was the first. We released the debut album, and you know what it’s like: you put out a record, you cross your fingers, and you hope somebody likes it. In fact, I remember going into Sam the Record Man on Yonge Street in Toronto. I just wanted to see it in the bin. I knew for sure that it wouldn’t have its own section yet, because it was only one record, so it was going to be in the miscellaneous “S.” I went in there to have a look at it, just to see it sitting there and be really proud. Some guy came in, walked straight past me and walked up to the S’s, found it, walked to the desk, and I watched him put down his money and walk out the door with the record, and I was like, “Wow! It works!” (laughs)

But, we were in a meeting or something and we were being told that it was beginning to sell a “significant” – that’s the word that was used – number of import copies in Germany – specifically, Germany. And we thought, “Wow!” I know that seemed very, very exotic to us – a different country, somewhere in Europe … I knew a little bit about Germany, but not a lot. And we’re like, “Wow, cool.” You know, you go where your market is. You don’t try to understand it until maybe you get there, and then you try to figure it out, and you go where the market is. You find that it’s not happening at home first, but hey, you go. At the same time, very close to us starting to cultivate over there and starting to think about physically going over there and making an appearance, we found out the same thing was happening in Puerto Rico. And, okay. The same reaction – “Whoa, that’s really exotic, too.” And then we go, “Wait a minute. Wait a minute. Why …?” Over the years, we’ve been asked many times why those two countries? What could those two cultures possibly have in common? And still for the life of me, I don’t really completely understand it. My best theory is I guess the orchestral side of the band and the use of strings, the chord changes, and the orchestral feelings of some of the tracks appeal somehow to the rich history of classical music that is just completely inbred in people, that you’re surrounded by in Europe, especially in Germany. Perhaps, that takes care of that element of the story, that’s what makes it that appealing. And because Saga is not your typical ethereal prog band – in fact, sometimes I don’t even consider us prog, per se, in the purest sense; we’re far too rock-y for some peoples’ tastes in the prog world – maybe the rhythmic side of the band is what appeals in Puerto Rico.

I remember the first time going down there, we went down there to do a concert – that was already a shocker, that we were selling enough records to do a concert on a tiny island in the Caribbean – and I remember sitting around on the beach with one of the guys from the crew, and we’re just sitting there, minding our own business. I’m trying to take it all in and makes sense of the whole thing in this Caribbean climate. And I start hearing some familiar music happening and it’s starting to sound more and more familiar. I’m trying to figure out where it’s coming from. And this young Puerto Rican, probably 16 or 17 years old, has a huge ghetto blaster on his shoulder, and he’s getting closer and closer, just bopping down the beach, and it’s “Humble Stance” from the first album. And I’m like, “What’s wrong with this picture?” It was the most confusing image (laughs), but his head is bobbing, and I’m going, “Oh, okay. It does have quite a bounce to it.” I’m not going to say it’s because of the rhythm, but you’ve got to understand, imagine you’re being told that you’re selling a lot of records in Germany and in a Caribbean island, basically a holiday vacation spot … “Okay.” That’s my best guess, but culturally, they have nothing to do with each other at all.

What album in the Saga catalog do you think deserves more attention than it’s received and why?
MS: Well, obviously, everybody talks about Worlds Apart. In North America and in the U.S., specifically, it was big, the biggest seller in terms of profile and presence of the band. My personal favorite is an album called Behavior that we did in Munich and Switzerland, half and half. For me, it’s just one of those records … now this is a personal thing. It has to do I think with how I was feeling at the time, what was happening in my life, the sound of the record, and the vocal performance, the nature of the songs – that’s just one of those records for me that … it did fairly well, but I think it deserves a second look. The funny thing about Behavior is, I went on Amazon.ca, just to have a quick look to see what was happening with 20/20, which was hovering very nicely between Nos. 1 and 3 a couple of weeks ago, which is a very positive sign. Anyway, I went to the music selection of Amazon in Canada and found, in the progressive-metal category of AllMusic, that Behavior was No. 2. I thought, “You know what? Something is going on here,” and it was confirming a kind of groundswell that is happening for the band right now, and the nice thing about it was the strength of 20/20.

It is reminding a lot of people that we still exist … you know what? Americans are completely forgiven for thinking that we had broken up a long time ago, and rightly so. Why would they think otherwise? Thank God for the Internet. Thank God for anything that can explain that (laughs) and the strength of the new record. It’s reminding people like that that we’re still around and [it’s] directing people to older material, stuff that they may not be familiar with. And anyone picking up Saga for the first time because of 20/20 now has this wealth of older material to play catch-up on. And they’re finding, “Wow! This is great. I didn’t know about this.” Blah, blah, blah … so, it’s great. It’s really, really great. I actually think Behavior is a very, very, very, very strong record.

Now that you’re back in Saga, where do you see the band going?
MS: Oh, you know, I don’t look too far ahead. More than something that’s there right now, this record, I mentioned there’s a groundswell and momentum for the record that we’re still feeling that is fresh. Unless something drastic happens, I don’t see this new energy and newfound … I don’t want to say new life in the band. It’s just perhaps my return and the strength of the new record has sparked something that’s been quiet for a while. But, I don’t know. I don’t foresee any stoppage in the near future. I see one … at least one, two records of this nature and of this caliber. I know that it’s in us. Live, I’m having way too much fun to slow down anymore. I’m having more fun now than I did in my twenties. And I’m looking at a calendar now going, “Okay, I just turned 58. Okay.” I think there’s at least a decade in this band before it starts to become embarrassing from a live point of view (laughs).

 

Formerly the editor of Goldmine magazine, prior to the reign of one Patrick Prince, Peter Lindblad has been a music journalist for the last 10 years. His work has also appeared in Elmore magazine and Lostatsea.net, among other publications. He believes heavy metal has the power to cure the sick and make the blind see.