Inside the creative world of Antoine Fafard

(Raffaella Mezzanzanica)

When we think about music, the first thing we do is to associate it to “emotions”. Music is something that moves us, music is something that helps us to overcome obstacles and difficult moments and music also gives us joy and happiness.

And when we think about the “creative process” behind a song, an opera or any composition or art form, we tend to consider the “emotional process” of the artist who created that piece of music or that piece of art.

Yes, that’s the way it is…an “emotional process”. However, music is much more than this.

Have you ever thought about music from a different perspective? Have you ever thought about music as a “state of mind”, or as the result of “time management”, “self-imposed discipline” and “self-imposed objectives”?

Maybe you haven’t or maybe you have but then you thought that the level of complexity was too much to bear and that it was easier to stick to the “emotional process” behind the songs.

It’s time to change your perspective and attitude towards music. There are artists out there who compose their music in a very complex way but the outcome of this mix of emotions and regimented life is absolutely beautiful.

“Emotions” are only the starting point of a much more well-structured creative process.

Antoine Fafard, composer, bass player and guitar player is among these artists. In his career spanning over twenty years, he has always worked on more than one project at the same time, composing beautiful music while collaborating with incredible artists.

Those projects would have never seen the light if Antoine had not followed a strict process.

In our Skype video call, I asked Antoine Fafard to explain his creative process and the reason why he has been using this kind of approach while composing. We also talked about the meaning of “progressive music” today and, of course, about “Chemical Reactions”, his joint project with Gavin Harrison, which will be released on December 11, 2020.

Q.: The release day for “Chemical Reactions” is more or less one week from today. Are you excited about this? How do you usually feel when you have a new album coming out? Are you curious to find out how people will react?

A.F.: There is a two month process or period before the album comes out. The way I run my little, independent business is that next week is the official release but I start to talk about the album and make it available as “pre-order” two months before the release. That way, for an independent artist like myself, I can finance the project better and I have a direct relationship with the fans, on a “one on one” basis. I have my website, so that people can order the album through it and also receive it way before the release date. So, that period of time is a mixture of excitement but very busy as well because, to give you an idea, you know, I’m a small artist compared to big names out there, so I look after everything: marketing, distribution, running the website and that’s on top of composing the music, arranging it, recording it. It’s a very busy period, so there’s no time to sit back, relax and enjoy. You’re busy, busy. Now, at this point, when the album will be released, I can relax a little bit more because the first two months, or even more than that, that period was so busy. I can relax and I can listen to the comments, the reviews and everything. I’m still busy because, for instance, I ran out of CDs now, so I’m producing another batch, and I’m sending it to the distributors. And, yeah, I’m always a few projects ahead. That means now I’m working on the next albums.

(Me: Just to let you know, here in Italy, if I go on Amazon Italy it’s not possible to order your album right now. It’s not available at the moment and it’s probably because of what you’ve just told me)

A.F: Well, the product should be on Amazon Italy. It’s sold out and that means that my distributor has difficulties to supply the demand. In fact, I need to produce more CDs because I ran out, so I need to make more! (Laughs)

(Me: Well, this is good!)

A.F. It’s good. It’s a good problem to have.

Q.: You are always working on different projects at the same time. When did you start working on “Chemical Reactions”?

A.F.: This project started in 2015, actually five years ago. I started to write scores (I do have a copy here), actual scores for a full orchestra. It was my dream. I wanted to hire an orchestra. I went to the Czech Republic in 2016 and I hired an orchestra for a session. I came back home and contacted Gavin (Harrison) to see if he was interested in playing on this project and he accepted. We recorded that music and then we parted the project completely because we had other things going on. So, after that I released an album with Gary Husband, I released an album with Simon Phillips and then Todd Sucherman. You know, I like to work with good, great drummers. And when the album with Todd Sucherman came out I thought: “What am I gonna do with that project with the orchestra? It’s there on a shelf”. So, I came back to it but then I started to work with the string quartet and different kind of hybrid orchestration. I took a break of a few years and then I went back to it a year ago from now and that’s how long it took to finally come out. It’s like that for a lot of my projects. I have multiple projects going on at the same time.

(Me: And all very complex, let me tell you)

A.F.: Yes, complex in many ways. The music can be complex, the logistics, it’s all challenging.

(Me: Especially at times like these with Covid and the lockdown)

A.F.: Well, to be frank the Covid situation almost helped me because Gavin is always on the road. He always plays in concerts maybe 200 dates a year or something? And he was stuck at home like everybody else. So, it almost helped because he said: “I’m home” And I said: “Fantastic. I’ll send you some music now”. (Laughs). Because I’m not a touring artist. I always compose and record. For me, the pandemic hasn’t changed my life that much.

Q.: When you start thinking about “Chemical Reactions” you thought about it as music to be played along with an orchestra and a string quartet since the very beginning?

A.F.: The idea behind a project like this is, first of all everything is played by real musicians. This means there’s no sampling, there’s no electronics, I mean nothing midi, nothing. So, I wanted to have real musicians to play: real violinists, real orchestra, obviously real bass and drums. So, nothing programmed. That was the first rule. The second was that we wanted to do a “hybrid”, so something like the drums and electric bass on one side and then we wanted to have unusual instruments that you don’t often see in prog, fusion. So, yeah: string quartet, vibraphone, marimba and, of course, the full orchestra. So, these were the two rules that we had. And now, we’re working on the next one and we are applying the same. So, we want to have unusual instruments like percussions that you don’t hear often, maybe oboes I don’t know. We are really open to anything that is “unusual”.

Q.: Would you tell me more about the orchestra and the string quartet you chose to perform with on the album?

A.F.: The orchestra is the Janáček Philharmonic Orchestra based in small town called Ostrava in the Czech Republic. And the reason why I went there is simply because it’s affordable. I’m not gonna lie about it. Recording with an orchestra is very costly and I spent three hours with them with breaks. So, I had to be very prepared, I had to have all the parts well written. I went there and the conductor arranged the session. Interestingly, he is an American guy who lives in Austria who doesn’t speak Czech but was conducting Czech musicians who didn’t speak English. (Laughs) And the interpreter was the sound engineer who is also a musician He is Czech and could also speak English and he was talking to the orchestra. So, the communication was very interesting.

As far as the string quartet, that was done differently. One violinist called Maria Grig recorded the two violins and viola parts herself separately and another cellist recorded his part in Switzerland. So that was recorded individually and it was blended together in the mix.

The work I do is done that way generally out of necessity, because there are not a lot of opportunities to have all the musicians in one room, especially not now. The good thing about it is that you can have a better control of the quality of the outcome of the music itself.

Q.: I know that you and Gavin Harrison have been friends for a long time but you have also worked with other amazing drummers during your career. Why did you think that Gavin was the perfect match for this specific project?

A.F.: Well, the way I work with my music is that I don’t force things. I approach musicians and I tell them about my ideas and if I see that they respond well to it, the project happens. So, I never impose anything on anyone. I want to have a good chemistry between musicians. I discovered Gavin a few years ago and I’ve sent him music over the years. You have the understand the compatibility, the musical compatibility between musicians. And then, when I discussed about the idea of orchestra and strings, he was really interested in that. I realized he was interested in that sound. I was also interested in that sort of mix and I wanted to work with him in something that we both would feel very comfortable and that would serve both of us on a musical level. Yes, it’s to find the right compatibility. The musical compatibility is the key here.

Q.: Let me talk about that “marimba” thing. What happened when you asked Gavin if he could play “marimba”?

A.F.: Well, he said: “I have a marimba”.(Laughs) And I think he said that to you before. I think Gavin will tell you. He is not someone who plays the marimba regularly, so he can play the rhythm perfectly as we can expect from a drummer like him, but I think the note thing is something that he needs to approach slowly and delicately. And the result is there. Whatever method he used, maybe one bar at a time, that’s ok. The idea is the result. And I like the sound of the marimba. I mean, it does remind me a little bit of Frank Zappa because he used a lot of marimba in his music. So, I like that sound. The parallel is almost unavoidable. Everyone who would hear marimba, they would think about Frank Zappa, but that’s ok. I mean, it’s a beautiful instrument. It has a percussive and tone to it and no sustain, so you need to play a lot of notes to make it come out. I like it a lot. We are doing more of it now. I asked Gavin if he wanted to record some more and he seems up for it.

Q.: In your previous album “Borromean Odyssey” there’s a track called “Chemical Reactor” and in 2016 you published an album called “Proto Mundi” which is also the title of one of the tracks in “Chemical Reactions”. Are these kind of coincidences?

A.F.: (Laughs) No, no. It’s perfectly related and good observation.

(Me: I’ve done my homework)

A.F.: Yes, absolutely. There’s another thing I might add. There’s another song on “Chemical Reactions” called: “Holding Back The Clock” which is related to “Holding Back Time” which was on another album. So, what happens is: when there’s a piece of music that I like, I often like to take some of it and re-arrange it in another way. The difficulty in music is the chord progression. I’ve realized only recently that what gives me most pain and struggle is to find a nice chord progression. And when I find a nice progression I sometimes like to use it in a different context. So, keep the progression but change the rhythm, or change maybe the melody. I like to play with that from time to time. So, yes, “Proto Mundi” on “Chemical Reactions” is the re-arrangement of the album “Proto Mundi”, and “Chemical Reactions”, the song, is also a re-arrangement of “Chemical Reactor”. So, there are similarities. And it was done on purpose. The titles are very similar because of that reason.

Q.: I would like to talk about the production of the album. In such complex projects as those you’ve always been working on, the production part is very important. I know that behind the production of your albums starting from “Sphere”, “Chemical Reactions” included,  there’s an Italian music producer, Davide Sgualdini. How did you first get in touch with him and what made you think he was the right person to release the kind of mixing that you wanted to have for your music?

A.F.: Davide would love that fact that we’re talking about him now. (Laughs) He would like that. Davide is a friend of a friend. I live in the UK and I have a friend, Paolo Marini who is from Cagliari and he is an Italian living in the UK. I was talking to him and said: “I’m looking for someone, a sound engineer to help me with my mixes”. And he said: “Well, I think I know the right person for you. Davide”. So I contacted Davide, and since 2016 we’ve been working together on everything. He has a broad knowledge about sound recording, sound mixing, technology, everything. So, he is a really important collaborator in everything I do.

Q.: You are a music composer, a bass player and guitar player and, in all your projects, you have always given extreme importance to the “rhythmic part”. You’ve collaborated with incredible drummers during the years. Your 2013 album “Occultus Tramitis”, is made of eleven tracks and for each of them you recruited a different drummer, for example Terry Bozzio, who used to play with Frank Zappa. How did you match each track to each drummer?

A.F.: Originally I was composing music and I was asking around who maybe would be interested to play on that music. But, as time progressed, I started to compose music for specific players. So, now I’m in the situation where I already know that Gavin wants to work on the next album, so I’m composing for Gavin. I always have Gavin in my mind. I’m working on another project with Todd Sucherman, so I’ve got Todd in my mind. And when I worked on “Proto Mundi” the album, Simon Phillips was visiting the UK for a few days. So I had him in my mind when I was composing for that album. It’s nice to be able to do that. But there are situations sometimes where you compose the music but you hope to find the right player. At the moment I have the luxury to compose and I know in advance who’s gonna play the music.

Q.: And, except from drummers, you’ve also collaborated with other incredible artists, just like Jerry Goodman or Gary Husband. How do you choose them for your projects?

A.F.: Yeah. Jerry has played a lot of my music before, so if I have a lead violin part with improvisation, I definitely go to Jerry. Gary, as well, he has played a lot of my music. I know they will be there for me if I need them. But sometimes, like this next project, I’m composing music and now I’m in a situation where I don’t know who’s gonna play it. I don’t even know what instruments I want because I’m trying to find “unusual instruments”. So, that’s a different optic. It’s gonna be interesting to see who I can find. That’s gonna be interesting, yeah.

Q.: How much freedom do the artists have when they collaborate with you? How does it work? You give them the score and then, what happens?

A.F.: Yes, I give them the music. I give them a score or chart sometimes. Sometimes it’s detailed, sometimes it’s not, depending on the situation. For drummers, they can get away without scores. For instance, I don’t think Gavin uses many scores. Sometimes if there’s a bit of complexity in the music itself, I would write a chart for him, but then I give a lot of freedom. I compose drums. That means, I always compose drum parts. But then, I give them to the drummers and I ask them to do their own version. So, sometimes they stay close to my drum part, and sometimes they deviate from it and do their own thing. But I always give them the freedom. It’s better like that because they are the drummers, I’m not.

Q.: I’m curious to have more insights on your creative process. What happens from the moment you come up with the first idea to the final release? Where do you start from?

A.F.: My life is very regimented. That means I literally give myself time to compose, even if I don’t have any idea. That means that maybe today from 11 to 12 o’ clock I need to write this piece of music and I have no idea. And, at the end of the hour, maybe I’ve come up with some great ideas, sometimes with no idea. Sometimes an idea starts the song, sometimes it’s just regimented and I have to compose on the moment. There are different approaches for that. Sometimes there’s an idea that comes to me and I write it down quickly and I put it in my magic notepad.

(Me: Don’t tell me. I can’t live without notepads)

A.F: It’s important. It’s important to take notes on things you need to do, because music ideas come in and then go out. You have to write them down. So, it’s like ideas. It’s like anything else. I would sit to make it work I have to be on a schedule. That means I have to remind myself that I need to work at it, otherwise it will be delayed forever. Self-imposed objectives.

(Me: It’s more or less like going to the office every day, probably. There’s another artist using the same approach. Nick Cave, you know, he told that he goes to the office every morning to compose, to write etc.)

A.F.: The only reason to do that is otherwise projects will be delayed so much that you need to have a self-imposed discipline. And the frustrating thing is that maybe you spend an hour on something and you don’t like the result. That’s the struggle. But, you have to accept that. It’s always a question of time management. Inspiration comes and goes but the work ethics has to be self-imposed. You have to disciplined about it, because in the end it is a struggle but it is also rewarding. If you finish a project and then you say: “Oh yeah, I’ve finished this”, it’s rewarding. It’s a process that keeps going. There’s no end.

Q.: You mentioned before you basically do everything regarding your music: composing, marketing, advertising and managing your website. I was really impressed by your website, especially on finding a  “Drumless Tracks” section. It’s like a candy store for drummers.

A.F.: A lot of people who listen to my music are drummers. Are you a drummer yourself?

(Me: No, no. Unfortunately I cannot play but it’s for the sake of all humanity. (Laughs) I cannot sing, I cannot play, but I’ve grown up listening to music. My father introduced me to prog music, like Jethro Tull, King Crimson. It started like that. I listen to different music genres. I’m very, very fond of music).

A.F.: That’s good. You’re a minority, because a lot of people who listen to what I do are musicians and a lot of them are drummers. If they listen to my album, sometimes they wanna play to it. So, that’s why I offer those drumless tracks, so they can practice to my music. What they listen to is exactly the album version without the drums. It’s just to share with the world the music and, perhaps, to have fun practicing the songs. Some of them also record themselves and put it on YouTube. So, why not?

(Me. It’s a very good approach. Not many artists would do this, because I don’t know if they would like to listen to their music played by unknown people and have it on YouTube).

A.F.: Well. The ultimate version is the version on the album. But if people wanna have fun with it, why not? I think music is there to be enjoyed. If you’re a musician, I can understand you want to play to it. There’s no issue there. One thing is to listen to music and enjoy it, but sometimes people wanna do more of it, they actually want to play it. Most of them are drummers.

Q.: I fell in love with your record covers. They are all beautiful but those for “Borromean Odyssey” and “Chemical Reactions” are absolutely fantastic. Who’s behind the artwork for them?

A.F.: Well, this one, the one I’m holding here and people cannot see (“Chemical Reactions”) is actually an image I got on the internet. So, it was not commissioned. For the previous album, “Borromean Odyssey”, the cover was done by an artist. So, someone actually made it for me. It’s tricky because “Chemical Reactions” is a joint project between Gavin and myself, and therefore we had to agree on everything. So, instead of commissioning artwork that we might not like or one of us liked, the other one didn’t, I thought I would look out there what I could find. I found this image and Gavin liked it. So, we just decided to use it and I bought it from a royalty-free website. It’s as simple as that. I think it depicts the image of the music, in the sense that it’s abstract. We don’t know exactly what it is. Sometimes it’s hard to find an image that matches the music. But, hopefully that’s a good image there.

“Borromean Odyssey”, that was special. I like that one. A lot of people say that it was my prediction of the future, because it talks about an apocalyptic world. Well, I hope it’s not where we’re going. The current situation almost looks like that, with people wearing masks everywhere, so…

(Me: No, let’s hope we are moving from here and we can go back to music. I really miss live music a lot at the moment.)

A.F.: It’s difficult for a lot of people at the moment. A lot of musicians only play for living and that’s terrible.

(Me: In Italy, it’s terrible to. Music is among the most affected sectors because of this pandemic. It’s awful, but let’s hope for the best.) A.F.: Yes, the vaccine is coming to the UK now. I have this view of the vaccine to be injected into people to control the mind as well. I’m a little bit paranoid about that. Hopefully, they will inject the right thing. (Laughs)

Q.: Let’s talk about the meaning of “progressive music”. There are many people out there, people who love music, people who listen to a lot of music but then, when you ask them what they think about “prog music” they reply: “I don’t listen to prog music because it’s too complex and songs are too long.” Some others say: “I’m more into punk. Prog music is not for me”. What’s your answer? What’s your view on this?

A.F.: Well, here’s my answer to that. I would say that music is an international language but it’s a language that it’s not understood the same way by everybody. What I’m trying to say is that to understand or to enjoy something or art, sometimes you have to have a level of understanding of what’s going on. So, it’s like watching a film in a language you don’t speak, you don’t understand without the subtitles. If I watch a film in Japanese and I don’t understand Japanese and there are no subtitles, I will understand to a certain level because of what I’m seeing but I will not really understand the story. So, to a certain extent, I think music is a little bit like that. As listeners, we are not all on the same level because it depends on how we grew up. You told me that you listened to a lot of music as a child, your father introduced you to a lot of music. So, in a way your mind was open to more than someone who had never owned a record player or never really tried to play an instrument. So, I’m not saying…I don’t wanna sound a little bit “elitist” but in a way it’s like that because it’s not equal in terms of understanding of music. So, everybody has an opinion about everything in life. You can say: “I don’t like this. I don’t like that”. But really, it’s not my role to educate people. Some people can do that. But I think that, as a listener, or someone who enjoys anything in art, I think you have a personal responsibility to at least try to understand what you’re watching, what you’re listening, as opposed to have an opinion before that. An opinion is just like an emotional reaction to something, and we all have emotional reactions to things in life. So, some music moves you. There are different aspects. There’s knowledge and understanding and emotional reactions to something. But I think your emotional reactions to music can change according to your understanding of the music. So, I don’t know…do you see where I’m going? So, what can you tell about people who say that progressive music is “too long, too difficult, too complicated?” Well, maybe it is not for them but it’s for others. It’s just the reality. Unfortunately, some people don’t have the patience to take the time to, you know, open a book and read at these days – there have to be only the headlines – or to listen down or to listen properly, just opposed to just hearing it. You know, you can hear something while your washing the dishes and you think you’re listening to music. You’re not. Listening to music means you do not anything else but listen. You close your eyes, you put your headphones, or you put a good sound system and you listen. It’s a question of attention, concentration. As a composer, all I can do is do the best that I can technically, emotionally. When I think the sound is good, I follow my ears, I follow my instincts and I put out what I think at that time is the best I can offer. My opinion about my own music might change as well. I might listen to something I did ten years ago and think: “Well, I don’t think it’s as good now as it was then.” or maybe “It was ok”. But, when you compose you do your best at the time being. You put it out there and then time will tell if it’s good. Maybe, when it comes out people don’t enjoy it. Sometimes, they enjoy it later. So, art is a very strange thing. There are films that when they came out, no one care about them but now they are considered as a classic. Opinions change, perceptions change.

(Me: “When you say this, it makes me think about Bill Frisell’s The Willies, published in 2002. He collaborated with Danny Barnes, the banjo virtuoso, in that album. Danny Barnes started as a punk musician and then he turned into a banjo player. “The Willies” is a mixing of Americana music and jazz. This is what you were saying before. It’s a good example for me for what you were saying. At the moment, music is progressive by definition and it’s not a matter of saying that something is complicated. You have to listen and you have to listen carefully.”)

A.F.: Yeah. Absolutely.

Q.: What’s next for you? Are you planning to add some more challenges to your music? And what about “Chemical Reactions”? Do you have plans to play it live when it will be possible?

A.F.: I think at the moment what we were doing is so experimental and so complicated (when you talk about orchestra). At the moment we are offering an interesting sonic landscape on CD, and something that people could enjoy. And it’s gonna stay as a recording project more than a live project. Having said that, maybe in the future Gavin and I could work on something for the live context, a concert of some sort, but I’m not thinking about that at the moment. I’m just thinking about what unusual music I can compose and record and offer on CD and even on vinyl. I’m thinking about doing the old vinyl for the next one.

There are two things I’m working on: a project with Gavin, a follow-up to “Chemical Reactions”. That’s gonna come out maybe next year, maybe the year after that. But, we’re working on it as we speak.

The other project is with Todd Sucherman and with a vocalist. So, for twenty years I have been releasing only instrumental music. Now, for the first time, I’m releasing music with vocals. It will be a mixture of progressive and fusion. I’m thinking about Steely Dan, Gino Vannelli kind of influence. A mixture of jazz, progressive rock and maybe a bit of hard rock. So, it’s gonna be a weird mixture. I wrote all the lyrics. I’m not singing, though. I have a very good singer who is working with me. So, it’s gonna be Todd, the singer called JK Harrison and myself on guitar and bass. So, that’s gonna come out in the near future as well.

These are the two main projects I’m working on at the moment. There’s always more, but these are the two big ones that will see the light of day either next year or maybe the year after.

(Me: Thanks so much Antoine for taking the time to answer my questions).

A.F.: Thank you for the interest in what I do. I mean, I am an independent artist like other musicians out there. We try our best to have our music out there and to have our small audience enjoying it. It’s just a pleasure to be able to talk about it from time to time. To have your support is great. I know there are a lot of people who listen to my music in Italy so it’s great to reach that audience. There are fantastic musician all across Italy as well. It’s great to have this collaboration going, and hopefully I might work with more Italian musicians in the future.

I used to watch Dario Argento’s movies. A friend of mine also introduced me to a musician called Mario Fasciano. He is based in Naples and he also worked with Rick Wakeman. I might work with him in the future. […] My job now is to compose more music and see who wants to play it.

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