Threshold 2004

Another find from the archives is Dan's interview with Karl Groom.

8/26/200416 min read

Conducted 8/25/2004 by Dan Barkasi

I recently had the pleasure of speaking with guitarist Karl Groom of the progressive metal powerhouse Threshold. Karl is one of the friendliest and most personable people I've ever talked to, and the entire interview was an absolute delight. We discuss everything from their latest release Subsurface to lead singer Mac climbing stage rigging! These guys are going to be touring Europe very soon supporting their amazing new album, so check them out!

Dan: How has the reaction for Subsurface been so far?

Karl Groom (Threshold): Better than any other album we’ve had by a long way. Things seem to be picking up a lot all across Europe. Getting a lot of 10/10’s on sound checks and things. It’s just been fantastic so far. Feels like I’m kind of dreaming at the moment!

Dan: You guys start a European tour in early September. Is there any possibility of you guys having some United States dates?

Karl: We’d like to, but so far our record company, our guess is that we’re quite young over there, over in America, so they haven’t arranged a lot for us yet. I think they’ve got Symphony X, and they’re an American band anyway, so that’s close for them. They haven’t really arranged anything for us yet, and we don’t really do our own tours. We have played down there for ProgPower USA in 2002, but we haven’t been back as of yet. The band would be more than happy to go, but I guess it’s up to the record company.

Dan: What’s the meaning behind the cover of Subsurface?

Karl: Well, what we do is go to the artist with an idea of what we were thinking about in terms of lyrics and the theme of the album, and just sort of let him to it really. He came up with this general idea with these strange, cheesy words on the TV screen, but we changed those. His general ideas for us have been fantastic. The strange thing is the lake that was photoshopped in as part of the front cover is just right outside their German offices where he works. And it looks identical to place that’s right out back of the studio in England, so it’s kind of weird! The general idea behind it is to do with the media, really. And the way they present the facts and how they try and make your mind up for you in certain issues. We’re not trying to kind of make any major political statement, but we’ll let people read into that in some of the lyrics. But we’re asking some questions, which will make people think, hopefully. We’re not making any major statements ourselves.

Dan: A lot of the media is like that over here.

Karl: Yeah. The only thing that’s a little bit disappointing about it is some people think it says concept underneath, because of the aggressive sort of linked band. But, it’s a mix they can see, obviously. And that means everything is just below the surface, and not exactly truthful sometimes. Particularly, from people in power.

Dan: In what ways do you think the band has developed since Critical Mass?

Karl: I just think with this particular album, the writing process was the same for me. I just went along and wrote the best possible songs I could and tried to make it different from anything we’ve done before. But really, we sat down before we started work on the album and just, how in each area of what we’re doing - in writing, arrangement, production, and things - how can we raise the bar in every single area we work in? To bring out the best we possibly can and spend as long as we can making the album. It’s funny, we looked at it really carefully, and I think it’s paid off because it’s the first album I’ve ever sent to the record company where the band themselves are actually convinced this is quite good. Because in the normal process, you just wait for people to see how they react. It’s hard to tell yourself. But we were actually really satisfied with this album at the point where we’d finished it.

Dan: That’s good, and everyone at our site who’s heard it absolutely loves it.

Karl: Thanks! It kind of makes it worthwhile, all the work, when people can appreciate it and sort of understand the way you were feeling when you have written the music. All the appreciation for it.

Dan: How have the sales been for the Critical Energy CD and DVD so far?

Karl: Not too bad at all. The limited edition, goodness knows how many were made or whether it was a limited edition or not, I don’t know. They sold out immediately, because we weren’t able to get any. My nieces and nephews pinched a couple, and that was about it! So, they did really well. It’s the first live thing we’ve brought out as a record company release. We sat and talked at length about it, because they asked us to do a double live album, and they were a bit miffed because we had released a fan club live CD, which was only like a short gig. We sort of talked about it at some length, and we said that if we were going to do another live album that we want it to be more than that. So we want to do a DVD and try to do as much as we possibly can to make that a top product. We spent a lot of time organizing how we would record the audience to make sure they were recorded in surround, so we’re thinking about the formats we’re going to release it in. Did a documentary for that, and we used the footage we recorded from at the ProgPower as sort of a bonus. So a lot went into it and it’s done pretty well.

Dan: I have the DVD too, and it’s one of the better live performances I’ve seen. Which is why I’m so desperate for you guys to get over here!

Karl: laughs I will admit. Most people will try not to admit it, but I’ll admit it, that we touched a few things up. We’re not in a luxury sort of position to be able record 10 or 15 shows and take all the best bits, so our label said “you better get it right the first time!” laughs

Dan: How did the recording process for Subsurface go?

Karl: It was probably longer than any other album we’ve made, just because we went in such detail and forced everybody to work so hard. The vocals we’re pretty torturous, because we wanted to get Mac to do all the backing vocals as well, so we’d have this consistent sound that was right across the board. And he was in the mood to kind of get it right, so we went into great detail with it. I think we did a lot of planning beforehand, because we did some pretty serious demos. I always work up demos for the rest of the band anyway, but once I finished working on them, we re-arranged them and did some vocals and whatever. We re-did those parts, and we had to have them available during recording so we could go back and see what we’ve done and just see how we could improve on those. So we were constantly comparing and trying to make it right. We had a new bass player, and we had to go back and do things three or four times to do things right because he wasn’t as familiar with the band, so going over and over till we got things right. I often read about these albums when they had two or three years to record it. Like Tears For Fears or something. And we wondered what it’d be like. We never got that far, but we put more detail into it than we would have done normally.

Dan: It definitely shows, too.

Karl: I think it’s worth it. It takes a lot of work to make a good album, and I think if you don’t feel completely exhausted and worn out at the end of it, you haven’t done everything you can to make it as good as possible. A CD is different than a live performance. It’s there forever. So, you’ve gotta do what you can.

Dan: What are some of your biggest musical influences?

Karl: I think because I do a lot of production work with other bands, and that’s always filtering through. All the different styles of musicians I work with filters through. I think it’s a positive thing, because I work with some aggressive artists, or traditional ones like John Wetton, and then I’m working with numerous extreme power metal bands as well, on the other end of the spectrum, so I’m picking up new things from them all the time. For me, I guess I was more into Testament and Metallica on the metal side. I really always loved Genesis, the sort of the A Trick of the Tail era, with all their amazing arrangements and melodies and things. The way they write songs is so clever.

Dan: Since Critical Mass was such a great album, was there a lot of pressure making this album as a result?

Karl: I think it gets harder and harder. I always remember reading stories about David Coverdale saying how difficult it was to make an album, and me thinking, “What a load of rubbish. It must be fun!” It is fun, but to make a better album each time, which is what you really have to do if you considering continuing to make music, every album has got to be better than the last. To keep improving is a really difficult thing to do. Particularly in the writing stage of things. You’ve got to make sure you don’t repeat yourself. You have to go and get something that excites you first of all, because if you can’t believe in what you’re doing, nobody else is going to pay much notice. So, it does get a lot harder each time to keep raising the bar and do whatever you need to, to make things a little bit different and bring yourself to writing better music.

Dan: What do you think makes your band mesh so well?

Karl: Probably the amount of lineup changes we had early on! laughs We had some pretty horrendous arguments and difficult times on tours and whatever, and we reached one point when I think we were in Barcelona, in Spain, and our first singer Damian. He picked up a speaker on stage. You know, the wedges you get on stage to monitor your own voice. And he was so angry with the soundman that he chucked the thing at the audience! He was quite unpopular at the end of that tour and he left. We got kicked out of Barcelona, and I remember the promoter saying to the guy from record company, “You all will never play ever again in Spain!” He’s been right up till now! laughs Although we’ve been offered another gig in Barcelona and another one in Spain for this tour. But there was a lot of lineup changes in the early years. We reached a point when Mac joined, the current singer, in 1997 or 1998 that we found a bunch of people who wanted to make the music together. People weren’t joining the band just because we had a deal. We found the right people. We enjoy working with each other, we enjoy touring, and to be honest, touring is like going on holiday with your friends. It’s such a great experience now. I think we’re able to get the most out of the creative situations because there aren’t any tensions any longer.

Dan: Where do you hope Threshold to be in the next couple years?

Karl: We’ve sort of reached a point now that I’m kind of happy with anyway. The whole aim we ever had when we started a band, we weren’t sure that we’d ever get signed, because we were making the kind of music that wasn’t popular at the time. So to just continue making albums is something we absolutely really, really treasure to be able to put across our art form to other people. If I can put some passion in some people’s lives from the music, that’s something I want to achieve as long as possible.

Dan: Do you have a favorite place that you like to play live?

Karl: I think I like traveling to Switzerland, little towns. Sometimes we play in a place called Ascona on the Italian border in the mountains. Greece as well, when it’s not hot! But generally we find ourselves in Mainland Europe, in Germany, in Holland, and whatever. In specialized venues. They always built one industriously. You wake up on the tour bus after traveling all night, and you get up and you’re just in an industrious place. You wake up the next day, and it looks the same. I think the places that are a little more unusual. Some of the new places we play in Eastern Europe. Places like Hungary and Budapest, beautiful places to go to that I really like playing.

Dan: Is there a specific process that the band goes though while coming up with new material?

Karl: I generally write a lot of the music, and Richard the keyboard player will write a lot of the lyrics. We’ll work together, generally. I’ll get together basic ideas that I consider to be something and put them on a CD and play them in the car. And if I get excited about them at that stage, I’ll know that after a lot of hard work, I can work the arrangements into decent songs. If I get something I think is good enough, then I’ll present it to the band, which is the most nerve-racking stage. It’s worse than releasing an album! laughs They’re going to come back and tell me whether it’s any good pretty quickly, so that will be the stage. And then we’ll maybe slightly re-arrange some things if anyone’s got any ideas. And then the band comes along and they put in their own ideas in terms of their own instruments, and then it takes off into the Threshold sound. I think after I write things, I think it totally, radically different from the general sound of the band, and they’ll be a little more censored by the way people play their instruments and their own personalities, and that’s kind of developed into the sound of the band.

Dan: Do you have a preference on touring or working in the studio?

Karl: There’s kind of an immense satisfaction from working in the studio. I know the end result, although it’s kind of hard producing your own music sometimes because it’s a lot of work. The fun part is always touring. Once you’ve done the hard work of learning the material for playing live during the rehearsals, which is torturous. But once that’s done, you can really enjoy playing every night. We look forward to it every year when we go out and do a tour, and maybe some summer festivals.

Dan: Did you guys enjoy making the DVD?

Karl: Ah, not really! laughs We enjoyed the playing, but there was more pressure than there should have been. We had to get it right in one night, the way it was set up. We were in the middle of sort of a summer festivals tour, and we had one night booked into a venue, which we know the guy who owns the venue, and he said he would let for us to have a couple of days, but we only had the one chance to record it. So we had a lot of pressure to get it right, so it should have been more enjoyable than it was. The gig was all right, there was no problem there. We enjoyed it as much as ever. But, the amount of work that goes into making a DVD and the production afterwards. You got your surround 5.1 mix, then you got stereo mix, and then the commentary mix, and making sure the guys that do the video don’t mess up as well. I’ve seen a few albums that come out on DVD, where particularly on our own label InsideOut, there’s one called Transatlantic that came out, and half of the DVDs wouldn’t play on various systems. One of them, they brought one out, and the soundtrack was out of time with the audio and the picture. With all these things, it takes a lot of checking. Constantly going through every detail all the time. Tremendously long process and a lot of work to get all the mixes right.

Dan: I would think if you miss one thing, you’re screwed! laughs

Karl: laughs Yeah, and the thing is, you kind of regret it a long time after as well, because you don’t often make DVDs. You can’t make one every time you make an album. So we made a conscious decision to put 4 or 5 months in getting the process right. I concentrated a lot on the audio, and Richard went out to Germany to check out on the video, to change a few camera angles and things, to just make sure that was okay. And then we had all the extras to do. We had a documentary to get incorporated, and we had footage from the ProgPower show we played which we had to get in, so we had a lot of things to check, really.

Dan: What do you think you’d be doing if you weren’t a successful musician?

Karl: I did work in the government for a while! I worked there for a few years after I left college. Doing clubs for disabled and underprivileged children in sports and recreational activities, and I kind of enjoyed that. It was quite good. I transferred to a department which was really unpopular, that was in charge of asbestos removal for schools. They’re seriously unpopular with unions and head teachers and things. That’s why I decided to go full-time and do music, just see if I could make it work. And fortunately, it worked out.

Dan: Is there a place that you’d like to play live that you haven’t gotten to yet?

Karl: I’m kind of really enjoying these countries that used to be eastern block. The places where it’s possible to travel to now, which we weren’t able to maybe, I suppose people couldn’t go 10 years ago. But these developing countries, and the people are really hungry for music over there, and you get a fantastic response, even in the smaller venues. People that really make you feel welcome, and it’s really and experience going out there.

Dan: What do you enjoy doing in your spare time?

Karl: Nick and I, the other guitarist, we go to see a lot of football. Kind of English football. Soccer, you call it there. Sports. I like cycling as well. So, anything to do with sports, generally.

Dan: Who is your favorite football team?

Karl: Arsenal, it’s a London team.

Dan: Really? That’s actually one of my favorites too!

Karl: Oh yeah? Cool!

Dan: I watch as many games as I can over here.

Karl: Do you get it on cable then?

Dan: Yeah, we have a channel here called Fox Sports World, and it plays a lot of English Premier League games. So I watch what I can.

Karl: That’s good. Yeah, Nick’s favorite team is the Queens Park Rangers, they’re like a lower B team. They’re really struggling, so I go with him and make him feel better when they lose! laughs

Dan: laughs

Dan: What’s your favorite part about being a musician?

Karl: I think to be able to see the reaction of people when you go and play a live show. It’s great to speak to people after a show after they’ve had a great time. They’re usually pretty drunk! laughs But you can see how much it means to some people, and it’s a brilliant reaction you can get. It’s enjoyable speaking to them. It’s kind of a rewarding bit, you know? A hell of a lot of hard work goes into it if you want to do something that’s worthwhile. Particularly in the studio, which no one really sees, and they don’t understand how slow and complex it is to make an album nowadays. People expect everything to be perfectly in tone, perfectly in tune, and it takes a lot of work.

Dan: I can imagine, because I had a friend who does recording and such and I’ve seen how complicated that process is.

Karl: It’s become a lot slower. The more gear there is, you can do more, but that’s half the problem!

Dan: What’s your opinion on sharing music on the Internet?

Karl: I don’t really mind, to be honest, in our area of music. Because I think generally the fans that are into our music will eventually buy the product if they like the band, and it’s like a form of free advertising. I could never understand Metallica claiming they were so hard on bucks when they were well off enough anyway. They’ve got plenty of money there. But smaller bands, you know, they’re kind of making it and gradually coming through. I think it’s brilliant for some of the bands that come through my studio, and they generate a lot of interest over the Internet and with MP3s and whatever. And you can’t complain, really. People are going to do it anyway. They do it with software, music, and everything. It does detract a little bit from sales, and we had to overcome that, but fortunately ourselves have been growing anyway. So I think it’s a form a free advertising, anyway.

Dan: Especially a smaller band, I would think.

Karl: Yeah, and there’s no point in complaining. There’s not much you can do about it, anyway. The record companies, the people I know in our company, are talking about there. They’re doing deals to make legal downloads available, anyway. And iTunes is becoming quite popular, and there’s a few other sites. They’re taking a huge profit out of it, but it’s becoming a position where people are willing to pay for it over the net as well.

Dan: Do you guys pull any kind of practical jokes on each other?

Karl: We don’t need to, really. Our singer makes a fool of himself often enough, anyway! laughs We had a great one when we were playing a festival in Holland in the summer called Bospop, and he got stuck up in the lighting, really. Sort of thought he was clever climbing up there. He didn’t get down till we finished our set! laughs He sort of gave up trying to climb down on his own and just kept the microphone and started singing up at the top of the rig. It looked pretty dangerous up there. Those things aren’t really designed to be climbed.

Dan: laughs Yeah, really! How long was he up there?

Karl: He was up there for nearly 10 or 15 minutes. We were on our encore, and I think the next band was about to go on by the time they managed to get him down! laughs It looked so dangerous, and the funny thing is that they weren’t paying much attention to the band any. They were just sort of like watching, because it was an open-air show, and he was quite high up, and they were just treating it as a circus act!

Dan: And then some people in the back would be saying, “who in the hell is up there?” laughs

Karl: Yeah! laughs It was funny.

Dan: Is there anything you’d like to add?

Karl: I just hope people are going to enjoy this album as much as we have enjoyed making this one. It was a real satisfaction at the end. And I hope our record company gets their act together and gets us out to play some more shows in the States.

Dan: That’d be nice. If you guys do, I’ll damn well try to be there!

Karl: Thank you!

Dan: Alright man, thanks a lot! It was nice talking with you. Good luck with the tour and the album.

Karl: Alright, you too! Thank you!

Note: I'd like to thank Karl Groom for being gracious enough to talk with me, and for Eric Corbin of InsideOut Music for setting everything up. You both rock!