Interview with singer/guitarist Jake Becker
Interview conducted by MetalMike
Date online: April 22, 2017
Hailing from the relatively quiet – in terms of Heavy Metal – city of Jacksonville, Floridians Skyliner are a bit of an anomaly as an American band playing Power Metal (mixed with other styles) and residing on the decidedly European Limb Music label. The band's second album, Condition Black, was one I recently reviewed and after the review was posted, singer/guitarist Jake Becker went out of his way to let me know some additional details about the album. The information was welcome as these days reviewers rarely get physical discs and the informative booklets they usually include and all we have to go on is the music and the occasional brief band history as a pdf file.
Jake is obviously passionate about his band and music so I took the opportunity to hit him up for an interview, giving him the chance to share some insight into Condition Black and Skyliner with readers of The Metal Crypt.
MetalMike: Hey Jake, thanks for taking some time to talk to us here at The Metal Crypt. How are things in Florida?
Jake: Thank you, Mike - well, after a few weeks of mild cold, it's back to blistering again, the way I like it.
MetalMike: Let's start with a history of Skyliner. How did the band come together? Is there a decent Metal scene in Jacksonville and if not, how did you, Ben (Brenner – drums) and Nathaniel (Curtis – bass) come together to form Skyliner?
Jake: Well, I come from a background of old school, traditional heavy metal - W.A.S.P., Judas Priest and others, who I discovered at a pretty early age; around 9 or 10. But I never really had any peers who shared that same taste - even now, running into anyone locally who are into the bands we're into almost never happens. There just hasn't been a lot of passion for or attention to heavy metal here. We've had a few bands who got a little attention - Apostle, Tempest Reign and I believe Artizan is at least mostly local. We are slowly getting better shows coming through. But it's a very uphill battle. It's really a culture battle, just like with anywhere else. The problem of prejudice that heavy metal, that actual metal has to face is complex. I met Ben at a local youth group when we were 14/15, when we had just picked up our instruments, and we literally learned how to play by being in this band, so there's a unique chemistry there.
MetalMike: Who were/are your influences in deciding to become a musician and playing Heavy Metal? You sing and play the guitar, was there ever a time when one or the other was the main focus or have you always wanted to do both? Did you look to guys that sing and play like Rik Emmett (Triumph), Dave Meniketti (Y&T) or Lips (Anvil) as inspiration, as musicians if not in style?
Jake: I actually started out writing lyrics, wanting to be a songwriter, and guitar was just the first thing I got into, because I wanted to be able to create these amazing, metallic tones I heard on my favorite albums. One of the great things about older heavy music is how unique the tone of the guitar players tended to be - you might love it or hate it, but you could usually recognize who was playing and even what album it was, right away. The gateway for me was probably Styx. I heard Styx before I heard anything like Zeppelin or the Stones or the things you're "supposed" to get into first and I would still prefer that band. I just hadn't heard that raucous guitar tone anywhere before, and after that I naturally got deeper and deeper into heavier music, the stuff I could relate my frustration with and my anger with and all these feelings and topics that a lot of other music never addresses. I kind of fell into singing, mostly because when I needed a vehicle for my lyrics, there just weren't any singers around here who would fit with what I wanted the band to be. I'm a self-taught player and singer, and I don't have the typical heavy metal or power metal voice, so I definitely raked myself over the coals and paid some dues to get here. I haven't really looked at those frontmen in particular, but I do have a lot of appreciation for people like Kai Hansen, Peavy Wagner, Blackie Lawless, or Dave Mustaine, who are doing that double duty and don't really get the credit they should for being incredibly effective vocalists.
MetalMike: On your website, you list "traditional", "power" and "progressive" in the band's description but are quick to add "no regard for current trends." Was there a particular band or style that you liked more than any other when you first started listening to Metal. I often see Queensryche and fellow Floridians Crimson Glory used as comparisons for Skyliner's sound. Fair?
Jake: I don't agree with the Crimson Glory reference, but I'm not complaining at all because that was a fantastic band. I can see Queensryche in that the mood of their music has always been very serious, and I think that we share that same tendency. On that note, Queensryche was certainly an early favorite - and still is - along with W.A.S.P. and Judas Priest. I'm like a lot of people in that I only discovered all the more underground scenes when I really started looking for music online. So I'm always finding new favorites, but the music I came from is still there.
MetalMike: As you and I have briefly discussed, the themes on Condition Black are perhaps a bit deeper than on a "typical" Progressive/Power Metal album. For the benefit of the readers who, like me, don't have the benefit of the booklet or lyrics, can you give us a breakdown of what you are singing about? In general, of course, you don't have to break down every song in gory detail.
Jake: After Outsiders came out there were a lot of instances in my life where I was finding myself kind of starting over - new music being written, a new band lineup being completed, and a lot of other things. There was a lot of upheaval on a personal level. But I remember having this epiphany where I realized and accepted that in many situations, starting completely new is far better than trying to keep the old, ailing thing alive. When I looked at the lyrics I was writing, no matter the subject, most of them seemed to have some kind of thread having to do with kind of violently leaving something behind so that's just where my head was at. Our albums work that way - they're kind of mini-books that tell you a lot about what I was feeling, doing, or interested in at the time. And when that flood of inspiration comes, you've just got to go for it. The title track is about facing future, out of necessity, facing fear. Because sometimes the next step of your journey is like a giant, unstoppable tidal wave, and you may need to just dive in. The one section of the record which has more to do with what I'm interested in is the "Divine Triumvirate" suite, which is three songs that each deal with a different widespread religious theme, and those are linked and complimented by two instrumental pieces. There's a lot of depth in there. It's really meant to be listened to all the way through, and is probably the thing we've done that I'm most proud of so far. It was tremendously exciting and liberating, creatively.
MetalMike: What message(s) do you want listeners to take away from Condition Black?
Jake: Well, I've got a lot of passion in things I believe in and want to express. I'm not scared of speaking my mind about anything. But this band isn't a propaganda vehicle. I'm here because I'm compelled to create. And my job is to create honest art, earnest art. People who look into what we do even a little bit can see my ideas and views by looking at the lyrics or reading something like this. I'd like people to be impacted positively by the music the same way all the music I love and connect with impacts me. I want people to be enriched by the magic that's in this music, and who knows where that takes them.
MetalMike: As I said in my review, I found Condition Black a bit less catchy than other Power Metal albums with a Progressive tinge like say Pagan's Mind or Symphony X. Was there a conscious effort to write songs that were purposefully different or are the songs on Condition Black simply the songs you write? Do you listen to other bands or go out of your way to avoid being potentially influenced?
Jake: Condition Black was written quite organically. I remember feeling fulfilled as a guitarist, which I hadn't felt for a while. It wasn't until we were halfway through the songs that I started to understand and steer the vision for what we were doing, establishing trends of things I wanted to help define the record - like more varied cymbal and tom work. I actually think this one is more immediately accessible than the debut, as far as being catchy goes, but the playing is definitely more technical and involved. I think as a "new" trio, our chemistry just pushed me in the direction of more compact, yet more progressive music. And I was playing and performing more aggressively. I don't think I really absorbed a lot of records while I was living in these songs. I'm getting further away from taking in outside music while I'm in a writing zone.
MetalMike: How are Skyliner songs written? Do you or one of the other members write each song from start to finish or does the whole band participate? What are some of the influences, besides music, that Skyliner draws ideas from, e.g. books, art, film, etc.?
Jake: The majority of the stuff starts out from a set of lyrics I have. I'll write something and have a certain meter and rhyme scheme set for it, but not necessarily any melodies. Once I've got the lyrics finished, I'll try to find a musical starting point with the guitar, which is usually the chorus or the beginning of the song. I've got kind of a riff vault I'll open up and look around in for intro or bridge ideas. Those things are constructed alongside the vocal melodies. I'll show it to the others once about 75% of the song is finished, and they'll usually interpret the drum or bass ideas I have in their own way. Some of my parts survive there, some of them don't. It's all about what the best part is.
I know that literature and film impact me insofar as helping to provide a general feeling or an idea. I can get words out of a scene in a film, or I can get a theme for a song by reading something that presents a thought I already had but hadn't developed. I can tell you that we do have some music which is meant to tell a little story or paint some pictures in mind with help from the lyrics or song titles. I've got an interest in musical narrative. The interludes in "A Divine Triumvirate" are like that. "Worlds of Conflict" from the debut is like that; that song is about a person breaking down over inconsistencies they find in waking life, and trying to escape to an astral plane or dream consciousness. The final part of the song is almost a drone thing, where we fade the song out just by gradually turning down and playing softer. That section is meant to represent the floating or wandering out into the unknown of this other plane. I had a concerning episode where I wasn't truthfully sure whether my life was real for about a month, so that's what all of that came from. If you listen to something like Holst's "The Planets" or similar compositions, those are meant to impart certain images and ideas for the listener. So I like having things like that once in a while. I'm sure there will be more in the future.
MetalMike: Which song on Condition Black is your favorite and why?
Jake: It's probably the title track because I just feel it's such a signature song. It's the kind of thing I'd play right away for anyone who wants to know who we are and what we do, like "Undying Wings" is. I think it's a statement lyrically and musically. We just shot a video for it. After that I'd say "As Above, So Below" because that's something a speed freak like me just devours. I'm proud of that song lyrically, as well. I think we really start to cook during the bridge section. And it shows up, it hits you in the face, and it doesn't stop until it leaves. We always break out the stuff like that in the live shows. I like getting amped and losing my mind. I don't like having a lot of slower songs in the live setting if I can help it.
MetalMike: Back before the Internet, fans would buy an album (actually spend money on it, not download it for free from some torrent site) and listen to it over and over while staring at the album cover and lyrics. In this way, you could pick up details that today I feel are often overlooked as we quickly move on to the next thing because music is so readily available (the double edge of the digital age, I guess). What are some of the things you are doing on Condition Black that fans should be listening for that might help them get into the music and maybe latch on to it?
Jake: It is a double-edged sword. Imagine if The Wall or Operation: Mindcrime came out today, streaming only! I'm a futurist, I have a fixation on progress, but at the same time I don't agree with that being at the complete expense of what the album experience is supposed to be. And that experience to me is an intimate snapshot of who the artist was at the time and where they were, that you can hold in your hands. And our albums are made with all of that in mind. The running order isn't an accident, the album art isn't just something that looked fancy. I'm just always thinking about creating that experience, and the fact is that an album isn't just sound coming out of a speaker with no context, no history, no visuals. But I really shouldn't have to say that.
This record, I think fans of older heavy metal should look into it. People who are into bands who were completely savage but also never stopped taking chances. Savatage was one band like that. Fates Warning was like that. That's the tradition I feel at home with. My mindset is very open. I think people who love that stuff should check out the record. We get compared with bands like Grave Digger or Rage, and I agree with that, but we don't only exist in that world. We work with more ingredients because I think there's still a lot which can be done with this music. I was also even more hands-on with the production this time, and so this album works like an older album, it's really supposed to adapt to any system you put it through and sound great and make you wanna crank it up. It's not brick walled, it's not made for streaming, it's also not made for a turntable speaker, it's just meant to do its job and let your system do its job. And I think fans will appreciate it. If you wanna hear something going the opposite way of metal albums that sound like a computer performed and produced them, check out what we've got for you.
MetalMike: How has your deal with Limb Music worked for Skyliner? What made you decide to sign with them? Were there any other labels that expressed interest? Is Limb doing much in the way of promoting the album here in the states or are they concentrating on areas more receptive to Heavy Metal like Europe, South America and Japan?
Jake: I think the emphasis is still on Europe, but the U.S. is really dead when it comes to physical media. I talked to a guy a little while back who used to be involved with SPV's distribution some years ago and he can barely give away CDs over here. Labels are cautious about the U.S. market. There's the small handful of bands who break even or can make some money, and then there's everyone else. Our albums are available on Amazon and the usual sellers as well as all the streaming services over here, so we do have some presence. Things like this interview and the "Condition Black" video will help get the word out. We're happy with Limb so far. We did have interest from a few other labels, but partnering with LMP was an easy decision. We knew Limb's history well and to me if you have the chance to work with someone who has that kind of experience in the industry, you gladly take it. And what I like is that Limb has to pick up on something special in the songs. It really comes down to the core of any type of rock music with longevity, which is songwriting and performance that has a certain special spark to it. So we love this music for the same reasons and I'm happy that they see that fire in our work. It takes guts to put out records from us knowing that there is that segment of fans who just want another Rhapsody.
MetalMike: Where has the biggest response for Skyliner's music come from? Have American fans been receptive to Condition Black?
Jake: We've got a lot of positive response in general from around the world. There are some amazing fans in the Netherlands and in Germany. We've seen some enthusiasm in the U.K. For Condition Black and, as far as I know the response in the U.S. does actually seem to be more positive than in Europe. We created something with more aggression, something wilder, more of an evolution, introducing some new elements in places. I love it, but I've seen that there are some people who I guess expected us to maybe go softer, or go in a more traditional power metal direction. As far as I'm concerned, though, that's best left to hundreds of other bands out there who are already doing that. And that's fine for those bands. But that's not who we are or what we want to contribute. I might pull the Queensryche comparison again and point out that they never made the same record twice, but they made a string of records that still stand up today. And I've got that same goal in mind, so I can only hope the fans are with us for the ride. I mean, my idea of evolving is giving you more riffs, not less...
MetalMike: Have you had much opportunity to play live with Skyliner? Are there places to play in Florida for a band like Skyliner? Bands like Sonata Arctica, Sabaton and Nightwish seem to be dedicated to bringing Power Metal to the States with several club/theater tours in the last several years. Has Skyliner been approached to participate in one of these packages? Would you be able to or would things like family, jobs, etc. be obstacles?
Jake: Playing live is one of my favorite things, and we like doing the odd show here once in a while, but what I really want to do is get out there regionally - go up the East Coast or maybe up the other way close to the Midwest, I've seen some really healthy activity for this music lately up there. Anyone with any ideas we could possibly work together on is definitely encouraged to get in contact with us. We've got full-time jobs and are always on the grind, so putting that perfect string of dates together without losing a ton of cash hasn't been able to happen yet for us, but we're hungry and could make the right tour or festival work. We want to go out and see people.
MetalMike: As a trio, how hard is it (or will it be) to reproduce the dense, complex songs from an album like Condition Black in the live setting?
Jake: We're kind of a machine on the material. Ben and myself especially have been the engine of the band since the beginning, so we get in lockstep with each other really quickly. Anyone on bass who plays with us has to be able to really melt into the feel of things, because we're musicians first, metal musicians second, and it's about more than just hitting the notes. Performing, there is a song here and there which is harder to sing with a guitar strapped to me, but it's all business as usual. I've always been the lone guitar player, always preferred it that way, so nothing really changes about my workload from album to album.
MetalMike: Do you hope to make your living with Skyliner and is that even a possibility in today's music industry? What is it about Heavy Metal music that makes people dedicate so much time, effort and money into something that often has limited material return? Is the "spiritual" for lack of a better word payoff that satisfying?
Jake: Well, I'm sort of a slave to this. As long as I'm thinking and feeling and existing, I think I'm going to find that there's music to be made. I know I'll probably never make a complete living from this, and that's alright. You can't ignore the inner call to express yourself, to put your everything into creating art. Those things will be around long after you leave the world. And when what you express is heavy music, I think heavy music is an inherently intense thing and it inherently deals with something more important than just "rebellion" or "having fun", which is associated with rock 'n roll. I think this music is about discontent, it's a very Romantic form of music, in that it looks at the world and "life as it is", and says, "no, that's not good enough" and reacts to it. So you've got bands dealing with more fantasy based topics and you've got bands like us who look more inward, but it's all a way of rejecting the status quo because we believe that there are better things, we're dissatisfied with the usual or the average. That's an attitude you don't often see in mainstream pop music for example, which is mostly about celebrating life as it is and doesn't really dream of or aspire to what's beyond the everyday norms. I think it's socially concerning how that philosophy is what the masses flock to. But all of us who believe in this are here because we're driven to be and I happen to think our philosophy is healthier than the one usually sold to people and that this genre changes people's lives for the better on a far greater scale. I just have to believe in art and how important it is in this world. It's more important than the politicians and the pundits. It's something that everybody has inside and everybody can tap into. The creative individual has always helped propel humanity forward, but been seldom thanked for it.
MetalMike: What are the short-term goals for Skyliner? 1 year, 2 years, 5 years – where do you hope to be with the band in the near future? What kinds of things do you hope to be singing about?
Jake: Most of the time when I finish a song, I don't want to have to go back to the exact subject matter again later. I want to be able to really say almost everything I need to say and then move on. "The Human Residue" is like that - I'm really satisfied with that song and it made my peace with what that song is about. "Cages We Create", "No World Order", those songs are sealed statements as well. A lot of the lyrics are so cathartic in creating an artful concept or just getting things off my chest. So I've got a lot of ideas and thoughts out of the way already, and further down the line what I'm writing about might eventually end up some kind of a blank slate. That's invigorating to anticipate because I'm always ready to go wherever the music takes me. For us as a whole I just want to get this music to as many people as possible, and play as many good shows as possible. A lot of new music is already in the can, so we're about ready to begin that whole process again and I think people are going to really like what comes out of it. It's exciting.
MetalMike: Jake, thanks for taking time to shed some light on Skyliner and Condition Black for our readers, for being our "CD Booklet" and more, if you will. Is there anything else about the band, the album or music in general you'd like to share before we wrap up?
Jake: Keep an open mind, ear, and heart.
MetalMike: Thanks again for your time and best of luck in the future. Hope to someday see you guys on tour.
Jake: That makes four of us. Thank you very much.
Home page: www.skylinermusic.com
|Other information about Skyliner on this site|
|Review: Skyliner (Demo)|
|Review: The Alchemist|
|Review: Condition Black|
Copyright © 1999-2017, Michel Renaud / The Metal Crypt. All Rights Reserved.