Progressive World (USA)
by Stephanie Sollow
Hess are a progressive instrumental metal quartet based in Chicago who in 1999 released their debut CD, Opus 1. Since its release, the album has seen sales in 26 countries including most of Europe and North America, but also places such as Puerto Rico, Singapore, Taiwan and Thailand. Featuring the twin guitar attack of Tom Hess and Mike Walsh, the band play a brand of metal that is equally influenced by Dream Theater and Rush as it is classical composers from the 18th through 20th Century. A glance at their bios reveals that each guitarist cites Fryderyk Chopin and Johann Sebastian Bach as influences, among Yngwie Malmsteen, John Petrucci, Marty Friedman, and other guitar notables. While it's Chris Dowgun on drums for Opus 1, Tom's brother Scott Hess recently rejoined the trio in that role. It was Tom that played bass on the debut, a job now filled by new member Mark Carozza. With their second release, Opus 2, due in late summer or early fall of 2002, we felt it was time we got to know a little bit about Hess.
1. What can we expect from Opus 2?
Tom Hess: People can expect Opus 2 to be a continuation of the HESS sound that we established on Opus 1. There are going to be some changes on Opus 2 though. We have a new drummer, my brother and the original Hess drummer, Scott Hess. We have a new bassist, Berklee School of Music graduate Mark Carozza. Mike [Walsh] now plays 7 string guitars exclusively in Hess. My compositional style has not changed but has grown, I think the music of Opus 2 is like an exaggerated version of Opus 1. On Opus 1, I played about 65-70% of the guitar solos and Mike played the rest of them. For Opus 2, Mike will be playing a larger role in the guitar department. He is a great musician with a totally original and exotic guitar style. He is always becoming even greater so we want to use him more and take advantage of all that he has to offer to the music.
Mike Walsh: A more extreme version of Opus 1 with great part transitions and expression. The new one has been very exciting to listen to and think of solo ideas. I can not wait to record my parts.
2. Any track titles so far?
Tom Hess: Most of the titles are not final yet. There will be 12 tracks in all, here are some of the working titles: "Behold," Kingdoms," "Stained," "Nexuses," "Beyond The Brink," "What Could Have Been ... And What is Not...," "The Cynic, The Sad, And The Fallen," "Into The Pinnacle," and "Waves Of Far Reaching." The remaining 3 pieces don't have titles yet.
3. Did you go into this album with particular things you wanted to say instrumentally?
Tom Hess: That is always the goal. Expression of self. Expression of the Ideal. And the recollection of past and present emotions and thoughts. Much of those things are too deep to put into words, that is why I compose.
4. Do you chart out everything, or is some of the music created during the recording process? (composed/versus improv what I mean)
Mike Walsh: For my solo parts I do the majority of them composed. I sit and listen over and over again to the parts. Then in the studio I might add or take away something or even change something completely and improvise. But for the most part, 90% of my solos are already written out.
Tom Hess: All of the music for Opus 2 is written except for the guitar solos. Mike and I will work out some of them later and improvise the rest in the studio.
5. It must be gratifying to see how popular Opus 1 is. Did you expect that kind of response?
Mike Walsh: It is always gratifying to get recognition for something you put a lot of time, effort, and passion into. We did not think it would get into so many people's hands the first time around though.
Tom Hess: We weren't really sure what to expect in the beginning. We are based in the United States (Chicago area) and our musical style is not popular here at all. It seems that most people here listen to whatever corporate radio, labels, MTV etc. tell them to listen to. Most of our CD sales have come from other countries. Being with Guitar Nine Records) has definitely helped to increase our international exposure and sales. The foreign press has been very supportive of us as well. We hope that the American music scene will improve itself in the future, because it has been very disappointing since the early 1990s.
6. The often cited grunge factor. Do you think things are slowly swinging back towards metal though? That once the folks that like "nu-metal" get bored and want something with a bit more substance and less flash that they'll look to classic and progressive metal?
Tom Hess: Things are looking like they are getting heavier now, but I don't think that the new metal bands are any more musically intelligent than the 90's grunge bands were. I hope that what people will listen to in the future will be music that has some more integrity and substance. I don№t know if that will happen or not.
Mike Walsh: It will eventually come around to more progressive metal again, but it will sound a little different. Remember these are usually vocal oriented trends, even though there is a new metal sound, it has a different style of vocals. So, if a band can get a more commercial/progressive sound out there with cool vocals, people will be all over it soon.
7. The endorsement deal with Dean Markley must be exciting as well.
Mike Walsh: Anytime a large company feels you have something to offer them, especially in a non-vocal band, you can feel good about having someone say, "Come aboard." The fact that now we are associated with other good players who are endorsed by Dean Markley is also an honor.
Tom Hess: It is definitely nice to have endorsement deals and as Mike said, it is nice to know that DM feels that we are deserving of being in the same company as their other instrumental / high caliber player endorsers. We are also endorsed with Clayton guitar picks.
8. Have you always wanted to be a musician?
Mike Walsh: Music is definitely a full time occupation for me. Since 1995 I have been teaching lessons to students. We are pretty lucky to be able to do this and the band with very little conflict. I always remind myself that at least it's music everyday and not something totally not related. I get to help other young guitar players do what I wanted at the same age, get to play like the music on the radio. That is more fulfilling to me than any real job; I think what I do is more real than most jobs out there.
Scott Hess: When Tom started playing guitar I was beginning to get influenced. After Tom joined his first band I loved to watch their practices. When they started playing originals I was highly motivated to play. I guess I chose drums because at the time is just seemed cool, that was April 26, 1988. I taught myself how to play by playing along to Metallica and Iron Maiden on my tape deck. Its been fun ever since.
Tom Hess: Yes, since 1983, when I first heard Def Leppard's Pyromania album. I was in grade school then. I thought the guitarists in that band were so cool. I didn't actually get my first guitar until January 31, 1986. I think I knew for sure that this was what I wanted to do since the summer of 1988.
9. You recall that day so precisely. May I ask why?
Tom Hess: I just wanted to play guitar a lot, so I wrote that date down somewhere and remembered it.
Mike Walsh: Actually, as a kid I thought I was going to play professional baseball. Not till my freshman year of high school did guitar look really appealing, and not till my sophomore year did I go full on for music and guitar.
10. Given the shortness of a baseball career - "old" at 35 - versus the length musical career - "still kickin'" at 65 -- probably the right choice (excluding the adverse lifestyle factor of each).
Tom Hess: My brother, Scott, and I started the band in early 1995 under the name, Gothic Empire. The name was changed to Hess just before recording of Opus 1 started (summer of 1998) Scott and I were in a band called Anodized in high school. We recorded a 3 song demo in 1991. That was a vocal band (the vocals didn't turn out that great.) Back in those days we were basically an 1980s style metal band. Nothing ever happened with that tape, it was never released, but it was fun to do at the time.
Scott Hess: My first band was a G 'N R [Guns And Roses .] style band. It was fun but I wanted to be more serious. I always wanted to play with Tom because he was the most advanced at the time, in our area. I was striving to get to a similar level and wait for an opening. The rest is history as he explained it.
11. Mike - your bio mentions SAGE and Lunar Eclipse, so ... anything recorded/released? And are they of a similar or different style from Hess?
Mike Walsh: Sage has not released anything yet, only a demo we did in July of 01. This band is different from Hess in that it has a female vocalist and is not as solo and progressive oriented as Hess. I figured if I am going to do a side project, it has to be something really different or I am just wasting my time doing it.
12. Mike mentioned teaching music...for the rest of the band, is music also a full-time occupation, or do you have to balance that with a "real job"? And, if so, what's been your biggest challenge is balancing the two?
Tom Hess: I haven't done anything except music since 1994. I teach a lot of guitar students from all over the world, and doing that, in addition to making my records (Opus 1 and Opus 2) plus touring all take up a ton of my time (which is good).
13. Since this question has come up in general on rec.music.progressive*, I'll ask you: best venue you've played? Worst?
Tom Hess: The best venue I've ever played at was a place that no longer exists. It was called Jackhammers located outside of Chicago. It held up to 1,500 people. There are a lot of places that get the prize for worst venue!
Mike Walsh: Best venue out here in Illinois we played was Jackhammers. The worst, well, let's not say, but there are a lot of animal inhabited barns that would come close to comparing in that category.
Scott Hess: I wasn't in the band the time Hess played Jackhammers, so my favorite place was the old legendary Chicago club, Thirsty Whale. At the time this was in my opinion the club to play. The drums just sounded awesome. I've never felt that good about the sound of the drums since (through a PA).
14. If you could play anywhere in the world, where would it be?
Tom Hess: Krakow, Poland and Rome, Italy.
15. Why these two specifically?
Tom Hess: There are other great places in Europe, too, but Krakow would be first on my list. My wife is from that city. She came to the US in 1992, after we got married (1998) we went back to Krakow, and visited other places in Europe, 3 times. It is the kind of place that one would have to spend a lot of time there to appreciate. The city is very old and beautiful and it is a very romantic city. I also want to play in the land of Chopin. (Although he was from Warsaw and Warsaw is not as beautiful anymore because it was 95% destroyed in W.W.II by the Germans.)
Mike Walsh: In between the pyramids in Egypt. I think it would be cool to look out and see them with 100,000 people around. To bad I can not say I was the first to do it though.
Tom Hess: That would be great too!
Scott Hess: Between the pyramids with me on top of the Sphinx. However, inside Stonehenge would be cool, too.
16. I see that along with metal, you are a fan of classical (as evident in the music, of course) of those you name Mahler, Chopin, Debussy, etc., who is your favorite?
Tom Hess: Chopin, definitely. Although on tracks like "Homage" and "Empire" the classical influence is much closer to the Baroque style of J. S. Bach. There are lots of great composers from the common practice period (1600-1900) that I like very much, but for different reasons. Chopin was a very unique composer and the ultimate Romantic (although Chopin himself may not agree). He is immortal. Brahms had some highly romantic music also that I love (such as his piece: "A German Requiem").
Mike Walsh: I would have to agree with Tom there. Chopin just seemed to be emotionally better at expressing himself than the others. And to do it on a piano to me is even more impressive. I think larger string sections or full on symphonic orchestras are better at getting emotion across due to the many timbers and piano's lack of legato (in my opinion).
17. It seems that many guitarists are releasing their interpretations of classical pieces - Alex Masi comes to mind immediately, Uli Jon Roth is another (I'm sure there are others) ... have you given any thought to doing this, either as a single track on an album or a full album?
Tom Hess: Mike [Walsh] and I have discussed the possibility of doing something like that. Both Mike and I have transcribed several pieces for electric guitar, but we have not recorded or played any of them with the band yet. Mike and I were giving this idea serious thought about a year ago, but now there seems to be a lot of people doing it. I don't know if the world really needs or wants to hear another Bach or Paganini piece played on guitar. Most of what I have transcribed has been Bach. Transcribing complex piano pieces would be much harder than the violin works of Bach or Paganini because the violin is much more closely related to guitar than the piano is. I'd like to do some Chopin, but I currently don't have the time that a Chopin piece would demand.
Mike Walsh: Tom and I thought of this, but we passed due to so many people doing it, but, we might consider doing original pieces that are period sounding and representative of the theory and melodic ideas of say the classical era. That might be more up our alley anyway. For now, Tom sort of does a song or two like that at the end of the album. Just in a romantic sense, not a counterpoint or rippin' guitar thing. More like a keyboard with classical guitar over the top.
18. Everybody seems to be asking what others' opinions are of recent events. Now, I won't ask the obvious question, because I assume that the WTC bombing is distressing to you, too. But, do you feel that the tenor of the times will change the kind of music we hear? I'm thinking of the late 60's anti-war themed music, and how that was reflected in what artists were creating.
Scott Hess: I think more aggressive music will find its place now.
Tom Hess: There will always be bands that will try to cash-in on the recent events either by writing patriotic music to sell CDs or to be anti-war to get publicity. Personally, I totally support the war and am 100% [behind] the US/British governments. I think that Bush and Blair have handled everything very well so far. I think that any American that opposes this war is a traitor. We must fight back hard or these attacks will just keep happening. I would bet that most of the anti-war people don't live near New York or the Pentagon and if more attacks do come and their family members are killed, I bet they will change their minds real fast. Vietnam was a totally different situation. I don't really expect to hear much anti-war music from American or British bands anytime soon.
Mike Walsh: I remember this, when it happened, one of our local radio stations in Chicago did a remix of a LIVE song ["Overcome" from their most recent release V - ed.]. It was really emotional and totally was the only thing worth listening to on the radio. I think that hard music is going to come around anyway, that's just the nature of our society now, but I can see how the anti war 60's vibe could take over soon. If things persist, you will see a new spirited patriotic trend start to arise, and I am cool with that even if it means bands like us due to our lack of vocals will have to wait our turn for radio play.
19. And what of the fans? Think we'll gravitate toward music that comments upon recent events or gravitate away, to escape?
Tom Hess: In America, who knows? Most Americans are only going to hear what the big corporations will let them hear anyway.
Mike Walsh: I think most fans already use music to do both. You can not just escape in music, you need to hear something that will put the fire back in you to take on the challenges of your life's struggles. So fans might be more inclined now to gravitate towards more patriotic tunes especially if things get ugly
20. And, uh, a lighter question... (that sounds a lot like Teenbeat question, I suppose): Last book you read or movie you saw?
Tom Hess: The last movie I saw was actually Harry Potter. The last book I read was Chopin In Paris.
Mike Walsh: The last movie that I saw was Snatch. Wow, it's been a long time for me.
21. Another often asked question - do think that the Internet will make it easier for bands to get their music and name known?
Mike Walsh: For sure. I am looking forward to the days of internet record companies and more self sufficient bands.
Scott Hess: The internet and technology makes it easier to find new bands but it also makes it cheaper to get their music.
Tom Hess: Yes, but the problem is that technology is making the bands chances of ever making money less and less. People now burn their friends CDs instead of buying the CDs in stores and mp3 is killing the financial gains for bands and labels. Lots of people criticize the big name labels and artists because they think that the big names are only out to make money. Maybe some are, but for the smaller bands / labels who really do music for the love of it, they are being hurt too because it takes money to do what we do. Without the money to make the art, fans will never hear it.
I want to thank the members of Hess for taking the time for this interview, and their great patience in making it happen. In addition to Opus 1 (and soon Opus 2), Hess are featured on Guitars At An Exhibition - Volume 1, as are Lunar Eclipse. Check out Tom's guitar lessons online.
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