Jazz interview with Dmitry Ermakov – composer, arranger, producer and keyboardist with MetaQuorum, an international Meld Music project. An interview by email in writing.
JazzBluesNews.Space: – First let’s start with where you grew up, and what got you interested in music?
Dmitry Ermakov: – I was born and grew up in USSR, in Leningrad (now St. Petersburg, Russia). My interest in music was kindled by my parents who both sang in a student choir and actively wanted me to become a musician. And that’s what I myself wanted to do, too. So it was suggested I take up cello, but at the music school I was told my hands are not quite suitable for cello and I was offered the violin instead. I was quite keen on cello but didn’t like the idea of playing violin at all, so I began playing piano instead. I was five at the time. When I was seven, I successfully passed the entry exams for a specialized music college – M. Glinka Choral College at the Leningrad State Academic Capella – where I studied piano, singing, conducting, solfeggio and harmony, music history, music theory and composition. The college only taught disciplines connected with classical music, but I became interested in rock and jazz. Actually, both jazz and rock were frowned upon in the USSR, many bands and records were officially forbidden by the KGB Cultural Committee. Fortunately, I had quite openminded conducting and piano teachers. Our conducting teacher would even smuggle in jazz and rock records from her trips abroad. I got my hands on a xerocopy of Oscar Peterson’s Jazz Etudes and was studying by myself, trying to get the hang of swing, chord progressions and phrases. I also learned pieces and sequences I liked by ear and improvised on top.
In 1983 my interest in jazz and rock grew to such an extent that I left Choral College and entered the Jazz Faculty of Mussorgsky Music College to study jazz theory and saxophone under Gennady Goldstein. It was the Andropov time so there was a lot of soviet ideological bullshit flying around e.g.: At the induction before the course even began, the new students were given a ‘hearty welcome’ by the Director who said: “You might think you came here to study music, right? Well, this is only partially right. The main reason you are here is to be trained to become warriors at the ideological front of the Soviet Union!” Gennady Goldstein was a great teacher, but I was quite disappointed with the atmosphere and general level of tuition in other disciplines, including piano. I felt I wasn’t learning what I needed or wanted, so I left. I took a day job and began playing with underground jazz/funk/rock musicians and bands. I started my own projects, too. That was in the second half of 1980s – early 90s. After USSR collapsed, I left for UK in 1993. But that is another story.
JBN.S: – How did your sound evolve over time? What did you do to find and develop your sound?
DE: – Well, when I started playing in the Soviet music underground we didn’t have much choice of electronic instruments or recording equipment, but I was lucky to have my own Steinway baby-grand at home. My sax was soviet-made and not very good, so I soon stopped playing it cos I couldn’t get excited by the sound. I got my first soviet-made electric organ “Yunost’ (Youth) when I was still at school. I thought it sounded quite OK at first, but actually, it was awful! But I routed it through a couple of guitar pedals and managed to get some decent sounds out of it. Later on, while playing in ПАNIKA, FOX-BOX and Room 118 (Комната 118) I had access to GDR-made Vermona synths and organs which were a kind of Moog and Hammond equivalents, and in 1988 I got my hands on a Korg Poly 800-II, which was a vast improvement. We were lucky to get daily access to a recording studio in Leninsky Comsomol Theatre (now Baltiysky Dom) for six months where we were rehearsing our new program with my Room 118 project. The studio had Yamaha grand pianos so that was a great addition to the sound pallet. It also had a professional mixing board and 4-channel Reel-to-Reel recorder etc. which was also very good and changed the sound for the better. Before we used two side by side soviet-made Real-to-Reels with tweaked recording heads – invented by our bass player, Victor Mikheyev – so we could record 4 channels at once or overdubs but the pro machine, was better, of course.
ПАNIKA was a trio – keys, guitar, bass + vocals by all three – we didn’t have a drummer so we used physical reel-loops with drum patterns. Due to the DIY equipment and low-quality instruments that project sounded like, well, quite something…
Next project, FOX-BOX, had a bigger line up which included a real drummer, percussionist and sound-engineer. We played live gigs in small theatrical halls with better acoustics and instruments.
Room 118 was an 8-piece jazz-funk fusion band (trumpet, keys, guitar, bass, drums, percussion, sitar, tuba) with a line-up of some of the best musicians from Leningrad’s ‘official’ as well as underground bands. They were really accomplished players (e.g. jazz-avantgarde trumpeter and composer Vyacheslav Guyvoronsky, Roman Dubinnikov – drummer from ‘official’ folk-rock band Yabloko (Apple) etc.). Plus they had much better instruments so it had an original sound close to 1980s Western fusion and jazz-funk bands.
Victor Mikheyev and I were the driving force behind all three projects. We used and made various FX and soundscapes which we mixed in live and during recordings. We still use this technique today.
Fast-forward to MetaQuorum which, again, evolved from my meeting Viktor Mikheyev, this time on-line in 2012 after a 22-year gap. MetaQuorum’s first album, Midnight Sun, was recorded at various places – Russia, Bulgaria, UK and Holland – then produced, mixed and mastered in 2014 at the Loft Music Studios, Newcastle-upon-Tyne, UK. Needless to say, the music instruments, equipment and production methods have changed so much since the 80s. so MetaQuorum sounds quite different from my early Soviet underground projects. I played primarily Yamaha Motif for Midnight Sun, with some lines and sounds being recorded on Microkorg Synthesizer, various Reason synths and sequencers and other Soft Synths such as Massive etc. The whole album was recorded, produced, mixed and mastered using Cubase DAW. I’m quite fond of this album because it was the first music I was able to record after a long gap but we didn’t quite achieved a big, lush and at the same warm enough sound to the extent I wanted. I think it was partially because we had limited resources and not enough studio time to figure out the sound precisely enough and, also, we had to program drums ourselves because we hadn’t found a drummer yet. At the end of the mixing stage I met a Dutch drummer Koos van der Velde and we re-recorded drums for two tracks, which made them immediately sound better.
Koos was a great find because he wasn’t just a fantastic drummer, able to play a whole range of music styles, but also a sound-engineer. He moved to the UK, so we changed our modus operandi and began recording, producing and mixing new music by ourselves in the two small home studios we set-up in Weardale in North Pennines, UK. We also pooled together and upgraded both instruments and recording equipment including a notable new addition of Native Instruments’ Komplete Kontrol keyboard and software instruments. Since from now on (2015 onward) we were in control of all stages of production from score to recording, arranging, producing and, also, mixing, we were able to significantly improve sound and get it the way we wanted. We even had an attempt at mastering but quickly realised it was above our ‘paygrade’. The solution soon presented itself when I was contacted via Instagram by Christopher Longwood, a mastering engineer at SugarHIll Recording Studios, Houston, TX, USA. He said he really liked The Circle & The Square track from MetaQuorum’s debut album Midnight Sun and that he would love to try his hand at mastering our new material. Chris had his special mastering technique whereby he did not use limiting at all but still produced very large-sounding masters. They were also very warm because the mix was sent via analogue mastering equipment and recorded on a Reel-to-Reel Apex machine. We were more than happy with the results – we found our sound and so we worked in this way on the whole of Witchcraft Jazz album.
In a nutshell, I suppose it’s fair to say that MetaQuorum’s sound has got progressively bigger, with more sub-base and sub-kick so that it resonates through your whole body. We boosted lower frequency, and also use surround plug-ins so you hear the various instruments in different parts of your head. We moved the drums to right, for instance, and used 3D imaging to make it feel real. So our sound is big, lush and warm, there’s almost always some piano, either acoustic or electronic or both, and we often record our own soundscapes for the tracks.
JBN.S: – What practice routine or exercise have you developed to maintain and improve your current musical ability especially pertaining to rhythm?
DE: – I play scales, chord sequences and just improvise spontaneously in addition to playing baroque and classical pieces (Frescobaldi, Handel, Bach, Beethoven etc.) or just fiddling around with various possibilities suggested by George Russell’s Lydian Chromatic Concept of Tonal Organization. Many of my compositions are polymetric or/and polyrhythmic and so I have to train and experiment with both meter and rhythm. I train with a metronome and use various exercises: some from Igor Golubev’s system, some from the set of Roman Dubinnikov (drummer of Room 118) and others I invented myself. I also use Chinese Qigong metal balls to keep my fingers agile.
JBN.S: – Which harmonies and harmonic patterns do you prefer now?
DE: – Well, I don’t really have any favourite harmonies or patterns. I use whatever each composition demands, whatever comes during the process of composing, arranging and producing – from blues, bebop, jazz-fusion (including tritone substitution and suspended sequences ‘a la electric Miles’), to rock and baroque progressions.
JBN.S: – What do you love most about your new album 2018: <MetaQuorum – Witchcraft Jazz>, how it was formed and what you are working on today?
DE: – Witchcraft Jazz is a special album for me because it was the first time I could record very complex pieces I’d started working on back at the end of the 80s–beginning of the 90s in the Soviet Underground. After Room 118 project folded in 1990 due to financial problems as the USSR started collapsing, I withdrew into myself and was writing scores in a dilapidated apartment in the centre of St. Petersburg. I just had a so-so upright piano and no other equipment. The pieces I was writing couldn’t be played and recorded at that time, but I revisited some of these scores for Witchcraft Jazz (tracks Witchcraft Jazz, Limping Mathematician, Parallax, Chicken & Egg), reworked and re-arranged them for the new line-up and new possibilities of modern music instruments and production equipment. So they were kind of ‘reborn’ and began sounding the way I heard them in my head when I was writing them. Also, we recorded several pieces based on Victor Mikheyev’s material which we also completely reworked using a wide range of techniques, including ‘self-sampling’ etc. – that was a new way of working for us and felt very creative. It was great working so intensively, Koos lived just around the corner, we literally lived and breathed Witchcraft Jazz for a year or so.
At the moment I’m working on material and matrix and materials for a new single. I’d like to involve some St. Petersburg (Russia) and German musicians. We’ll see how it goes and where it’ll take us, but the wider idea is to begin recording our next instrumental album. I’m thinking of making a retro-release of live concert and studio performances recorded in 1998, if we can restore the audio to sufficient quality. And – we now have enough material to record MetaQuorum’s first song album, that’s very exciting.
JBN.S: – What’s the balance in music between intellect and soul?
DE: – I think this is very individual and depends on the kind of music preferences one has. There are all sorts of music styles where this balance is very different, so I can only speak for myself. If we speak about composing, well, different pieces come about in different ways: sometimes they develop from spontaneous improvisation, which is more on the ‘soul’ side of the balance; sometimes they are scored, and that is more on the ‘intellect side’; while others are a combination of these two, and that’s equipoise, I suppose. If we speak about playing, performing, then no matter what it is, whether it’s totally improvised or totally scored, if you don’t put all your soul into it, it won’t touch those places in other people’s souls which make shivers go up the spine and goose bumps run along the skin – in other words, it’ll be just a mediocre performance.
JBN.S: – Please any memories from gigs, jams, open acts and studio sessions which you’d like to share with us?
DE: – Well, there are plenty, but one of the funniest episodes happened when I was playing in one of my first bands in Soviet Underground. Our drummer was 10-15 years older than the rest of the band and his day job was a firefighter. Normally, there were no clashes between his job and ‘hobby’ but… We were due to play a club neat the USSR-Finnish border. It was a sell-out. sold out. We all met up early to rehearse before the gig, but our drummer was completely out of meter, couldn’t play at all, kept dropping his sticks and stuff, and finally he said: “Sorry guys, we were putting a fire out this morning and I got hit on the head by a brick. Think I’ve got concussion. I’m going home to lie down.” was OK at first but I feel like shit now. I think I’ve got concussion, so I’d better catch a train home and lie down.” So he packed his gear and left, the guitarist and bass player cleared out with him, so there was only myself and the sound-engineer. To cut a long story short, the crowd showed up hopping mad the gig was cancelled, they got pretty rowdy, banging on the club doors, breaking windows etc. The sound engineer and I only just managed to high tail it down a fire escape, abandoning the gear and escape to the bus station!
JBN.S: – How can we get young people interested in jazz when most of the standard tunes are half a century old?
DE: – That’s a very good question and it was already answered by Miles Davis decades ago both in words and by his music: jazz should not just depend on mainstream like be-bop, hard-bop and even cool etc., it must always continue developing, incorporating new techniques, new ideas from other styles in the way jazz-fusion of the 80s-90s did, otherwise it becomes stagnant and irrelevant to the new generations because they can’t relate to it. Unfortunately, after Miles died, many of those who worked with him have mostly returned to playing the tradition or continued playing the same kind of 80s-90s, 20th century jazz-fusion in the 21st century without much innovation, so jazz became kind of irrelevant to the kids, a kind of ‘granddad music’. On other hand, styles like jazz-avantgarde and free jazz, which were cutting-edge decades ago have also become largely irrelevant for modern audiences. One can retort saying, “Well, people still listen to Bach, Mozart, Vivaldi etc. centuries later”. That is very true but there’s a fundamental difference: the real geniuses of 20th century jazz were recorded so we can listen to the original performances of those who invented the plethora of jazz style and for my money, no-one can play that better than they did then. That is why, if we want to bring jazz back onto youngsters iPods, we need new original tunes and a whole new wave of fresh and innovative ‘jazz’ which goes far beyond 1950s.
JBN.S: – John Coltrane said that music was his spirit. How do you understand the spirit and the meaning of life?
DE: – It’s difficult to define what spirit is and different folks, philosophies and religious would have different definitions of the term so, I would just say this: Music is the most immaterial, etherial form of art. Therefore, music, real music, is an expression of the unfathomable, beyond words essence of human beings. Meaning of life is an existential question, everyone will have a different answer, and it will evolve over a person’s life, from one period to another. But, I think, ultimately you could say the meaning of life is to search for your own primordial essence, and stay true to it once you’ve found it.
JBN.S: – If you could change one thing in the musical world and it would become a reality, what would that be?
DE: – That’s quite simple, I think. I would discourage publishing bad and mediocre music in any shape or form. Then the real talent will have chance to develop and reach the audiences.
JBN.S: – Who do you find yourself listening to these days?
DE: – Oh, I listen to anything which catches my interest regardless of genre or period, from Frescobaldi and Handel, to Mozart, Rachmaninov, Charlie Parker, Oscar Peterson to Miles Davis, George Duke, Zawinul, Prince, Bootsy Collins, Frank Zappa, U.K., Snarky Puppy, FORQ, Gogo Penguin, Vulfpeck, films soundtracks etc.
JBN.S: – Let’s take a trip with a time machine, so where and why would you really wanna go?
DE: – I assume that this has to be some time/place connected with music… Well, it depends how many places I could go! I think, I’d head for the Baroque period, and the time when funk, jazz-fusion and prog-rock were big.
JBN.S: – I have been asking you so far, now may I have a question from yourself…
DE: – What is your reply to your own question: “If you could change one thing in the musical world and it would become a reality, what would that be?”
JBN.S: – Thank you for answers. If I could change one thing about the music world it would be so that people could will visit all jazz and blues festivals. And do you want to hear something crazy? Today meny sounds was recorded with something like 10 tracks, with auto tune, and was written and produced by one man who could be called a musical genius? This is bad and it should be changed!!!
Interview by Simon Sargsyan