50 Year Technicolor Dream:
An EXCLUSIVE interview with THE SYN’s Steve Nardelli
By Stephen SPAZ Schnee
Ever since 1965, Steve Nardelli has been a busy man. In that year, the British singer and guitarist co-founded an R&B combo in North London called The Syn. Within two years, the band had evolved into one of the hottest psych bands on the scene. By the time the band released their first two singles in 1967, Nardelli had been joined by Chris Squire on bass, Andrew Jackman on keyboards, Peter Banks on guitar and Gunnar Jökull Hákonarson on drums. Their most high profile gig was opening for The Jimi Hendrix Experience at the Marquee Club in London – the very same legendary show attended by The Beatles! When the band split up before the year was out, many assumed that The Syn’s journey had come to an end. How wrong they were! Squire and Banks ended up in Yes and the rest is history. When Yes became one of the biggest Prog Rock bands in the world, The Syn’s records became collector’s items. Though Nardelli didn’t cash in on the success of Yes, he remained friendly with the band as well as all of his former Syn bandmates.
Various business ventures kept Steve busy for the next three decades, but by 2004 he reformed The Syn with Peter Banks and early Syn drummer Martyn Adelman. They recorded a few tracks that were included on the two CD Original Syn collection, released on Nardelli’s own Umbrello label. When Banks departed, Nardelli asked Chris Squire if he was interested in adding bass to a track, which lead to Squire rejoining The Syn. 2005’s Syndestructible album was one of the most heralded Prog releases of the new millennium. The band toured for the album with former Yes drummer Alan White along for the ride (the live Armistace Day was recorded on this tour). Once the tour was over, Squire and the rest of the band returned to their day jobs and Nardelli formed a new version of The Syn featuring Francis Dunnery (It Bites) on guitar and Tom Brislin on keyboards. The resulting album, Big Sky, was an amazing collection of songs that introduced the band to a new generation of Rock, Pop and Prog fans. The Syn began their tour for the album, but had to cut it short when Nardelli got the call that his eco group’s site at NW Bicester was selected by the government to be one of four new eco towns. Quickly returning to the UK, the rest of the tour was scrapped. The last show performed by the Nardelli/Dunnery/Brislin line-up has just been released as Live Rosfest, a CD/DVD package that includes the brilliant sounding show on CD plus a pair of documentaries on the DVD.
With things moving forward on his eco town project, Nardelli has been recording a new Syn album with members of Swedish Prog band Moon Safari as well as coordinating the release of Live Rosfest. He is even looking ahead to the next Syn project. This is a man that doesn’t seem to slow down, nor does he want to. Thankfully, Stephen SPAZ Schnee was able to corner Nardelli for a few moments and chat about all things Syn-related…
(PLEASE NOTE: This interview was conducted 48 hours before Chris Squire publicly announced that he had been diagnosed with acute erythroid leukemia. Squire’s death a month later added poignancy to Steve Nardelli’s final statement in this interview.)
STEPHEN SPAZ SCHNEE: Live Rosfest has just been released. How are you feeling about the album and the reaction to it so far? It is certainly one of the very few ‘live’ albums that I’ve really been excited by.
STEVE NARDELLI: Thank you. A lot of people have had that reaction. Even when we mastered it, Jeremy Carol at Precision Mastering, who’s the top mastering company in the UK, said, “This is the best live album I’ve ever worked on.” What you hear is exactly as it was played – there’s been no editing at all. It literally was mixed and mastered as it was recorded. There’s nothing there that we had to redo or mess about with. The musicians get a lot of credit for that – they’re absolutely fantastic. It was very well recorded in the first place, which is why we released it. It was mixed by a very good engineer – Stefan Ingles – that I use here in England. We knew it was a good product.
SPAZ: Compared to the early Syn recordings from the ‘60s, this new release is, in my opinion, an entirely different beast altogether. There’s a lot more space and atmosphere in the music yet it has an earthiness to it. Even the new arrangements of older songs like “The 14 Hour Technicolor Dream,” “Grounded,” and “Flowerman” are given a new lease on life. They sound so spirited and fresh…
STEVE: That’s exactly how we approached them. We’re not just trying to do old stuff. We’re trying to create new music. That’s what I’ve done with every Syn album – Syndestructible, Big Sky and then the forthcoming album, Trustworks, which I’m working on with Moon Safari. We’re just finishing it up and I’m very happy with it. But in regards to Live Rosfest, I’m very pleased by the response. You never know how a live album will be received.
SPAZ: Was this the last performance by this line-up of The Syn?
STEVE: Yeah. We did that show at Rosfest and then I had to go back to England because my Eco Town project, which was a government project, had been selected. So, I had to put the band on ice. The idea was that we would reconvene, but the guys weren’t happy. I thought this Eco Town would take me a year – that was in 2009, and now it’s 2015. We’ve just started building now, but it’s been an unbelievably complicated project. So, now that the Eco Town is happening, I have the freedom to look into getting that new album out and touring for it. That’s the plan for the next six months.
SPAZ: A lot of modern releases by “veteran” artists tend to fall into that ‘elder statesmen attempting to sound relevant category,’ but they unfortunately sound like elder statesmen attempting to sound relevant. However, on everything since Syndestructible, I believe that you’ve succeeded in sounding relevant on all levels. Is it because you’ve chosen to surround yourself with fresh collaborators with each project?
STEVE: I don’t know the reason for it, but I do know that when I work with other musicians, I don’t have a fixed idea in my head. I like everybody to contribute. I’m very selective about who I work with. I’ve tended to put together the right people for the right albums. The Syndestructible album – we spent a lot of time on that. The two Stacey brothers are world class musicians. Paul Stacey worked with the Black Crowes, he worked with Oasis –he’s a well-known producer in the UK and fantastic musician. He toured with Tom Jones recently. He’s a top guy. His brother Jeremy is one of the best session musicians in the world. He played with Robbie Williams. He’s the drummer with High Flying Birds, which is Noel Gallagher’s band. I like Noel Gallagher. He was around when we made the album. It was in the studio where Oasis were doing a lot of the work at the time. We were making Syndestructible, so Noel Gallagher was having a good listen to the album. He liked it a lot, by the way. But those two Stacey brothers were great – very much a part of what makes Syndestructible a really good album.
SPAZ: My favorite track off that album is “City of Dreams.”
STEVE: Yeah, me too. It’s a really good track – it flows really well. The lead track, “Cathedral of Love,” went down very well in England.
SPAZ: Do you feel that some of the critics will continually compare your new material to something that you released 50 years ago or compare it to Yes, a band that you were never a member of?
STEVE: Well, sometimes your greatest asset is your greatest liability. The association with Yes is extremely good for The Syn, of course. They’re one of the greatest Prog bands, certainly one of the top two or three in their day. That association has been very good for us and obviously Peter Banks and Chris Squire played with us subsequently as well. But at the same time, The Syn was never Yes. The Syn is The Syn and Yes is Yes. There’s the association to Tony Kaye who played with The Syn. And there’s Alan White who recently toured with The Syn and plays on the live Armistice Day album. In a way, we’ve locked onto that Yes marketplace so I would say it’s been a much bigger advantage than it has been a disadvantage. I think people expect the worst from a band like The Syn who has had a rebirth after a long break but the response has genuinely been very positive.
SPAZ: The great reviews for your studio albums must have been very rewarding.
STEVE: Big Sky was voted by USA Progressive Music as the best Progressive music album of that year – 2009.
SPAZ: That shows me that people care about songs because…
STEVE: There’s nothing Progressive about that album (laughs). It really is an album of songs.
SPAZ: That sounds like Francis Dunnery’s influence. Francis comes from the band It Bites. Ironically enough, It Bites without Francis is more Prog than when he was in the band…
STEVE: Absolutely, yeah. Francis is a song man – he’s all about the melodies.
SPAZ: You’ve been making music for five decades, yet there’s still that freshness, excitement and joy in your voice.
STEVE: I get really excited about recording. I love it. I take the recording of the albums very, very seriously. I had the long break, so it’s new to me in a way. I was doing it in the ‘60s, and then I’ve been doing it now for the last ten years or more. I’ve had this break in between but I’ve always been writing. I’ve got hundreds of songs. I just want to try and get them out. I’m already thinking about getting the next album done and starting another one. I work with lots of different musicians all the time. There’s this guy who just finished work with Peter Gabriel – I’m just doing some demos with him at the moment. He’s got his own studio, and he said, “Come up and we’ll go over these demos.” However, I’ve got this other album to finish first. Music has always been a great love of mine and it’s never left me. I’m excited by it. If you hear that in my voice, then that’s good.
SPAZ: What is next for Steve Nardelli?
STEVE: At the moment, I’m concentrating on promoting the Live Rosfest album. A lot of people have put a lot of work into the album. The filmmaker of the 21st Century documentary, the mastering and mixing guys, the band – there’s hours and hours of work. There’s nothing rushed about it. So, I want to make sure we promote it properly. It’s interesting – there’s quite a lot of interest for Rosfest and that’s not easy with a live album. I’m encouraged by that. We are finishing the new album, which will probably come out later on this year. That’s what we’re aiming for. It follows after this album nicely. That was the idea – building up to a new album. My Eco Town is going to have an Eco Festival to launch it, which is usually with a lot of local bands. So, that’s going to be very exciting. Also, we’ll be looking at a fair bit of touring. And then there’s the question on how we structure a band going forward.
SPAZ: Any chance of working with some of The Syn’s many former members again?
STEVE: Peter Banks sadly passed a couple years ago. Of the originally classic five, there’s only Chris and I left. They were all great musicians. Andrew Jackman was the original keyboard player – he’s the father of Progressive music in my opinion. Gunnar was a fantastic drummer. It’s very sad – they all died quite young. I think Chris and I need to get back together again and do another album at some point.
Thanks to Steve Nardelli
Special thanks to Alex Jimenez, Dana House and Nick Kominitsky
Dedicated to the memory of Chris Squire