Calgary progressive band Diatessaron is a very new discovery to us but what a great find this seriously under-the-radar band is. Maybe it’s because they’re an Indie band and haven’t had much support over their eight year existence but it ain’t for lack of output. Their recently released debut full-length studio album Sunshine (following three earlier EP’s) is just that – an unabashedly joyous, melodic and highly sophisticated recording filled with passion, intelligence (both lyrically and musically) and songs that are often very complex but always highly accessible and emotionally affective.
Diatessaron’s music is mostly modern melodic, highly energetic prog rock with elements of metal, alternative, occasional bursts of noise-rock and a real love of melodic pop. The band features guitarists Carl Janzen and Darren Young, bassist Erik Smistad, Drummer Stephan Bots and the fantastic vocals of Simon TJ. We recently had the chance to talk with Young about how the band formed, their musical influences and how they created their exciting new album. After the interview you can check out all of Sunshine from the band’s BandCamp site where you can also purchase a copy and check out their entire back catalog of proggy goodness!
Hey guys, it’s great to speak with you and discuss your fantastic new album!
Hey, thanks! It’s great to speak with you and your very exciting webzihe!
Bad on my end, but I hadn’t heard of Diatessaron until very recently and I’m guessing that many of our readers haven’t either. Can you talk a bit about how long the band has been around, how you guys met and decided on your pop and classical-infused take on progressive rock?
We’ve been around for over eight years now, but it’s really been the last two years that things have been getting more serious. Most of the band went to high school together, and Carl, Stephan and I have played music with each other since that time. Simon and I both went on to study music at the University of Calgary, so the band and its sound developed from that point in our lives. Everyone in this band is quite diverse in their tastes, but we all agreed early on that this band would strive to do things that were a little different.
Who are some of your main musical influences? I obviously detect an older prog rock ethos but filtered through a modern alt-rock sensibility. Hopefully I’m not too far off there!
I think you’re on track! Definitely some of our influence comes from Yes, Rush, and other bands of that ilk, but as I mentioned before we all have many influences. Our other closest influences would probably be bands like Coheed & Cambria, The Mars Volta, and a dash of Weezer. Then maybe we’ll toss in a bit of classical structure (I’d say Mozart but that might be overselling it), and some noisy minimalism.
Given that your band name refers to early Christianity I believe, is there a religious significance to your music or does the name Diatessaron mean something specific to you?
The name actually came from a course I took in Mathematics And Music. It’s a word that was used to describe the interval of the perfect fourth – which totally makes sense when you relate it to four gospels spun into one, but I had no idea at first. I would say that no, the name was not intended for religious significance. That being said, however, I do tend to include things in my lyrics about searching for meaning and perhaps that could be construed in a religious way.
There’s such a joyous aspect to your music. Do you feel that flies in the face of this modern angst-filled culture we often live in?
I wrote the “Sunshine Trilogy” with the goal of an optimistic and hopeful end, so in that respect I definitely agree that it flies in the face of angst. Our music can still be affected by those feelings, though. It took a lot of personal suffering for this record to reach its full completion, but I am pleased that the overall result is something that doesn’t necessarily sound that way. Plus I would be totally lying if I said that I didn’t love creating something that is counter to the popular ideal.
How do you feel about what you achieved with Sunshine versus your earlier EP’s?
I feel that we really stepped up our game on Sunshine. We have always played well as a band and have great chemistry live, but we were never able to capture that on record. Our previous EPs have some really good music, at least in my opinion, but they were rushed in the recording stages and are seriously lacking in layers and depth. This time we were adamant that we would lay down one million guitar tracks, add as many bells and whistles as we could, and have a fully realized album in our hands.
Is the title of the new album perhaps a nod to 60’s and 70’s Sunshine or Baroque Pop? Despite running a metal site, I’m a “closet” fan of that style of music because the songs and arrangements were so excellent and, like your music, there were often a lot of darker subtle edges to it that were often missed by casual listeners.
I’m a huge fan of that style of music, and yes there is some intent there. Maybe not exactly in copying a genre name, but certainly the title of the album is supposed to reflect a situation that sounds beautiful but the reality is less ideal. On the album cover you see a mysterious figure (my dad) holding an umbrella, getting rained on while excitement happens all around him. My idea of “sunshine” here is the search for something perfect while living in an imperfect world.
The twin guitar leads are a great aspect to your band from the arpeggios, varying textures and sophisticated, often jazzy chords. Are there specific roles for both you and the other guitarist, Carl?
Carl tells me what to do and I obey! Seriously, though, I think our roles have gotten more defined over time. We always tend to trade off little lead lines, but overall I would say that Carl is the one that adds the most texture and creates the really ambient sounds. He also does all of those really great solos on the record. My parts, on the other hand, are more structural and rhythmically driven. Since I do a bit more of the song writing than Carl, the basic parts of each song are usually in my guitar lines and Carl gives them a boost with harmonies, effects, and textures.
Your vocalist, Simon TJ has such a great voice that is just perfect for your music. His voice is highly emotional and powerful without at all being cloying, even with the occasional vibrato he uses. How integral is his voice to the Diatessaron sound?
Integral it is. I have always said that no member of this band is truly replaceable, and in Simon’s case there is no doubt. He has a beautifully unique voice, and no matter how many Geddy Lee comparisons we get I feel that Simon has his own thing going for him. Plus I have never heard Geddy Lee do Tibetan throat singing, which Simon most certainly does on a regular basis.
Before we get into the music on Sunshine, I’ve gotta ask about that album cover. Clowns on a sound stage? Very cool but kind of out there don’t you think?
It needed to be out there! We had a lot of ideas for the album cover, some of them darker and more stark but this one seemed like the most fun to create. A bunch of friends and acquaintances got together really early one morning in downtown Calgary so we could get this bizarre street shot. As I said before, it’s supposed to show this disparity between one man’s personal struggle and the rest of the world celebrating around it. Our photographer Kenneth Locke likened it to one of the Heironymus Bosch triptychs – just a bunch of activity everywhere you look.
There are some very cool psychedelic jams on Sunshine that add a great texture to the album. The intro to The Hummingbird and the middle section on the three part Sunshine suite in particular. Do you feel that adds a nice texture to your otherwise more straightforward melodic approach to your songs?
As probably every band will say a bunch of times throughout their career, we wanted to capture our live sounds as much as possible. We do not like silence on our stage, so we pretty much always fill the spaces between songs with ambience or little instrumentals. On the record we do the same thing to tie the songs together and make it a little more cohesive. Some people have told us that our songs are too all over the place, but I love that and I think we tie them together very well.
Can you talk a bit about your rhythmic approach? I’m not a musician but there does seem to be a lot of syncopation going on (especially on songs like Sky Blue) that adds a real energy to your music.
We play a lot of counting games. Some songs that I’ve written are based on numbers that drive the rhythm. So we end up with a bunch of mixed meters and oddly accented bits. This may sound a little weird, but there are a lot of moments on Sunshine that are influenced by Meshuggah. We’ll have a section of a song that is in an odd-time signature, but Stephan will play 4/4 time underneath in the same way that Meshuggah’s drummer will make a bunch of chaos sound totally regular. I personally want to experiment more with that idea for our next set of songs.
I really love how you guys create such accessible songs that never sacrifice intelligence or sophistication. Some of your songs on “Sunshine” have a very accessible sound that I think a lot of mainstream music fans would love – the opening song “All The Way” and the very uplifting closing song “Moonshine” in particular. Hopefully you’ll be able to get your music out to a larger audience soon!
I hope so too! We try to balance the progressive stuff with poppier numbers and I think that has gotten us more attention than if everything was “out there” all the time.
Outside of the Sunshine Suite, I really loved the very upbeat “Sky Blue”. The vocal melody and chord work are just stellar. Is that also one of your favorite songs on the new album?
It’s definitely one of mine and it’s also one of the older songs on the album. We previously released that track on our Sky Blue EP in 2010, but decided to redo it for Sunshine. As I said before, we really wanted to improve on our past recordings so we literally decided to do a couple of the tracks over. I’ll always have a soft spot for “Sky Blue”- I’m a big pop-punk nerd and that song just, you know, gets me.
Obviously the Sunshine suite is the cornerstone of the album. The vocal choral opening is quite beautiful and the three parts have their own distinct aspects – the pastoral opening of part 1 (Sunshine) that ends with a driving intensity. The beautiful joyous pop sounds of part 2 (The Horizon) which also has another cool psychedelic section and the more stark part 3 (Never Ends) that ends very powerfully. It’s one of the best song suites we’ve heard all year and, in our opinion could easily vault you guys to the top of the heap for modern prog bands. Do you feel that’s your strongest work to date and would you care to discuss how you composed it and what you’re attempting to convey with such an ambitious composition?
Those are very kind words! I know that I am proud of that song, although I am also very proud of our Monument EP which was an even bigger, proggier blast of sound. The idea for Sunshine came to me not long after we finished recording Monument. Essentially, this melody popped into my head along with the words “Sunshine, the horizon never ends” and it got stuck there for a few years. I decided that I would take that melody and chop it into three pieces so that each section of the song would be based on one melodic fragment. At the end of the entire suite is the only time you hear the melody in full, which was an idea I borrowed from classical music, specifically from my favorite classical guitar piece “Nocturnal” by Benjamin Britten. By fracturing the melody and piecing it back together I wanted to convey a sort of recovery process through music, ultimately stating at the end that life is infinite and there is always hope.
Thanks for such a great exposition of the song! Are you guys on a record label now? If not, how are you getting the word out about the band?
We are sans label right now. A lot of our press has happened from our own legwork but we’ve recently been helped a ton by our friends Felicity Hall and Sue Ashcroft for their lovely tour managing and general knack for telling people about our music. We’ve also been working for the past few months with Hold Tight PR to promote the album. It’s difficult doing all of the work yourself, so we are extremely grateful to be meeting people now who are willing to fly the flag for us a bit.
What’s next for Diatessaron? Any tour plans?
Our plan is to do a mainland European tour in Summer 2016 and we’re going to be spending some time over the next few months writing grants, begging, and robbing banks to make that possible. Other than that, I hope to start writing for the next record. I already have an idea for it and can’t wait to play some new music!
Thanks for a great, very in-depth interview!
You’re very welcome. Thanks for chatting with us!
Interview by Jeff Stevens
If you want to keep up with our reviews, interviews and other news in the world of progressive metal, please subscribe to our email list and don’t forget to “Like” us on Facebook (via the sidebar link) or follow us on Twitter (@Progmetalzone).