Messenger | Interview with Khaled Lowe and Jaime Gomez Arellano

Formed by Khaled Lowe, once a member of hardcore mob Raise the Dead, Barnaby Maddick previously in psychedelic doom act Purson and later joined by renowned producer Jaime Gomez Arellano (Cathedral, Electric Wizard), London-based folk/prog-psych outfit Messenger have just released one the most dazzling and beautifully constructed albums you’ll hear this year. Displaying a blistering blend of folk melodies, prog tones and psychedelic nuances, “Illusory Blues” will surely be declared a classic album in the coming months.
We recently spoke with Khaled Lowe and Jaime Gomez Arellano about their debut album, their musical influences and the upcoming European tour with Katatonia.

Messenger formed in the spring of 2012 so you’re an incredibly new band. How did it come about, did you already know each other from other projects?

Khaled: I had written a few songs which appeared in different guises from the versions on the album. A couple were the result of meetings with Barnaby and some were ideas from experimental jams with a whole bunch of other people. Barnaby and I decided to give ourselves a month in a studio to record some of the material we'd collaborated on, and Gomez was my first choice as a producer because of the range and quality of his work that I'd heard. Originally, there was no intent even to form a band; we had no idea how many songs we would write (many of them were created spontaneously) or what the end result would sound like. I knew Barnaby from the punk/hardcore scene, and I'd jammed in various 'bands' with Dan and James, or just round at each others’ places. Dan and Gomez also played together in the past.

You’ve recently released your debut album entitled “Illusory Blues” and that’s quite adventurous for a young act that has been together for less than two years. Do you feel that you gave the band enough time to grow before recording your first record?

Khaled: In a sense, yes. I feel that "Illusory Blues" is a very honest depiction of where we were at the time, both emotionally and musically speaking. We hadn't foreseen that this would become a full album or even a full band. In another sense, it's been rather challenging to translate the emotions conveyed by certain instruments like the flute or the violin or the mellotron into a conventional live band setup with just guitars and keys. So in hindsight, had we known we were going to tour, we'd have probably written more specifically for that. But it's both challenging and fun to rework it into a live context. And with time and space permitting, there's no reason we can't expand in the future.

Gomez: A lot of it was spontaneous and improvised. Part of my work as producer is to structure songs and come up with arrangements and new parts. Having two talented guys with good ideas helped a lot. We were in the studio for a month re arranging old songs, writing new ones and recording. It was a lot of work, pretty intense but it all worked out and that's how we decided to make a band out of it.

“Illusory Blues” offers some incredibly strong and mature compositions that exude personality and confidence in what you’re doing. How did you achieve that and what is about this band that makes you work so well together?

Khaled: Thank you kindly for that beautiful compliment! I think what makes it work is respect, honesty and hard work. We've all been involved in the music scene and industry for many years, we've all played in many bands and we all obsess over a range of bands old and new. It's in our blood and we're very passionate about it; we make music for the love of creating art and expressing ourselves. If something is organic and serendipitous and not rushed, then those traits will shine through. I personally love the imperfections and the nature of Gomez' production; keeping everything 'real' and sincere; and because we all know each other as close friends, the chemistry was already there. I think being able to listen to each other as well, devoid of ego, is very important.

Gomez: Khaled and Barnaby come up with very good ideas. I think I'm good at organising those and embellishing them with arrangements. Our personalities are quite different too and I think that's part of what makes it work.

Messenger has been described as a progressive, psychedelic rock band and we can certainly hear the influence of artists like Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin on ”Illusory Blues”. How do you feel about such labels? Do you think they represent the most accurate description of your music?

Gomez: I feel totally cool with people using labels such as Floyd and Zep as these are bands that have been part of the lives of everyone in Messenger. People can think whatever they want, I've seen all sorts of references so far which I think is a good thing. We seem to be getting the "prog" tag quite a bit around, which is interesting as we never really saw ourselves as such, but it's always hard to describe your own music. There are many different influences in this album, musical and non-musical. We all listen to many types of music from contemporary classical, to early 90's black metal and everything in between. We just write what feels right at the time.

Are there any particular influences that you would say “Illusory Blues” is indebted to?

Khaled: For me personally, it's less indebted to musical influences, I quite like to focus on ambience and sound and light and shade rather than genre, whether listening or performing.

Gomez: The fact that there was no "boundaries" during the writing/recording process had a lot to do with it. We had no set ideas or were trying to achieve a specific sound, we just went with what felt right at the time and never shied off about trying something that we thought it could work, regardless if it was a bit of a crazy idea or not.

The album was produced by Gomez, who has worked with a number of great bands such as Cathedral and Electric Wizard in the past. So Khaled how long have you known him?

Khaled: I'd met him several times through mutual friends maybe 6 or 7 years ago before I was familiar with his production work. Later on I realised a lot of my close friends held him in high regards, and he had a stellar track record working with bands like Hexvessel, Mothlite, Ulver, Ghost, Cathedral, etc. we put two and two together… Before I'd known him properly; he played in Mothlite and him and Dan were also in a metal band together that an ex drummer from an old band of mine had joined after he left... So there were trails of Gomez everywhere, both socially and sonically! We've been friends quite a while now!

What was the recording process like for “Illusory Blues” at Orgone Studios?

Khaled: It was very intense! We were there pretty much every day for over a month. Some days we wrapped at 5 in the afternoon; other days we only got into the flow at one o'clock in the morning. One very important discipline I learned from Gomez in particular was not to try to force creativity to occur; some days the 'vibe' wasn't there; other times we were in full flow for 5 days without stopping. There was also a lot of spontaneity; vocal melodies and string arrangements, etc... composed on the spot. That was very liberating; but yes, it was also very full on. Blood, sweat and tears, quite literally...

Gomez: As Khaled says, it was very intense. Both Khaled and Barnaby had little "proper" studio experience, so I would get frustrated at times. But looking back it was a really nice experience and we are very happy with the end result. We spent just over a month recording, then I spend about another month and bit arranging, mixing and mastering. It was the first record I mixed on my Solid State Logic desk and it was all done in analog and mastered to analog tape. I work this way for all records I mix and master.

“Illusory Blues” has a lot going on in terms of arrangements and nuances. What's it like playing these songs in a live setting?

Gomez: When we were recording the album we didn't even know that a band was gonna come out of it. We really didn't think of the limitations that this could bring into a live setup as there was no band as such yet, it was just a project. So the album wasn't written with that in mind. The song "Midnight" has 3 different guitar tunings in just one song! We've found clever ways to recreate the album with the new 5 piece line-up. When we get the opportunity, we'd like to bring in someone to play the string parts.

You’re opening for Katatonia on their upcoming unplugged tour throughout Europe next month. What can we expect from that tour? Will you play an acoustic set as well?

Gomez: We'll be playing set of about 40 minutes. We're not an acoustic band as such (even though we love acoustic instruments) and therefore I don't think we'd be playing an acoustic set as we don't have the crew (yet) and we have a lot of equipment already. There are some noise restrictions in some of the venues we're playing, so we'll just play quieter. We are very excited to go on tour which such a prestigious band and we're very excited to perform our music outside the UK.

Is there a specific theme tying the lyrics of “Illusory Blues” together?

Khaled: The prevalent theme throughout is that of value creation; shifting perspective in the way we relate to people, situations and 'problems'. It's about realising and seeing with fresh eyes the wealth of goodness that exists around us; in friends and family and nature and music. "The Return" is about coming out of a particularly turbulent emotional headspace after the death of a friend, to take in and accept certain truths; to retain the notion like a mantra that Love, as cruel and poisonous and stifling as it can appear on occasion, is in fact a definitive code for living; for making the most out of any situation. Love Is All You Need. The Beatles were right! Most of the songs are full of imagery of the natural world; the seas, the sky, the earth, the soil, the trees; the miracles of life and existence and consciousness… It's all in there!

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