SPAIN'S PROGVISIONS Interviews: FRENCH TV's MIKE SARY
Your music is one of the most experimental and innovating in the field
of progressive rock, but French TV is not the most known of the prog
bands. In your opinion, what could explain this fact?
I find our obscurity a little disappointing and depressing. I
think part of it is that I didn't start exploring the Internet until
about 2 years ago. Prior to that, I always left it up to our
distributors and fans to promote us, and for whatever reason, they
don't really talk about us that much. Unfortunately, it appears that if
an artist is doing something a bit "different" than what else is
happening, then it is usually up to the artist to talk about himself;
something that doesn't come easily to me [although after this
interview, you might feel differently!]. Plus,"weird" artists seem to
have to be able to recite some sort of coherent ideology that applies
to everything they do, and I think I forgot to invent one!
I tend to take everything one song at a time- how can I make this
new song interesting? And different songs have different needs; so I
don't seem to have a singular principle that applies to everything-so I
don't have an ideology that makes me sound interesting!
-How would you present your music and band to people who haven't listened it yet?
I suppose it all depends on the
people's frame of reference. If it is a music fan who has a good
understanding of "progressive music", I compare us to groups and
composers that I admire or whose approaches I aspire to [I'll get to
this in the next question]. If it is someone who does not know of this
kind of music,it is a bit more difficult. Generally I just describe us
as instrumental crazy music that goes all over the place and that
doesn't make sense the first time you hear it.
-What are your favourite classic prog rock bands? And the prog bands after the seventies?
There are so many,it's hard to know
where to start: Yes, Zappa, National Health, PFM, Gentle Giant, UK,
Happy The Man, VDGG/Peter Hammill, KC, Camel, Weather Report, Bruford,
Magma [and most of the spin-off bands like Weidorje, Zao, etc.],
Nektar, Dixie Dregs, Tull, Oldfield....maybe I'll leave it at that for
As for the post-'70s bands: Univers Zero, Samla Mannas Manna [I
didn't discover then til the '80s], Cartoon [I have been working with
their drummer and played a show with his new band doing a Cartoon
medley-what a treat!], many of the Cuneiform bands like Miriodor,
Volapuk, Present [French TV opened for Present a few years ago-treat
#2!], U Totem, Thinking Plague, However, Kenso, and of course, my
friends in Volare!
- How would you define progressive rock? What is progressive rock for you?
Boy, do I hate this question-as soon as
you find a definition, 10 minutes later you think of 300 exceptions!
But I like to think of progressive rock as anything that makes you
think that the organizing of sound can be done in a way you haven't
thought of before. That being said, I don't consider it a crime to
sound like progressive bands from an earlier time. Then it just comes
down to whether it is good, interesting, well-crafted music or not. I
guess my particular problem with many bands is when they limit
themselves to emulating one certain band, or album, or song! It's a bit
like a painter deciding to only paint in one color. Perhaps it can be
done sucessfully, but you run the risk of all your works looking
As for what progressive rock means to me, or how it applies to what I
do: my only goal is to make the listener feel as though they've
traveled from one place to another,and that it was an interesting, fun,
and memorable journey. To be concerned with whether a composition has
enough of the surface characteristics of "progressive rock"
[mellotrons, 12-string guitars, fantasy lyrics, long songs] distracts
from the previously mentioned goals, which is not to say these elements
should NOT be used, as that attitude is just as limiting. How it is
classified in the end is not important to me. Unfortunately, the
majority of outlets for my sales involve progressive rock fans, so it
continues to be a problem in our descriptions.
- What does it mean French TV? It is a strange name for a band, isn't
it? Has it a relationship with your love for French bands such as
Magma, Ange, Weidorje, Ponty and others?
I wish I had a good story about the
name "FRENCH TV", but there isn't one. Our original keyboardist Steve
Roberts saw it listed describing a bunch of video bootlegs, and just
thought it looked neat. I got sick of arguing [with days to go before
sending our 1st album to press!] and gave up MY idea of "STRATEGIC AIR
COMMAND"! I HATE the name French TV, but a lot of friends and fans seem
to like it, and I guess I am a hostage to history for now.
GEPR describes your music using the following words: "This band from
Kentucky employs a HEAVY bass and strong rhythms, with possibly some
influence from Magma. The styles range from roaring pounding complex
rock to disjointed artsy pieces, with plenty of jazz influence thrown in...although one probably wouldn't call it fusion, all of those elements are present. Maybe closer to the Canterbury sound of Soft Machine and others". What do you think about that?
I'm very flattered by the Magma
comparisons, but personally I don't hear it, except possibly in the
intro to "Real Executives..." Likewise for the Soft Machine comparison;
though maybe we might be closer to the Karl Jenkins era? The truth is,
I'm influenced by a broad range of progressive bands, and what's more,
I've usually been the only member in our various line-ups with ANY prog
influences [at most, the others have only heard of the usual 4-5
bands]. When putting together a composition, I never think that all the
sections should be consistant with a particular influence-I don't
there's anything wrong with the idea of a Gentle Giant-ish contrapuntal
section followed by a Mahavishnu guitar work-out followed by a Henry
Cow improv, as long as we're dealing with consistant notes &
chords. I believe in a lot of contrast and surprise in my compositions,
as you may have guessed. So in some ways, all reviews are correct
because there's so much of everything crammed into our music, but at
the same time it's wrong to assume we're ONLY similar to a specific
band or composer.
-How do you compose your extremely complex themes? Is it a solo work or a group work? Also, it seems to me that you improvise a lot, mainly in your rehearsals.
Up until the music we've written for
our next (#7) cd, I've always written on my own and then presented it
to the band with an open mind, where I trusted them enough to let them
change the keys, melodies, or arrangements if they had a better idea or
if it was the only way to get the song to "work". To start a song, I
would create tapes of themes, melodies, rhythms ,etc. Then I might go
thru them and see if any "relate" to each other,find possibly 2-3
themes that work well together, then improvise and see how many decent
variations I could find on these themes. Then I would arrange then in
an order that seems to progress logically [if not always obviously!].
Then I would present this structure to the band, and they would either
follow it to the letter,or reject it as garbage, or change it until it
was unrecognizable! Often in rehersals, we improvise with the sections
and discover more interesting ways of playing a section than I
Nowadays I am trying it differently, as we have a wonderful drummer
[Chris Vincent-playing with us for the last 3 years] who LOVES to
improvise. He and I do so for hours and are not afraid to suddenly
change what we're doing during these improvs. When one of us changes,
the other one adapts fairly quicky. Enough of these taped improvs
actually sound like coherent written pieces, with rhythm & chord
changes, thematic variations, reprises,and logical progressions, that
we listen to them and [sometimes] re-arrange or edit or add/subtract
sections, and PRESTO! A new composition! I am very proud of these new
pieces, as the changes in them don't sound as "forced" as some of our
earlier tunes. Plus, the "surprising" bits seem paradoxically more
natural. As you might think, I'm looking forward to springing these on
the public! Many of them have been played live on our last tour, and
people appear to like them.
- The messages included in your booklets related with peace, war, society have relationship with the humanist side of the classic prog rock. Do you agree with this opinion? Why do you include these messages in your CDs?
I don't know how it is in Europe, but
our national media coverage of the Left is pretty pathetic. Having been
a Leftist for the past 15 years or so, I feel compelled to use our
booklets as an outlet for pointing out problems I have with the US,
particularly in the way we allocate government spending, where our
military receives considerably more than they deserve. I don't
automatically hate the military [I was in the US Army for 3 years] and
understand the need for a good defense,but the $ ammounts we spend are
- I can guess why your label is called Pretentious Dinosaur , but could you explain why you chose that name?
Well, I guess I had to call it
SOMETHING! But seriously, it is a dig at the ignorant critics who
automatically drag out those words whenever describing this kind of
music. I sort of feel we might as well disarm our oppponents and take
pride in this designation. And besides, "Kiss My Ass Records" was
-Could you explain briefly French TV's musical career describing a bit every album and the aim of all of them and your music?
French TV 1:
To me, this wasn't really MY project; it belonged more to my partner
Steve Roberts, and I was just his helpful assistant.To me, the idea of
writing and recording and releasing an lp was like going to
Mars-unthinkable! So it was more a learning experience than anything.
I'm not too happy with my songs, as they are a little naive and not
well-thought out. But Steve's songs are good and were played by later
line-ups for a long time.
French TV 2:
Another learning experience, but different: I thought my partners would
contribute songs, but they didn't, so I wrote everything. Then I found
out they were only available for 2 months,so I had to get VERY BUSY! At
the time, I was still feeling my way as a writer, and felt I had made a
breakthrough with "Dead Dog..." and "Friendly Enzymes". But there is
still a feeling of too much padding on 1 cut-"Go Like This". Oh well...
French TV 3:
I felt much more assured while making this, and felt confident in my
ability to write interesting material. Also, I'd begun to organize a
live version of the band together [mostly different members than the
records], and was learning how to be a band leader-booking gigs,
arranging tunes, organizing rehearsals, learning how to get good
performances from different types of people-a good feeling! It was a
fun time as well-our keyboardist Paul Nevitt was the focus of all our
jokes and helped to relieve pressure.
French TV 4:
We had a line-up shift and now had a very good lead singer [drummer Bob
Douglas] and 2 other good singers,so I felt it would be foolish to not
use their talents. So we wrote 2 vocal tunes and covered Van der
Graaf's "Pioneers Over C". Prior to this, I felt we didn't sell as well
as most other bands due to the lack of vocals. But this cd sold less
than our previous one! It puzzles me to this day, and I guess it's best
not to second-guess the public. I also allowed other members to
contribute songs, as I felt some contrast to my writing style might be
a good thing. It was a tense time, as the guitarist [Tony Hall] and
keyboardist [John Robinson] HATED each other!
French TV 5:
Since this line-up had done the most gigs, it seemed like a good time
to make a live cd. I also felt it was time to "lay to rest" some of our
early material to make room for our new songs,so I wanted to record
them one last time [we had also changed the arrangements considerably,
and wanted to hear them on record]. We found a nice recital hall with
good acoustics; my good friend Michael Medley provided recording
equipment, and off we went. The only problem was it was a free show and
still only about 12 people showed up. I decided then and there playing
in Louisville was an utter waste of time, and haven't played here
French TV 6:
This cd was different, in that many of the compositions were played
live before we recorded them [usually we record, THEN play them live],
so we had much more time to fine-tune the arrangements than usual.
About midway thru the project John Robinson and [earlier] Bob Douglas
left the band, so we had to scramble to find players to finish it. In
some cases, we dispensed with keyboards entirely, so it was somewhat
liberating. Towards the end of the project, we rented ADAT machines and
were able to do many of the overdubs at Dean's house-much more of a
casual feeling instead of watching the clock in the studio! We
simultaneously began recording 2 tracks from the next cd during this
process, so it's nice to be ahead of schedule.
- I feel that the good sense of humour (the cover of the live CD is
unbelievable, ha, ha) is one of the most important aspects on French
TV. Is this a link with the Canterbury sound?
I think it's more the fact that I love
humor and consider it a vital part of life, so it can't help but be a
part of my music. What surprises me is how few current prog bands
involve humor either in their music or lyrics-if they are as sour in
person as on record, I'm not sure I'd care to know them! But then in
some ways, all the prog metal bands are unintentionally HILARIOUS, and
easy to make fun of, so I guess humor is everywhere if you look hard
- You includes in the albums some covers of bands like Volare, Van der Graaf Generator or Samla Mammas Manna. Some of them are very extensive like the cover of the latter included in The Violence of Amateurs (more than 20 minutes). Why don't use that time to put your own material? Are you trying to make your albums more accessible to the listeners that don't know your music?
In some cases, we might be trying to
reach out to people who wouldn't otherwise listen to our music, but
this isn't the sole reason; most were cut for a variety of reasons. In
the case of the Van der Graaf and the Zamla songs, these were just
riffs we would goof around with during rehearsals, and thought we might
as well learn the rest of the tune. Also, Bob had a very nice baritone
voice similar to Hammill's, so it seemed like a good idea. In the case
of the Zamla tune, there was also room within the song for 2 improvs,
so it seemed a natural. As for the Nektar cover on the cd reissue for
#2, I wanted to include a bonus track featuring the original members of
FTV. However, they didn't have time to record new material [they live
out of town], so a cover seemed like the next best idea. For the Gentle
Giant cover, we were asked specifically by Mellow to contribute a track
to their GG tribute. The Volare story is a bit different: for the
ProgDay '97 festival, we decided to augment our line-up with 2 members
of Volare [we had done a few gigs together and became great friends],
so they learned an hour's worth of FTV songs. It seemed only fair that
we learn one of theirs, so we learned "The Odessa Steps Sequence" for
the show. A few months later, when Brian [their drummer] agreed to come
to Louisville to record and play a few dates, it seemed only natural to
record this song with a new arrangement as well. Oddly enough, Volare
like our version better than theirs! For our next cd, we will be
recording a Happy the Man track with some former members of the
group-this was enough of a reason to do it!
As a small editorial here: I don't understand the stigma of doing cover
tunes. To me, I treat them the same as an orchestra might feel about
doing yet another version of Handel's Water Music, or a theater
performing A Streetcar Named Desire. It is a good work of art that
deserves various interpretations.
- What do you think about critics? Have you received good comments in the reviews of your albums ?
I have yet to see a bad review of
French TV's cds, so I guess we like critics! I think the only thing
that has upset me a little is that a few reviews portray us as
something fans of Dream Theater or IQ would dislike, and I like to
think we're varied enough to appeal to all manner of music fans-not
- How do you see the future of progressive rock considering the current prog bands and musicians and successes like Dream Theater, Transatlantic and others?
It's something that I don't analyze as
much as I used to; I'd much rather concentrate on my work and what I
find interesting. I DO think that people are over-estimating the
concept of "trickle-down-prog" [the idea that somehow fans of those
groups will move on to Henry Cow or something], as those fans seem to
feel threatened by non-vocal groups that don't feature overwrought,
ponderous lyrics and sing-along choruses and metal imagery.
As for prog's future, I think the whole idea of music over the Internet
threatens the concept of music in general; not just prog. This is a new
idea that may actually change people's listening habits, so who can say?
- Could you describe briefly what do you think about the following words?:
King Crimson: Always thought [and argument!]-provoking.
Musea Records: They cause me to spend too much money!
Yes: My 1st prog band (1976),and 1st band to make me re-think how music can be organized and presented.
Henry Cow: It took me 2 years to finally understand and appreciate their approach to composition.
Not as big an influence as people assume. Most of their material seems
a bit too static and doesn't go anywhere-maybe too subtle for me? Nice
textures; enjoyably convoluted bass riffs; love the distorted organ,
but that's about it.
Frank Zappa: My Lord and Savior. How did all that come out of 1 brain?
Discipline Global Mobile (the label owned by Fripp):1
I wish more of the older prog bands would wise up and take Fripp's
approach to business and become self-sufficient, instead of letting
record labels dictate all their moves.
Magma: So much power; so much light; so much finess. Bernard Paganotti is the best!
I admire their determination and wish they could write a hit single for
radio. Actually, I spoke with one of the members when putting together
our tour last year, but he seemed too discouraged to be of any help.
Anglagard: OK, but don't understand all the fuss.
My other Lord and Savior. Exquisite compositions; spirited playing
& execution; personality [sorely lacking in most of today's prog
bands]; A+ on every level of composition: harmony, chord structure,
melody, rhythm. I have yet to get tired of their music even 22 years
later. I wish I could write as well.
Interesting case: when I began playing bass (1977), there were
literally dozens of bassists I emulated in one way or another. In the
'80s til the present, he's the only one that I still feel enamored
with. When one hears a song he's played, one can't imagine it played
any other way [mind you, I HAVE been interested in Michael Manring and
Dominique Bertram lately!].
French TV: I wish they would hurry up and go away!
- Plans for the future: new releases, gigs and so on.
Too many projects! 1) I've just sent
off our 1st lp to finally be released on cd-should be out by Oct, 30.
2) Finishing over-dubs for French TV #7. Our keyboardist Warren Dale
will be done with the 3 songs we've recorded [35 minutes of music] in
mid-October; then we must record an original song I've written and the
Happy the Man song mentioned earlier to finish the cd. I estimate this
cd will be out in about 4 months. 3) Drummer Chris Vincent & I are
working on 4 newer compositions. The problem is, Warren and Dean live
on opposite sides of the US, so trying to work on originals is a lot of
trouble. So we may finish them with different players. We have others
in mind, but have yet to decide who. 4) Chris & I have also started
a side group writing some "pop" tunes, but these songs are
off-the-wall. Sort of a mix of British music-hall, cabaret, Gilbert
& Sullivan, and bands like 10cc, Strawbs, & Beatles. Nothing
-Some words for your fans and progVisions readers?
Thanks for buying our records! Crassly
insult people who don't buy our records! And always remember, when 2
cars arrive at an intersection at the same time, the vehicle on the
right has the right-of-way.
-------Jaume Pujol - September 2000
PROGRESSOR INTERVIEWS-MIKE SARY OF FRENCH TV
VM: First off, let me begin with a traditional request. Tell us about yourself and your first acquaintance with music.
MS: Hmmm, let's see... Mike Sary, born
4/14/57 in Peoria, Illinois USA...lived on an 160 acre farm til I
joined the Army after high school (1975). Stayed in the Army in Texas
for 3 years, knocked around the country working a lot of different jobs
[heavy equipment operator; off-shore oil rigs; welder; carpenter &
construction work; etc..] til settling in Louisville, Kentucky in 1980.
Married twice, 2 sons [Nathan-19 years old, from 1st wife + Aaron-21
months old with current wife Eileen]. Musically, the earliest stuff I
remember hearing is the old country music & cowboy music &
truck driver songs my dad loved [Ernest Tubb, Roy Acuff, Hank Williams,
Eddie Arnold, Tennessee Ernie Ford, Johnny Cash]. I especially liked
the guys who did funny novelty songs like Roger Miller, Homer &
Jethro, Del Reeves. I remember seeing the Beatles on Ed Sullivan like
everyone else, but I thought they were kinda stupid at the time and
didn't understand all the fuss til a few years later when they went
"druggy". I think cartoon music [Carl Stallings, from the Warner
Brothers cartoons, and Scott Bradley from the old Tom & Jerry
cartoons in particular] was probably a big influence also. I think it may have had a lot to do with
my feeling that musical compositions didn't need to be so "linear" and
What were the bands you had participated in before you formed French TV?
MS: Nothing of note-just a bunch of rookies who never got past the "garage" stage, other than the occasional beer
Can you tell a history of your life-work, - the band French TV. How did it all start?
MS: Well, in 1981, I met drummer Steve
Roberts at a local record store he managed [he happened to be playing
VdGG's "Pawn Hearts" on the sound system!]. We talked, and as it turned
out he happened to be a musician too. We soon began playing music
together, and he happened to know a guy who played sax & keys named
Jeff Jones. We quickly began writing together [altho Jeff was the main
writer] and called the trio FESTUNG AMERIKA. We only playing in public
twice, at a local punk club, and the poor reception caused Jeff to
re-think how to appeal to live audiences, so he consequently wanted us
to play "punk-ier" music. Steve & I said "no thanks", and so Jeff
quit. After a lot of thought, Steve & I decided to drop the idea of
performing live, carry on as a duo temporarily, and continue writing
more progressive material, hoping we could eventually find other
players who had similar inclinations. We auditioned many people who
didn't work out, and eventually I called a young [16 years old!]
drummer I had played with previously in a cover band. The drummer,
Fenner Castner, worked out so wonderfully that Steve decided to move
over to keyboards [he'd nearly completed a Music / Composition degree
at the University of Louisville, so he was already a good keyboard
player]. Fenner soon talked us into trying out a guitarist/schoolmate
[this guy was only 15!] named Artie Bratton, and the line-up was
complete. In the meantime, Steve was also a record distributor and the
head of ZNR. So he was able to convince us that it was possible to
release our own record and not depend on pleasing a record label-an
amazing concept to me at the time! So we finished writing FTV1,
recorded and released it, and the rest is history. Not long after
releasing FTV1, Steve decided to give up playing music, as getting
married, having kids, working another job as well as running ZNR was
too much time & effort. So I ended up more or less "inheriting" the
By the way, why have you decided to name a US band French TV?
MS: It was a dumb name that Steve found
appealing. We had already recorded the 1st album, and still needed a
name for the project. Steve saw "French TV" listed as the source for a
list of bootleg videos in a catalogue and thought it looked neat. I got
sick of pushing for MY choice of names [Strategic Air Command], so
reluctantly agreed. I've never been fond of it, but realize it's too
late in the game to change it. But everyone else I talk to LIKE it! I
don't understand it at all....
I know the first two French TV albums were released only on LP. What labels issued these albums then?
MS: We did them both ourselves. They
were released on Steve's labels 1 on Lost Records and the second on Y
Records [when we found out there already was a label called LOST].
There was a long pause in between releases of the French TV second (1987) and third (1994) albums. Why? Were you involved in any other musical projects at the time?
MS: As I couldn't find people willing
to play my own compositions from FTV after the 1st lp came out, I
started a trio with drummers Greg McNary and later Jeff King &
sax/clarinetist Clancy Dixon for about a year called The Friendly
Enzymes [named after one of the tunes on FTV2] for about a year. It was
nothing but improvs; very similar to The Muffins or Art Ensemble of
Chicago. I was also in a big band [7 piece] called Power Lounge;
instrumental originals; nothing too tricky, but it was good and fun
music. Sadly, it broke up due to too many power struggles between the 3
founders-too bad! As for the delay between FTV2 & 3, it was
basically down to Steve Roberts. FTV3 was actually finished in 1990,
but Steve kept having financial problems and had to constantly delay
releasing it on his ZNR label. Finally, I decided I had had enough and
released it myself on my own label, Pretentious Dinosaur Records in
really great to know that since the middle of the 1990s and up to now
the activity of French TV has remained stable. Is it a result of the
band's creative freedom, which in turn made it possible for you since
1994 to release the rench TV albums on your own label "Pretentious
Dinosaur"? What is your opinion on that? Also, tell me how and when the
independent "Pretentious Dinosaur" label was formed?
MS: I think it's been more a matter of being around long enough to
accumulate a large number of musicians willing to create & perform
weird music with me, a luxury I didn't have when I began. When somebody
quits, it seems there is always someone else who wants to join the fun
[at least until it's no fun anymore!]. So we've been a lot more
prolific these days. I have to say overall, I never feel any pressures
to write more "mainstream"music, as the older I get, the less people's
approval matters to me.
What was a principal purpose of forming "Pretentious Dinosaur": to have a possibility to release the works of French TV (only), or were there originally more ambitious plans: such as enlarging the label by signing other bands or by distributing CDs of other performers?
MS: As mentioned before, I began
Pretentious Dinosaur in 1994 because Steve Roberts kept postponing our
3rd cd. I had also asked 2-3 other labels, but either they couldn't do
it or I would have seen hardly any money, so doing it myself seemed
like the best plan. I'm glad I chose this option, as I've learned so
much about distributorship, and also enjoy the sense of being
accountable to no one. Up until recently, there was no way I could
release anything by other people, as I had to go in debt every time I
put out another French TV album. Fortunatly, things have progressed to
the point where our recording & releasing cds are making money now,
so I have recently given thought to doing non-FTV music projects. Our
keyboardist John Robinson will be doing a solo album on Pretentious
Dinosaur in the near future-probably in the Spring of next year
featuring myself and original FTV drummer Fenner Castner [ I'm looking
froward to working with Fenner again!].
While the best, in my view, French TV albums were released in the 1990s (and the band's so far latest album I regard as their creative peak), all of them are musically, very different from one another. You know well that the majority of reviewers of the French TV music try to squeeze it down into the frames of widely known sub-genres and manifestations of Progressive (like Canterbury, for example), as well as to compare your band to some others. I've found the music of French TV not only distinctly original, but also in many ways innovative, straight after I've listened to it. And with each new French TV album I understand that you find yourself in an endless search for new ways to express your musical talents. And you? Would you agree that your music is influenced by particular performers or it was, originally, just inspired by some musical works?
MS: In a sense, I'm lucky in that
respect, because I compose from a somewhat unorthodox instrument [the
bass]. As a result, this allows the music to go in virtually any
direction; it's not as "fixed" as if I used a chordal-based instrument
such as keys or guitar. The other factor is that most of the musicians
I've worked with in the past had very little knowledge of either the
history or the current state of progressive rock, or if they did [such
as guitarist Dean Zigoris], they consider most of it old, or dated, or
"corny", and are interested in more current and less mainstream musical
styles such as Eastern European, Asian, North African, techno,
minimalism, or producers such as Bill Laswell or John Zorn. As a result
of this, the players I use are somewhat more individualist in both
their playing and composing, which I encourage as much as possible.
There is also the matter of [in my case] despite having a good working
knowledge of progressive rock, never wanting to sound too much like any
one band in particular, no matter how much I like them. Another factor
is that the longer a composer is around, the more conscious they are
about a new composition being too similar to something they've written
in the past. Speaking for myself, I get uncomfortable when I notice
this happening, and immediately look for ways to "disguise" this, or
throw it away and start over. The question of influence &
inspiration is a tricky question. I don't think I have consciously
tried to sound like other people, but it's not really for me to say,
it's up to the listener to decide that. Judging from the reviews, we
must be doing something original, as they can't seem to agree on who we
sound like! If anything, what I've taken from all the progressive music
I've heard is the idea that anything is possible in a composition.
There are currently about a dozen bands and performers whose music fits neither any of the four 'chief' progressive genres (Art-Rock, Prog-Metal, Jazz-Fusion and RIO) nor any 'particular' manifestations (like the mentioned Canterbury). So I assume all these 'indescribable' bands-innovators, including FTV, form another, fifth 'chief' genre of Prog, which I called the Fifth Element (this way, it was 'found' at least in Progressive). I hope you have nothing against it. Or maybe you consider French TV a band from one of the officially recognized camps of Progressive Rock?
MS: I am quite proud of not being so
easily pigeon-holed into any of progressive music's sub-categories. One
reason for our being this way is that I tend to focus more on the song
at hand-it is generally a series of problems that need to be solved:
Does this section seem too long? Does it need a solo, and if so, what
instrument? What sort of feeling? Why can't the drummer make this
transition into the next part? Should it be changed and made easier?
Does the next section need to be radically different from the previous
part, or should we try another slight variation? How does it end? I'm
too busy worrying about these problems to think about whether the song
remains true to what has been eard before by others, or what camp we
fall in. It's odd; we really get categorized in the "Canterbury" camp a
lot, but personally, I don't see it; I think the reviewers are just
being lazy. We've only written maybe 2-3 songs that I can see as
sounding like that, but the rest would seem to invalidate that. I tend
to like music with a lot of variations and that hopefully sounds as if
it takes me on a journey somewhere, so this is reflected in what I
write. However, this has also been a drawback to our career. I don't
see ourselves as being unlikable to anyone who prefers music to have
the same characteristics I prefer, so I tend to think progressive fans
listen as I do. But as time goes on and I try to get our music reviewed
in more places, I see reviewers actually WARNING their readers that
we're just too strange for them to like! This attitude SHOCKS me: I
thought progressive listeners like progressive music! To me, "weird
& strange" means the Starland Vocal Band, or ABBA!
Rock is believed to have been not too rich in strong, serious and
original progressive performers in the 1980s, but about a year ago I
stopped regarding that decade as Progressive's 'dark years'. Apart from
the excellent French TV (it's enough to have a look into the Gibraltar
EPR and each of the Top sections on ProgressoR to know the excellent
attitude of different musical critics towards the band) and lots of
truly Prog-Metal bands, there were too many other hallmarks of
Progressive in the 1980s (Swedes Isildurs Bane, Americans Djam Karet,
French Minimum Vital, many Russian, Japanese, Chechoslovak bands, among
others) to consider that decade dark regarding the international
Progressive Rock movement. Ita110911 s another matter that most Western
major labels by the end of the 1970s lost interest in bands that put
out non-commercial music. So, what are your thoughts on the so called
Progressive's 'dark decade'?
MS: It's interesting, one never gets a
clear understanding of history until 10-15 or so years later. We were
sort of in the middle of it as it was happening, so we didn't really
have a clue of what was happening til years later. All I knew was that
progressive music wasn't as popular as it was in the '70s, but since I
wasn't producing music in the '70s, I didn't really feel like I was
suddenly having to struggle after having it easy for a long time. So I
was more concerned about getting compositions out of my system, and
experimenting with what makes a good musical arrangement, and how to
run a band and keep everyone happy, and how to book shows, how
to help a live audience enjoy a confusing piece of music, and make
equipment do what it's supposed to, and how to raise a family as a
musician without them thinking you're nuts....so personally speaking,
there was too much learning involved to let the musical climate affect
my life and viewpoint. It still seemed as tho progressive music was
vibrant and flourishing, even tho if one read Rolling Stone or any
other magazine, one would think it ceased to exist. Kenso, Pekka
Pohjola, Samlas, Fred Frith's solo work, Etron Fou, Cartoon, However,
UZ, the Muffins, [I know, some of these bands work was from the '70s,
but I didn't discover them til later], even King Crimson was doing
vital work in the '80s. So I never really considered it a bad decade
for progressive music. It's also been a treat discovering the Russian
and Baltic progressive cds coming out recently that originally came out
in the '80s-more evidence it wasn't so bad!
Finally,when should the French TV fans (including me) expect to hear the band's new studio album? Generally, what are your future plans concerning the band (French TV) and the label ("Pretentious Dinosaur") as well?
MS: All is on schedule for FTV7 "The
Case Against Art" to be out by around Christmas / New Years. 2 songs
completely finished & mixed, with 3 more to go. As mentioned
before, our Louisville keyboardist John Robinson has written a solo
album; we will begin working on it very soon, and if it's organized
correctly, should be finished in the Spring of 2002. Also, I am on 4
tracks on the new TRAP release, [the band fronted by ex-drummer for
Cartoon & PFS, Gary Parra. Members also include Warren Dale and
Chris Smith who play a large role in FTV7]. This cd [titled
"INSURRECTION"] is finished, but there hasn't been any agreement on
what label to release it on-Gary wants Musea's GAZUL to release it, and
Warren & Chris prefer to do it themselves. So we'll see...In the
meantime, I have a cd's worth of newer songs I am finessing into solid
compositions. I plan to have Warren & Chris help out again, but I'm
not sure who will be on drums, as current FTV drummer Chris Vincent
wants to take a few months off from music, and I'm not ready to wait!
At the moment, I have too many possible drummers in mind to make a
decision just yet. I wish I could make real plans or directions for
French TV, but I'm mostly at the mercy of whoever is in the band at the
Many thanks for doing the interview, Mike. I wish that you carry on making us fans happy with your wonderful music for years to come.
GROUND AND SKY INTERVIEWS Q&A: Mike Sary of French TV
This Q&A was conducted over e-mail by Brandon Wu (responses received on 12-1 -00,)for a music project dealing with cultural influences on rock bands. Some questions were asked out ofpure personal interest rather than for the project; the questions and answers likely to interest progressive rock fans can he found here. I have taken the liberty of correcting afew misspelled words and such, but otherwise everything is taken directly from the aforementioned e-mails. Enjoy!
If you could describe the music of French TV as a combination of two or more musical genres, which genres would you choose?
I guess the obvious ones would be
progressive rock and fusion (with maybe a twist of avant-garde].
Interesting, in that both could be considered as a mish-mash of many
other genres, although fusion wasn't quite as broad as prog-rock. Also,
it usually depends on the person I'm speaking to's reference point.
In FTV6 alone I hear influences ranging from fusion to avant-garde to surf to country-and-western. What would you say your most important influences have been?
I guess by far the most important would
be cartoon music [esp. Carl Stallings & Scott Bradley], the
Beatles, and Zappa, at least conceptually, in that I learned that in
music, anything can happen. That it's no crime to do a 30's music hall
ditty followed by a dopey 1950's r’& b’ bit, to a Stockhausen music
concrete [sorry, can't figure out accent marks on my e-mail] section to
a bebop break. Maybe it comes off as a bit scatter-brained or ADD, but
I guess I'm only trying to keep things interesting and worth listening
to for more than 3-4 times.
Along the same lines, are there any distinctively American, or better yet, distinctively local (Midwestern?) influences in your compositions?
I grew up on a farm in Illinois, and
the earliest music I can remember is the cowboy music [Tex Ritter, Bob
Wills & Tommy Duncan] and older country music [Hank Williams,
Johnny Cash, Ferlin Husky, Del Reeves, Ernest Tubb...] my dad listened
to all the time. The evidence manifested itself recently when I saw the
band BR-549 and knew all the words to the old stuff they played! As for
composition, I'm sure on some level those c/w tunes dictate to me that
this bit is played 8x, the next bit 4x, then a chorus, then a solo,
etc. But you can also make the case for whatever was on the radio at
the time, as I was pretty obsessive about listening to the radio in my
early teens. I don't think I started getting picky about what I liked
listening to until 18 or so, when I started buying LPs myself. Nothing
unusual to report; the typical late 60's stuff like CCR, Steppenwolf,
Guess Who, Stones. But nothing particularly unusual, compositionally
Could you briefly describe your writing process? Where do the ideas come from - existing musical material, specific music cultures, or just from your head? How much improvisation is involved?
Up until recently [more on that later],
I would basically just sit down with my bass and noodle around until
stumbling onto an interesting pattern of notes, then tape them. Later I
would listen to the tape if I had 30 minutes or so and find 2-3 hits
that seemed to flow together, or contrasted well together [if that
makes sense]. Then I would try as many variations on them I could think
of; chopping the lines up; changing accents; speed up/slow down; maybe
adding more notes to a riff until it turns into a melodic phrase;
heavier/softer; until I had together what felt like an interesting
series of progressions. Intros were pretty easy to pick out; solo
sections were usually obvious; for a long time I used reprises as
endings [probably more than I should!]; but tying all these bits
together into a logical progression [to me, anyway] was sometimes a
little hairy 1— 1 my usual method was let the drummer worry about
bridging the transitions [this usually separates the men from the
boys]! Once it got to this point, it was time to take it to the band —
I'm usually never sure if they will think it's worth bothering with,
but nothing's been rejected yet. I generally give them a lot of
latitude with creating their parts-I'm pretty happy with providing a
good working framework, and it keeps them engaged and feeling as though
they have a stake in the song's [and band's!] progress. In the long run
it probably leads to better music.
I'm never really conscious of pursuing different genres or cultures
when writing-generally, the band will interpret or nudge the ideas that
way, particularly the drummer. For example, "Tiger Tea” [from #6] the
bassline in the intro never changed from my original idea, but as soon
as I showed it to our drummer Bob Douglas, he played it as an Afro-pop
or Caribbean beat, which led the keyboardist to create happy, bright
chords and for Dean to play elongated, clean guitar lines. Luckily,
I've almost always been associated with " anything-goes” type
musicians! Occasionally I might suggest different feels or approaches
if the player is having a hard time getting a handle on the section.
Presently, I've taken a new approach to composing. This is due to our
current drummer Chris Vincent [an excellent improviser -the best I've
played with], as well as feeling the need for a change. When we
improvise as a duo [usually an hour or so to warm up before running
thru current material], we avoid getting stuck in a groove for too
long, and will throw in sudden changes -fortunately, neither of us are
at a loss and can come up with something complementary almost
immediately. We tape these "instant compositions", and pick out ones
that sound like they were almost pre-written, and finesse them into
actual tunes. The thing I like about this approach is that although
there are still lots of tricky parts, they sound more natural and not
as "forced” as some of our other stuff. I don't think anyone has to
worry about the newer compositions being weak or anything; they're
still as crazed as ever.
What sorts of music do you and the other members of the band listen to?
Well, Chris is an interesting case, as
I get the impression he only listens to 3 things: the Beatles, Yes,
& the composer John Adams! Dean Zigoris is all over the map, but
pretty forward-looking: ambient; techno; lots of electronic dance stuff
[I'm not that up on its various nomenclature]; anything involving Bill
Laswell; 70's Miles; McLaughlin; lots of ethnic [East Indian, South
Asia; eastern Europe; North African] musics; weird improvs from Frith,
Bailey, and that whole gang. He pretty much dismisses the prog scene
and feels he out-grew that stuff after high school, though he enjoys
the people we've met in the "scene". Warren Dale [our current
keyboardist] I think is more of a traditional prog-head, also with some
modem classical tastes. Myself, I've probably loosened up over the last
10 years and, although prog takes up probably 60% of my listening, I
also listen to a lot of 70's funk, modem classical [Brittan's "Suite
for 3 Cellos” a current fav]; old show tunes [blame my new wife-it's
all HER fault!]; some of the newer jazz guys like Threadgill. Pullen,
Breuker; Cuban dance stuff. I' ve also re-discovered the Kinks lately
and can't stop listening to Preservation Acts l & 2!
Aside from French TV, what kinds of hands or projects have you and the other musicians played in? (jazz? fusion? avant-rock? etc)
Chris hasn't played in too many bands;
maybe a few dumb rock bands his drunkard friends talked him into. Also
drummed for a gigantic church orchestra for a year. Dean was in a
college jazz ensemble and an Afro-Pop group for quite awhile. He' s
also done a series of solo "sound-scape” type performances, and also
some Greek traditional stuff with his dad. Warren is also [actually,
MAINLY] a member of TRAP, drummer Gary Parra' s follow-up to CARTOON
& PFS. He also does some Motown stuff on weekends. I have something
of a checkered past and done a lot of oddball things: Faked my way thru
a semester pretending to read charts for a junior college big band;
played bass with an Army buddy's dad in a Tejano duo in Texas; and a
couple stints in a black gospel church band as well as the usual cover
band crap. I don't get asked to do a lot of outside things; I guess I
have this weird reputation as a purist or something.
I vaguely remember you mentioning that the next two FTV albums are already done, at least conceptually. Are there any radically different or particularly interesting elements to the music on these new albums?
The next cd is about 80% finished,
recording-wise. Oddly, the 5 tracks were written 5 different ways! One
["Viable Tissue Matter"] is written with the approach I mentioned
earlier — it's the same arrangement as the original jam, except for one
added section. Another ["Under the Big W"] used that approach, but with
a lot more thematic variation, and many more added sections. Another
["That Thing on the Wall"] was entirely written from scratch by the
band; everyone was involved every step of the way [a first for French
TV!]; a 4th ["One Humiliating Incident After Another"] is a very
elaborite composition of mine; there's very little repetition involved
and not as riff-oriented as most of my other tunes. The 5th is a cover
of a Happy the Man tune from "Beginnings” called "Partly the State",
and will feature original HtM singer/flutist Cliff Fortney. Original
drummer Mike Beck wants to do it, but scheduling has been a problem,
and I'm trying to stick to a deadline.
For #8, we [Chris & I] have 4 longer compositions in various states
that we're in the process of organizing & editing, culled from the
improv-to-composition technique mentioned earlier. So far, the material
seems a little darker and more aggressive than usual, I guess because
initially we're compensating for missing members. I'm not entirely
certain Warren & Dean will be involved this time, as they both live
on opposite coasts these days, and I really fell the need to have guys
in the same room to immediately flesh out the writing, rather than
leaving holes, which results in more fusion-y solo-heavy material
[nothing wrong with that, but I've done it already]. I have some local
players in mind, but am taking my time and concentrating on finishing
#7 [and the re-issue of # 1-sent it off to the manufacturer Tuesday!]
Is there anything else you'd like to add?
OW! MY HEAD!
Thanks for your time!
A PLEASURE! Nice to crystallize my thought-processes once in a while!
------The following is a summary of an interview bassist Mike Sary did for the French progressive magazine "BIG BANG" in 1994. Please forgive the "formal" tone of the responses, but Mr. Sary was trying to avoid being misunderstood.
Q: What is FRENCH TV? What is the part played by the contributing musicians: backing band or "real" band?
A: FRENCH TV is merely a name I give to
the projects I work on, regardless of the associates I work with. The
musicians involved are given my basslines and song structures, but I
allow them quite a bit of latitude in their choice of accompaniment.
Q:When was FRENCH TV founded?
A: We were founded in summer of 1983 by
Steve Roberts (keyboards & drums) and myself, after a previous band
of ours called FESTUNG AMERICA ended. We recorded and released the
first album the following year. Soon after, Steve was unable to
continue with the band due to commitments to his family, a stereo
equipment store he managed, and his ZNR RECORDS business. When his
conflicts became apparent, I recruited Artie Bratton (guitars) and
Fenner Castner (drums) back from the 1st album, and had them learn
& record the new songs I had written, then used friends and session
players to fill out the material. We did this in the summer of '86 for
the 2nd lp, and again in summer of '87 for the 3rd.
Q:What had your previous musical experiences been?
A: Nothing too notable: mostly a
variety of dreamy-eyed basement bands who would learn a lot of cover
tunes (usually with me being the only member pushing to play
"progressive" music) , then break-up without ever having played in
front of an audience(unless you count a drunken party or two).I CAN
count Tejano, Country, & Gospel in my resume, though!
Q: Why did you choose the name "FRENCH TV"?
A: Blame Steve Roberts! I realize this
is going to sound rather mundane, but here goes: As a record dealer,
Steve would receive many video catalogues. In the entries, Steve would
MAHAVISHNU ORCHESTRA (BBC)
MAGMA (FRENCH TV)
MARILLION (BELGIUM BROADCAST)
For some reason, "FRENCH TV" just looked "neat" to him in print! (My choice for a name was "STRATEGIC AIR COMMAND"!).When
Steve left, I was planning on changing the name, but Steve thought it
would be foolish to do so. I then kept it for the sake of sales.
Q:Is there a particular philosophical concept behind your group?
A: I'm afraid not, other than the
desire to write music, record it, and observe the reactions of both the
general public and the progressive audience. Also, to a lesser extent,
to prove to my many musician friends (and enemies!) that something like
this CAN be accomplished.
Q:Does politics have a role in your music?
A: Politics? Hmmm...this is a hard
question. As a Leftist, I feel a certain obligation to include a
portion of my beliefs in whatever art I create, whether it be in a
song,(such as "FRIENDS IN HIGH PLACES") or in the booklet itself. I
probably wouldn't feel this obligation as strongly if the American
media didn't completely ignore the Left, except for its sillier
Q: Are the graphics on the booklet meant to represent your personal vision of FRENCH TV's music?
A: The cover (to the 3rd cd) is only a
recurring idea I had as an amateur graphic artist. After much
procrastination, I sat down with a bunch of old science magazines and
pieced it together. I suppose in retrospect it DOES somewhat resemble
my approach to composition, in that my compositions are a bunch of
"pictures" glued together that (hopefully) integrate themselves into a
The photo in the back (of the 3rd cd) is of myself & my son Nathan.
It's a bit of a joke, because although my (then) wife and son are very
supportive of the IDEA of my recording and releasing music, they
absolutely HATE it when the band rehearses at our house.
Q:Are you keen on working in the independent market?
A: Despite our having 3 releases, it's
too early for me to say how I feel about this (after all, this is our
1st release available on cd, and the market has changed so much since
the last lp). I will say that speaking as a fan of progressive rock,
the independent market is wonderful and improving all the time. There
are more newsletters, fanzines, distributors, and the Internet services
will help things even more. Unfortunately, radio and clubs very little,
if any, support. What's needed is for fans to take the initiative and
use these systems to set up concerts and appearances themselves.
Q: Is it hard for musicians living in the United States?
A: Hmmm...Well, club wages are the same
as they were in the 70's, except for the most boring clubs where groups
only play the "hits". Musicians here complain a lot about how audiences
are stupid and don't want to hear anything new & interesting (which
is true, generally), but then again they seem to be willing accomplices
to this problem by only providing dull and boring music. They seem only
concerned with soloing skills, prettiness, and equipment. Their idea of
an extended composition is one in which the guitar solo is 24 bars
instead of 16. If it appears I am madder at the musicians than at their
environment, you're right. The only way to fight bad music is with good
music, as hostile, unappreciative audiences will always be a fact of
Q: Is the name of your label (PRETENTIOUS DINOSAUR ) a statement on the history of progressive rock?
A: The label's name is a slap at the
ignorant mainstream critics of the '70s who inevitably managed to
include those words (and still do to this day! How
predictable..)whenever reviewing a progressive record. My feeling is,
rather than apologizing or avoiding this accusation (as many of the
well-known groups do these days), one should be PROUD of such a label,
in the manner of blacks who say,"we're Niggers, so what", or
homosexuals who say "we're here, we're Queer".It removes your enemy's
ammunition, so to speak.
Q: Do you feel particularly inspired by any of the "greats" or some more obscure bands?
A: My inspirations? Wow, there's quite
an assortment! Of course, there's the well-known ones-YES (probably
more so than any), ELP, TULL, CAMEL, VDGG, CRIMSON, GENTLE GIANT (who I
STILL analyze!), UK, NEKTAR, PFM, and, naturally, FRANK ZAPPA, as well
as some more obscure ones HAPPY THE MAN, UNIVERS ZERO, the MAGMA
school, HENRY COW, SAMLA MAMMAS MANNA, AQUA FRAGILE (really dug their
bass player!), GROBSCHNITT, NATIONAL HEALTH/HATFIELD, BANCO, & SOFT
Many of the 70's fusion bands were vital to me also BRUFORD, BRAND X,
WEATHER REPORT, DIXIE DREGS, RETURN TO FOREVER, MAHAVISHNU, as well as
their many solo records.Of course, I can't leave out KENSO!
Favorite bass players? CHRIS SQUIRE, JOHN WETTON, RICHARD SINCLAIR (who
I was fortunate enough to back up for a few songs when he did a solo
show in Louisville; one of the high points of my life!), PEKKA POHJOLA,
BERNARD PAGA NOTTI, JANNIK TOP, GEDDY LEE, TONY LEVIN, FERDINAND
RICHARD, JOHN GREAVES, JEFF BERLIN, PERCY JONES, STANLEY CLARK, and
JACO (GOD) PASTORIUS.
Compositionally, I guess my stuff owes the most to YES, BRUFORD, BRAND
X, DAVE STEWART, HAPPY THE MAN, JOE ZAWINUL, UK, & ZAPPA.
Although my music doesn't have lyrics (yet!), I would love to be able to write lyrics as well as PETER HAMMILL.
As an aside, I think it's important for a progressive musician to draw
inspiration from a broad variety of progressive bands (not to mention
Jazz, Classical, Folk, etc). There are far too many bands out there who
sound as though they were only inspired by one particular BAND, or
worse, one particular ALBUM!
Q: Pip Pyle (of HATFIELD & THE NORTH/NATIONAL HEALTH fame) once said that, in order to not sound too pretentious, progressive rock must come with humorous/silly lyrics and song titles. Is this close to your conception of music?
A: Judging from the evidence, I must at least sub-consciously agree
with that, although it's not something I've given a lot of thought to.
I didn't really mind when YES, ELP, etc. utilized "pretentious" song
titles & lyrics; it was only when the 2nd generation of progressive
bands did so only because they thought it was expected of them when it
got out of hand.
I should point out that most of my song titles come from the
Underground comics of which I am a HUGH fan. If a particular phrase or
line in a comic makes me laugh, I try to write it down and eventually
use for the proper tune.
Q: Do you play live sometimes?
A: between the years 1987-1992 we played live generally once a month
locally. Because the drummer & guitarist from the records went to
out-of-town universities, they were unable to perform with us (though
the drummer, Fenner Castner, did play some live shows with us for 6
months). Consequently, I had to organize many different line-ups (and
they're listed in the "VIRTUE IN FUTILITY" booklet), including 3
different keyboardists, 4 different guitarists, and 6 different
drummers! One of the reasons for such a long gap between records is
that for the most part, the musicians I employed didn't have the time
to both rehearse for gigs AND learn new music I'd written.
Q: Since you recorded this CD , have you worked on other material, and do you plan to put out another CD in the near future?
A: Future plans? Well, I'm nearly through recording a new cd with a new
line-up. It's a bit more democratic; the guitarist (Tony Hall)
contributes 2 songs, the keyboardist (John Robinson) 1, and we are even
doing a version of VAN DER GRAAF GENERATOR'S "PIONEERS OVER 'C'"! There
are vocals on 3 tracks, as the new drummer (Bob Douglas) is a wonderful
singer. I hope to release this cd (titled "INTESTINAL FORTITUDE") by
May, 1995. Beyond that, I plan to put out a live cd, and to re-issue
the 1st album. I have also co-written three 20+ minute pieces that fall
somewhere between progressive rock and opera with an incredibly
talented local keyboardist that I met in 1989 named Michael Medley. Is