Friends, Romans, Music Freaks!
Today, I am with Alan Charles of Existence (and Eletria, but that’s another story!) for another Q&A Session. They do progressive or, in their own words, movies without pictures. Existence is from Canada with over 20 years under their collective belts!
Now, without further ado…
Lady Obscure: Hello Alan. I understand that the history of your band has a lot of events and some pauses in it. Could you tell me about it? Who are in the band, how did you guys got together?
Alan Charles: Hi Lady, well the history of the band is one very long journey! To make it short, it started in 1991, after I had written a bunch of songs which formed a major theme (or concept I called it then) about Existence. I met 3 other guys who wanted me to join their band as a keyboard player but convinced them to work on my little “opera” instead. This was supposed to be one-off thing, the Existence Concept, which would have been followed by others afterward. In other words, this band had no name, just a bunch of guys working on different projects. Obviously, it proved impossible to sell and Serge Delisle, the bass player, suggested we call the band after this first project, thus EXISTENCE.
After less than a year and two gigs, two members left and Éric Pilon (guitar) and François Labelle (drums) both experienced musicians joined in. By 1992, we were touring, playing this first concept in its entirety. We used to give a short “libretto” for people to follow the story since, besides the musicians on stage, nothing indicated this was indeed a full concept or opera or whatever you want to call this creation! In clubs, it was then seen bizarre to say the least!
In 1994, we released the first half of the Existence “concept” as the Fragile Whisperings Of Innocence album. By then, we had played it live more than 80 times but two members felt it was time to move on.
In 1995, Alain Quesnel (bass) and Bruno Tessier (drums) joined Existence and we started opening for bigger acts. We added new material and stopped doing the original concept in its entirety. By 1996, Existence had run its course and stopped.
In 1998, I reformed Existence with 3 other musicians: Gaston Gagnon (guitar), François Beaugard (violin) and Gérard Léveque (drums). François was a friend of mine and had played on the previous Existence album. Gaston was with Garolou, a famous Québec band and Gérard played with different prog rock bands in the past. We first entered the studio to record what would become Small People, Short Story, Little Crime in 1999. The bass was handled by Richard Lanthier before Richard Ranger took over after him.
Existence played live until 2002 before a long pause. Since then we released a French musical drama called Eletria in 2007 (and played it live until 2009) and are now working on a new proper Existence album to be released in 2013…
LO: So, it is going to be progressive rock for you, always?
AC: I come from hard rock but I used to write these very long songs with different parts. I didn’t know then what was prog rock since I didn’t listened to this type of music, except the first Crimson album, Pink Floyd and maybe Sgt Peper! I was first told we did prog rock when we released the first album! For me, it’s only music with emotions. Our first ads used to mention this: “Existence: A movie without the images!” I think it sums it pretty well!
LO: Was it always the same theme? Have you always done “Movies without images” without naming them prog-rock?
AC: Obviously, my background did show in my first creations. But after a while, you form your own sound and style. So if there was an evolution, it’s probably in the sense of losing the hard rock in perfecting the “film music” style a bit more…
LO: Certainly, with everything in life, it takes time doesn’t it? How do you consider your albums then? Are you happy with them and where they are going with each one?
AC: The first album is amateurish although the songs are great! From Fragile, to Small People, to Eletria, the production and audacity improved immensely. We are proud that the critics are not able to pin-point one major influence. We don’t sound like the “classic” prog rock because we don’t use synthesizers (like Yes, Marillion, Genesis and others) but I’d like to see a little more roughness coming back in the sound as Porcupine Tree or Riverside did without losing the real emotions behind the music.
LO: OK, so how was the fans’ reaction to the albums?
AC: In 1994, people who loved us live were disappointed by the album which didn’t reflect the band’s power on stage. With Small People, everything changed. We were praised like never before, getting more than 30 ecstatic reviews of the album in the world.
LO: This must be encouraging! So, you will keep recording and playing live then? What’s next? DO you consider any international tours?
AC: The next years will be crucial in getting back into shape and finding more fans. We need to grow our fan base. A new album (Silent Screams In Violence, second part of the 1991 original concept…) is scheduled for a 2013 release. Another album is ready to be recorded and we don’t want to wait another 13 years to release it! I’d like to tour again, for sure. If we could open for major bands it would be great. Needless to say, the market in Canada and America is pretty slim for our type of band… In this regard, we still sell more CDs in Europe than here. The next logical move would be for us to go there, but money is always an issue…
LO: So what’s the overall plan? Is it looking good?
AC: First, this new album. Then try and sell more albums. Then tour. Then another album. Then…
I would like to say promising but I don’t know, to be honest. The members aren’t getting younger… I know for one that I’m willing to do it for a long time. But, I might have to look for new partners if the guys don’t want to do the sacrifices needed to reach the fans… In any case, Existence has remained a collaboration throughout all these years, not a real band. Many have come and go. So, in this perspective, I could carry on with other guys if I need to.
LO: Let’s get back to your music. What do you love best about what you do? Writing? Studio? Stage?
AC: The creation process is the best! Then playing live is great fun! The studio is just something we have to go through, for practical reason… Great stress to get the best out of a piece of music.
LO: Do you do the most of the composing? Or is it a collaborative effort? What about the lyrics?
AC: I write 90% of the music and 100% of lyrics. The rest depends. I’m never closed ears to great things. As it happens, I was the one who wrote the most but the arrangements were always by all.
LO: What do you write about? How did you come up with the ideas and concepts?
AC: The Original Existence concept is about a musician who experiences a mid-life crisis. He talks about his daughter who had some drugs problems, a friend of hers who was raped and another friend who died at war. He then asks himself what’s life all about. Not your typical dance hall music! LOL
The funny thing is that I wrote this when I was just only 20… Now at age 44, is it not peculiar? I had always liked philosophy and the “grand” questions: who are we? Where do we come from? Where are we going? It’s been my theme of predilection since I started writing. Eletria was about a girl being kept captive for prostitution and Small People was about many subjects we could say were “actualities”. Always about people. Not your typical prog rock spacy themes either. Very down to earth…
LO: So what bands do you draw your inspiration from?
AC: I listen to everything except country and hip hop. These days I’m into Riverside, Porcupine Tree, Epica, Analog Missionary and Black Keys. But I also like many other things which might influence my writing like Depeche Mode, Beatles, Led Zep, Genesis, Jethro Tull, Elton John, and many others. I own more than 1500 albums of all genres!
I know Gaston has always been influenced by the blues, François by Electronica, Gérard by classic prog rock and Richard by pop music. It makes a very strange blend!
LO: Music for the audience or music for its own sake? Which one comes first?
AC: The music comes first because it’s to express things I do it. I only wish people will like what we offer. Stick to what you are, I was once told, and that’s what I do.
LO: When you look back your music career, what do you consider to be your greatest accomplishment?
AC: Writing the music, the lyrics. I always tell my kids: at least your dad did what he wanted.
LO: Have you got anything to say to the existing and future fans?
AC: The only way for musicians to create and release new music to the world is if people buy the music, see the shows, tell about it. Without this minimum revenue, no band can carry on, no matter how great it is… Listening to YouTube or SoundCloud is not enough. Buy!
LO: Thank you Alan!
Here is a song by Existence, “Open Letter to my Friends / Farewell from the Lone Poet”
And if you would like to find out more about Alan, Existence and Eletria, here are some links!