Mark Healy is the mastermind behind Hibernal and has released two albums of sci-fi inspired post rock where an inventive storyline and spoken word are intertwined with a rock inspired soundtrack to produce a deep and meaningful audio experience best experienced from start to finish, like a movie.
Progradar: Mark, first can I thank you for taking the time to answer these questions for Lady Obscure Music Magazine.
Your second album under the ‘Hibernal’ banner was released in March, were you surprised how much anticipation there was for the new record?
Mark Healy: There was definitely a good vibe around for this release. The pre-orders exceeded my expectations, that’s for sure, and in general it was great to see people excited about the album.
Progradar: Your first release ‘The Machine’ was incredibly well received and garnered a lot of critical praise, did this surprise you?
Mark: The response to ‘The Machine’ was amazing because it was only ever meant to be an experimental album to be heard by a few friends and family. It was really a test run for me to have some practice with recording, mixing and producing an album. I was all set to get started on a ‘proper’ album with lyrics and vocals afterwards, but then, came this terrific response and so I decided to make a follow-up with the same format.
Progradar: ‘Replacements’, to me, seems to lend itself to the ‘Blade Runner’ scenario of a dystopian future world where humans and androids try to co-exist, where did you get the idea from?
Mark: I wanted to take the universe from ‘The Machine’ and fast forward to a point where synthetic people are now commonplace. I’m really fascinated by exploring the boundaries of our humanity – what are the things that make us uniquely human? What are the parts of us that could never be fabricated, even at the peak of our technology? If we reach the point where we can build synthetic people, will they just be workers who do the jobs we choose not to, or could they fill emotional roles in our lives such as best friends or surrogate children? What are the moral and ethical implications of this? Once I came up with those questions, the story really began to take shape.
It’s also a commentary on where we’re headed as a society. Our world is becoming more disposable and replaceable every day, in some ways for the better and in some ways for the worse. How far can it go? What are the things we can’t replace?
Progradar: On ‘The Machine’ the music seems almost incidental, like a cinematic soundtrack but, on ‘Replacements’ it can very much stand alone, hence you also releasing an instrumental version of the album, was this intentional?
Mark: I think there’s a number of improvements on ‘Replacements’ in a musical sense, first and foremost the rhythm section. For this album I brought in my great friend Rowan Salt to play bass, and he really breathed life into the bass lines I’d written. He improvised a lot as well and added all the nuances that only a skilled bassist can do. I’ve become more skilled with drum programming since ‘The Machine’ and that made a difference as well. Apart from that, I think the songwriting has improved as well. Like anything, you get better with practice, and I think there’s more coherence and a better flow to these songs.
Progradar: On first listen, my initial impressions were that, you kept the originality and format but, moved the game on somewhat, giving the new album more dynamism, is this correct?
Mark: ‘Replacements’ definitely has more going on. Part of this is due to story having more action sequences and a more energetic pace, but I also wanted to mix it up in terms of time signatures and the progressive feel of the music. I’ve also added more layers to the music this time around with more interplay between the instruments and this gives it a more dynamic feel as well.
I also involved Rowan and my wife Nic in more aspects of the production this time around. They were a huge help, offering thoughts on the script, assisting with casting, feedback on the music production, helping to choose an artist, etc. I bounced pretty much everything off Rowan in particular – right down to fonts on the artwork and colour schemes for the Bandcamp page. You name it, I sent it to him and waited to see what he thought. He had lots of great suggestions, and his input into this production was immense. He’s done the mastering for both albums as well. He really is the unofficial second member of Hibernal, and I don’t think I’d even attempt another album without his involvement.
Progradar: What other differences did you try to achieve on ‘Replacements’, compared to ‘The Machine’?
Mark: There were definitely things I felt could be improved from ‘The Machine’. First and foremost, I wanted to integrate the voice acting and the music more. On the first album I situated most of the dialog between the instrumentals, often in short tracks of their own, so that listeners could skip the dialog more easily when they got sick of hearing the story. Ultimately this made it feel a bit stop-start though. I solved both issues by creating the instrumental version, allowing me to weave the dialog throughout the songs more organically, and also providing a version of the album people can listen to if they don’t want to hear the story.
Progradar: Was it easier to write the second album as, perhaps, you had learned quite a lot during the writing and recording of ‘The Machine’
Mark: I did learn a lot from the first album and I had a much better idea of how to go about producing the second album because of it, but it was still much harder making ‘Replacements’. ‘The Machine’ came together quite quickly and easily because it was just a fun little throwaway album (or so I thought). I had written the story ten years before, and most of the music was also written prior to coming up with the idea of ‘The Machine’ concept album, so it was just a matter of stitching it all together and creating sound effects. It was done in a few months. On the other hand, ‘Replacements’ was a project that was custom built from the ground up and I was very meticulous in getting things exactly right. For example, hiring the Narrator for ‘The Machine’ took two days. For ‘Replacements’ it took over two months, and several rounds of auditions before I found the right guy.
Progradar: To me, your music, the written word, cinematic story that is underscored by a great, almost progressive soundtrack, is very unique, what inspired you to write music this way?
Mark: The albums I like the most are the ones that engage me, grab my attention and make me feel something. I tossed up the idea of just doing an instrumental album, and although this might be great for background music or for setting moods, without the context I didn’t think there would be that sense of engagement. So this was my way of creating an engaging form of music. The story gives the music context, and the music heightens the emotion of the story. That’s really my ultimate goal. I want people to feel something when they listen to one of my albums. I think it can be a really powerful medium and I’m a bit baffled that there hasn’t been more done in this genre. The other reason why I chose this format is simply because I love concept albums with storylines. Queensryche’s ‘Operation Mindcrime’ is a great example. I listened to that album for months and enjoyed the story playing out in my head as I listened to the music.
Progradar: What were your earliest musical influences and, do you have any guilty ‘musical’ secrets?
Mark: Tool would be one of my main influences for sure. I first picked up a guitar because I wanted to play songs from ‘Undertow’. Porcupine Tree and Pink Floyd obviously. Stoner rock such as Sabbath, Kyuss and Monster Magnet. Also Sisters of Mercy. I model a lot of my basslines on theirs, plus I just love the gothic vibe. In terms of the guilty secrets, I pretty much listened to pop as a kid in the 80s, so you could take your pick from that lot!
Progradar: You are quoted as saying that “Replacements took almost 2000 hours of your time and had close to 50 script re-writes”, how do you go about writing such a gargantuan musical experience?
Mark: The script was a huge undertaking because there’s a difficult line to tread. I give myself about 2500 words for a script for the album, because this is an album of music first and foremost. I’m not making an audiobook, so I can’t have a ratio of 40 minutes of dialog to 10 minutes of music. I’ve had people ask why I don’t go into more detail about various aspects of the world or the characters, and the answer is ‘time’. This is a short story and there is very little time to provide exposition on the world or to develop the characters. Short stories of this length provide enough time to explore one idea, and that’s about it. In my earlier script revisions I had backstories on Artimus and an explanation of how synthetics fit into the world, and I hit my 2500 word limit before I even came close to starting a plot. Also, a huge part of this story is setting an atmosphere, which requires descriptions of scenes to help paint an image for the listener. This also eats into the word count. So it’s really a juggling act between all of these elements, and even though the end product is a relatively short script it’s a huge undertaking to get it right.
Apart from the script, there were so many other roles I had to perform, from music composition, casting and auditioning actors, developing sound effects, art direction, recording and mixing, the list goes on. I’m just a normal guy and I don’t have experience with any of this, so I had to learn all of these jobs from scratch. I’m still learning now.
Progradar: You also state that “You almost quit a dozen times due to obstacles you had to overcome” and “you know you will lose money on the project”, what keeps you going at the darkest moments and, why do you do it in the first place?
Mark: I love the creation process. It’s a buzz to go back and listen to something I wrote a week ago and realise that it’s great. On a big project like this, it’s also very gratifying to see it come together after all the hard work. Each week there was a little bit more of it coming together, and that helped give me the incentive to keep going.
Equally important are the fans. People who heard the first album wrote to me and told me they loved it and wanted to hear more, and that’s a great feeling. It still seems surreal to me that people from all parts of the world listen to music I’ve made. I received some fan art recently and that was utterly awesome too.
Finally, it’s nice to leave a little mark on the world. I think it’s something everyone should aspire to do.
Progradar: How do you recruit the voice actors for the albums?
Mark: The voice actors were all recruited online. There are a number of voice talent sites out there so it was a matter of scouring through those to find people who might fit the part. The problem is that most actors post demos showcasing their range, so often you’ll hear zany, over the top demos. What I’m looking for in my projects are gritty, subdued performances so it can be hard to judge the actors based on their demos. I listened to over 1000 demos and went on to audition 30 or 40 of those for the four characters in ‘Replacements’. It was hugely time consuming.
Do your family think you have to have a modicum of insanity to pursue a project like this?
Mark: I think my family has had a similar reaction to most of my friends. They were initially a bit perplexed about what the hell I was doing. I didn’t talk about ‘The Machine’ before release, I just posted it online and gave them a link to go listen. They were undoubtedly expecting a conventional album and instead they were hit with this weird audiobook/music/movie thing and weren’t sure what to make of it, which is totally understandable. I think most of them have gradually come around and understand what I’m doing now.
Progradar: Has the internet and social media helped or hindered the way you produce and promote music and, in what way?
Mark: My music would be impossible without the internet, not just for distribution but for hiring voice actors, sourcing sound effects and so on. I also learn about mixing and album production by reading and watching online tutorials. I’ve had no formal training in music. I didn’t even take music in high school, I’ve just picked up all my skills through practice and through resources on the web.
Social media has also been extremely important in spreading the word about Hibernal. I’ve reached many bloggers and fans through Facebook who have in turn shared the music through their pages, which is hugely important. I wouldn’t have reached anyone without the support of people like that, and I’m really appreciative of people who take the time to write about and share my music.
Progradar: How do you juggle, work, family and your musical career?
Mark: Not too much has changed in our family since I started making the albums. We have a pretty good routine where the kids are in bed by 7:30pm, and that gives me a few hours every night to do my own thing. In the past I spent that time gaming, watching TV and trying to play Iron Maiden covers on my guitar, but now I spend most of it working on the album. There’s still balance though. I do the other things, but just less of them than before. I also think about the album constantly. I have an hour drive to work, and usually I’ll be thinking about the script or song composition or how I’m going to create the next sound effect. In that respect the albums are constantly in my thoughts. I think for projects like this you have to immerse yourself and be a little bit obsessive.
Progradar: Finally, what’s next for Mark Healy and Hibernal?
Mark: I still feel like I’m only just getting started with this universe I’ve created, but I have to weigh up the financial side of things and decide if I can keep doing Hibernal. All hobbies cost money, and this hobby is no exception. I may look at an artform that doesn’t have so many expenses, such as writing, which would also allow me to explore some of these themes I’ve touched on in more detail in the form of novels. I’ll make a call on that in a few months, so we’ll see.
Progradar: Many thanks for your time, I wish you great success with ‘Replacements’.
Mark: Thanks Martin!