Henning Pauly - Dungeons, dragons and DNA.

Interview with Lee Graham from Electric Basement

The first two elements conjure classic metal - medieval doings that would make Ronnie James Dio proud. The last image is less ironclad. It evokes lab coats, stem cells and cloned sheep. Bridging the seemingly distant worlds is Henning Pauly. From his studio lair, the aural alchemist layers sound like a Dr. Frankenstein of fretted instruments. Molten guitar, pounding percussion and throbbing bass mutate, entwine and combine, breathing new life and new vitality.

Sadly, it's a synthesis few producers pursue.

"It's frustrating," says Pauly. "So much is possible with modern technology. I don't know why more bands don't realize the potential." But the German native races ahead, distilling traditional instruments and recording techniques into strange, beautiful creations. Restlessness is a way of life for Pauly, whose latest project has reshaped progressive rock. "Frameshift is like my playground. I can do whatever I want with it with no compromises."
Despite such idealism - or perhaps because of it - critics and fans have embraced Frameshift's Unweaving The Rainbow. Human yet high-tech, the disc throbs with electronic vitality yet spews sweat and sinew. It's the sound of human hearts beating to a bionic undercurrent. It is the sound of the future. And it wouldn't have happened without a certain Dream Theater vocalist.
"Yes, James LaBrie made it possible. Without him, Frameshift would not be."
That's because Pauly wrote the disc for the frontman.
"Henning's a genius," says LaBrie. "He has so many amazing ideas. It was an honor working with him."

But who is Henning Pauly? Before reinventing progressive music for a new era, the musician studied production and music synthesis at Berklee College of Music in Boston. Armed with knowledge and boundless creativity, Pauly tackled several projects. Among those was Chain, a rock quintet continuing to feed his progressive soul. Reconstruct found an audience and propelled its creator to other realms. Those included writing, arranging and producing ambient, jazz, big band, rock, metal and progressive compositions.

Film soundtracks have even benefited from Pauly's inimitable touch. "Treacherous Highway" and "Elevator Etiquette" are among those celluloid creations. But music - ambitious, adventurous rock music - anchors Pauly's creative core. And Frameshift is a mere springboard for things to come.
"I'm really excited about Babysteps," says Pauly. Something of a who's-who of progressive rock, the prog-opera promises instrumental grandeur on an Ayreon level. Few U.S.-based musicians have mounted a project so ambitious (Trent Gardner's Leonardo: The Absolute Man and Dream Theater's Metropolis Part II: Scenes From A Memory spring to mind).
"I'm excited by the musicians I'm working with," says Pauly. And no wonder. Featuring guitarist Al Pitrelli (Savatage, Trans Siberian Orchestra, Megadeth), vocalist Jody Ashworth (TSO), vocalist Matt Cash (Chain) and LaBrie, Babysteps seems an unlikely name for a project of such scope. Steeped in the Savatage-TSO school of melodrama - and what "Kerrang!" magazine likely would derisively deem "pomp" - Babysteps promises a sumptuous buffet for starving prog heads. Pauly went into "prog hiberation" in the early '90s. But when Rip Van Pauly rediscovered the medium, he didn't like what he saw. Or heard. "So many bands haven't really progressed. I want my music to move forward." So let's maintain the momentum and catch up with the studio wizard.

"Above The Grass - Part I" reminds me of Dream Theater. But only briefly. At first, it's acoustic guitar and James LaBrie's voice. But then the song kicks in and Frameshift really hits me. Was that sudden shift your intent?

The whole idea of “Above The Grass” was to start off the album in the vein the album was meant to be, meaning showcasing James. So you don’t start an album that was intended for vocals with an orchestra or a metal band. That would overtake the vocal element. Instead, you start with the vocalist exposed as much as possible. But I did want to start off with the band, as well, so “Above The Grass” just hints at it and lets it hang at the close so it teases you. I think it works in getting the point across – that it is about a vocalist. The next song is “The Gene Machine,” which continues that style. I read somewhere …I think it was your (Frameshift) review, actually, about David Bowie.

Yes, Earthling.

That was a great comparison you made. Thank you.

Critics savaged Bowie, but I really liked that album.

I don’t like everything Bowie does, but he’s always pushing the limits, always going into uncharted territory. For Frameshift, I had more drum-and-bass loops in the beginning, but they were really cluttering it up and interfering with the (real) drums. So I thinned it out more and more.

All that studio manipulation must be worlds away from how most prog bands record.

The loops definitely aren't characteristic of prog. One thing that is totally uncharacteristic of any style at all is how the guitars are arranged. The metal guitars are literally chopped up by hand.

What do you mean?

They are stuttering. They make a cyclical repeating pattern, but it didn't give you a rhythm. So I chopped up the guitars all over the album by hand, but with a specific rhythm so it comes from silence in the guitars. So silence cuts into the guitar tracks.

That's one way to achieve dynamics.

Yes. It's a lot of work. You can't replicate it live because you can’t mute guitars live.

The drum-and-bass movement almost fizzled before it started. That's a shame, because it seemed to open worlds of rhythmic possibilities. Why do you suppose it never caught on?

I think it’s still around, but in its original drum-and-bass territory: the techno underground. I’m not into that at all. I like it when it’s used in rock as a stylistic element, using loops outside of the usual element. There’s so much you can do with it.

Drum and bass seems more interesting complementing songs as a whole, rather than as a device by itself. Like when you fuse it with traditional band instruments and solid melodies, it’s more alive than mere background.

Yes, and it presents interesting rhythm ideas that don’t have to be used in drum and bass.

Right. I think what we’re saying is that drum and bass works best outside its idiom – outside drum and bass!

Yes (laughs) You can have something going at 160 beats per second and just use that as a stylistic element.

As something to compliment – not overtake - the ambient passages and aggressive parts. Do you agree?

Yes, lots of ambient guitars and synths give it a lot of space.

Let's discuss the genesis - pardon the pun - of Unweaving The Rainbow. What was it about Richard Dawkins' theories about evolution that inspired the album?

I’m a huge Douglas Adams fan.

The guy who wrote “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy?”

Yes. He has one book that's called “Last Chance to See,” and it’s not a science fiction book. It’s a travelogue of him going through the world with a zoologist to see various animal species before they’re gone. He learns about evolution on his trip and gets into it. The book started the thinking process in me about evolution. So you go out and buy a book about it, so I started reading about it. Inevitably, you arrive at darkness. I found out he and Dawkins were friends, too, which I didn’t know. I see the world through the eyes of a Darwinist. Natural section.

Evolution – and creation – have always drawn controversy. But what makes Dawkins’ stuff so much more controversial?

It’s really not provocative. His stuff isn't at all. It's very straightforward, based on common sense observations, and he didn’t try to be provocative. It's basically showing you a different point of view. That’s all.

What led you to believe it would lend itself to music?

There's three sides to every story, as Extreme would say.

But what lended itself to music, in your mind?

It's a completely absurd idea. It was really stupid because nothing is harder to write about than concepts. When you write about emotions, it’s easy as hell. Love, hate – we see them all the time. Emotions, lyrically speaking, are easy. Writing about people is easy. Writing about concepts and getting people emotionally involved, that was the huge challenge.

Lending humanity to an otherwise academic, cold subject must have been difficult.

Yes. Like “La Mer.” “Spiders,” too. "Spiders" is hate. “La Mer” is about someone seeking answers and finding them in a mundane object like a seashell.

The song definitely comes alive with James' delivery. Did you want him from the first moment?

It was the other way around. It was talked about that I might be able to work with James, and the question was what would I write? The album wouldn’t have been released if James wasn’t involved. The label (ProgRock Records) asked if they could get me in touch with James. I say, “Yeah right: James and me working together.” I was in the process of writing the second Chain album at that point.

How would you describe the differences between Chain and Frameshift?

Chain is a band; Frameshift is a project. Chain’s not really a band, though. I do most of the stuff. But it has a band sound and feel. It has keyboards, bass and drums, but no loops or fancy stuff. No guitar chopping, no production gimmicks. Still, it has a good progressive sound.

But what constitutes progressive rock? Some people associate prog with a certain sound, like a Mellotron and long songs with multiple time signatures, virtuoso musicianship and grandiose concepts. But to me, really progressive music is just that – it progresses, or moves forward, and is original. Frameshift, to me, fits the latter category and is truly progressive in that it takes music in a new direction.

Thanks. I'm amazed I’m getting this comment over and over again. I’m disappointed with what’s going on in progressive rock. I was out of progressive rock for eight or nine years. Since 1995, when I had Chain and did pop rock and jazz and other things in Berklee. Then two years ago, I got back into prog with the Chain album. So I started buying albums. I’m like, “People, that was cool in ’88, but it’s not modern now.” I heard Enchant … what’s up with you guys? You don’t belong in today's music. And Shadow Gallery: OK, you can play fast, but what’s progressive about it? Vanden Plas: amazing band, but you might as well call them Dream Theater with different people.

So some of the newer prog bands don’t impress you.

If Yes does their thing, that’s cool. Yes is Yes; that is their sound. I don’t really see any progression, as you say, in it. There’s no progressiveness in progressive rock. A band that really presented something new was O.S.I. because Kevin Moore understands production methods. O.S.I., I think, is one of the things I like best of the last year that had a new sound. I listened to the InsideOut (label) samplers and am highly disappointed with much of the stuff. Most stuff that’s on there is on there because they have names like Steve Hackett. Progressive rock was always more modern or more extreme than rock. Take modern rock like Linkin Park or Korn.

Yes, take them, please!

Yeah (laughs) Take Linkin Park. They're more progressive than the progressive rock out there. They’re more experimental than progressive rock.

In what way?

In the production approach in how they experiment, they’re pushing it forward. That’s sad and embarrassing. Who says we can’t take the core of progressive rock – virtuosity on all instruments, longer songs, topics that are deeply involved – and use different production? Why not use the sounds they use? What’s wrong with learning something from Marilyn Manson? Why can’t we do that?

That’s an interesting question. If David Bowie can experiment with drum and bass, production might be next. Anyway, I’d like to get back to Frameshift. What was your and James' collaborative process? Did he simply sing what you gave him, or did he contribute creatively?

A week before recording, I got a tape from him where he was humming or singing some melodic ideas. That seems to be the way he works with Dream Theater, too. He wants to throw me his ideas and have an unbiased approach to the album. He came up with a couple cool ideas for verses, like on phrasing. So we tended to use a lot of his verses melodically. But the choruses didn't have enough hooks. I wanted them to be very hooky and almost be pop. So I brought in Matt Cash to write lyrics and melodies. We took what we liked of James’ ideas and wrote the rest.

James describes himself as a spiritual man who doesn't believe in Dawkins' theories. But they fascinate him. Did his reluctance to embrace evolution give you pause?

No. At the studio, we talked about what the story was about and he was totally open to it.


And he thinks that there’s more to the world than Darwinism, and that’s totally cool. I don’t think he calls it God or the God that religion created.

Is Frameshift simply a vehicle for Unweaving The Rainbow, or should we expect more releases?

James is very flattered by the response we’ve been getting. I’m completely blown away by it. In a couple of magazines, people are saying it's James’ best work. It’s very…it blows my mind. James says we’re going to do a second album.

So are you going to?

Heck yeah. What it will be, I don’t know because I don’t really repeat myself.

Back to you’re being truly progressive.

Yes. Like Babysteps, the double CD. It’s more of a TSO (Trans Siberian Orchestra) sound. It comes out soon. We are working on it. It’s 140 minutes of music, 32 songs. It’s me and Eddie Martin on drums, Al Pitrelli and others.

Sounds like a real all-star project.

Yes, we've got James and TSO people.

James just blows me away. Like his layering before the lead guitar kicks in on "Spiders" is spine tingling. You knew he was a solid vocalist, but did his abilities surprise even you?

His stamina surprised me. I mean, he’s in a room 10-12 hours a day standing upright singing with full power. He didn’t let up until the last day. We did the Babysteps track on the last day, he was as strong as the first. “The Gene Machine” was the first track, and he was equally powerful. He’s very focused. I’m pretty rough on vocalists. Once you’re behind the glass, it’s all about the product. It’s taking the time to focus and hone in on the notes. I say yes. Just focus, do whatever you feel like. He has a very intellectual approach to singing. That passage you mentioned in “Spiders,” that Gentle Giant-Spock’s Beard sound, it could have sounded bigger if he (James) weren’t so perfect.

What do you mean?

Well, every voice is on there three times. It’s triple tracked. When you record two and three times, it sounds wider and bigger so you get this choir effect. You don’t get that choir sound when you get the pitch the same every single time. And James would nail it perfectly every time. He’s too good a vocalist to make it choir-like.

Another section of "Message From The Mountain" turns on a dime musically. So many elements are interweaving, it's almost chaotic. It creates its own fusion. I'm referring to the section right before James ends the song. What was your inspiration?

What inspired me, I have no idea. Thanks, though. I didn’t think of any band as a particular inspiration. I knew I wanted to use a tapping instrument. Like a Warr guitar.

Like what Trey Gunn uses.

Yes. Like “River Out Of Eden” was all Warr guitar.

Did you ever feel overwhelmed, like you swam out too far and might drown?

Not really. What I was very concerned about that turned out to be critical was the diversity of the album.

How so?

I didn’t want it to repeat itself anywhere, and it doesn’t. It takes you on a ride through everything that’s done in prog, from serious heavy metal in “Message From The Mountain” and “Spiders” to “La Mer” and “Your Eyes.” That song is two minutes and fifty six seconds. On most prog albums, that’s an intro. But on this, it’s the whole song.

"Message From the Mountain" is almost symphonic. Oddly enough, it's among the few tunes that evokes "prog" comparisons, at least for me. The way the intro progresses has fleeting touches of Yes. Is that a string section I'm hearing?

I wanted a Spock’s Beard approach to with the B3. More of an Alan Morse (Spock's Beard guitarist) approach. Spock’s is more light and groovy. That’s what I wanted. I was scared people would not like the album because it’s too diverse. Only two reviews we got, they didn’t get it. They’re from German Web sites.

Was distribution a concern when signing your deal?

Yes and no. We talked to InsideOut while recording for them to take over European distribution, which would have been great. But the deal was ridiculous. A dollar and twenty cents a CD.

What would have been acceptable?

It wasn’t so much the rate; the point is that it wouldn’t have been my $1.20. I am signed with the label and get a percentage of sales.

Where was the album recorded?

An hour outside LA. The fires were going on around that time.

Really? So do you live around San Bernardino mountains?

Yes, in Grand Terrace. While we mixed the album, we had to evacuate. We were living in the studio because I couldn’t get back home. In the control room, I lived with three guys and two dogs for two and a half weeks. We only had to live there while mixing it, not recording it.

What about James? Was he with you?

James had a beautiful cabin close to Lake Arrowhead.

Does he own it?

No, we rented it for him.


Everything was recorded last September and mixed two weeks later.

How about the fire? How close did it get?

A half mile. It got really close. It was a like a nuclear bomb out there. The fires were amazing. I thought my home is gone.

With Frameshift completed, what else awaits fans in the next few months?

Well, there’s Babysteps, which I’m really excited about. And the second Chain album: Chain.exe. It will be out in two to three months. Babysteps, maybe in the fall. Then there is "13 Days" where I wanted to do it simply. It’s guitar, bass and drums and nothing else. I wanted to limit myself, to do it in 13 days, it's a fun album...

What’s it like stylewise?

Metal, blues, rock, alternative, ‘80s stuff. All kinds of music.

Truly progressive.


Thanks for chatting, Henning, and for making such great music.

My pleasure, Lee.