by Brian McKinny, senior editor
Michael John is a working-class guy who dreamt of writing his own music and playing it for anyone willing to listen. Born in the U.K., his family moved to New Zealand when he was very young, which didn’t provide the kind of musical outlets for performance as other, larger cities in the region do, so when John decided to enter an international songwriting contest, he never thought that he’d win.
But the “what if” factor was just too much of a temptation for him to pass up, so he entered his song into the Pacific International Songwriting Competition. The prize was $1,000 for the rock/metal/indie section. The song he submitted to the contest was called “Motorway”. Against all odds, he won.
John decided to use his prize money to take the chance of a lifetime and do what he loves most. He did what any good rock ‘n’ roller with a dream of stardom would do: He threw a blowout bacchanalian party for his friends and family in New Zealand, and then he bought a one-way ticket to Melbourne, Australia. Shortly after settling into his new Melbourne digs, he set about searching for the right combination of bandmates to form what would eventually become the Arcane Saints.
Recently, Music Insider Magazine spoke with John about the band to find out how it got started, what inspires them, what it was like working with Grammy-award-winning producer Toby Wright, and why it’s good to have the proper visa before traveling to Canada.
MIM: What was the impetus for moving to Australia from your native New Zealand?
Michael John: Well, New Zealand is a very small country. Even in Auckland (the largest city), there are only two places for bands to play. After a couple of years of playing in those two places, I got bored and I thought, “I have to move to Melbourne.” Melbourne is the de facto music capital of Australia — its population is roughly the same as the entire country of New Zealand, so I moved to a massive metropolitan city from what was essentially a very small town. I have an aunt and an uncle who live in Melbourne, so I stayed with them for the first few months until I could get into my own place and find a day job.
My first impression after moving to Melbourne was, “Wow!” I went out every night of the week to check out many different venues. It’s such a vibrant scene. Since I initially formed the group, I’ve had some members come and go and have been lucky enough to find these guys: Sammy (Sablinskis on drums), Steve (Malone on bass guitar), and “Sheep” (Michael Gooding on lead guitar) have all been in the band for a couple of years now. They’re all Aussies, and it’s going really well.
MIM: How did you go about getting members together for the band when you first started out?
John: I went about it the old-fashioned way, putting ads up on the Internet. There are some good musician’s websites over here, and I just had different people come out. Actually, the first group of guys I put together here were all Kiwis (New Zealanders), just by chance, because there are so many New Zealanders over here that all the guys who initially auditioned for the band were from home. So, the first incarnation of the band were all Kiwis living in Australia. For various reasons, that didn’t work out, so I just started putting up ads and networking with other musicians in the club scene here in Melbourne, by going to a lot of shows, hanging with different bands and talking to people. Many musicians I’ve found aren’t as computer literate as others are, and so you can’t just confine your search for band members to placing ads online — you have to go out to the clubs and network and put your face out there. There is no substitute for making yourself part of the local music and club scene to find other like-minded musicians.
MIM: How did you come up with the band’s name?
John: I get asked this quite a lot … Well, arcane means ‘mysterious and unknowable’, and I just came across the word and didn’t really know what it meant, so I looked it up. Mysterious and unknowable is really how I like music. But the word arcane by itself is quite boring … It’s a name that I just came up with when I first moved here to Melbourne, and I didn’t realize that it would stick, but it did, and a lot of people liked it, so I just decided to keep it. Besides, Iron Maiden was already taken …
MIM: How would you describe your band’s music?
John: Obviously, we’re very grunge-influenced, but mainly we’re a hard rock band. Most of our songs are pretty simple; they’ve all got good hooks, good riffs, and a lot of our songs have guitar solos in them. I guess you could say we’re a hard rock band that focuses on melodies and has good energy.
MIM: Can you explain the creative process for writing new music with your band? Is it a collective effort, or is someone in the band the chief contributor?
John: I usually write about 95 percent of the songs. I’ll go into my music room here, and it’s pretty much just trial and error. I’ll come up with a chord progression and build on it until I have basically the whole song structure — melody, lyrics, breaks — all worked out before I take it to the band. I’ll play it for them, and they’re really good at making it all come alive. I don’t sit there and say, “You play this on bass”, or “You do this on drums”, or really tell them what to play unless I have a very specific idea in my head of how it should sound, but usually I give them the structure and let them do their own thing. It’s like a canvas, and I’m the painter who’s drawing the outline, and they’ll come in and fill in all the colors. I’d say they make any fully formed song what it is. Without their input, it wouldn’t be the song that you hear on the record.
MIM: Have you ever brought a song to the band only to have them shoot it down?
John: Yeah, actually, I have. I think that‘s good, because it’s a form of quality control. At the time, I might get a little pissed off: “What do you mean? It’s a really good song!” But then, after a couple of weeks I’ll be playing it at home and realize they were actually right, and so I have no problem with that kind of quality control. It’s better than having a band full of yes men saying, “Yeah man, it’s cool! Let’s play it.” And the end result is a crappy song and wasted effort. This way, only the really good stuff gets through, and everyone has a voice in the process. It goes both ways, too, because occasionally they’ll bring in a song, and I’ll have the option to voice my opinion, too.
There’s a song on the album that Steve, our bass player, actually brought in that he wrote, and it was really cool to have a song on the album that someone else besides me wrote. I mean, we’re a band, and it’s not just one person doing all the work of writing. Everyone has a voice, and I think it’s just healthy for a band; otherwise, it can become so one-dimensional if not everyone has their own input, and it makes for a far more interesting experience for us as well as for the audience.
MIM: What sparks your creativity? What inspires you to write music?
John: I think a common theme for my songs personally, is maintaining hope in times of adversity, because in today’s musical climate, sometimes it seems like everyone in the world is out there trying to shoot you down, to destroy your dream or career. A lot of the songs convey that feeling of look, here I am, giving everything I’ve got to try and make a career out of this band or as a musician, and just rolling with the punches, getting knocked down and not staying down, you know? I mean, we’ve had so many bad things happen to us along the way, and in this band, we just keep on going and keep on fighting through it.
So I think that’s a common theme that comes out in many of our songs, rather than just writing about partying and chicks. Nothing against partying and chicks, but that subject matter has just been done to death since the start of rock and roll. A lot of the bands I grew up listening to had something else to say — it wasn’t just all cock-rock, they actually had a message, and the cool thing wasn’t so much what they were saying, as much as it was the emotion or vibe that they gave that you got from the song and not necessarily so much what they were saying with the lyrics. Nirvana was one of those bands where it didn’t really matter if you could understand what they sang, but you knew by the emotion of the performance what they were trying to convey with the song. It was how it made you feel. That’s what I try to do with my songwriting.
MIM: When writing new material, do you write about personal experiences, or do you start out with a more abstract idea of what you want to write?
John: Mostly, I start with an abstract idea, but my songs usually share a common theme. I try not to deliberately write depressing songs. There always has to be an element of hopefulness or optimism in songs I write. When writing a song, specifically the lyrics, I try not to be too obvious, because I like for every person to have his or her own interpretation of what a song’s about, because everyone has their own experiences in life.
For me, it’s a bit odd, or just plain boring if I’m writing about something that specifically happened to me. I’d rather write something more general that could happen to anyone, and that’s why I write about experiences that are not necessarily about myself — they might be about someone I know or just an overall theme. I think it’s more important to convey different emotions in your songs — frustration, anger, disappointment, joy, hopefulness, elation. There are so many different emotions that I find coming out of all our songs. That’s how we try to reach and relate to our audiences. From a listener’s perspective, that is how we appeal to more people — when we have a general theme, so everyone can relate to the music on some emotional level.
MIM: What was your approach to writing new songs for this album? Did you do most or all of the writing before you went into the studio, or did you write songs as you were recording?
John: Well, obviously we’re on a very tight schedule and budget, so we had all the songs ready to go. We sent Toby (Wright) about 25 songs — pretty much all the songs we had written. We put forward our suggestions for the 10 songs we wanted to record out of the 25, then he changed one of the songs on our list to another one, and he left the other nine as they were. So they were all ready to go before we arrived in Nashville. And obviously, in the studio, a producer will sometimes make slight changes to the structure or arrangement of the songs, and that happened on some of the songs, and that’s totally cool.
MIM: What was it like to work with multi-Grammy Award-winning producer and engineer, Toby Wright on your new album, “Turning the Tide”?
John: To be honest with you, at first we were a bit apprehensive, because here we are this indie band traveling a long way, all the way from Australia to Nashville to work with this super Grammy Award-winning producer who’s worked with so many of my rock heroes … I was a little nervous; I didn’t know if he would have a huge ego or be like a dictator in the studio. He couldn’t be further from that and what really impressed me was that he actually met us the night we arrived, before we even went into the studio, and he went out and had dinner with us, just to get to know us and to talk about the record, and that was on his own time. That really impressed me.
Within 10 minutes of meeting him, he just became “Toby”, and not this super producer. He’s a really funny guy, and he doesn’t have a huge ego. He’s definitely all about business and creating the best record he can for you, all while being open to suggestions. As to the actual recording process itself, it was a lot of fun. There were some really long days, and some hard days, especially the first week because we were all so jet-lagged.
The thing to me that really stuck out about Toby is his passion for producing. He was actually into the songs — he genuinely cares about creating good music. It wasn’t as if he was just going to take our money, put out a record and that was it. A lot of producers could have been like, “thanks man, we’ll take your money, and we’ll record an album, then see ya later” —and you go back to Australia, never to be heard from again. Toby genuinely cared about the music and wanted to get the best album out of us that he could, so he really pushed us to do things and try things we would never have even thought to try.
To watch him in the studio is just amazing, because he’s been in the business for such a long time, he has so much knowledge and experience. He’s all about creating new sounds, so he was always telling us to go out and hire (rent) new guitars and effects pedals — we could never have enough effects pedals … He’d say, “Go and get his pedal,” something with the most ridiculous name, and we would go get them and come back with 20 different types of pedals, just to try them all and see what different sounds and textures we could get out of them, looking for a specific sound quality. On one particular song, I even used this toy guitar he had laying around in the studio, so it was just like “let’s use anything to get the sounds we can”. He’s driven to find those weird, strange, and great sounds in the studio by any means possible, and it was such a cool thing to see. But it was also cool when something went on in the recording that we didn’t like, because he would listen to our opinion — it wasn’t Toby’s way or the highway.
The one thing Toby really did push me on was my vocals, because he’s the kind of producer that wants five perfect takes of each line of every song. I’ve done a lot of recording before, and I’ve never had to do five “perfect” takes of every single line, of every single one of 10 songs … often after a vocal session I’d be just mentally drained after all those takes — not from trying to hit the right pitch or cadence, but from trying to put the same amount of emotion and high energy into everything I’m singing, and for so long. You know, sometimes I just felt like, “Oh man, that was good enough! Can’t we just move on already?”
But that’s how he gets good results, and looking back, I’m so glad he did that with me and the vocals. Toby knows what he wants to hear from you, and he’ll push you until he hears what he wants out of you. Just as an aside, did you know the microphone Toby let me use for my vocals was one that he had custom made for Layne Staley of Alice in Chains? How cool is that? I mean, I ended up using the microphone that one of my idols and Toby had custom made. It came in its own special little wooden box, and when I opened it up it was like, “AAAAAH!”
I did a lot of research on Toby, just reading interviews and stuff, trying to figure out what kind of guy he is, how he works, just so we could be prepared and knew what we were getting ourselves into. There was an interview I read in a book about Alice in Chains, where Toby talked about this special microphone that he and Layne had custom made. After using it to record their record, “Jar of Flies”, Toby wanted to give it to Layne as a gift, but Layne didn’t want to take it. He told Toby to keep it for the next time they record together, but that never happened.
I didn’t know if Toby still had the mike or not, so I asked him, “Hey man, it’s probably a stupid question, but do you still have that microphone that Layne used?” Toby replied, “Yeah, actually I do, I’ll bring it along”. But then, Toby being Toby, he wouldn’t let me use the microphone just because I asked. Oh, no! He set up five different microphones to see which sound we liked best with my voice. So we went into the studio, he mixed up all the track numbers so I didn’t know which track was done with which microphone, and as luck would have it, I just happened to choose the track that was recorded with the Layne Staley mike. I did genuinely like the sound of that track the best, and so did Toby, so it worked out really well. I was so happy when it turned out that the track I chose was the one with that mike Layne had used.
The whole time during recording, in the back of my mind I’m thinking to myself, “What am I doing here, using Layne Staley’s microphone while working with this super Grammy-winning producer?” I thought, “Fucking hell, I must be dreaming!” I’m just some guy from New Zealand. This is really weird, almost surreal!
MIM: How has the experience of playing in Arcane Saints changed you as a person, writer, and musician?
John: More than anything, it’s taught me about friendship and having each other’s back, because rather than being a solo musician, it’s a band and you have to have each other’s back all the time. You spend so much time with these people on tour and in the studio, and it makes you be more accepting of other people’s idiosyncrasies, their personality traits, and more tolerant of other people. It’s made me become more open to other people’s ideas, not just my own. Getting other people’s perspectives helps in songwriting as well.
Aside from all that, it’s the pure joy and fun of being in a band with three other guys and playing rock music. There’s just no feeling that can come close to that. It’s also made me a happier person because it’s given me an outlet for my frustrations as well as a voice to express pure joy over the kind of music we’ve created. I feel sorry for people who have never experienced that, especially playing songs that you wrote — for that to come alive is just a wonderful thing.
MIM: What is your favorite thing about being in this band? What makes the experience special for you?
John: In terms of the guys in the band, this is the first lineup I’ve had which feels like I’m happy with every single member in the band, who they are as a person, and I’m actually friends with all of them and not just a bandmate. We all get along really well — seriously, we never fight. We all just clique. I think that the four of us just came together, and we make very good music, so that’s what’s special. I like how everyone has a voice, and it’s very much a democracy. Bottom line, we all have a strange sense of humor, and everything is funny to us. We don’t have big egos, and we don’t take ourselves too seriously. Everyone is constantly laughing and enjoying himself, especially when we go on tour. I mean, we take what we do very seriously, toward the music and our shows, but we’re always constantly laughing and having a good time.
It’s not like one jackass in the band brings everyone else down — we’re all on the same level. We’re all very driven to do this and want very badly to make it a successful thing. We love to tour, and we would love to be able to tour almost nonstop.
MIM: Have you ever taken vocal lessons or had a vocal coach?
John: Oh yeah, I’ve taken vocal lessons. I’m very particular about my vocals. I don’t eat any dairy products on days I have to sing — they really can screw up my vocals. I always warm up and warm down my voice — before and after a show or recording session. I take vocal lessons mainly because my style of singing can be intense, and you’ve got to do vocal exercises to keep up the stamina. It still surprises me how many singers don’t warm up before singing a show — it just seems crazy to me. You really need to train your diaphragm, strengthen it, and learn where to sing from — it’s a process. A lot of the younger vocalists, especially singers in rock bands, end up blowing their voice out, because they don’t take the time to have someone teach them how to do it properly. That includes understanding proper warm-up techniques and practicing strengthening their vocal chords. It’s more than just learning to use your voice as an instrument; it’s also about taking care of your voice in the long term.
MIM: Your band toured China last year, playing the Midi Festival, which you played for more than 20, 000 screaming Chinese fans. For you, what are the best and worst things about touring these days?
John: Last year was such an interesting year. It started off with heartbreak — we had saved up thousands of dollars and had our whole Canada tour booked, and with us being really naïve, we just traveled over there and didn’t get any visas or anything like that. So we’re going through customs, we’ve all got our guitars, and Sammy’s dragging half his drum kit all checked in, and the customs agents ask us, “What are you guys doing here in Canada?”
I said, “Oh, we’re just here to play a few open mike nights, and stuff.” And then they searched us and saw that I had a whole bunch of Arcane Saints CDs, and then one of them Googled us, and that’s when they found out that we had a whole tour booked that we didn’t have the right visa for, so after 28 hours of flying to get there, thinking “Yeah, man, we’re going on tour!” they turned us right around and sent us home on another 28-hour-long flight. We lost our whole airfare, lost our bookings, and sort of got ourselves a bad reputation in Canada, even though it wasn’t completely our fault.
That was probably the closest I’ve come to actually crying since I was a little kid. We all lost thousands of dollars on that debacle; I don’t even want to think about how much it really cost us. But not only that, the Canadian Customs Agents treated us like criminals, threatening to put us in jail; the whole thing was just a horrible experience. But, we had planned to go tour Canada, and then move on directly to our tour of China afterwards, so that was like our saving grace. We came back home for a week, and then hit the China tour as we had planned.
In China, they have a massive rock ‘n’ roll influence. It’s all so new there, the youth are just starting to rebel and do their own thing, and rock music has been a big part of that movement. I can just imagine what it must’ve been like when rock and roll first came to China, just a crazy, crazy place. It’s funny, because we were being treated like criminals just the week before, but when we arrived in China, it’s such a different system. I mean, here we are on tour again, we have all our gear, and the customs officer was like, “Ah, you’re here to play some shows?” And we’re like, “No, no, just to watch!” You know, we have all our music equipment on us, and the customs agent just started laughing, you know? They just didn’t care over there in China; they look at the bigger picture.
So we had some big festivals lined up, and we didn’t really know what to expect on our first trip there. We didn’t even know if anyone would meet us at the airport or anything! But we got through customs, and we’re walking through the airport, and we saw these two little Asian girls holding up a sign that said, “Arcane Saints”. Okay, cool! It was just like in the movies, you know? So we walked up to them and told them, “We’re the Arcane Saints”, and they said, “Okay, come with us”.
We followed them out of the airport, and they had an entire air-conditioned bus, just for us! And then they took us to this hotel, and we each had our own room in this five-star hotel! The manager came out to greet us with this full-on rock-star treatment! It was amazing! So the next day we went out and played the Midi Festival, which is the biggest music festival in China. We played to something like 20,000 people, which was obviously the biggest crowd we’d ever played in front of — thousands of people just going crazy with no inhibitions at all. They just danced and moshed, crowd surfed and stage dived …
So one week was the worst possible week of my life, and the week after was the best week of my life. It was really a crazy couple of weeks, and I’ll never forget them.
Ever since we started touring China, it seems that more Western-hemisphere bands are going over there now, so I think the Chinese government is starting to become more lenient about letting more Western music acts into the country to play shows. They’re definitely going through some big changes. It’s really exciting, even the shows we played there in regular venues were just packed to the rafters with people. And the audiences are so appreciative that you’ve taken the time to go over there and play for them. It’s a great experience, and we’re going to go there on tour again next year.
MIM: When you went on your ill-fated first tour to Canada, did you have management that booked your shows and travel arrangements?
John: We didn’t have management, even to this day; we still don’t have professional management, so we’re a self-managed band for now. But we have a tour booker who’s based in Canada and booked the whole tour for us. As far as the whole debacle over our visas on the first Canada tour, they really figured that since we tour so often, we’d know what visas were required to enter the country and do our shows, but obviously, we didn’t! And we don’t hold any grudges against anyone, so we used the same booking agent for the second tour, and then we went back and used a Canadian publicist as well who really helped us to promote the shows.
MIM: Who does most of that work to book shows, make travel arrangements, handle performance contracts and deal with publicists and promoters?
John: Mostly me, but in all fairness, this is the first incarnation of this band where everyone has actually helped me out with managing the band, and they really have gone out of their way to help me with plans; whereas previously, other members would just leave everything up to me and would just be happy to show up to practice and to play gigs. These guys are much more hands-on.
MIM: How do you deal with scheduling with four guys in the band, and everyone still working at their day jobs? It must be difficult to manage scheduling gigs, especially overseas tours.
John: Well, I work an office job; it’s just a mundane office job. I’ve had four different jobs over the last four years, because I’ll start a job, and then they’ll realize that I’m really not into it, and I’ll keep getting time off to go on tour, and I’ll either get fired, or I’ll sort of be made to quit, and I’ll just start a new job. This has gone on every year, just changing jobs, but it’s not that I’m a bad worker or anything. It’s just a part of the deal when you’re in a band, trying to play your music as much as possible and touring to get your music out there.
The other guys in the band have been a bit more lucky, like Sammy, who’s a tiler. He works for himself, so he can work when he needs to and take off to play without being fired. Steve, our bass player is actually a social worker, believe it or not. Again, I don’t know much about his job, either, but they gave him time off so we could go to America and make the record. And Sheep makes good money working in IT. I don’t really know exactly what his job is, but he’s good at it, evidently. For me, music is what I really want to do, so if it costs me a job every year or so in the process, then so be it.
We’re planning to go back to Canada and the U.S. in a couple of months to tour on the new record, and I know that my current job probably won’t give me the time off, and Steve’s job probably won’t either, after us taking time to go record the album just a few months ago, so we’ll both probably be looking for new jobs when we come back home!
MIM: Being an unsigned band, how do you manage the band’s finances without a management company, record label, or even incorporating the band as a business entity?
John: Very poorly! (Laughs) We’re not incorporated as a business in Australia because you have to be making money. Well, we actually could do that, incorporate ourselves, but we would need to be making more money to do that, to make it worth the expense and effort. So for now, there’s really no point. We spend far more money on things like recording and travel/touring expenses, at this stage. But in terms of our finances, it’s pretty easy, because we just split everything four ways, and so anything we make goes straight back into the band, whether it’s getting things printed or merchandise — T-shirts, CDs and stuff like that.
And we’re quite lucky in that we have an outstanding, loyal fan base. For instance, we had this campaign going where if you donated $100 or more to our band fund for recording the last album, you would get your name mentioned on the J-card of the CD, and that was a really popular promotion. It wasn’t enough to pay for the whole thing, obviously. However, it was a very respectable amount of money that helped us to produce the new album.
We’re really quite grateful for all the support our fans gave us. We even had people who love our music and what we do, but only work part-time jobs, save up money for a couple of months just so they could save an extra $100 dollars to give to us for the album recording fund! That’s when you know you’re really reaching people with your music. Even though we’re not a signed band or rich and famous, our fans know how much that $100 means to us and what we’re trying to accomplish, as well as what our music means to them. To be able to reach people on a grass-roots level like that is really cool. It’s been things like that which help us accomplish the goals we set for the band. It’s a part of the new, innovative ways bands can promote themselves, without having to rely on record labels to foot the bill, while giving your fan base something they can appreciate.
MIM: What do you do with your spare time? Do you have any interests or hobbies outside of work and music?
John: I honestly don’t, because I work full time, and then there’s the band, so if we’re not playing gigs or rehearsing, I’m writing songs or getting merchandise made, or coming up with plans for what we’ll do and where we’ll play next on our tour. So I really don’t get any free time. I haven’t been on an actual holiday — just gone somewhere and lay on a beach for a week in over four years.
I was talking to Peter Keys (keyboardist for George Clinton, and now Lynyrd Skynyrd), when he came down to the studio and played on the album. That was cool of him to do. Anyway, I was talking to him about this very subject, and he said, “When you’re working full time, you use all your holiday leave from work just to go on tour, which is not a holiday at all. Everyone at work thinks you’re out there relaxing and having fun, but they just don’t understand what touring is all about. Touring is work.”
It puts things into perspective, on the state of music these days. How badly do you really want to do it? Because it’s not always about the glamorous life that people think it is. But it does have its moments, and we live for those moments.
“Turning the Tide” by Arcane Saints is available to purchase via the band’s website at www.arcanesaints.com or on iTunes.