1. Thanks for answering a few questions about Mandalaband! You started in a band called The Sign of Life, later Ankh. Did these bands release anything and what shows did you do?
My first band was formed in 1966 when I was just 16. It was called ‘The Sign of Life’ and, within a short time, we were playing the American military bases in Germany. That five-piece band (in which I played keyboards and helped with the backing vocals) played cover versions of pop songs from the 1960s (American R&B, Beatles, Rolling Stones, Hollies, Kinks, Traffic, etc). Essentially this was my time for ‘learning the trade’ before concentrating on writing my own songs. However, the band did record four self-penned tracks at a local studio in Manchester, where I was born and raised. I actually played Sitar on one of them! After The Sign of Life broke up, I went to Manchester College of Art to study photography, and it was there that I formed the new band called ‘Ankh’ – which is the Egyptian word for the Sign of Life. So you can see the influence of ancient Egypt right from the start!
Ankh concentrated on its own music compositions (all written by myself) and, after recording a set of demos with Eric Stewart (10cc) at Strawberry Studios, we were signed to the Vertigo label by Phonogram. The album was recorded but never mixed and, therefore, never released. I have rough monitor mixes of the tracks but they are not in a finished enough state to be released. As for the original multi-tracks, I have no idea if they still exist, so I am not confident that they could be resurrected for any future release. Interestingly, listening to the rough mixes, I discovered that the song ‘Like the Wind’, which appeared on The Eye of Wendor Mandalaband album, was recorded by Ankh back in the early 1970s. So not all my early attempts at writing music ended up in the trash can!
2. Mandalaband was formed around 1974. How did you come together and what do you remember from some of the early recording sessions? Why the name Mandalaband?
At the time I was into Tibetan Buddhism and interested in the Tibetans’ resistance to the Chinese invasion in the 1950s. My interest in the Tibetan struggle was not the reason for forming Mandalaband, but I did build up a team of musicians in order to record the first movement of ‘Om Mani Padme Hum’. It was then just a natural progression, as the musicians evolved into a band and we started to write other songs about the same subject. I had met the Dalai Lama at Cambridge University a couple of years earlier and subsequently introduced the rest of the band to Tibetan culture and the Lama monks resident in England. The name Mandalaband came from the mandala, which is a visual mantra. In other words it is a picture or pattern which you look at to help with meditation. I suppose, in our case, it emphasizes the visual nature of the band’s music.
Mandalaband were the support for Robin Trower’s first major UK tour, playing to 2,000 fans each night for about twenty gigs. We did a set of around 45 minutes, playing all the numbers from the first album (including the whole twenty minutes of Om Mani Padme Hum). The live band consisted of me on piano, Vic Emerson on Hammond, Moog and Claviolines, Ashley Mulford on guitar, John Stimpson on bass, Tony Cresswell on drums and Dave Durant on lead vocals. But you have to realise that this tour was actually before the album was recorded. Chrysalis wanted the band to gel together as a live outfit so that the recording would have a ‘band feel’ rather than just a bunch of session musicians playing in a sterile studio environment.
But then I actually left the band on the first day of recording the first album. I had been pushed out of my principal function as producer/engineer and replaced by another producer who I felt had little idea how to record such complex symphonic music. I was proved right when the boss of Chyrsalis begged me to remix the album once he had heard the result of the producer’s efforts. What you hear on the original vinyl is my remixes, which are very different from the mixes submitted to Chrysalis following the recording. However, I did not record the actual instruments, so the album never got close to the quality I had envisaged and feel could have been achieved.
4. The Eye of Wendor: Prophecies is an amazing conceptual album. I would like it if you could share what you remember from recording and producing that LP? What can you say about the cover artwork and what can you tell me about the concept behind the album itself?
I was working at Indigo Sound in Manchester at the time, having left Mandalaband. This studio was closely connected to the TV and film industries and I was asked to write the music for an upcoming film of The Lord of the Rings (this was many years before the New Zealand trilogy was conceived). This original version was to be made in Ireland but the producers never managed to raise all the necessary funding to undertake such a massive project. The ‘Eye of Wendor’ overture (which opens the Mandalaband II album) was written as the title music for the movie, and the track called ‘Silesandre’ was originally entitled ‘Black Riders’. When the movie production was cancelled I decided to write ‘The Eye of Wendor’ story and compose a whole triple album of music for it. Because I didn’t have a working band, I got all my friends from the UK music industry to help out, and they played most of the instruments and sang the vocals whilst I engineered and produced the recordings.
There were around forty musicians and singers in all, plus a choir and the Hallé Orchestra string section. Eric Stewart from 10cc sang the part of the hero Florian; Maddy Prior of Steeleye Span played Princess Ursula; Justin Hayward of the Moody Blues was King Aenord; whilst Kevin Godley, Lol Crème, Graham Gouldman (all of 10cc) and Paul Young (Sad Café and Mike & the Mechanics) took on the role as narrators, singing the other tracks. We also had Noel Redding (Jimmy Hendrix Experience) on bass, as well as all four original members of Barclay James Harvest performing on the backing tracks.
The cover art was a concept that I came up with in conjunction with the Chrysalis art department. The idea was to create the Eye of Wendor itself – a magical gemstone. So the art department commissioned a glass specialist to make the multi-faceted stone in clear crystal glass. But the plan was to make only the front half of the crystal and have a straight back. This was so we could stick a large transparency on the back of the witch Silesandre from the Wendor story. Then from the front view it appeared that the image of Silesandre was inside the stone. We then got a ‘hand model’ to pose with the Eye of Wendor in his hand … and that ended up as the cover.
5. Where did you tour? Any interesting stories you would like to share with me?
We never toured with this version of Mandalaband because, clearly, the musicians involved were all big names and had their own bands. So it was logistically impossible to put this outfit on the road.
6. What happened next? You are still very active. Would you like to talk about some of your newest releases?
Well, to cut a very long story short, I left the music industry in the 1980s and went to study Egyptology at University College London. Once I had completed my degrees at UCL, I became a best-selling author of history books and a TV documentary presenter. I lectured all over Europe, the Middle East and America. But eventually I felt that I still had ‘unfinished business’ with my music. I moved to Spain in 2003 and built a studio on top of a mountain overlooking the Mediterranean Sea. That is where we began to record the new Mandalaband material. Amazingly, at the same time (it must have been something in the air), original members of both Mandalaband I and II started to get in touch. First was Woolly Wolstenholme from BJH and drummer Kim Turner (Maestoso), both from Mandalaband II; then lead guitarist Ashley Mulford from Mandalaband I got in touch. All of them liked the idea of recording a new album together, so a new band was starting to take shape. But I wanted some magical sounding instruments for the albums and began to listen to sounds on the internet. That is where I found Jose Manuel Medina (one of our talented orchestrators), Marc Atkinson (our new lead vocalist) and the brilliant Troy Donockley, king of the Celtic pipes and whistles. I got in touch with Troy and flew over to see him at his country cottage near York. We got on like a house on fire, spending most of the night talking about the ancient world and, the next morning, recording Troy’s pipes and whistles on tracks I had already begun. Troy also has a studio (as does Jose, Kim and Ashley) so, although we live far apart, we can work at all these studio locations … which has meant a lot of travelling for all of us.
As I said, most of the work is done in the Spanish studio, with the band members flying from the UK and Denmark (where Ashley lives) or driving down from Asturias in northern Spain (where Jose lives). Otherwise I go to them when we need to do some extra overdubs. Sometimes, for example, Troy will record several versions of pipes or whistles for a track at his studio and send the takes to me via the internet. I will then assemble the parts from the different versions to get what I want. So the process is both time consuming and exacting, especially given the complexity of the music. Troy and Ashley, as the band’s soloists, are also hugely influential to the sound, as are the orchestral parts written and recorded by Jose. But we all work together to create the end result … even if most of the work is done on a one-to-one basis between myself and the individual members of the band who rarely meet each other with their busy lives and tour schedules.
The two new albums are a pair. The first, BC – Ancestors, deals with the legendary heroes and events of the period before the birth of Christ (hence BC = ‘before Christ’), whilst the second, AD – Sangreal, deals with the legends of the Holy Grail which start with its use at the Last Supper, before the Crucifixion, and continues throughout the Medieval Period of European history.
You can get BC – Ancestors from www.legendrecords.co.uk and AD – Sangreal from www.diverseartists.co.uk in the UK and Europe and from www.revolutionrecords.com in the USA.
Interview made by Klemen Breznikar / 2011
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