Tom Phillips – While Heaven Wept

Interview by Miriam C.

Reading Tom‘s words what shines through is a pure innocence after being reborn from the ashes of a past life. Probably I read too much sci-fi stuff, that’s for sure but WHW is one of the few bands whose spirit is still driven by the real passion for music without any business shenanigans. WHW‘s music helps to cleanse your soul and can totally help you during your catharsis. So, we contacted Tom Phillips, the mastermind behind this family business, for more updates about their recent album “Suspended at Aphelion”.
 
Hi Tom, first of all welcome back to Femme Metal Webzine! How are you? It’s passed a lot of time since the last time we chat together…

Doing well Miriam, thanks for asking! I hope it is the same for you…and that you’ve resolved your computer issues! (Yes, finally Tom, thanks for being thoughtful!)

Please me indulge us now Tom but WHW doesn’t have exactly the tradition to release studio albums in such short periods of time, I refer for example to “Sorrow of the Angels” and “Of Empires Forlorn” ’cause between this 2 album, there is a break of 5 years. Is WHW embracing a new era, a more productive one than ever?

The short answer simply is, working with Nuclear Blast, it has enabled us to record more frequently given the resources that are available; we’ve had a huge backlog of material for quite some time, and up until “Suspended at Aphelion”, all of the other albums were simply “clearing out the archives”. I suppose it is a good trouble to have – there’s always another record waiting by the time we finish one…but it can also be frustrating because there’s SO much music, and each album takes time to realize, then there’s the subsequent touring and promo we have to do – and I enjoy all of that, am cognizant it is necessary, but I really could just go straight back into the studio to try to “catch up” a little more!

During your long musical career Tom, unfortunately, you have been the protagonist of so MANY line up changes but now WHW seems to have found a stable line up to lean on. What’s the magic formula? Beside the natural passion for music of all the members….

You know, basically the “revolving door” stopped turning years ago; considering we began this journey when we were 15-16 years old, of course it was inevitable that people would grow musically quicker than others, leave for other musical paths, or just follow life happening…so most of that insane turnover of members transpired fairly early on. The core line-up came together in 1998 when Jim, Scott, and Michelle joined on, and apart from the drummer changes until Trevor came on board in 2004, all we’ve been doing is adding members.

The bottom line is WHW is more of a “family” than a band, with Scott and Michelle being siblings, she’s married to Trevor, and we all basically grew up together…likewise, Rain and Jason have a history from being in Altura together…and Jim, who I met at University, well, we just see eye-to-eye on everything WHW does – he’s my “right hand”. So, being 25 years into this, the main core of the band lasting for 16 years now…we’re WAY past the point of people quitting or being “fired”. I accept that people do what they can, when they can, and if we need to bring in some additional personnel or “specialists” for something, it’s understood that we do what is best for the music itself. I have no delusion that anything will last forever, but hoping to insure this “golden era” continues on for a few more albums!

After 2011’s “Fear of Infinity”, WHW resurfaces with the 5th album “Suspended at Aphelion” released via Nuclear Blast on October 24th. First of all, it’s your second album published under the aegis of this great record label, how was your experience with them until now?

Well, I don’t think we gave them much to work with when it came to “Fear Of Infinity” – it was a dark, straightforward album compared to “Vast Oceans Lachrymose” which was universally hailed…and we delivered it very late…so there wasn’t the same amount of advance promotion as there could’ve been; “Suspended at Aphelion” has been a very different story: we were prepared FAR in advance, delivered the album early, and Nuclear Blast has exerted the full extent of their power for this one. I think in the end, they can only do what they can with what their given and when, if that makes sense. Ultimately, I couldn’t possibly be more happy with what they’ve done for “SAA”…it feels good to know they believe in us, despite the fact that we are little more than an underground, cult thing.

Personally, “Suspended at Aphelion” it’s the next step towards a musical evolution that proficiently mixes progressive and epic doom. I don’t know, if you can agree with me but I’m curious to know what were the main elements that influenced you mostly during the SAA‘s writing…

It IS a very progressive album…it’s Prog in the truest sense: it’s a natural evolution from what came before, without thought, force, or intention…it simply unfolded this way. But as far as the direct influences upon it? In some ways, there weren’t any! I mean, for the last couple years I barely listened to ANYTHING outside of the new WHW music – aside from a quick pass through a new single here and there to remain cognizant of what’s happening in the rest of the world and the bands we were touring with…for the most part, I wasn’t listening to other people’s music…not because I am not a real fan – I LIVE for music…but there was just SO much coming to fruition and from out of nowhere here, I needed to pursue that.

I think what you’re hearing with “SAA” and really, the last three albums prior as well, is a merging and further coagulation of all of our influences and more importantly, our individual musical pedigrees; everyone involved with WHW has been in – or even still is – in another band or two…these range from Death/Black/Extreme Metal to Prog Rock to Classic Metal, Classic Rock to Jazz and Classical ensembles…so, this is why it’s seems so effortless that traverse from one style to another…because it is…it’s all just part of our DNA.

So, while we weren’t actively listening to anything that directly influenced “SAA”, what I hear in there are things from our personal histories, and the same influences that have always been part of the “WHW sound” – Doom, Prog Rock and Metal, Shoegazer/4AD stuff, Kosmiche Musik, Fusion and dark ECM Jazz, Classical music spanning the Ars Antiqua to the late 20th Century…in fact, the latter probably has the biggest impact upon what “SAA” is, considering the expanded harmony and progressions versus power chords and “riffs”.

I have to admit that only WHW can compose and consequently publish an album so challenging like “SAA”, and believe me, I meant it in a good way ’cause it’s not everyday’s stuff to listen to a unique song long almost 40 minutes. Well, the natural question that pops up in my brain is from where the heck comes out such idea? Also , I’m relating to the songwriting, how did you have approached to it?

I wish I could tell you where all this “came from”, but it just “happened”…there’s never been a single WHW release that has featured “written” music…I mean, the initial progressions and melodies – even the lyrics – come strictly through revelation via emotional catalysts…there’s never a conscious decision or intention…it HAS to come from the heart, soul, cosmos…and I cannot force it or otherwise meddle…only “channel” what the music is demanding that I do…like following the map.

All I can really say is I had just channeled the final song for a different album, which we ultimately set aside in favor of doing “SAA” first, and the music just kept flowing out! I can’t even adequately explain it because the chords involved and the structures aren’t things that someone tends to gravitate towards when they pick up a guitar. Well, perhaps some “far out” Jazz cats…it was just…otherworldly. When all is said and done, I can’t force it along or shape it “my way” – I have to let it be…and that’s the way WHW music will be until the end. I don’t think we could “write” a song successfully if we tried – I mean, you cannot fake sincerity and true emotion…it has to come from there first…and last.

The more I observe “SAA”‘s cover album, the more I find myself think about to stuff like astrophysics, celestial bodies and stars. Gustavo Sazes, for the second time, gracefully concoct a cover album worthy of a Monet, in my opinion. I imagine that’s strictly connected to the lyrics and I was wondering, if you’re able to tell us more about it – in particular what’s the input that you gave to Gustavo for create such chef d’oevre?

Basically, I explained to Gustavo that the term “aphelion” refers to the furthest point from the sun, so we knew it would be something “cosmic” and that it would like be a very cold place. I also gave him a few of the subtitles of the song, and then gave him free reign! What he returned with a few months later was nothing short of incredible…just beautiful and totally appropriate for the music! One of the coolest features is the ancient map layered into the cover; what he explained was that the compass points were removed, meaning even if you have the map, you’re still lost…very intense!

And to explain the lyrics in brief, it’s a personal journey as always, but the listener is going to interpret it differently; the sun can represent anything that we aspire towards as humans…anything that is pursued with passion, fire, vigor. This could be spiritual, romantic, philosophical…or the quest for true love, achieving sobriety, finding the meaning of life…any of these things are applicable…that’s what the front third of the song pertains to…this pursuit. The remainder of the song deals with the emotions that we cycle through upon the realization that despite our greatest efforts, we have failed…some things are simply impossible to reach…so it’s kind of similar to the stages of bereavement that we passed through via “VOL” and “FOI”. Ultimately, it is also about reaching acceptance, but this time it is bittersweet, as despite knowing consciously that the dream is beyond reach, the yearning for this remains. That’s “suspended at aphelion”.

Now for something more earthly, “SAA” sees the participation as a guest musician of Fates Warning‘s founder Victor Arduini and Warlord‘s guitarist Mark Zonder. How were born this collaborations?

There’s also Mark Shuping on strings and Christopher Ladd on classical guitar! In these cases, it was both out of necessity and elevation; some of the lines that Jason brought into Part 6 of “SAA” could only possibly translate with genuine strings/the markings of the bowing for example…and being that we wanted to insure the album was truly dynamic (as well as rich in tone), having Chris (as a professor and performer of this instrument) do the nylon string guitar parts was vital – you hear the fingers moving on the strings, their breathing, the subtlest of details. That was vital for the landscape of “SAA”…it needed to be organic, dynamic, intimate.

As for Mark and Victor, the short of it is that we have become friends over the years, in the former case because of my being involved “behind the scenes” during the recent Warlord resurrection, and in the latter on account of bringing Freedoms Reign to Cruz Del Sur Music – as well as my worship of Fates Warning in both cases as well! When Trevor’s new job was going to prevent him from being fully involved with the album (and we had deadlines from Nuclear Blast as well as our own 25th Anniversary to commemorate), Mark stepped up and offered his services. With Vic, I’d already asked him to do some leads on the other new album that we set aside temporarily (as there are some songs very much in the vein of early FW), but I was curious to hear what he could do within the context of something like “SAA”. When all is said and done, we ended up with the most epic guitar solo that he’s ever done, the one that bridges Part 9 and 10 – and it TOTALLY elevated the entire album, just like Mark’s drumming did. But ALL of our guests had a profound impact, and in the end, it’s just a bunch of friends playing music together.

Would you like to tell our readers about your next tour plans? Where can we come to see you perform? Are there some places you’re looking forward to visit?

We’re working on that front right now; at the moment it’s a bit unclear because the album just came out in the USA on the 18th of November, so there’s another wave of press transpiring, etc. The general idea though is to return to the EU as soon as possible, hopefully incorporating many places that we have yet to reach – with Italy and France being a couple of the priorities besides the “usual” Germany, Benelux, Greece ventures…not that they are less important, I just know there’s a lot of places that we’ve been asked to perform that we haven’t had the chance to yet. As soon as we have more information and a definitive itinerary, we’ll let everyone know via our website and social media outlets for sure! I hope to see you soon!

So we’re at the end Tom, I hope you enjoyed my questions. Just greet your fans and our users @ Femme Metal Webzine. Thanks to you again! 

Just want to say thank you for the opportunity once again, it’s been a pleasure. I also would like to thank everyone out there who has supported us over the past quarter of a century…we wouldn’t be where we are without you! And there’s a lot more music “waiting in the wings” that spans everything from the funereality of the early days to the Prog of today, and everything in between! Stay tuned!

 

Photo Credit

Photos by Craig Hunter Ross

 

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