SJS frontman Stuart Stawman is an English musician, songwriter and producer currently based in the Blue Mountains of Australia. With a style described as ‘genre-blending’, but with feet firmly planted in neo-progressive rock, the music of SJS takes in elements from the worlds of post-rock, folk, world music and modern electronic textures.
Stawman honed his studio skills as a London-based sound engineer across the nineteen eighties. Alongside encounters with the likes of David Gilmour, Tears For Fears and many more, he was in the unique position of watching Talk Talk record a project that would become the stuff of music mythology, their ‘Spirit of Eden’ album. Inspiration was not in short supply.
Fast forward to now and we find him combining with the talents of Douglas Skene (Hemina, Anubis), Graeme James (Tramtracks), Christopher Soulos (Espirito, Flatwound, Masha’s Legacy) and others to create a distinct, new voice in contemporary progressive rock. This voice takes inspiration from Anathema to Zappa, from ‘Talk’ era Yes through to ‘Spirit of Eden’ era Talk Talk.
‘The World Without’ is infused with themes of loss, but never the loss of hope. While this musical journey encompasses the loss of relationships and meaning, the loss of ecosystems, and the loss of enchantment, it is not an album that sinks beneath the weight of the losses we face. Rather, it acknowledges the place of loss within a celebration of life, within a world without.
An Interview with Stuart Stawman
Blue Mountains, NSW, December 2nd 2017
Hi Stuart, you are the frontman of SJS and you have your new album, ‘The World Without’, being released on Friday 8th December. You were just telling me that three tracks from the new album have already been accepted for the cover CD of Prog Magazine, so it looks like you’re off to a flying start!
For sure. Prog Magazine are not in the habit of accepting tracks over 10 minutes, but they’ve accepted a sequence of 3 tracks from the album which, all up, run to just under 11 minutes. It’s good news, and a really nice vote of confidence.
Absolutely. So, first things first, before we talk about the new album, can you tell us what’s behind the name SJS?
Well, the obvious answer is that they are my initials, but it turns out there's a second answer, one that I only realised a couple of months ago. Actually, let me go back a step; this project started out pretty much as a solo project, and it basically is, but as time went on it definitely started to feel like two particular gents were standing pretty close to the heart of it all; drummer Graeme James, and guitarist/vocalist Douglas Skene. Well, look what happens when you line those three surnames up; Stawman James Skene. SJS! So SJS are my initials, they are our initials, and they probably mean something else that I haven’t realised yet!
Neither James and Skene are newcomers to the music world.
Well, that's exactly right. Doug Skene is the frontman of a great progressive metal band called Hemina who’ve just got back from playing music festivals in Europe. Doug also plays for another progressive outfit called Anubis, who have also put out some great stuff. And then Graeme James has been playing drums for the Sydney-based group Tramtracks for many years now. And he also worked as Alan White’s drum tech on the most recent Yes tour of Australia, when Chris Squire was still alive. Speaking of bass players, Christopher Soulos also played on a couple of tracks. He’s another seasoned professional who engages in playing, writing and producing. We only met towards the very end of the project or I would have been trying to get him playing bass across the whole album, but we managed to get him on two tracks.
And you? You're clearly English, going by your accent. Can you tell us something about your musical journey? Where did it all start?
Well, yes, I’m a Yorkshire man to be precise. I started out playing drums and moved on to guitar and songwriting in my teens. Then I took a major left turn in the 1980’s and went to work as a sound engineer in London’s recording studios. The eighties was a kind of bridge between the world of the ‘one-take analogue recordings’ of the seventies and the escalating ‘digital precision’ of the nineties that has lead to where we are today. I started out working at a studio called Trident, which had been huge in the seventies, from the Beatles 'Hey Jude', through to Bowie and Genesis. I arrived in ’81 and so I came in on the tail end of all that and didn't get to meet the full cast of characters but I did get to meet and work with some of them; George Harrison, Mick Ronson, Tony Banks, David Gilmour . . .
That must have been a very interesting time to be working in the London music scene? Who did you find most inspiring?
Well, if you mean in terms of ‘how to use a recording studio’, which was my big focus at that time, it would have to be Talk Talk. I was lucky enough to watch over their shoulders while they recorded the ‘Spirit of Eden’ album with Tim Friese-Greene and Phil Brown. I had already seen them finishing up ‘Colours of Spring’, which was a great album, but ‘Spirit of Eden’ took the whole thing to a new level, it was like watching a new form of music being born.
What was so inspiring?
Well, clearly the music, but it was also their attitude, the way they approached creativity. The way they could walk a fine line between great precision and forethought on the one hand, and then engage in total spontaneity and chance on the other. They didn’t arrive with their songs all worked out in advance, they spent a year in the studio just kind of watching them evolve and morph. That’s an approach that really works for me.
Can you give any examples of that, how things would evolve and morph?
Well . . . this may not answer your question but it’s what I was remembering just the other day. There was a time when they deleted a choir track that had been recorded for their song 'Inheritance'. When the choir had been in the studio singing the part, the hairs on my arms had literally stood on end. It was absolutely beautiful. Awe inspiring. Mark Hollis and Tim Freise-Green walked in the next morning and asked Phil and me to erase it! It sounded absolutely amazing but it just didn't gel with their vision of what they were trying to do, so it had to go. I guess that's kind of an example? But it really was inspiring for me in terms of their commitment to the creative vision. It gave me the strength just a few months back to delete an entire orchestral overdub on a song of mine called '110 Stories'. You’ll now find me playing a chilled guitar solo across that section! I loved the string arrangement but it wasn't right for the song. The guys in Talk Talk inspired me to stick to the vision, but a vision that always has scope to change and evolve.
And you now have your very own ‘vision’ set for release in just a few days. But now we find you here in Australia, not London?
Yes, I’m living here in the Blue Mountains, which are about an hour and a half drive from Sydney. I built a recording studio in the back garden a few years back and I'm good to go! I can do practically everything we were doing back then in those multi-million dollar studios that have all closed down now. And I can do a whole bunch of things that would have been considered total witchcraft back then. So I’ve been very lucky, I've been able to take my time and put this new album together with the help of some great musicians.
Which brings us to the new album. The album starts off with a continuous suite of songs called 'The World Without' which runs to just over 40 minutes. You mentioned track two just now, '110 Stories', which is the track that really gets things underway. I guess its fair to say that it’s a little unusual for a progressive rock album?
Maybe. I guess it's not a typical album opener, but these days we are talking more and more about post-prog, neo-prog, eclectic-prog, whatever damn thing you want to call it, and all of that shifting attitude has made allowances for stretching the progressive territory way beyond simply reworking the music of Yes, Pink Floyd, Genesis and all those other guys. I mean, those guys totally nailed it the first time around, so why do it again? And I’ve been getting some great responses to ‘110 Stories’ so far.
I totally believe you, it’s a unique and extraordinary track. What would you say is it’s key message?
The message of ‘110 Stories’? I’ve wondered that myself. I didn't set off with one, I just wanted to explore the huge subject of ‘blame’ from as many different angles as possible. But I played it to a friend recently and she reckons there actually is a message which is that blame is something that none of us can really escape from, in one form or another. We will all find ourselves in it in some way. But you’d probably need to hear the song for that to make any sense.
Then there's a short instrumental leading to track four, 'The.blaming', which is another amazing mix of styles.
Well, you know, I don’t really want to get into the whole ‘trying to pin down what everything means’ thing, but 'The.blaming' is kind of the lynchpin to ‘The World Without’. We’ve got this huge juxtaposition going on. We have more and more people achieving the extraordinary privilege of meeting far more than their basic survival needs, and they’re becoming preoccupied with questions that range from the mind-bogglingly trivial right through to the existential. And we have all of that going on while the planet itself is fighting for survival. A fight it may lose. Someone introduced me to the term ‘Cli-Fi’ recently. It stands for Climate Fiction. There is an element of that going on in this album. But I should probably point out that, after ‘The.blaming’, if anyone is still questioning the whole ‘prog rock credentials’ thing, Graeme James kicks in on the drums for the first time on track five, 'End Trope', and Doug Skene turns in a monster guitar solo.
It's an amazing solo. You’ve got a few solos, but another departure from the more 'traditional' progressive albums is that this one doesn’t revolve around an endless parade of them.
Right. The album is song-driven rather than showboating solos. But that said, aside from a couple of pretty laid-back offerings of my own, there's two cracking solos each from Doug Skene and Kevin Sale. Check out Doug’s solo on ‘Descent’, it doesn’t get much better than that!
I have, its one of the many highlights of your album! OK, now I know you have to get back to putting things in place for the release this week, so can we end with just a couple of rapid fire questions?
What were the first three albums that you ever bought?
Gee . . . I'm glad you didn't just ask me for the first one because that was a thing called '20 Fantastic Hits Volume 2'! It had Clapton’s ‘Layla’ on it, but the rest is really best forgotten. Then I got my act together and bought Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells which was a real game changer. I think the third would have been Van Der Graaf Generator’s album 'Pawn Hearts'. It must have been out a couple of years when I got it, but I was obviously playing catch-up.
You would have been pretty young to be buying Van Der Graaf Generator!
Yeah, about 13. I met John Anthony many years later, the guy who produced that album. In fact we were working in the actual room at Trident where they’d mixed it. He was blown away! They'd all known they had a big success on their hands but they hadn't realised it was being bought by 13 year olds!
Your greatest musical regret?
That’s a weird question . . . the receptionist at a studio where I was working once asked if I could cover the phones while she took a loo break or something. I answered a call and this woman’s voice asked me if I could put her through to the producer in Studio One. I asked her for her name and put her through . . . it was Kate Bush . . . I had Kate Bush on the phone and I just put her through!
What did you want to do?
I don’t really know. Say ‘hello’? Ask her to marry me? Something like that. I guess that would have been rushing things, I mean, she was already in a committed relationship! But all I did was put her through. It’s tragic . . .
And finally, what music are you listening to at the moment?
Well, I’ve been heavily focused on SJS these last few months. But I’m loving a track called ‘Blood on the Tightrope’ by Lunatic Soul, and if that’s not left field enough for you, you could do a lot worse than put ‘Return To The Sauce’ by Infected Mushroom on at full volume. Now that’s my idea of psychedelic-prog for the 21st Century!
Thanks Stuart, it’s been great talking to you. Personally, I think the ‘The World Without’ is an amazing album for the 21st Century and I reckon you’ll find plenty of people putting it on at full volume very soon.
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