What was your initial inspiration to start System 56?
SS:I’d have to say it pretty much started germinating around 1977 after hearing what David Bowie and Brian Eno were doing on the LOW album. That album marked an important musical turning point for a number of reasons, but for me personally, it was then that I fully realized that there would soon be major changes coming to modern rock music, a wholesale shift in content and production, that would infuse more tangential, avant-garde ideas and concepts into the pop music format, and give it a very distinct, urbane vocabulary. Bands like Roxy Music and the Velvet Underground had tapped into this vein earlier in the decade, but Bowie & Eno took it to the next level on LOW. The end result was a flood of new bands – Talking Heads, Devo, Ultravox, Japan, Urban Verbs, Bill Nelson, the Cars, Gary Numan, Robert Fripp, Simple Minds, Magazine, etc. – all taking those post-LOW ideas and further fleshing them out into a variety of unique and musically challenging styles. Plus, the cost of home recording equipment was also starting to become more affordable around the same time, and it was giving rise to the whole do-it-yourself syndrome. Shortly thereafter, I remember hearing Ultravox’s Systems of Romance album, and I just said to myself, “this is IT”, I’ve got to get my studio together, start working on writing some material and forming a band. That would have been around 1978. So it took a few years to finally get all the pieces for the project together.
You also did a solo project in the interim, in 1980, before forming System 56, called Aftermath – what was that all about?
SS:Just a small self-produced project I released as a 45 (Automatic Entertainment / Blind to View) as a result of some of the instrumental experimentation I was doing at the time, trying to figure out how to blend synthesizer and guitar sounds together. It was all composed and recorded in the living room of my 1-bedroom apartment, using a very primitive drum machine, guitar, a couple of synths, and a TEAC 4-track tape deck. But it was a very useful exercise in many respects, and motivated me to keep moving forward to getting System 56 together a couple years later. The record received a bit of airplay on the local college radio circuit, and even got reviewed nationally in Trouser Press (Sept. 1980) and Heavy Metal (Dec. 1980).
So how did System 56 finally come about?
SS:In 1981, I started running a series of musicians-wanted ads in Scene magazine in Cleveland, basically looking for people with compatible ideas and goals, who wanted to do original music, not just an endless parade of Billboard Top 40 cover tunes. At the time, independent bands who were doing their own original material were generally short-lived, primarily because they were usually strapped for working capital, and limited to playing the lesser-known underground clubs and venues - so they usually ended up playing to the same 50 people, while trying to eek out a meager existence. In spite of these obstacles, many of them regularly gutted it out on the club scene, and aimed to establish a reputation of one sort or another, hoping some hot-shot record company A&R scout would recognize their musical talents, and sign them to a record deal. That road just didn’t seem very practical or appealing to me – so I tried to convince any potential band members that System 56 was going to concentrate on recording and releasing the music ourselves, as opposed to slogging it out on the club circuit.
Eventually, I found the (3) other guys – Chuck Ryder, Kevin Lytle, and Vince Scafiti – who would complete the picture. Chuck was probably my closest musical ally at the time, in terms of understanding where I wanted to take System 56 and what it should sound like. He had a similar background to mine, as a member of a 2-man synth-based duo called LUXUS. Although Chuck’s primary role was as our bass player, he also had a very good sense for the overall feeling of the music, the engineering and production side of recording, and how to get it down on tape. The end result, after a couple months of rehearsals and demos, was our first single Metro-Metro / In the Old World, released in the spring of 1982.
How did the band get it’s name?
SS:It was just a natural outgrowth of my life-long interest in cybernetics and cultural theory, more so than having any particular musical significance. I guess you can credit Aldous Huxley, Buckminster Fuller, and Douglas Hofstadter for that. I’ve always envisioned a rock band as kind of an artificial construct to begin with, little cybernetic microcosms in themselves, prone to chaotic, internal dynamics, which occasionally give rise to unexpected outputs, both good and not-so-good. Thus the analogy of a “system”. Plus, the name had a certain alliterative quality to it rolling off the tongue, and it seemed to fit us pretty well.
What happened to the band after your first single?
SS:Well, the band actually played out a couple of times at The Bank in Akron. Nothing very elaborate, just a couple of weekday gigs to get our feet wet, and play before a live audience. We were total unknowns at the time, even with the Metro-Metro single out, and were getting only minimal airplay on the local college stations. However, there were also some little rifts developing in the band around this time as well, and we weren’t exactly getting along as well as we could have. Shortly thereafter, we parted company with Chuck and Kevin (the usual artistic differences), and set out for the next challenge of recording Beyond the Parade.
What was it like handling all of the instrumental chores on Beyond the Parade?
SS:Fairly challenging, to say the least. Being first and foremost a guitar player, it wasn’t too much of stretch to switch over to electric bass, although we also used synthetic keyboard bass on the record as well. The synth parts were a little more difficult, because I don’t have the chops for keyboards in the same way I would for guitar. I basically just had to feel my way through it. However, once Vince and I got the basic rhythm tracks laid down, it was somewhat easier to fill in the guitar and synth parts, and became a matter of working each section of a song until it felt like it was in the right place, before finally moving on to the final vocal tracks. The tricky part was bouncing all the sub-mixed tracks down ahead of time, to free up more space on the tape, as we were still using the TEAC 4-track deck at the time. There were some trade-offs we had to make in terms of EQ and signal-to-noise levels, which we could have readily tweaked in the final mix on a larger deck, but in the end, we were pretty satisfied with the way it turned out.
You finally got a new keyboard player in 1983 – Paul Teagle – how did that affect the direction of the band?
SS:Paul was just coming off a stint with a Kent-based band called Unit 5, when Vince brought him in for an audition, before we did the next record. Paul wasn’t a typical keyboardist in the traditional sense, but more of an experimenter and synthesist. In other words, he tended to work with the technology of the synth itself, as opposed to devising lyrical melody lines and counterpoints. But he had enough keyboard chops to get the job done at the musical end. That was just fine with me, because we needed someone to give some different shape and texture to the musical ideas that I was bringing in as the group's songwriter. The result was the single Life On a Cool Curve / The Other Side of Science. It proved to be one of our most memorable records.
There’s some intriguing synth sounds on that record – what kind of equipment were you using?
SS:We used a little bit of everything in that session. The sequencer parts on Cool Curve were all done on a Roland SH-101, using it’s built in arpeggiator. The higher end synth was actually a Multivox MX-202 string machine. There’s some Korg MS-20 sounds on The Other Side of Science, but all of the atmospheric stuff that Paul was doing, was on an Oberheim OBX-a synth – nice, big, fat analog sounds. He was always able to coax some compelling noises out of it. The Oberheim could be a bit of an unwieldy synth, and it had a lot of unexpected surprises built in, as well, but Paul made the most of them.
In 1984, you finally added a new bass player – Tom Lash – what impact did that have on the band?
SS: Tom had previously been playing bass for a few years in another local Cleveland band called Lucky Pierre, which was going through a dissolution process right around the time we were looking to add someone to our lineup, to play bass. Since we wanted to start doing some live shows again, as well as continue to record, we needed someone who had experience in both areas, and Tom happened to have the whole skill set that we were looking for. Lucky Pierre had always been more of a no-frills, straight-ahead rock band, and Tom was probably the “purest” musician out of all of us, plus he could do some singing as well. By adding him to the mix, we started to become more of a stand-up combo, as opposed to strictly a studio ensemble. We began to work through a lot of new material in live rehearsal situations, hammering out arrangements ahead of the studio sessions. In addition, this gave us a chance to introduce Tom to our earlier material, and begin working toward final arrangements on those songs, in a live setting.
It seemed like the band became more guitar-oriented after that – would that be a fair statement?
SS: Yes, and no. Certainly that would be true of the follow-on single - A Man Needs a Motor / Shapes of Things, which features the guitar in a more prominent role, although there’s still plenty of synth work on the B-side, especially towards the end, in addition to the driving guitar. It was certainly never an intentional change that we tried to make, but was ultimately determined by where any particular song seemed to be taking us. On the other hand, if you consider the other songs from that same time period – The Sounding, Your Car is Waiting, and Next to X, you’d probably agree that it was still pretty well balanced. But since the single usually gets the bulk of the attention, it may have come off that way in the short term.
The band finally returned to the stage later in 1984 – what was that like?
SS: The summer of 1984 was a particularly hectic time for the band, between finishing up the final mixes on the material we had recorded in the spring, getting ready for the live shows, and releasing the single on schedule. All this was going on while all of us were working regular 9-5 day jobs, so needless to say, we were getting pretty over-extended. We even found ourselves auditioning for a second keyboardist, halfway through rehearsals, when we realized that we had too many synth parts for just one guy to handle. So we brought in Dennis Richie (formerly of The Times) to help out with the overflow. It turned out to be a good move, as it reduced the stress level on Paul, and gave us a little more stage presence, as well.
Overall, the live shows went pretty well, as our Cleveland debut in the Phantasy Theatre was a real watershed event for the band, having worked our tails off to make that happen, amidst all the other activity going on behind the scenes. In retrospect, I thought the smaller-scale gigs upstairs in the Phantasy Nite Club had a much more intimate and spontaneous atmosphere, as the band was more relaxed and in closer proximity to the crowd.
Which other artists have influenced your music?
SS: It depends on how far back you want to go. I came of age musically, in the late 1960s, so all my early musical heroes were guitarists like Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton, Roger McGuinn, and Jeff Beck. I later went through an extended jazz phase in the early 70s, where I was listening to music that was considerably beyond my ability to play - but I was intrigued by the way it was composed and produced – especially Weather Report and anything on the ECM label (e.g. Terje Rypdal, John Abercrombie, Ralph Towner, Eberhard Weber come to mind). In the mid-70s, I started listening to bands like Kraftwerk, Tangerine Dream, Fripp & Eno, Vangelis – all the spacey, electronic stuff coming out of Europe, which sort of laid the groundwork for the synthesizer side of me. You won’t necessarily hear all of those influences on display in System 56, but that’s the music that was swirling around my head prior to 1977, and became the background landscape for any subsequent musical ideas to follow. Later on, I started paying closer attention to a number of producers as well – Brian Eno (Cluster, Talking Heads, Devo), Roy Thomas Baker (Cars, Queen), Steve Lillywhite (Ultravox, U2) and John Punter (Roxy Music, Japan) - all made impressions on me, as I would try to emulate things they were doing on record in my little make-shift, home studio. Using the studio as an instrument in and of itself was an idea that had a lot of appeal to me, so I had a tendency to listen to people who were doing this effectively already.
Where do the ideas for your songs and lyrics come from?
SS:All over the place actually. I tend to read quite a bit, so I continually find inspiration and ideas for songs from all sorts of literary sources, everything from science fiction to advertising blurbs to dada poetry to engineering and technical manuals. Interesting things are being said and written all the time, sometimes in the most unlikely places. It’s just a matter of noting them in some way when I hear them or read them, then incorporating other musical ideas to give them focus and direction later on. Sometimes the most mundane sentence or phrase can trigger an avalanche of lyrical ideas. I just try to stay open to those kinds of possibilities. I usually find myself starting with a song title and working backwards, fleshing out the lyrics, and trying to discover the song’s natural tempo. The music is almost an afterthought to the lyrical structure, which to me, has to hold together on its own. Once the basic lyrical structure has been established, it then gives rise to things like rhythm, meter, and phrasing, which is where I like to get the drums involved, because that basically sets the table for everything else. It sounds a bit counter-intuitive, but that’s how it works. There’s all sorts of ways to approach composition. If I’m doing an instrumental piece, it usually begins with some scrap of a rhythmic idea, which I monotonously listen to over and over again, until it starts to almost hypnotize me - as I try to find out what the rhythm is suggesting. We even included one of these raw experiments on the Beyond the Parade e.p., called Rhythm Before Reason, which is just a tape loop of one of Vince’s drum beats, repeating ad infinitum. As the piece progresses, the synths start to blend in, and it becomes almost like a self-perpetuating mandala. On record, the piece is only a couple minutes long , but the actual take was considerably longer, yet just as interesting, despite the repetitive drum beat. I’m always reminded of one of Eno’s oblique strategies – “repetition is a form of change” – when I think of the idea behind that piece. Psychologically, the mind is always trying to extract meaning and context from sound patterns, even when the changes are nearly nonexistent.