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MindMaze Interview

by Robin Stryker February 12, 2013 (via Skype)

After months of showing mad love to Canadian bands, it seems apt to kick off Spring by bringing the love a little closer to home. Hailing from Pennsylvania (in the northeastern US), MindMaze recently released their debut album, Mask of Lies. And it’s a corker!

Sonic Cathedral’s Robin Stryker sat down with Sarah and Jeff Teets, the brother-sister duo behind MindMaze, for a long chat. Dive in to get the behind-the-scenes story on Mask of Lies, their biggest fan-girl/fan-boy moments, working with Tim Grose (Lord), and much more. Enjoy!


Robin:  Sarah and Jeff, a warm Sonic Cathedral welcome to you both! Would you start off by telling our readers what they can expect from your debut album, Mask of Lies?

Jeff:  I think our style is a mixture between traditional, progressive and power metal. There are elements of a lot of different stuff in it, and I think it’s a pretty diverse album. It still feels cohesive; it still feels like one band. But from song to song, I think there is a pretty wide variety of influences -- everything from Iron Maiden to classic progressive metal (like Queensryche and Savatage and Dream Theater) to more power metal-ly stuff like Firewind, Avantasia and Gamma Ray. It has female vocals, which throws people … especially in this kind of music … because we really don’t do any of the operatic stuff. It is pretty much just straightforward, powerful, melodic vocals. The vocalist of the band just happens to be female.

I like to think it’s a pretty diverse album. In addition to all the influences I mentioned, it’s not just hitting you over the head with the same type of song, nine times in a row. There are some songs that are definitely that straightforward, traditional metal, with the anthemic choruses and the hooks and stuff like that … maybe even with a little ‘80s influence at times … there is definitely some more dynamic stuff. There is an instrumental that has kind of a Rush feel to it; there is an 11-minute epic that is definitely more in that progressive metal style; and there is a ballad. There is a lot of acoustic guitar, and Sarah plays flute on one of the songs. So, it really is (to me) a little more than a collection of nine of the same type of songs. But at the same time, it’s not quite this big, thematic, progressive opus or anything. There are a lot of bands that are just overblown anymore. It’s not really trying to be something THAT big. But maybe, you know, more than the bare minimum.

Robin:  For many of our readers, MindMaze might appear to be newcomers on the metal scene. But that is not really the case; is it?

Sarah:  I mean, it is kind of complicated because, in the technical, literal sense, we are not really newcomers per se. The two of us and our drummer have been with the band for a really long time; we’ve been doing this for around eight years now. (We used to be called Necromance.) But in a way, we are sort of like newcomers because it is really the first time that we’ve had the opportunity to do something on a larger scale and really professionally, which could possibly reach the audience who we intended to.

We kind of did the band for a long time. Obviously, in the beginning, we were REALLY young, and it was something fun to do … get together and play, and just mess around and stuff. The more we started doing it, the more serious we got with it. It’s just that, yeah, ever since we changed the band name, we started a new chapter to begin professionally, instead of just existing.

Jeff:  When you start a band when you’re 14 or 15 years old, you’re pretty ignorant. We really didn’t listen to many people that were older than us, when they told us: “Don’t put yourself out there so much.” Even though I do really value the experience that we’ve had over the years, I do think of MindMaze as pretty much a new band. I’m certainly not ashamed of anything we’ve done up until this point, but I did really want to clean the slate. I do like to think of this now as a new band that we really only had for a year or two, as opposed to the fifth incarnation of band that we’ve been re-working, over and over, since we were very young and very naïve.

Robin:  Speaking of another brother-sister band (also from Pennyslvania), who formed when they were very young … Halestorm … do you find that their recent Grammy win has sparked any additional interest, or is it too soon to tell?

Sarah:  Honestly, it just happened, so I think it is a little too soon to tell. We’ll kind of have to wait and see, because I feel like they are more of a hard rock band …

Jeff:  They have a little bit more of a commercial appeal. Not that that’s better or worse, but there is a little bit more mainstream acceptance, I think, for their music. But compared to …

Sarah:  ... somethings that are out there … especially for people who might not be necessarily into metal … I wouldn’t fault them for making a comparison between us and Halestorm. It is kind of similar, especially for someone who is not super into all the different styles of metal. Yeah, we’ll kind of have to wait and see. <(laughs) It would be nice if that’s what happens! But I don’t know.

Robin:  In addition to being musicians, it seems like the two of you support other musicians by going out to shows. For each of you, what has been your best fan-girl/fan-boy moment?

Jeff:  For me, my favorite band has been Iron Maiden, since I was like 12 years old. (I’m 22 now, so …) I’ve seen them seven or eight times, but every time I see them, it really, really brings out that feeling like I am a young, young … I know that I’m still young … but that feeling like I’m a really young kid, and I’m just so passionate about it. There is just a certain feeling that I don’t get from anything else. I mean, I love all of these different kinds of music and all of these different bands. I’ve been to probably 120 shows, or something like that, but Maiden just does it for me on a level like no one else does, when I see them.

The thing about Maiden is that they’re HUGE. Most of the music that I support is small-scale. Most of the shows that I go to are club gigs and theater gigs, with usually 600 people or less. And on that scale, it would definitely be Evergrey. I actually have a tattoo of their symbol on my arm, and I’ve always been really passionate about their music. We saw them in New York and Phillie, and got to hang out with them. I was just a really, really good experience for me.

Sarah:  As far as the fan-girl experience, the last one that I can remember that was totally crazy like that: I was in high school … so a few years ago … and I was so into the band Tesla. I absolutely LOVED them. It was such an odd choice of a favorite band for someone who was like 16 years old, but that is what I just loved. I remember that I joined their fan club and all this stuff, and went crazy over them. When I finally got to go see them … it was funny because I waited, and I wanted to see them for a while … when I did, we went and saw them SIX times within the span of about a year. We got to meet them, and it was kind of crazy! They are not super-famous or anything like that. But for me, it was crazy to really meet them.

Jeff:  For me, it was also the first time meeting anyone who was really ANYONE in a band. At this point, I don’t want to say I’ve become immune to it. But I’ve met people in some of my favorite bands and almost hung out with them on a level -- not just as a fan-boy.

Sarah:  On that same level, back around the same time that the Tesla thing happened, we actually met Nicko McBrain from Iron Maiden when he was doing his McBrain Damage, Maiden-tribute thing. So we met him, and that was kind of crazy.

Jeff:  We had absolutely NO experience meeting people. It was pretty much the stereotype of the awkward kid, getting to meet your hero in a band. You want to say everything, but end up saying nothing because you’re so awestruck. There still are a few people who can do that to me. But at this point, I have the phone numbers of members of some of my favorite bands. I don’t want to say that it’s devalued it, but it’s not that common for me to get that way anymore.

Sarah:  For some people, it would be a long-shot for me. Some of the bands that I would go crazy to see, I don’t know that I ever will. As stupid as it sounds and as generic as it sounds, I still love Bon Jovi, but probably will never go see them because they are so expensive and on such a big scale. I won’t say that I’m not going to, because you never know.


Robin:  Diving back into the album, I understand that four of the nine tracks on Mask of Lies were re-recorded from an EP you released when the band was still named Necromance. What were you looking to do differently with those four tracks?

Jeff:  Well, in the case of one of the songs -- the track, “Remember” -- the version that existed on that Necromance Never Look Back EP, it was really a demo, but we just released it as an EP. The version that we had on there was acoustic; it was just acoustic guitar, piano, and vocals. It was really never supposed to sound like that. It was always supposed to be a full track with the full band, but it ended up getting tacked on at the last minute because we realized we could get another track on there. But it was really always intended to be a full-band track. It really, really reminds me of Savatage, kind of like their ‘90s sound. “Remember” is a ballad, and it’s piano-driven, but it also gets pretty heavy. There are string arrangements … not real strings, but keyboard strings … and all of that stuff going on. So, for that song, it was really about bringing it to life, the way it had always been intended to be.

For the other three songs -- “Never Look Back,” “Breaking the Chains” and “Destiny Calls” -- it was more or less a re-recording. We changed some things about them because, you know, you’re always going to. I have a perfectionist streak, and couldn’t ever record the same thing twice and have it be exactly the same. There are always things that, after a few years, I’m going to be like: “Nah, I should have done that differently.” So, there are subtle differences, but the main difference is that the production value is a thousand times better. (That would be an understatement!) It’s just exponentially better. So, for us, those were just the songs that we are still playing, that we used to play back then, and that we always really wanted to get out there and have people hear. We just really wanted to redo them with the production value we think they deserve.

Robin:  Which of you is the fan of the movie, Dark City, which is the inspiration for the longest track (“Dark City”) on Mask of Lies?

Sarah:  We both actually are, funnily enough. A lot of the songs on the album are written with this sort of format, but Jeff usually writes most of the music, and then I write the lyrics. For this song … it’s funny, because it’s actually the one song on the album that our drummer is also credited with writing because he also came up with some ideas while we were going through it, after the idea came about … Jeff wrote most of the music, and I did the lyrics, so we’re both fans of it.

Someone actually suggested that we watch Dark City, and the first time I watched it, I was like: “I have NO idea what happened in that movie.” I had to watch it a couple times before I sort of understood, but then, we were like: “This so weird that I think this would be a good song.” It makes a good concept because it tells a good progression, story-wise.

Jeff:  The one thing that I really wanted to get across with the way the song is written, for anyone who has seen the movie … I know it’s not a very popular movie … the whole movie is pretty much totally in darkness until near the end. And I really wanted to kind of have this feeling of creepiness and ominousness in the music. There is a lot of weird, atonal, dissonant guitar stuff that is not very common in our music. I really just kind of wanted to do that, and throughout the course of the song, to make these subtle changes. By the time it gets to the end of the song, the music is similar, but a few of the right notes have been changed so that it’s the same part, but now it sounds uplifting. There is this sense of light at the end of the song.

When you listen to as much crazy-ass progressive music as I listen to, sometimes you don’t think 11 minutes is that long, compared to some of the epics out there. But for 11 minutes, I really do think that it takes you on a journey; that there are definite feel-changes in the song. Of course, we’ve had the idea for this song in the works for a long time … actually, years. And then, last year, Iced Earth went and put out a song called “Dark City,” also about the movie. I was like: “Yeah, that figures.” (laughs) That’s why we actually decided to not call the song just “Dark City.” The title is actually “Dark City (Dreaming this Life)”. (I think on some of the promo versions I sent around, it probably just comes up as “Dark City”.) We decided to go with the full title, in light of that.

Robin:  The song that gets stuck in my head is “This Holy War.” What is the story behind that song?

Sarah:  I don’t want to put it like it’s just a generic idea, but the song title pretty much tells you what it’s about. “This Holy War” is my thoughts on … and this isn’t necessarily a really original concept … but it’s my personal take on the holy war and causing senseless deaths over religion, and that’s kind of my take on it. The funny thing about that song was that I actually loved the TV show JAG. (laughs) It’s my favorite show. We happened to be watching it randomly, and there was this part in the show that had a speaking section that was all about this holy war. The speaking part in “This Holy War” is from there. It was a random coincidence that I happened to be watching it, and was like: “Wow, that’s the perfect thing to put in there!” So, that’s kind of how that part came about. But yeah, the title pretty much sums it up. I mean, not entirely, but it’s kind of about the guilt of that sort of situation.

Jeff:  That song actually has a slightly more interesting story about the way it was written, as opposed to most of our other songs. The shell of the idea for that song goes back about six years at this point, to way back when we were still Necromance. I don’t want to say it was a totally different song. I mean, the verse structure felt similar, and the chorus hook was pretty much the same. The big difference was the middle of the song -- the tempo never picked up; there was never any of the bombastic stuff that went onto the CD. About two years ago when we really went through the whole band overhaul -- changing the name, changing the direction, a new bass player, and all this other stuff -- we went back to that song, which we hadn’t played in about two years. We were like: “There’s a lot of potential here!” So we went and just really restructured it. So, in a way, the song is actually as old as some of those other songs that were re-recorded.

The other thing about that song too is that “This Holy War”, along with “Dark City”, is probably the most sonically complex thing on the album. The way I wanted the whole song to come across is, as the song progresses, each section kind of has more to it than the one before it. The first verse is fairly stripped down; there’s not any distorted guitars behind it or anything like that. The second verse has the heavy guitar riff, along with the keyboard and acoustic guitar, and there is even a harmonized guitar line behind it. The tempo picks up halfway through the song, and there is all this added orchestral choir type stuff in it. I really wanted a vibe that just builds and builds and builds. There is even been some Deep Purple-like organ leads in the middle of the song. It really is kind of a mixed bag of everything. But yeah, I do like the tone. (laughs) I might have mentioned that before.


Robin:  Speaking of guitar riffing, MindMaze recruited a guest guitarist for the track, “Destiny Calls.” How did you get hooked up with Tim Grose?

Jeff:  Well, Tim is actually one of my favorite guitar players. I would probably put him in my top 10 or dozen favorite guitar players of all time. I discovered his old band, Dungeon, about six or seven years ago (something like that), which dissolved and became his current band, Lord. So, I was a fan, and through the wonderful, wonderful world of Facebook, we kind of got to know him. I actually think Sarah initiated contact first. But through talking back and forth, he showed a little bit of interest in our stuff, and kind of like re-EQ’ed some tracks from that Never Look Back demo. We had actually originally talked about having him do a mix on this album, which we eventually decided against, just for the sake of … I don’t want to say “simplicity” …

Sarah:  Continuity.

Jeff:  Yeah, continuity more so. We really wanted to do it all in-house with the guy who did everything else with the album.

Sarah:  That kind of just happened because, honestly, from the get-go, I don’t want to say we underestimated Brian [J. Anthony], who did our album … but we kind of did. When you assume “oh this is a pretty good price for studio time,” you’re not really expecting that you will get a great product like we actually got. But Brian is really GOOD!

Jeff:  He’s definitely the real deal. He deserves a better clientele (I think) than he normally deals with, since he normally works on the local level. Anyway, back to thing with Tim -- or LORD Tim, as he goes by. We started talking about some other things, and I just threw out there: “It would be a dream-come-true for me, as a huge fan of your guitar playing.” The song “Destiny Calls” is actually inspired a little bit by the style of his music. Particularly, it’s a little bit more of a mid-tempo song, and the instrumental section is just an assault of guitar work. (laughs)

Once upon a time, we were a two-guitar band, and that instrumental section was written for two guitars and two lead guitar players. There are a lot of key changes, and the solos go back and forth really quick. I really love the trade-off feel of the solos, so when we started to dance around him playing on the album, I was like: “It HAS to be that song!” With the combination of the inspiration behind it and the style of the guitar leads going back and forth, for me, it was a no-brainer. Yeah, that was one of my favorite things about doing this album, even though he recorded the solos 15,000 miles away, all the way from Australia. He is all the way across the world; never met the guy; never played in the room with him, but it’s kind of cool to listen to the track, and think: “That’s my solo next to one of my favorite guitar players.”

Robin:  Awesome! I understand that you had funded Mask of Lies through a Kickstarter campaign. I have heard mixed reviews and controversy about crowd-funding. What is your take on it?

Sarah:  Yeah, it definitely was a good thing. I’ll be honest that the money we got from that Kickstarter project gave us a start, but compared to what the album cost, it really didn’t pay … it probably paid one-fifth of the cost. But it was still a really great thing because, just from the money that we got from there (which wasn’t tons of money), but it still was able to get us started. The issue is, if we wouldn’t have had that money, it would have taken us a lot longer to get started. I mean, none of is in an amazing financial position. We have jobs …

Jeff:  We’re still young.

Sarah:  Yeah, like I work full-time, and our drummer works full-time. But Jeff is in school and our bass player Rich was in school, so we’re not in the greatest financial position. We can save money, but it usually takes some time to do so. So doing the Kickstarter project was a great way to get jump-started, so it didn’t take us FOREVER.

Jeff:  We ended up paying a great deal of money out of pocket -- far more than we acquired through the Kickstarter thing. Back when we did it, there was some backlash. I don’t really know how much, but one or two people sent us emails, saying things to the effect of “you are asking for a handout” and things like that. I think a lot of people don’t really understand the way things like Kickstarter work … or the way they are supposed to work. We weren’t just asking people to throw money at us for no good reason, just on the faith of “well, we might do something with it.” We were specifically offering people copies of the album when it was finished. And compared to some of the Kickstarter projects I’ve seen out there, we kept it very simple and very low dollar amounts … just kind of keeping it to the point of basically, for the low donation levels, you got a copy of the album when it was done. For a little bit more, we put your name on the special thanks list on the album, and everyone who donated, also got a poster. But yeah, I think people sometimes think of those websites as bands being like: “Hey, throw money at us!” For us, it was basically a really far in advance pre-order of the album that basically just gave us enough money to go in, and at least get started, and have the faith that we could conquer it financially.

Sarah:  At the time, we didn’t think of the whole cost of that thing. Now the album is done, and we have to send it out. A pretty good percentage of the money that we got is just going back for shipping costs and paying for postage. Especially to ship out of the country, it’s not cheap. You know, yes, we should have had that in the back of our minds. But honestly, I’m kind of being like: “Awww, crap!” (laughs) I forgot about the fact that we have to pay to send all these things now. It’s not like it was free money or anything.

Robin:  So, what is coming up next for MindMaze, after your February 17th CD release show for Mask of Lies?

Jeff:  A ton of shows, actually. I know that, compared to some “real” bands -- bands that go on tour -- they’d be like “c’mon!” We’ve always kind of existed on just the local level, and the norm for us is like one show a month, give or take. Every now and then, something might come up, and we might play more frequently (or less frequently). At some points while doing the album, we tried to shy away from playing at all. But we recently came into a whole bunch of show offers, and we pretty much wanted to take all of them that we could because, for the longest time, we’ve been really skeptical: “Should we take it or not? When is it? Where is it? Who is it with?”

But right now, we’re at the point where it really is the time when we should be out there doing as much as we can. With the album being done, now we have an album we can sell at shows, and some tee-shirts and posters, and we’re starting to get more buzz created online. Now really is the time for us to try to do as much as we can. Our drummer is also having a kid over the summer …

Sarah:  Well, he’s not having a kid. His girlfriend is.

Jeff:  But yeah, not that it’s going to be the end of the world when it happens, but he is going to be a little less gung-ho about doing shows every weekend and traveling out of the area because, some of the shows that we play are usually in New Jersey, New York …

Sarah:  About an hour away from where we live.

Jeff:  If we’re not playing right in our backyard, we’re usually driving at least an hour because of the way scenes work. You’re usually not going to have a place that is interested in original music that is in the middle of Nowhere City.


Robin:  What final words do you have for Sonic Cathedral readers?

Sarah:  I don’t mean to say this in any sort of negative way, but I think we are different than what a lot of people might be used to. I kind of want to say: “Don’t have any assumptions about what we are going to sound like, just because we are a female-fronted band.” There are a lot of trends that you find to be popular with female-fronted bands. “You might have an assumption of what we are like, but you might want to check us out anyway because it might be something different than what you assumed!” (laughs)

I kind of do a variety of styles and stuff. I actually sang with a band from around here (and did some operatic vocals). I lived in Florida a few years ago, and was with another band called, Alexandria. They actually had an operatic singer before I joined, but I learned all their old material like that, until we started writing new stuff. I come from a diverse background, but our stuff is a little bit more straight-forward. I’m not thinking about being female or anything like that … I’m just singing the way I want to sing.

Robin:  Thank you so much for talking with Sonic Cathedral tonight, Sarah and Jeff. We hope MindMaze has a mighty CD release show!

Sarah:  No problem.

Read Sonic Cathedral’s review of Mask of Lies here.


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