Interview with SAGA’s vocalist Michael Sadler 2006

By Lorraine Kay

October 2006

Q. The new SAGA CD “Trust” is very exciting. When was or is it being released?

A. It came out in the middle of April in Europe and it is just now coming here in the U.S.

Q. How much did you contribute to creating this album?

A. It is pretty much a democratic process. We write individually and get together and pool our ideas and choose 11 songs. I – as of late – the last couple of records I have taken a bit of a back seat musically in terms of creation but the arrangements I am very concerned about and melody. So I tend now do what the singer is supposed to do and sit back and come up with melodies as they are working on the parts and if I hear something I’ll say, wait a minute, make that section a bit shorter or this one a bit longer and that kind of thing or change the key to suit my voice and that kind of thing. So I’m doing now what I probably should have been doing a little bit more during the beginning but whatever. I mean, I am now at the point because we’ve been together for almost 30 years – next year actually – that I know the other guys and they know me. If I write something I pretty much know what the others are going to play. Like I know what Ian’s going to play on guitar. So no one writes anything too extensive, just a kind of skeleton of an idea and then bring it in because we all know it’s going to go through some changes. So, lately, I rarely have much hands-on in terms of the actual keyboard playing. It’s mostly concentrating on making sure the melodies are strong and the lyrics of course.

Q. So if you aren’t playing much do you still see the band’s writing a collaborative effort with the other guys doing most of the writing right now?

A. At this stage, yeah, up until the last couple of records I was very hands on and playing a lot and coming up with things but the thing is after all these many years I find that a lot of the stuff – for example the stuff Jim Gilmour will come up with on keyboards are the kind of chords that I would write anyway. The nature of the kind of things that I would write Jim Gilmour will come up with by himself and Ian. I mean we know each other so well that if I do write anything I write something like barebones cause I know exactly that when Ian gets his hands on it he is going to play a guitar a certain way to it. The same with grooves. I’ll come up with a basic 4/4 groove just so that I have something to play to and everything changes just a little bit in rehearsals.

Q. So when you are touring, are you playing keyboards or are you mostly out front?

A. Mostly out front. In the very beginning I was stuck behind keyboards most of the night. And we realized there probably should be an entertainer or a front-man in the traditional sense. I play less than I used to but anytime Jim Gilmour just doesn’t have enough hands obviously to play certain parts I will go back and play a little bit. I do the same thing with the bass guitar. I am not a bass player but one song has a very simple bass line which I was able to pick up and play so I play bass in that song for the same reason but instead of being stuck behind the keyboard, Jim Crichton, the bass player will hand me the bass so I can still be out front and he goes back and plays the extra keyboard parts. We used to joke about needing traffic signals on stage because there were a couple of moments in the past where we were like almost bumping into each other changing instruments. Anything to get the job done.

Q. So, do you ever miss playing keyboard?

A. It’s really funny because the way that I was introduced to keyboards, I was in a blues band right out of high school with these three older guys and I was the singer. You know, you’re in a white bread middle of the road – middle class kid growing up outside of Toronto. And what did I know about authentic Chicago Blues? But there I was straight out of choir singing the blues. Anyway, I came home from work one day cause I was the only one working at that time and I came in and the guys said, “Oh we’ve got a surprise for you in the basement.” And I thought “Okay,” and we go downstairs and suddenly there’s a piano sitting there and I said, “What’s that?” “Oh it’s a piano” And I said “Yeah, yeah, yeah. I know it’s a piano, but why is there a piano here?” “Well, we had a meeting and we decided that we need to have a piano in the band,” they told me. “Oh, um, well who’s going to play it?” I asked them. “You will,” they said. And I said, “Um, are you aware of the fact that I have no idea how to play piano?” And do you know what their response was? “You’ll learn.” And then literally, it was like holding down three notes and going well that sounds pretty happy that must be a major chord and if I just flatten that one that sounds really sad so that must be a minor chord.

Q. Well had you played any kind of instrument prior to that?

A. No, no.

Q. So it was your first instrument?

A. That was forced learning, the same thing with the bass. I have to pick up the bass every once in awhile but I am not a bass player by any stretch of the imagination.

Q. So, I guess you consider yourself more of a vocalist than a musician?

A. Completely. I do what is necessary musician-wise. A couple of the guys say all the time, “Oh, you’re a great keyboard player when you play.” I love to sit at a piano and just start playing. I don’t know how to read, I just make it up as I go but definitely the voice is my primary instrument.

Q. So getting back to “Trust”, how is it different from the other SAGA albums or alike?

A. The funny thing is – “Trust” I would say and this seems to be the predominant reaction so far, at least in Europe – is that it sounds familiar without sounding retro or old-fashioned, but, today. In other words, we tried things over the years. Through the 90s we tried some different things but predominantly I kept hearing from fans “You know we liked this and we liked that but we missed this and we missed that”. Things like the interplay between the keyboards and the guitar doing lines together and a little bombastic once in awhile. I think probably in retrospect we pulled-back a little self-consciously from doing that – thinking that the sounds had become clichéd. But there’s a difference from clichéd and a sort of signature sound. There are certain things that we do that make up the sound of the band. That’s not clichéd that’s part of what we do, so we embraced that and just weren’t afraid to do it on this record. So we did indeed do pretty much what the fans asked and delivered that. Like I said, it’s not really retro per se. It’s not old-fashioned sounding, it’s just what we do and it’s more akin to the first three or four records. Somebody in Germany said it reminded them of “World’s Apart”? I don’t think they meant musically, literally musically, but the feeling of the record and it’s probably because that’s the way we made it.

Q. Would you say it’s fresh sounding but it’s still signature?

A. Oh, absolutely. Yeah, absolutely. I mean it’s more signature than we’ve been in a long time. Let’s put it this way. We sound like us again.

Q. In your opinion, what are the strong points of this album?

I think the vocals are stronger than they have been in a very long time. I spent a long time working on the vocals. There are a couple of choruses that are quite big. I have been tempted to do that in the past, and I thought well how can we pull that off live? I put like 16 tracks of vocals on the chorus, even though it sounds great in the song how am I going to do that live? I didn’t worry about it this time. I mean, we still do those songs with the big chorus but it’s okay because I don’t believe that a concert should be all about the guys standing there playing the songs and playing them really well, you know, just like the record. I think it should be a lot more personal than that. The way I see a concert is you should almost feel like you’ve met the band when you leave. Like there was some kind of contact even though you’re not physically shaking their hands or whatever, or saying hello. You were in the same room with them, you shared an evening with them as opposed to just witnessing them play the songs. I just think a concert is supposed to be personal.

Q. How many of the original members of SAGA worked on this album?

A. Four. The drummer Christian Simpson is the newest member. Our original drummer, Steve Negus left one album before that. He was originally replaced by another drummer, who was only able to do one album with us before contracting a tendon problem in his left arm. He is not able to play drums at all anymore. It was heartbreaking for him. He felt bad that he had to bow out of the band, but more than that he just can’t play drums anymore so his career is over in terms of that, which is a real shame. He was a great player.

Q. Now the new drummer, how long has he been with the band?

A. Since about two weeks before the record was done. Actually, he did some shows with us last summer as a kind of training process or almost like a glorified audition because we had never played with him before and Jim and I live in Los Angeles while the other three guys are still in Canada. The two other members, not including the new drummer, auditioned him without us, which in a normal circumstance you’d think – “well what about the other two guys, shouldn’t they see the guy play and make a decision?” Again, after being together for so long we trust their judgment. They auditioned him, just Ian and Jim Gilmour and then called us and said this is the guy. And Jim and I trust them enough to say fine, if you guys feel that strongly about it we’ll do it.

Q. So did he play on the entire album or just for the concerts?

A. We had some shows to do, and we didn’t have a drummer and knowing that there was an album coming up we had to find someone fairly quickly. So he did these shows as a kind of warm up to doing the record but he did the record with us. He is now officially, unofficially the fifth member. We’re starting to get Spinal Tap jokes because we’re going through drummers. We’re just waiting for him to blow up!

Q. How did you come up with the concept of “Trust”?

A. Personally, I was looking for a one-word title – a very strong word – short and sweet that had some overtones of something that you actually want to think about or talk about. And I just thought about the world and trust came to mind. Actually, I saw the word attached to a sketch of a possible album cover for us. It came out of the blue and this person just put the word trust on it just because he thought he would and I saw the word. The cover was okay but the word stuck in my head and I thought, “You know what? In light of everything that’s going on in the world, career-wise with us and things that happened just prior to that time, (we let our management go). So there was a big change-up in the band and it had to do with, I suppose – I don’t want to say trust had anything to do directly with it, although as residue from it, it got me thinking about trust in general. On it’s broadest sense if you think about the word itself we are born trusting. As a baby you look up at these giant human beings and you trust them to feed you and clothe you, protect you, So your whole life you have to trust someone at some point or another. Otherwise you have to do everything yourself and that’s physically impossible. So you have to trust someone to do something. But the question is how much trust do you give out and who do you give it to? I think everybody has been burned at least once. They’ve  been burned by trusting somebody and then having the trust broken. So it tends to make people very skeptical about trusting anyone in the mean time. So, I just thought it was a very strong word and I like anything that conjures up any images and is slightly relevant. And I think almost everybody can relate to the word trust. I mean do you trust me, or do you trust me to take care of this for you? Like that.

Q. When you do the U.S. tour will it be a duplicate of the show you just did in Europe or are you going to do something different here? What can the fans expect?

A. It will probably be pretty much what we did in Europe, although – I was thinking about this earlier – in America, after not playing it for so many years we will be playing catch-up to quite an extent because there’s a wealth of material that the American audience has no idea is available. So, there’s a lot of songs that we’ve probably stopped playing or taken for granted and don’t play anymore or whatever, but these songs would be brand new to the American audience. So, I’m going to have to look at the set and probably change it up a little bit and add some songs that I feel that they need to hear. There are songs that we have to play. We have to do “On The Loose”. We have to do “Odd Man Out”. We have to do “The Flyer”, things like that. We’re doing four maybe five songs from the new album, which we‘ve never done before. We usually do two or three. Because invariably your new album comes out fairly close to the beginning of a tour – vice- a-versa, you start the tour fairly quickly and it doesn’t give people a lot of time to get used to the record so you don’t really tend to play too many new ones but I just thought strongly enough about this record that we can almost play the whole thing. So, we decided to do four or five and it’s probably also because it sounds – that whole idea of it being familiar sounding anyway that it fits into the set as if we’ve been playing these songs for years anyway. So, it’s not like “Whoa, that’s a brand new song – you can tell cause it’s quite different.” Consequently, it’s combining my feeling about the record and how strong it is and basically not being afraid of playing something that is unfamiliar. And I think it does sound familiar even though people have not heard it before.

Q. What kind of venues do you think you will be playing once the tour starts up here in the U.S.?

A. We can’t expect to be doing extremely large venues. We have some time to make up here. I would imagine at this point it would be things like showcase clubs, maybe between 500 hundred and a thousand seaters, whether we fill them or not is inconsequential. Either that or we find a really good compatible main act and we support them, like a Toto. We have done some shows with Toto and it ended up being a very nice evening of music for the audience, so that’s a possibility. The agency isn’t quite sure which way we’re going.

Q. So except for Steve, who left two albums ago, Saga has been together for 30 years. Most band’s can’t do that. How did Saga manage that?

A. I don’t know, I think you get past a certain point – a certain amount of time and then it’s just – it’s like ‘that’s it – that’s the way it is.’ And then it becomes family. These are not my friends, anymore. These are part of my extended family. One thing led to another and then before we knew it it was ten years, then 15, then 20 and the audience wanted another record so we made another record, which translates into a tour, which translates into meeting – getting to see the audience, which has been buying these records, which is the biggest thrill for me. That is the pay-off for me, just playing live. So the passion is still there. We’re still having fun and I think that’s the bottom line. I’m still having fun. I still consider myself one of the luckiest people in the world. Because I’ve made a career for thirty years doing what I love to do and I get paid to do it and that should be illegal, but don’t tell anybody that.

Q. After so many years, how is the band different?

A. Essentially it is the same. I am sure it is slightly different, but if you asked the fans that have seen us lately they’ll probably say – well, the comments have been that we’re better than ever. I think that we’re playing better now. I think that we’re better live than we’ve ever been and that’s saying a lot because we have really high standards about the live thing. So, it’s just a very tight and very, very cohesive unit right now. By the end of the European tour, it was like when you get a song set and you put it together and then the first week we’re working out the bugs and going through the motions and it’s still a good show, but you’re thinking about things while you are playing. But, then after a little while it just takes on a life of its own. And now you’re going on stage and you’re just letting the set flow. You’re not thinking about – “Oh I have to be over there on the next song and this and that.” It just comes automatically and that’s when you start having fun with it. But I firmly believe that we are at our peak right now in terms of live.

Q. Tell me something about a SAGA show. As you said, if has been a long time since you have had a concert in the U.S. For someone that has never seen a SAGA concert what are we talking about?

A. It’s all about the humans. It’s all about the people. It’s all about trying to be as personable as possible. There’s never been that kind of mystic thing about the band. It’s a “We’re the band, you’re the audience.” kind of thing. I try to bridge that gap as much as possible. I alluded to it earlier about it being personal. I take it very personal when we play. From what I have seen from the faces of the audience it is an enjoyable experience. There’s enough memorable moments, there’s enough songs to remind people who you are, there’s enough of the new stuff. It’s a good cross section of what we do. I can’t say enough about the personal thing though. I think that’s what I try harder than anything to do is to have people walk away feeling that personal live.

Q. Now instrumentally your music is very strong and a lot of your stuff is very extreme sounding. As a vocalist do you prefer to sing the more rock type of songs, or do you like to do ballads. I noticed with your solo album “Clear” you did more retro stuff, what is your preference as a singer?

A. I don’t have one. I just love singing period. Where I have my most fun is singing other people’s stuff. Singing different styles. Here’s one for you – I did the background vocals for Ozzy Osborne’s “No Rest for the Wicked”. He wasn’t there but I was called in at the 11th hour. But I really don’t have a preference cause I just love to sing. Certain songs that are more powerful and up-tempo and in-your-face are fun to do. I love doing ballads when it’s maybe just a piano and a voice – it’s great. You name it and I enjoy it.

Q. What would you like to see in the future for SAGA?

A. I would like to see us continue having fun and continue with the passion for what we do. I have said many times that the day I don’t get nervous in the dressing room is the time to hang it up because if I find myself going on stage feeling any degree of complacency and I’m just going through the motions then it’s definitely time to hang it up because its not fair to the audience, and it’s not being fair to me. Then it’s really just doing it for the money – it really is – and I never got in this business for that reason. As long as we’re still having fun then we’re gonna keep doing it. As long as the fans say do another record we will.