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Interview: Zack Zalon of Into the Great Divide

Zack Zalon is a multi-instrumentalist and tech visionary based in Los Angeles. While pushing innovative content and products as co-founding business developer for We See Dragons, Zalon’s tenacious passion for music worked collectively. In fact, one late work night was all it would take to lay the blueprints for his latest project, Into the Great Divide. He promptly recruited producer Richard Chycki, who had then eventually sought out the backbeat in iconic drummer Mike Mangini. Together, their efforts would solidify not just any self-titled album, but a rock novel – 10 chapters of instrumental trial and triumph, narrated by veteran storyteller Larry Davis.

I caught up with Zalon to discuss how his formative years would shape his musicianship, the creation of the album, as well as what he hopes listeners would take away from their experience.

ME: Your company, We See Dragons, is responsible for digital innovation. Throughout your endeavors with technology, where does the music side come in?

Zack: My career has been in digital – digital content, digital media, and digital products. The thread that’s carried me along is my ability to do things that are innovative and new. By working with large companies, I’ve helped them tell digital stories that can connect with their customers. That’s the same approach I take with music. That approach involves using music as a vehicle to connect people with something new and be able to tell a story within the content.

In some respects, for me, the album worked the same way. Now, in terms of time spent on it, it depended. I’d spend a day and some of the evening at my job and with my kids, and then I’d have the opportunity to start crafting out the record. Most of it was done right in my home studio.

ME: Those ideas for the album all came together in one night, while you were working late. Is that right?

Zack: Well, I’d say they came together in one day. That’s when it all hit me, but it was part of a long desire I’ve had to create an instrumental progressive album. I love instrumental rock. But for me, the problem with that is the content lacking a certain amount of context. By that, I mean it’s hard to tell one track from the other – what the composer intends to convey – when it’s fully instrumental. There’s a feeling that’s present for sure, but without vocals, it’s difficult. I didn’t want an album with vocals, but the problem is when you don’t have vocals, you don’t have the words to communicate what the song is supposed to be about, so it’s harder to connect with people.

The thing that really struck me was that I could use a narrator in between tracks, and compose music to fit correctly within the narrative. Then, I can have the instrumental record I’ve always wanted to do, and be able to tell a story that people could connect with. Once I came up with the conceptual angle, that’s when the project really began to take shape.

ME: Your influences are definitely in the progressive rock vein. Going back, I’m wondering if you were always big on those guys, or were there other types of bands, besides prog, that inspired you?

Zack: Yeah, it was definitely prog early on. The music I’d listen to at the time was a lot of stuff from the 70s, even though we were well into the 80s. I certainly loved Kansas, Rush, and Yes. I’d also listened to Queen a lot, who aren’t really prog but certainly have progressive influences, and, of course, Pink Floyd. But I also am into harder metal. I loved Sabbath, and ultimately Ozzy when he was out on his own, and Judas Priest, and Iron Maiden.

I mixed that with a lot of guitar music specifically. Steve Lukather, for example, is a really big influence on me, for his work with with Toto, as well as his session work. And I continued with a lot of that [strictly] guitar-oriented stuff – Joe Satriani, Steve Vai. Those make up the core of my influences. But I also love what Dream Theater is doing, and I think they’ve carried the torch of prog, in some respects, for the last 25 to 30 years.

ME: When it came to other instruments – bass and keyboards – did you approach them from a relatively self-taught mindset, or were they from formal training?

Zack: Well, I’ve played piano since about five years old, and that’s something I fortunately know how to do just because I’ve done it for so long. And I do a lot of composing on the piano as well. For me, it’s a lot easier an instrument to compose on and get the things in my head out. I took lessons a lot when I was a kid, but yeah, I guess I’m more self-taught since I’ve been doing it so long.

With bass, there’s a big difference between a guitar player and bass player. You don’t necessarily play bass the same way you would guitar. I’ve certainly tried learn as fast as I could what makes a good bass player, working alongside the drums and holding a rhythmic foundation. I wouldn’t call myself a bass player, but I hope those elements came across on the album.

ME: Late last year, when you began Into the Great Divide, was it initially a one-man project, or did you intend to seek out Mike and Richard?

Zack: It’d actually started as a conversation with my business partner. We discussed the album concept the same way we would a project for one of our clients. That was really helpful, and I have a pretty good support mechanism of people who are innovative and creative, which helped me formulate the process I was going to undertake. Once I had about one and a half tracks written and recorded, I reached out to Rich directly. I was a big fan of the stuff he’d done in the past and was hoping, at the very least, to get some feedback and guidance, since I’d never recorded an album before. He’s mixed and produced some of the biggest prog acts in the world for many years.

So, the process ended up working out. He was in Los Angeles, then we met up and sat down for coffee. We’d just talk about music in general, and we had a very similar vision for how things would get done. He’s an incredibly talented musician in his own right and a great producer, and we really struck up a good friendship. There was a lot of trust there, and I think he really became an advocate for my being able to complete the project the way I’d looked to get it done. He was crucial to the process creatively, as well as giving me feedback on whether things were going in the right direction or needed work.

Once the album was close to being complete, he sent the music over to Mike, and I was just elated that Mike felt the same way too – that this was an unusual project requiring an effort and energy. Working with him was an amazing experience. He’s such a great guy, and an all-around nice guy, and unbelievably talented. I think once he came on board, we had a pretty solid family of advocates who wanted to see the project completed. With all the people who’ve stayed involved in the process, and came up with ideas as we brought it to market, it became much more than just getting an album done.

ME: The project was inspired by Joseph Campbell’s The Hero’s Journey. What was it about that book that resonated with you in a big way?

Zack: I think it’s the essence of the human experience all wrapped up in a single narrative. The concept that the protagonist – the hero, in this case – represents all of us, in some respects. We all have the passion to do more, and we’ve all taken chances in our lives. We’ve all strove for something more, and many of us, in that process, have fallen down along the way. We’ve set out to accomplish something, took a huge chance and failed. Then, we’d use that failure to build the strength we ultimately needed to succeed in whatever venture we set out to take on. That’s a story we’ve seen in Star Wars and Lord of the Rings, but you’d also find it in generally heroic areas of life. Michael Jordan, or Nelson Mandela – those are the stories that connect with us as human beings. The reason why is because we see that in ourselves, and I feel like that bonds us in the type of human experience that I wanted to reflect. But I wanted to do it in a different way – using music – that I feel has never been done before.

ME: Going into the album, what I immediately like about it is your attention to balance. I recall you mentioning that you find virtuosity is overemphasized in many concept albums. Do you find chord sequences just as compelling as solos?

Zack: Yeah. I mean, let me defend virtuosity for a moment – I love it; it’s absolutely slamming in every way. My issue with virtuosity though is, without having a connecting story, that’s all you’re left with. In an instrumental record, most times, the only difference between those tracks is the level of virtuosity.

While I was composing, I found that there needs to be a different mechanism for writing. I felt that in order to succeed with this narrative, there has to be an actual story inside the music. I can only hope that I achieved what I was trying to. But however it ended up sounding was what I thought had to be there in order to reflect the story correctly. That’s just kind of what I ended up with, if that makes any sense. I’ll add though that you need to have a hook. There’s got to be a hook. If you don’t have hooks, you’re not going to have something people will remember. So, even though I love prog and some of the more technical aspects of it, there has to be some foundation of a hook that people could tap their feet to, or else it’s a really difficult sell.

ME: There’s a bit of everything for everyone in a stylistic sense, especially with the strings by Brendan Cassidy, your partner at We See Dragons. What can you tell me about him?

Zack: Brendan’s my business partner and has been for over 18 years. He is one of the most brilliant technologists I’ve ever met. He has a tremendous number of really important technology assets built over time that are in the market today. So, he was very involved from the beginning because he’s a trusted confidant when it comes to anything. Every project we’ve done together, whether related to starting a business inside Virgin when we worked there, or building out some of the more widely used apps for the technology we’ve used in Fortune 500 companies. We’re always working together to try and figure that out. But, here’s the thing that I’ll say – he, too, is an artist first. So, he originally came to Los Angeles to get his MFA in Contemporary Classical Composition. He happens to also have a Master’s in Computer Science as well. The essence of his creativity comes from his musical background, and that’s what I wanted access to. In addition to being a confidant, and a bouncing board, so to speak, I also wanted him to bring his composition capabilities to the table. When it came to any of the complex string or choir parts, that was Brendan bringing those out.

ME: Another factor is the drums, which were given quite a raw sound with that legendary Neve console from Sound Studios, and it definitely shows. While the album focuses on polish, it has a sense of warmth as well, and that’s what I really like.

Zack: Thank you! I’ll tell you – the Neve really warms things up, but the drum sound, that’s Mangini. That guy knows how to hit a drum a thousand different ways. He’ll offer up as many as he wants to, and he’s really precise. He’s an absolute perfectionist, but performs in a way that feels very natural, even though there’s a ton of mapping behind everything he does.

So, the room sounded great, the console sounded great, but it was really he and his performance that brought it out. He’d used a ridiculous snare. I don’t think he’d ever used it before. It was a 20 ply snare, and I’ve never heard anything so loud in my life. Of course, that creates all types of mic and positioning challenges. But ultimately, we were able to capture as much of the snare with the room mics. And we’d used a ton of that when we did the final mix. It actually took a while, but we had these two beautiful, big, giant mics sitting in the back of the studio, that powered the natural sound of the reverb. Then, there was how aggressively he attacked those drums. The warmth might be from the Neve, but the tone and feel is from Magini and his sticks hitting the drums.

ME: In general, I like the overall pacing of the album. It starts out like you’re being sent out into the world, with the gentleness of the piano, but then the heavier riffs come in, which represent the hurdles people fight through. Then, as it progresses onward, eventually you develop a firmer grasp on life, and you’re able to take on greater challenges, however difficult they may seem.

Zack: I very much appreciate that you’re saying that. That’s exactly the goal I had when we started. You know, not many people sit back and listen to 60 minutes of music anymore. Especially with respects to prog, that’s a lot of notes to pound your ears with over a long period of time. What I wanted to do was try and create something someone could listen to while following a narrative. In order to do that, we had to create a lot of variation. We didn’t want it to be monotonous, and I hope we’ve achieved that. Hearing you say that is really encouraging, man.

ME: That was your primary aim after all – to allow listeners to connect with the story on an emotional level. I can understand that as a musician myself, but I’m sure a lot of listeners connect with it as well.

Zack: I sure hope so. We’ve had so many positive responses, and it’s been great for all of us involved with the project. We wanted to connect with people in a new way, and wanted to convey something we felt was very important. Hearing such positive feedback makes us feel really good, and when you put that amount of energy out, and get the response you were hoping for, it’s fantastic.

ME: Did you feel the album best represents what you’d intended?

Zack: It definitely does. When you have people like Mangini on drums, and a professional like Richard Chycki producing and mixing the album, sending it over to a guy like Ted Jensen to master it’s at the peak of what I’d hoped to achieve, for sure.

ME: Lastly, anything you’d like to say to your fans?

Zack: Just a really heartfelt appreciation. I just want everybody to know – I’ve read every single one of your posts. I’m really moved by some of them, and pleased by many of the others. I’m just so happy that people are enjoying the album. We have some really interesting things planned for Into the Great Divide – new ways of telling stories with music that I’m hoping you’ll appreciate.

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About Jake Kussmaul

I come from a family who is passionate about all things music. I learned to sing at an early age, and by 13, had my very own Fender Strat guitar. I tried my hardest at learning all that I could. Because I was born with cerebral palsy, I had to teach myself an adaptive playing style. I learned to write and record my own music, despite these difficulties. In college, I started making great use of my writing abilities by reviewing music, as well as copy editing. I guess it's best to stick with what you know, while welcoming a fair challenge at the same time.

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