Michael Romeo, guitar virtuoso and founder of symphonic prog gods Symphony X, is set to unleash part two in his ambitious solo project War of the Worlds on March 25.
Romeo enlisted longtime collaborators John Macaluso and bassist John "JD" DeServio alongside vocalist Dino Jelusick (Whitesnake, Trans Siberian-Orchestra) for War of the Worlds, which is a love letter to the works of H.G. Wells, the musical scores of the timeless composers Bernard Herrmann, John Williams, Danny Elfman and Hans Zimmer and of course a continued tribute to his guitar idols
Romeo sat down with Metal Injection for a deep dive into his ambitious two part solo project, progress on the new Symphony X record and tour, milestone anniversaries for defining Symphony X records, his seminal guitar heroes and influences and much more!
I look at this whole pandemic as a big bottleneck of time, it's all a blur. I know for you personally it must have been so strange since you guys were gearing up for this 25th anniversary for Symphony X. You had all these big touring plans. Is it kind of a surreal feeling? I don't want to say being on the other side of that because it's really a day by day thing for everybody, but the touring plans are well underway. We're weeks away from part two of this massive solo project. How are you feeling on the other side of all that?
Yeah dude, it's like the friggin' Twilight Zone, just weird for a while. I mean, it's still weird now because we're not sure. We have this tour coming up in May, and I think it'll be fine. I mean, things are starting to look better. Europe and other places, it's still not 100 percent yet … Now we're talking about doing a Symphony X record, talking to the guys and trying to come up with some ideas. And usually we'll find some kind of idea and then off to the races. And this time, and I think it's all of us, it's just like a slower thing trying to find that initial idea and get all inspired because we hadn't played for two years together. We're always talking, but just not doing that and doing band stuff and then trying to be creative again. I'm not worried. I mean, it will happen.
I just noticed, for me too, I'll come down here [to my home studio The Dungeon] all the time and I'm like "let me see if I got something." It's just slower. The process and the starting is slower. And then God forbid I just go upstairs or something. I can't put the news on anymore because it's like "oh, maybe things are good." And then it's like "oh shit, no, no." I just think the two years of not playing and the lockdowns and all this stuff, and then it's like you're trying to be motivated and inspired and trying to be creative. Just trying to clear all the shit out of your brain and have a fresh start. But I mean, it's cool.
And with the solo record, a lot of that stuff was done. Like when I started part one I just kept writing and writing. And like I say, once I get started it's like just keep going and going. So for part one most of part two was done. I mean, I knew right from the beginning I'd put half these songs aside and I'd work on the first half. And that was part one. And then we get into 2020 right at the beginning of the year, the band had done a bunch of touring at the end of 2019, and we had this tour coming up 2020 April or whatever. And I was like "OK, I got a couple of months here. Let me go try to get this part two and just try to get it done." And the whole COVID thing and the tour was canceled and all the studios are locked down and then just everything. Any kind of scheduling just went to shit. And financially too for bands. I mean, everybody I'm sure suffered in some way. But musicians had a friggin' 'tough time.
As a guitarist and someone who really embraces the live performance as well, has it been the type of thing where you're practicing more now? Is it kind of like a muscle memory to get back for the live performance? Is it a reality where you may atrophy if you get away from the live performance for so long?
I don't think so. I know those first couple of rehearsals, they're meant to be a little rusty for everybody, but rusty as a unit. I mean, we're all still playing. We still haven't really put together a set list, but once you put together a set list and then we're all going over those songs and we're working them out of practice and things. I'm not really worried about that. The first gig is going to be just kind of a little weird after nothing for so long. But then it will be a microsecond and then I'll be like "oh shit, back to normal. Here we go. This is great." I'm not really worried about anything. That first rehearsal might be a little rough around the edges, but nah man. We're all playing and it's like riding a bike.
I kind of want to go back to 2017-2018 for the conception of something like War Of The Worlds. Was it initially designed to be a two part project? Or rather once you finished were you thinking I have so much here, I'm inspired to keep going. Take me through the idea of that.
That's what it was. The band had some downtime then. And I was like "OK, let me just do this solo thing." And I had ideas that I wanted to do and maybe more with the cinematic and the orchestral with the guitar and maybe some sound design or electronics. Just trying to be creative and do some things that are a little different. That's just the thing. Once I start there's all these ideas. So part one I was just writing all the time and then a couple of months later I'm like "alright, let me see how much I have." And it's like "oh dude, there's a shit ton of stuff here, way too much. I'll pick half of these ones, and I'll put this other half aside." So that's really how it started then.
I needed a couple more songs actually. There were pieces of things I didn't even finish because once I realized I had so much way back then I was like "OK, I'm just going to stop and let me get to work." So I actually had to go back with a couple of these things and like the song "Destroyer", that was one I had. I had all the basic ideas for that song, and I didn't bother to finish it back then. And then it's like "oh okay, I need a little something else." So that was one of the ones I pulled together. And since there was a little time because everything was all messed up, I'm listening to the riff. I'm like "man, this would be really cool like D-tuned more, lower. I'll try a seven string." I mean, I'm not a seven string guy but I was like "OK, I'll try that." So again, just trying to do different things, and that's probably the main difference. There's some seven strings on some stuff and there's some different instruments and maybe a little more the cinematic guitar or orchestral thing happening. But yeah man, having fun, being creative and doing goofy stuff down here and all these toys man. You've got to put them to use.
You kind of touched on a lot of what I was going to go to next in terms of the experimentation factor for a lot of this. To me, this could be the score for some space odyssey – a rock opera or space opera. It has that big cinematic feeling. Do you find yourself influenced by the Hans Zimmers or the Danny Elfmans of the world and those type of movies?
That's the thing. I love all that stuff. I mean, even when I was a kid I remember liking some of these movies and seeing Star Wars when I was young for the first time and it was just something about that music. I mean, it's a fun movie and Star Wars, it's great. But there was something about that music that always stuck with me. And even before that, like some of the old science fiction or monster movies, there was always this cool music. It was always that visual and that music, something about it that I always liked.
As I started to get more into music it's like yeah, of course. Growing up it's Sabbath and Priest and Maiden, Rush, Metallica and all that, all the stuff I love and I grew up with. But then there was always that side, too. And I always liked classical music. Doing a solo record it's like "OK, maybe I'll look at some Stravinsky or some Holst," do something like the planets and that's a space kind of thing and definitely looking at John Williams and all those kinds of movies with great themes and great orchestration. Zimmer and Elfman and all those guys. I go see a movie now and it's like I'm usually paying more attention to the music.
You brought back John and J.D. and now you have Dino, who's such an established guy. I think his voice fits so well for your type of playing; that really layered mix of the classical, orchestral type stuff. Take me through the idea of bringing those guys back, because I know J.D. and John were just no brainer as you've known them forever, and I'm sure Dino came highly recommended.
I mean, in the beginning I knew I wanted to maybe just try something different with the vocals, and I remember thinking "what if I had a different singer, a bunch of singers and different people on different songs?" And I thought about that for a minute. "Nah, maybe that's just not the right thing." And I was thinking about what other guys I knew and who else I can get. And then I was talking on the phone with Simone Mularoni and he helps me do all the mixing and he's totally an awesome dude. And he's like "I'll just ask my buddy Dino, he would love to do it." And I was familiar with Dino a little bit and he put us in touch. And Dino is like "oh yeah dude, count me in. I'd love to do it." So then it just started and I'm sending him some stuff. And he'd send me back tracks with the vocals and I was like "dude, this is perfect. It's great." He did a great job.
Can you see yourself in any capacity transferring something like this to a live show? Whether it be you guys together at a festival, or a one off somewhere? I think it would translate incredibly well much like Symphony X does, because it's just so immersive.
I think in Symphony X we kind of learned this with The Odyssey. You know, you're tracking, you're working on the song, you're recording, you're putting all these different tracks down and then you have to reproduce that live. And I think of "The Odyssey" with the band. It's like "oh shit, how are we going to do this?" And then it was a lot of time like "OK, maybe I'll play this string part and Pinnella is going to do this thing." And there was a lot of working out and trying different things to make it as close as it could be. And I think live we get it pretty close.
But with the solo thing, to me that didn't apply. It would be like "OK, if there needs to be 10 guitars here and friggin' sax and a cello and 10 synth tracks and epic percussion," it didn't matter. It's like pile it on man, as long as it sounds good. So I think that's the thing. I mean, if the right opportunity came along it could be good, but I think It'd be tough. And I think that wasn't part of the picture doing it. Like you said, J.D. and Macaluso, we're buddies just hanging out, having fun, making music, doing the thing. And then as the production goes on I'm adding more things and not thinking about any kind of live thing. Just thinking about how can this sound as cool and as big as I'd like to hear it.
Do you find you're inspired to create music away from Symphony X still? Something that might not fit completely in that blueprint, or could you see yourself doing another big type project like War Of The Worlds? Maybe an EP or one off? Or do you think you have this out of your system?
I mean, will I do another kind of solo record? Probably, down the road at some point. There's some things that maybe just aren't right for the band. With the first one there's like this metal dubstep. I just can't see us doing that, you know? But for me it's like whatever man, just being goofy and just having fun and trying stuff. It doesn't matter. With the band it's like maybe that's really not going to fly. Just for things like that where you really kind of are going out of left field a little bit. On a solo thing, it's totally fine.
You mentioned The Odyssey a minute ago … I'm a big guy for anniversaries. There's something interesting about that. You know, we're at 20 years of The Odyssey, 15 years of Paradise Lost, and those are two massive records for Symphony X. Any big thoughts or prevailing feelings on that era of the band and kind of creation or the impact or the fan reception of those two records in particular?
I mean, it's all good stuff. When I look back there's things for me like OK, I listen to The Odyssey and just the technology with orchestral things and all this other stuff and it's like "oh man, I wish I had what I had now then." But I mean it still serves its purpose. The emotion of the thing, the song is still there. The essence of what it is is still there. Doing something like that now would it sound better? Hell yeah. It would be tremendous. And we still haven't really decided what we're going to do yet. I mean, it could just be a bunch of songs or it could be this big thing. Maybe we'll find some kind of big kind of epic thing and then some of that will come into play.
For me, just looking back at those records, it's like "I know why this happened." I know why Paradise Lost is so heavy and I know why all these things are the way they are. Paradise Lost, I was remembering when I was young and when I first started playing and I couldn't wait to get the new Priest or Maiden or whatever. I was like "man, I want to revisit that thing, that energy" and I think Paradise Lost had that. The guitars are definitely more heavy. It's definitely a little bit more on the metal side. Yeah, there's some Rush and there's some of the progressive stuff and then some of the orchestral stuff too, but I think it was something about that thing of trying to go back to the things that made you do what you want to do. Like when I was a kid it was like "oh man did you hear that new fucking Painkiller record or that fucking Pantera." It was me actually in my mind kind of trying to be that kid again. So when I hear these records it's like there's things that trigger different things for me.
Thinking back to those seminal early days coming up, you came up really in the defining eras of rock and metal to me with Priest or Maiden, guitarists like Uli Jon Roth and Malmsteen and Ritchie Blackmore. Were you aware at the time of the impact that these guys and artists would have on you? Or did it take years to fully appreciate it?
Oh hell yeah dude. I mean, when I first started playing, obviously you're learning AC/DC or some Zeppelin, some Priest or Maiden, and then for me I was getting more into the guitar players. Al Di Meola and then of course Randy Rhoads, Eddie Van Halen, I had all those guys. And then it's like "oh shit did you hear this Scorpions guy, Uli Jon Roth?" It's like "that's fucking tremendous." And then there's Yngwie and all these guys. So for me that was like growing up. The new Yngwie album's out and it's like "man he's just going for it." And it's great. And you're just absorbing all this. I was like a sponge man. Rush and the Moving Pictures record and just all these things, Heaven and Hell at that time. There was just so much cool stuff and just being younger it's like man, I just want to learn as much of this as I can. And then eventually you start trying to make it your own. I mean, we all start emulating our heroes and then eventually it's like :OK, try to make my own thing out of this." For me that's the goal, just trying to have your own voice, but still those guys are so important, just so important. Randy and Eddie and Yngwie, Uli Jon Roth and Allan Holdsworth, Paul Gilbert and just so many guys at that time. It was like shit man, I got to practice.
You strike me as an incredibly humble guy whenever I've seen you in interviews, but the fact that you do have players who came up as kids in the '90s who are listening to Symphony X records and your own stuff, and now you are being considered one of the top guitarists of an era – Is that a head trip for you?
No, it's cool, man. It's cool. It's awesome, because I know what that's like because I was that kid. For me I know how important that was. So much of it just shaped what I listened to and then what I practiced and then what I strived to work towards as far as playing and not just technique. Yeah technique and all that's cool, but songwriting and all these other different kinds of things. So I mean I get. I hear stuff like that and I'm honored, man. I mean, that's cool. I get it. If this is doing something for you, that's fucking great man. That's awesome.
05/10 New York, NY – Irving Plaza
05/11 Glenside, PA – Keswick Theatre
05/12 Worcester, MA – The Palladium
05/13 Quebec City, QC – Imperial Bell
05/14 Montreal, QC – Corona Theatre
05/15 Toronto, ON – The Danforth Music Hall
05/17 Cleveland, OH – Agora Theatre
05/18 Detroit, MI – Majestic Theatre
05/19 Chicago, IL – Park West
05/20 St Louis, MO – Red Flag
05/21 Minneapolis, MN – Varsity Theater
05/23 Denver, CO – The Oriental Theater
05/24 Salt Lake City, UT – The Complex
05/26 Seattle, WA – The Showbox
05/27 Vancouver, BC – The Rickshaw Theatre
05/28 Portland, OR – Hawthorne Theatre
05/29 San Francisco, CA – The Regency Ballroom
05/31 Santa Ana, CA – The Observatory
06/01 Los Angeles, CA – The Belasco Theater
06/02 Mesa, AZ – Nile Theater
06/04 Austin, TX – Empire Garage
06/05 Dallas, TX – Amplified Live
06/07 Atlanta, GA – Heaven at the Masquerade
06/08 Orlando, FL – The Plaza Live
06/10 Carrboro, NC – Cat's Cradle
06/11 Baltimore, MD – Baltimore Soundstage
06/12 Montclair, NJ – The Wellmont Theater