A talk with
NORMAN SKINNER (Lead Vocals)
(Questionnaire by Stefan)
San Francisco Bay Area inhabitant Norman Skinner is a singer who started his richly filled career back in the mid 90s with a band called Tramontane, followed by many others such as Machine Called Man, Imagika, Hellscream, Dire Peril. And of course, he’s also the frontman in the great Skinner formation. I just wrote down my thoughts on this band’s new effort entitled “Sleepwalkers”, a fantastic cut able to knock me out of control right from the start until the very last moment. Featuring nothing but well trained musicians, the pleasure’s on me having the following talk with Norman himself to find out some more about his musical career so far and beyond.
Q: Hails Norman, welcome here at Metal To Infinity webzine… first things first, congrats from the heart with your newest killer effort “Sleepwalkers”! What’s up in the Bay Area at the moment?
A: Thank you very much!! A lot of time and effort went into the making of “Sleepwalkers”. After 4 very successful Imagika releases expectations were already high in the anticipation of this new group. We knew we needed to deliver something special and we believe we did just that.
Q: To start, I’d like to take you back to the early days of your musical activities. How did you come up with the idea to become a singer?
A: It was completely accidental. When I was 12 I wanted to be a guitarist. My parents bought me a classical nylon string acoustic guitar and some “teach yourself how to play” books. I messed around for maybe 2-3 months before losing interest. That guitar sat in my closet for 3 years before I gave it to a close friend of mine. He was a very quick learner and began to take lessons and jam with a few guys at our high school. They decided it would be fun to enter the local talent show and play a couple Metal songs.
About a week or two before the show I receive a call from the other guitarist in their group that the singer they had left them at the last minute and they needed me to sing. Now to this point I had never sung anything anywhere... Just in the shower or in my car. I told him I can’t sing and he said it would be fun and basically talked me into it. I learned the songs and performed at the show. We were disqualified for audience members pitting on stage and stagediving. HA HA!! That was the beginning of the end for me. I fell in love with performing and decided I would continue the Metal singer path and see where it led me.
Q: Everyone has his idols, what about yours?
A: I draw my vocal influences from many different sources and styles of singers. I like to think that comes through in my varied vocal style I use when singing. Some of my influences include Russell Allen (Symphony X\Adrenaline Mob), Matthew Barlow (Ashes of Ares\ex-Iced Earth), Christian Alvestam (Solution .45\ex-Scar Symmetry), Rob Halford (Judas Priest), Zachary Stevens (CircleIICircle\ex-Savatage)… and so many more!!
Q: Am I correct when I say to you that all started with the band Tramontane? I’m totally unfamiliar with this name and as a US Metal maniac myself for decades, I’d like to ask for a briefing history on the band. How many efforts the band has created – are they still in the running today?
A: Pretty much. I mean, that was the 1st real band I was in that actually played often and I did record my 1st CD with them. Tramontane was formed in the mid-late 80’s and I believe they released 3 Demos before I ever joined their ranks. If my memory is correct the 1st two were both self-titled releases in ’87 & ’89 followed by the demo “The Hunger” in ’94. After their original singer left the group I was brought on board in 1995. We recorded and released our EP “December Dark” in 1998 and had an almost completed full-length ready to go in 2001 when the group disbanded. At that time there were just 2 original members left: Michael Morris & John Antonioli. John moved to southern California and became a police officer and Michael Morris handed me over all rights to the band, name & music and then moved away to Oregon I believe.
I attempted a new version of Tramontane in 2001\2002 which became Machine.Called.Man. The sound and direction was so radically different it only made sense that it would be a new project. Around 2007 I attempted another resurrection of Tramontane with a new line-up as we had so much unreleased and unfinished material I didn’t want it to go to waste. That line-up lasted about 2 years which was mainly just a lot of writing and rehearsing. I was ready to give up on Tramontane altogether until in 2009 I put together a new line-up featuring my Imagika drummer Henry Moreno & members of the Progressive Metal band Katagory V (Specifically Curtis Morrell & Dustin Mitchel). When we are not too busy with our main bands we have been writing and recording for a release that should see the light of day in the next year hopefully called: “Call of The Kindred”. The album will not feature any of the 2000 era material but will include a few revamped songs from the 2007 line-up and the rest is all new material.
Q: Afterwards, you came on with another band named Machine Called Man. We at MTI webzine received a promo and were hooked on their style of Metal music right on. This adventure did not take long, what happened?
A: So, In the beginning the band was comprised of myself & drummer Walter Massenkoff of Tramontane. We recruited new guitarist Paul Thuriot who brought a new energy and style to the table. As I had mentioned Machine.Called.Man was supposed to be the continuation of Tramontane but the new sound was so technical & heavy that we decided to give it a new name and move forward with only new material. We recorded a Demo called “Demo” (Ha Ha) and released a hand-numbered 100 copies in 2002. Very rare and hard to find those. I myself have just 1 copy. Although the band existed for six years we performed just a handful of shows and released one album titled “2.004” in 2005. The band was plagued with line-up changes and with Imagika’s gaining success it made sense to call it a day. I left the band in 2008 and the remaining members called it a day a couple months later.
Q: Time to start talking about chapter three, Imagika ! Four albums you’ve recorded with this band, four times my heart hot my throught by admiration/dignity. I suppose you’ve booked a lot of success with this band, unfortunately Imagika called it quits and as a fan I’d like to know why Norman. What went wrong?
A: The demise of Imagika is a long story. Let me start out by saying I loved my time with the band. For a period there was a true brotherhood and we were all on the same page. I am very proud of the albums I recorded with Imagika and I wouldn’t be where I am musically without those years and experiences. With that being said the problems began in 2009 with the mixing of our final album “Portrait of A Hanged Man”. The album was to be mixed & mastered in Sweden with engineer Andy Larocque of King Diamond. As with our previous album “Feast For The Hated” guitarist Steve Rice and Andy were to mix the vocals and then send to me for approval. I would then approve the vocals or make notes of small changes such as effects and volume etc.
I waited almost a week and asked when they would be sending the tracks to me to hear. That is when Steve informed me that he knows what the album should sound like and he made all the judgment calls on the vocals. Basically the album was mastered and completed. I had no say whatsoever in the final product of that CD. I almost quit right then but decided to carry on and move past it. Things however were never the same. Next drummer Henry Moreno was fired by Steve because he moved out of state. I didn’t see it as an issue but once again he made the call. Henry is like a brother to me so that was a hard hit to take especially when I was already disillusioned with Imagika. Next on our agenda was a US tour in support of the new album. I made it known I thought the planning and management of the tour was poorly done and I believed we should not do the tour. Steve made the call once again and the tour was in my eyes a complete failure on all levels.
I noticed that I no longer had a say in the business of Imagika and that with Henry gone the band had become the Steve Rice band. I took a month off from the band to reenergize and when I returned it was time to begin writing for the next album. The song writing was a little lackluster and I suggested a few changes but all ideas were immediately dismissed. I knew right then that it was time for me to leave and find new musical opportunities. I informed the band of my decision to leave, paid any and all financial obligations I had and performed the last 2 scheduled shows. The band held vocal auditions after my departure but were unable to locate a suitable replacement and called it a day 2 months later. Very soon after, Imagika members Jim Pegram & Robert Kolowitz contacted me and we formed Skinner.
Q: According to yourself, what’s the best Imagika effort and why?
A: My answer may surprise some people. I was an Imagika fan before joining the band and have always loved “…And So It Burns”. David Sandoval delivers a terrific thrash vocal attack on that album and the songwriting is really good and heavy. I knew when I joined the band it would never sound the same again as I am a different style of singer than David. We moved into the Power Metal\Thrash Metal hybrid rather than a straight Thrash Metal band. So, I would say “…And So It Burns” is my favorite Imagika effort.
If I had to choose one of the 4 albums featuring my vocals I would choose “Devils On Both Sides”. It was my first recording with Imagika and I love the songs on that album. The production wasn’t the best but some of my favorite Imagika tracks are on it. A close 2nd place would be “Feast For The Hated”. I love the varied song writing on the album and the mix sounds big. I also believe I deliver my best vocals on that release.
Q: Three bands you were involved with at that moment, what about the gigs you’ve played during this period of time? Name a few important troops of Metal you’ve shared the stage with.
A: Yes, lots of shows and I have been lucky to share the stage with some great bands. Some bands I have fond memories of performing with are Symphony X, Testament, Therion, Metal Church, Cage, Vicious Rumors, Forbidden, Agent Steel, Kreator, Armored Saint etc.
Q: And the story continued, next band in line for you to collaborate named Dire Peril… another band we at Metal To Infinity webzine adore with all of our heart. How did you get involved in this band?
A: The way Dire Peril came about is an interesting story. Guitarist Jason Ashcraft had long been a fan of my vocals since he was in high school. When it came time for him to record his 1st Dire Peril CD he sought me out and asked if he could hire me to record the album. I listened to the music and loved the overall sound and Science Fiction themes.
I agreed and recorded a full-length album which has since been split into 3 separate EP’s: “Astronomical Minds”, “Queen Of The Galaxy”, & “Through Space & Time”. As I began to receive final mixes I was so happy with the end result I told Jason no further payment need to be made and I would finish the rest of the album for free. He asked me to perform some of the songs live just one time and I enjoyed it so much I decided to join the ranks permanently. At this time I was testing the waters with two other bands “Utopian Trap” & “The Consequence of Chaos” which I soon left to concentrate on Dire Peril & Skinner.
Q: “Astronomical Minds” deserved our highest appreciation and we were sure that one day, a second album will be come out. What’s the current situation in the camp of Dire Peril, a new album to come out soon?
A: Yes, as I mentioned I originally recorded enough material for a full-length release. After “Astronomical Minds” was released it made no sense to release the full album with those same tracks. We split the remaining tracks up into two EP’s which contain a couple newer recordings as well. The first titled “Queen of The Galaxy” will be released through Dead Inside Records on September 26th worldwide. The next EP “Through Space & Time” will be release shortly after in 2015. We also are finishing writing for the final song for a full-length effort to follow titled “Final Scenes For Forgotten Worlds”. Every track on the album relates to a Sci-Fi Movie. So lots happening in the Dire Peril camp.
Q: Hellscream is another side project of yourself featuring members of Cage and more. A few lines on the band’s history and future plans would be good to know.
A: Hellscream was formed out of a chance meeting between David Garcia and myself. I have long been a fan of Cage and during a conversation Dave mentioned he had some downtime and was looking to do a new project. I immediately offered my services and lucky for me he took me up on it. The album came together very quickly. Dave and I definitely had chemistry when writing. To date the Hellscream “Made Immortal” album may be one of my favorite efforts from my musical career. Just an awesome METAL album from beginning to end. As for the future, I know Dave has a lot on his plate right now but I’ve told him when he is ready to start on the next album so am I.
Q: By the grace of US Metal, I have a good collaboration with Benjamin from Online Metal Promo. We are planning to release a US Metal compilation in Augsut 2014 and I’m sure that some of your bands will participate. Are you aware of the compilation?
A: Yes, Benjamin is very good at communication between himself and his artists. Teaming up with him has been one of the best moves in my musical career. Congratulations on the partnership and I can guarantee a few tracks will be featured for sure.
Q: Benjamin delivers good works for real Metal stuff on a worlwide basis, a great and thankful offer where unknown bands got the opportunity to be heard in every corner of the globe. What’s your connection with him?
A: Benjamin definitely has an ear for talent. Aside from running Online Metal Promo which handles promotion for each of my bands Benjamin is my official manager as well. He makes sure every metal head possible knows my name. HA HA!
Q: The time has come to get to the essence of this conversation, the band Skinner! How did the bandcome about, what were predefined plans and ambitions Norman?
A: As many people are aware Skinner was formed from the demise of Imagika. Even though we have 3 Imagika members in the band we are in no way a continuation of that band. After I announced I was leaving the band Robert Kolowitz and I had dinner and he proposed the idea of starting a new band.
I wasn’t really open to the idea at that time as I wanted to distance myself from Imagika and try something new. Perhaps even a style change. As fate would have it a month later both Bassist Jim Pegram & Guitarist Robert Kolowitz left the band on bad terms with Steve Rice.
The three of us would hang out at shows and joke about starting a new band but I was busy writing and testing the waters with a few new acts so I never took the talks seriously. 2 months later Steve retired Imagika and shortly after bassist Jim Pegram contacted me to see if I had heard the news and brought up the idea again of starting a new project. He was being very serious this time and we decided to call Robert and see what he thought. Robert brought up the idea to call the band Skinner which I was against at first but eventually agreed to. We had no set goals or plans in the beginning. It was all brand new… I really had missed that feeling of starting something from the ground up. No songs written… not even all the members in place. We just wanted to get some other players on board and write some fresh material and then conquer the world Ha Ha!!
Q: Impressive line-up you got there and I’d like to ask for an introduction.
A: The familiar faces joining me from the final Imagika line-up are Bassist Jim Pegram & Guitarist Robert Kolowitz. We have a total of three lead guitarists. Joining Robert are his son Grant Kolowitz and shredder Alfred San Miguel (ex-Punisher\Harum Scarum). The final piece on drums is Noe Luna.
Q: Remarkable fact, two of the three featuring axemen are father and son. What’s the story behind?
A: I first heard Grant play guitar at an Imagika rehearsal. Robert had to take a business call and Grant knew some of the songs and filled in. When the time came in Skinner to find a second guitarist Robert approached me with the idea of bringing his then 13 year old son on board. I told Robert I would give Grant a chance and let’s see how it turned out. I’d say it turned out pretty damned great!
Q: Entitled “Sleepwalkers”, this cut really delivers the best in US Power/Thrash Metal. Who came on with the title and where is it based on?
A: “Sleepwalkers” is the very 1st song we wrote. I came up with the concept. The track is about those individuals that “Sleepwalk” through life just sort of going through the motions and doing what they are told. No particular flashes of greatness… no highs or lows. These people believe all is well in their little world. They wear a mask which represents a front they portray to the world. They lie to themselves and those around them. When the mask is removed the harsh reality of the world around them is revealed and they are forced to deal with it and hopefully can ultimately cope with the reality and really truly live as an individual.
Q: Based on the production, mixing, mastering, cover artwork and stuff… what people have played an important role in finishing this album?
A: We tracked the album ourselves before handing everything over to Steve Pelletier of Hellfire Studios. He did a killer job mixing the album. The mastering was done by Jamie King at the Basement in North Carolina. All artwork & layout was handled by me. This was my 1st time doing it. The cover however was created by Jobert Mello of Sledgehammer Graphix.
Q: Once again, your vocal delivery is outstanding Norman. It seems that your vocal skills become better and better as time passes by. What does a vocal training session of Norman Skinner look like? Is rehearsing on a daily basis designated?
A: Thank you! I actually tracked all the vocals myself in my own home studio and was able to make sure I was happy with each song before sending them off to be mixed. I rehearse with Skinner once a week and that usually consists of 2 hours of performing songs already completed or working on new material. I have no set training regimen but do sing all the time around the house or in my car etc. Working with multiple bands and performing often keeps my chops up.
Q: Do you agree with the words that I wrote in my review for “Sleepwalkers”.
A: I did read the review and was very impressed first off that you had followed my career so closely. I was extremely happy to receive such a positive review. All the comparisons and opinions I believe were spot on.
Q: Which songs get your absolute preference - can you take us through the contents of these ones.
A: My personal favorites off the album would include The Breathing Room, Orphans of Liberty, Guilt-Ridden, & The Enemy Within. Oh, Miss Agony too… honestly I could name the entire album if I kept going. The Breathing Room has such a killer main riff that drives the song. I had the title and idea for the song for many years but never found the right fit for it in Imagika. Basically about a person that needs space… some breathing room. His temper gets the best of him ending in another person’s death. He gets his breathing room in the end via a gas chamber. Sort of a play on words. I love the diversity between vocal styles within the song. Orphans of Liberty has the big chorus and the music is some of my favorite on the CD. The guys really deliver on that track. The song is dedicated to our men and women in the armed forces. Although we don’t always agree with our government on why and where our soldiers are sent we should still support the soldiers themselves.
Too often they end up being the Orphans of Liberty. Guilt-Ridden was actually a song I already had lyrics and melodies for. I gave Robert the task of writing the song around my vocals and he did a fantastic job. Very catchy. Simple song about the guilt felt from moving on in a relationship. The Enemy Within is a good thrasher. One of the 1st songs we wrote. The song is about battling the demons inside ourselves whatever they be. Miss Agony… second song ever written. Still a crowd favorite live! Love the vocal patterns and the chorus. Great guitar work… the song is about being in a controlling or abusive relationship with a woman.
Q: Feel free to describe the process for creating a brand new number?
A: My guess is it is similar to most bands process. One of the 3 guitarists brings in a near to completed song composed of various riffs and jams it out with the band. Drummer figures out his beats and the other guitarists and bassist figure out their parts or write counter lines. Once they have a good idea of what they are doing they do a rough recording for me. I don’t like to start songs until drums are in place. I then write my melodies and lyrics and make structure changes to the track if needed. Extend a section, move things around. Then the band re-learns the song HA HA HA!!! But that is how we work. Of course there is fine tuning and little tweaks as we go.
Q: “Sleepwalkers” has been released through Dead Inside Records and while checking out their official homepage, they’ve only three Metal artists on the roster likewise Skinner, Dire Peril and Hellscream. Who runs this company – what are the future plans?
A: I am the CEO\COO of Dead Inside Records. I wasn’t happy with the responses I was receiving from the labels I had submitted the Skinner album to and decided I should launch my own label and release my albums myself. Of course I automatically signed my 3 bands. We have officially signed 2 more and have a couple others we are talking with. No official announcements made yet. It’s a new label so these first 2 years will be a lot of hard work and hopefully a great deal of growth. Our label is ran by musicians for musicians. The plan currently is to build our roster and go from there.
Q: How would you define the new album, who would you like to offer a copy? Please give up an address where to order this brilliant piece of US Power/Thrash Metal!
A: I would say it is a perfect blend of US Power Metal and SF Bay Area Thrash. Most Metal fans in general will hear songs on the album they will love. It has something for everyone. The best way to order the album is either digitally through all the main media sources such as Amazon & iTunes or visit www.deadinsiderecords.com and order direct. You can also pick up our 5 song EP “The Enemy Within” while supplies last. It will not be re-pressed.
Q: Bay Area Thrash Metal always earned a special place in my heart. It is not intended to mention a huge list of favourite bands, I just like to know all about the current Bay Area Metal scene. Are there some new acts that you would like to recommend us?
A: The bay area is still ruled by the legends of the thrash past. Death Angel, Exodus, Testament etc. for bands that are rooted in that Thrash sound two come to mind that I would recommend. Potential Threat SF, & Hysteria. Both excellent bands!!
Q: What can we expect from the band Skinner in the short term – maybe a tour across Europe, Belgium I hope?
A: Unfortunately we have no plans to tour in support of the “Sleepwalkers” release. We would love to but multiple roadblocks in both our personal and professional lives have made it impossible at this time. The good news is we are finishing writing for the last 3 songs for our next album titled “The End of Tribulation”. We plan to enter the studio to begin recording in September. We also have a lyric video in the works for our song “Orphans of Liberty” and plan to release it in a few months as well. One more music video is planned for a song from the “Sleepwalkers” album as well but everyone will have to wait and see which one.
Q: What can we expect from Norman Skinner himself?
A: For the remainder of 2014 my fans can expect a couple music videos from Skinner & Dire Peril. The new Dire Peril EP “Queen of The Galaxy” will be released on September 26th worldwide so that is something to be excited about. Skinner will be recording for our next album as will Dire Peril so a lot of studio time for me. I have a few other small secrets in the works so keep checking normanskinner.net or my FaceBook pages for news.
Q: Besides making Metal music, do you have some other activities?
A: Not really. I do so much musically it consumes all my time. Between my main bands, side bands, recording projects and now Dead Inside Records the free time I do have is spent with my family. If I am relaxing it’s usually watching a movie or TV or perhaps listening to music.
Q: I want to finish the conversation here Norman, It’s been an honour to talk with you. Posting a final word, I leave that to you brother. Thanks for your precious time anyway !
A: I want to thank you for all your continued support and for giving me this spotlight to share some musical news and some personal tidbits. To the fans of my many projects thank you for everything and I will continue to work hard to bring you the best Metal we can create. Please visit my website normanskinner.net for news and music etc. bands interested in submitting to my label can visit deadinsiderecords.com for submission instructions!