Speaking to Fish On Friday’s producer, vocalist and multi-instrumentalist Frank Van Bogaert, there’s an overt air of perfectionist that permeates the conversation. Given that he controls the project, guides the direction and selects the band members before recording and mixing the music, it’s an easy jump to imagine him suffering from extreme cabin fever, locking himself away for months on end before unveiling the final creation.
Although Van Bogaert denies that he ever became a musical recluse, the admission that he actually owns a secluded cabin and frequently decamps there in order to write and record isn’t exactly a startling revelation.
“Yes, I can lock myself away for a while,” he laughs. “I have a cabin in the Belgian Ardennes and I’m alone over there. I will often go there with my dog and write from evening until night. I have a little studio set up there and then my wife will come over at the weekend. So it’s very creative to write there, just on your own with the dog. It’s actually the dog who takes care of my discipline as I have to get up early to do the morning walk.”
Fish On Friday were born five years ago, when Van Bogaert stumbled across keyboard player William Beckers. The latter was, coincidentally, recording demos at Van Bogaert’s studio. The two shared a love for progressive acts such as The Alan Parsons Project and became friends.
“I’m a studio owner here in Belgium and a professional producer and a few years ago William came into the studio with a few friends of his to record some demos,” Van Bogaert recalls. “That didn’t turn out too well but we got to know each other and we talked about music and we were both prog lovers. So it was like two musical soul mates finding each other. We were both keyboard players and just started making music. We didn’t envision a specific direction but William is even more prog-minded than I am and is a real fan of Zappa. Although I love prog, I’m also a bit more pop-minded, and really like bands like The Buggles and Alan Parsons.
“When we had written some songs, I called in my regular studio band who I know from doing productions for other artists. It was at this point that I realised we had a specific sound. We recorded a few tracks, everyone liked them and from then on we just kept going. The blend of all those things, without planning or thinking, became the sound of Fish On Friday.”
The resultant debut, Shoot The Moon, demonstrated their knack for mixing thoughtful pop melodies with substantial prog and generated numerous comparisons with The Alan Parsons Project. It’s a parallel that remained throughout their second album Airborne, and on to new third album Godspeed. The comparison can be made not only musically, but also in the fact that both are highly regarded producers who lead their respective bands. For all those compliments, though, does Van Bogaert now find it rather predictable – or even irritating – that those Alan Parsons references continue?
“No, it’s not irritating because I respect Alan Parsons a lot,” he says. “I do believe though that with this Godspeed album, there are fewer comparisons with Alan Parsons. In the beginning almost every review would mention him, but with the new album I think we’ve broadened our sound a bit.
“I mean, both myself and William, who has written a lot of the album, love The Alan Parsons Project. I really liked their first four or five albums, but after that I felt it went a bit downhill. So that common influence is there and some people feel that, but we never ever sat there and thought we were going to copy that – it just happened. They are just songs with really nice melodies.
“I also think that we’ve grown up. On the first album we were really looking for a firm direction, and there was a bit of new wave on there and we even flirted with reggae on a track. By the second album things started to fall into place and by this third album I think we’ve got it. The only thing we need to do now is keep writing good songs.”
For all those resemblances, Van Bogaert makes a pertinent point. Godspeed shows a maturity in writing and confirms they have developed a firm and unique musical identity away from some of their earlier influences. The production is also slick, with a fine attention to detail that other acts can only envy – something which is patently down to Van Bogaert’s proficiency behind the desk.
“I guess so, as without blowing my own trumpet, I’ve a lot of experience and have been in business for 30 years now,” he says. “So I’m very keen on perfect productions and layering in songs. I’m not easily satisfied with the mixing either so maybe that’s part of the comparison.
“When you talk about the Fish On Friday sound, it has a lot to do with the line-up. It’s not just me and William. Our guitar player is Marty Townsend and he brings in a lot of blues influences. So although he has his prog influences and likes Yes and Pink Floyd, he always plays things that you wouldn’t expect from a really progressive guitar player. You won’t, for example, hear him doing a typical progressive solo.”
Another pivotal influence on the album is that of the constantly-in-demand Nick Beggs. The bassist was approached to appear on a single track, Welcome, on the last album Airborne, and the band had already decided to approach him again to play a fuller role on its follow-up.
Admittedly, as Van Bogaert confesses, Beggs still wanted “to hear the demos first as if there were bad tracks he wouldn’t have wanted to be involved”. Of course, Beggs can afford to be selective, but nevertheless he was impressed enough by the demos to readily accept that invitation.
“There was something about the compositions that I really liked so I was happy to contribute,” reflects Beggs. “It was no big deal as it’s easy to record a session and phone it in. Then they asked me if I would do this album and I felt that their writing had improved tremendously. I think that they knew that they had to up their game from their last record to get to where they wanted to be, and the songs on Godspeed are so much stronger. I have my opinions about things so they tended to listen to what I said, which was nice as well.”
Beggs also reveals that despite the quality of the album, he thinks it’s becoming increasingly difficult for bands to be noticed.
“I think the problem for any band in this day and age is that there is too much music. Too many people doing the similar things, treading on people’s toes, and attention spans are shorter. We’ve all seen it all before and I think that’s the reason why really great stuff goes under the radar for many people. But I totally agree with you, this is a really good benchmark album which deserves to be in the public domain.”
Considering the potency of the album, Van Bogaert and Beggs are naturally keen for the songs to be performed live. Yet the ruthless financial realities of modern touring make it unlikely, at least in the near term. Beggs is already tied up for the foreseeable future, heading out on tours with Steve Hackett and Steven Wilson, and Van Bogaert is conscious that as a professional musician, he couldn’t justify losing income.
“Of course I would like to do it but I’m aware of the practical costs,” he sighs. “If we were to do it then it would need to be a run of at least ten concerts as otherwise it isn’t worth it. Before Nick was in the band, we did a few concerts here in Belgium but the rehearsals are really intensive as it’s not simple music, so it wouldn’t be worth doing that for one or two concerts. The other disadvantage is that as we are professional musicians, we couldn’t just tour for a couple of weeks and not earn anything.”
“You really never know, though, with a project,” adds Beggs optimistically. “I was very heartened to see the way that one of my other projects, Lifesigns, catapulted into a live situation. But if that was to happen, I would have to look at what was on the table and how it would work in with the other projects that I’ve got on.
“At the moment I’m with Hackett and next year it’s going to be Wilson, and then after that there are a number of possible outcomes,” the bassist adds. “But finances play a very big role in the world of a musician and you have to work out whether or not it’s going to feather the nest suitably enough. And it’s their project! But if they wanted me to play live with them, I’d love to do that.”
Godspeed is out now on Esoteric. For more information, go to www.fishonfriday.be.