“I listen to pop music with headphones so intensely, like I’m studying the Torah… I love the ear-candy stuff!” You might find a hint of Olivia Rodrigo on the new Pattern-Seeking Animals album (and a mildly controversial sax solo too)

Pattern-Seeking Animal
(Image credit: Mark Berry)

Now a band in their own right, Spock’s Beard offshoot Pattern-Seeking Animals are back with their fourth album, Spooky Action At A Distance. Multi-instrumentalist and founder John Boegehold tells Prog about changing things up, bonus tracks, and what the future might hold for P-SA.

It’s 11am in a very sunny Los Angeles when Prog catches up with Pattern-Seeking Animals keyboard player/multi-instrumentalist, main writer and producer John Boegehold – and he’s already been up for more than five hours. It’s an almost daily routine that allows time to boot up his studio to write and demo material before tackling his ‘proper job’ in property management, and he’ll keep toying with ideas throughout the day.

This cycle of writing partly explains the vast pool of music (more than 200 songs, he estimates) Boegehold has amassed for a number of collaborations, film soundtrack work, contributions to Spock’s Beard over the last 20 years and the already enviable back catalogue assembled by Pattern-Seeking Animals since 2018.

“When it gets to the point where I think, ‘Oh, that would be a cool song,’ then I go full-speed ahead/ I’ll put all the tracks together and send them to the guys to do their parts – although with drums we always do everything live in the studio,” he explains.

However, new P-SA album, Spooky Action At A Distance, has seen a shift from business as usual. “The past three albums, we’ve recorded with Rich Mouser at the Mouse House, and it’s been great – Rich is so good. You’ll have heard his work a zillion times, recording and mixing the ‘who’s who’ of prog. 

“Because our albums are so close together, the challenge with starting a new one right after the previous one is to make it sound different, not just a bunch of more tracks from the same sessions. But you’re kind of trapped though, because Rich is so good you don’t want to risk making any changes.”

Ultimately, fate stepped in with simple scheduling when Boegehold wanted to start recording drums for the current album. “Rich was really busy and for two and a half months I couldn’t get into his studio.

“I didn’t want to push things back and that gave me the impetus to make the break and go with Frank Rosato, who I’ve worked with on and off for over 25 years. Frank’s and Rich’s approaches are very different, so it helped make things sound different from the last albums.”

Sound plays a big part on the new album; and here, Boegehold is fascinated with the tricks and production techniques used in pop music. His face lights up at the thought of it. “I listen to all this stuff with headphones so intensely, like I’m studying the Torah or something, and I love what the new producers are doing. I love the ear-candy stuff!”

Sounding different has been a constant aspect of any consideration of Pattern-Seeking Animals’ output. Given that three members are, or have been, in Spock’s Beard, plus Boegehold’s consistent role as co-writer and arranger for them more than two decades, comparisons were always likely.

“I gave up long ago trying to make things different enough so we wouldn’t have that Spock’s comparison... I mean, people are still arguing about when Peter Gabriel left Genesis 50 years ago!” he says with a laugh. “But I don’t try to make things different just to be different. I listen to so much new stuff constantly and by nature I tend to shake things up in my writing.

I don’t try to second-guess my audience or limit what I write about… We’ve all had situations in families where there’s the black sheep or a bad relationship

“I don’t have any rules. I will jettison something if it sounds too similar to another song. I was writing for Spooky Action... and I came up with a really cool figure in the same time signature and the same vibe as Time Has A Way from [last album] Only Passing Through. I liked it, but I trashed it because I didn’t want people comparing.”

But what about Bulletproof? The seventh track on Spooky Action... draws comparison since it had already featured on the Spock’s Beard 2018 bonus CD accompanying Noise Floor; and here it is again, albeit in a completely re-recorded form. “I really wasn’t happy the way Bulletproof turned out on that album for various annoying reasons,” he confides, not wanting to go into details.

“Of all the songs I’ve written, that’s easily in my top five personal favourites. I hate bonus tracks and discs, both as a fan and an artist – they can ruin the flow of an album, get tacked onto the end, or no one listens to them at all. If that song had been on the main Noise Floor album I would never have re-recorded it.

“The fact that it was on the bonus disc meant that I felt OK to redo it and it started turning out really cool. I rewrote a lot of it – a different intro, the bridge is totally different, the ending is different, the choruses have been rewritten a bit, there’s a female backing vocal alongside Jimmy [Keegan, drums] – I’m really happy with the way that one turned out.”

I thought it might be cool to do something based on meeting a guy who was badly injured physically and mentally during the war. I really like the imagery of it

There are more additional reworked older compositions on the album. Underneath The Orphan Moon was originally recorded with a project that Boegehold and bassist Dave Meros were involved with in the 90s called Orphan Moon. However, the subject matter – a young woman, who might be pregnant, fleeing a toxic domestic environment – seems slightly incongruous for a bunch of middle-aged men. 

“I agree – but, firstly, it was originally sung by [Orphan Moon vocalist] Diane Boothby; and, secondly, I don’t try to second-guess my audience or limit what I write about; and I think that however old you are you can relate. This could be a daughter or granddaughter. We’ve all had situations in families where there’s the black sheep or a bad relationship. But also it comes back to how the vocalist expresses it.”

Boegehold throws references to many pop, rock and prog artists into the conversation, but he chooses one in particular to illustrate his point. “Take Olivia Rodrigo: she’s like 19/20 years old, huge pop star, super-talented and a gifted writer. She did a song on her last album about her getting her driver’s licence [Drivers License, Sour], it’s all, ‘I’m 15 and I broke up with this guy.’ I can’t identify with that at my age, but the way she sang it and the way it was written, it just hit me emotionally because her delivery was so good,” he enthuses.

Spooky Action At A Distance explores a number of themes and takes inspiration from a variety of sources. Opener The Man Made Of Stone was prompted by Netflix series The Last Kingdom, about the coming of the Vikings to ninth-century Anglo-Saxon England.

Ted and Jimmy hated the idea of a sax solo… Dave loved it and I loved it, but it’s a divisive instrument

Big Big Train’s Greg Spawton recommended it on Facebook, and after I watched the first season I got in touch to thank him. I wrote about nothing specific; but it’s about a Norse king who’s dying, wondering if all the fighting, killing and plundering was really worth it.”

War from a different angle serves as the backdrop to the album’s mini-epic, He Once Was. “I was reading a book by Dr Lindsey Fitzharris called The Facemaker, and it was about Harold Gillies, who made amazing advances in plastic surgery during World War I. I thought it might be cool to do something based on meeting a guy who was badly injured physically and mentally during the war. I really like the imagery of it.”

The track also features British saxophonist Alex Bone delivering a terrific solo, although not everyone was enthusiastic about it. “Ted and Jimmy hated the idea!” reveals Boegehold. “I mean, they like it now. Dave loved it and I loved it, but it’s a divisive instrument. I think it’s really cool.”

Summoned From Afar was prompted by Boegehold’s interest in Japanese anime and a particular character who looked like a heavily-armed teenage girl with angel wings, around which he imagined a back story about a reluctant warrior being pulled back into the fray. “Obviously, if I understood Japanese I’d probably know for sure!” he quips.

With Boegehold suggesting that recording on a new album could be starting very soon and the possibility of live shows (which he won’t be performing because “I’m not a good enough player – I play enough to be able to write, but I can barely play with two hands at the same time!”), the future for Pattern-Seeking Animals looks bright.

“We’re all really happy with the way it turned out. It carries on with the band’s sound and trajectory, but it’s also different enough hopefully to keep your interest.”

Gary Mackenzie

Gary has contributed reviews and news features for Prog Magazine for over a decade now. A fan of prog and heavy rock since childhood, his main areas of interest are classic and symphonic prog, prog-metal and modern acts bringing in fresh influences to the genre. He has a professional background in youth and community work, he teaches drum kit in schools and is a working musician. Gary was the drummer in semi-legendary NWOBHM band Praying Mantis for a couple of years and has been a member of indie-prog-pop-art-rock combo The Mighty Handful for more than twenty years. He loves cats and skiing, and has a Blue Peter badge.