"The Bigelf DNA is stronger than you think." How Mike Portnoy helped resurrect Bigelf with Into The Maelstrom

(Image credit: Stpehen Linsley)

Recorded agaonst a backdrop of tragedy and disharmony, Bigelf's fourth album Into The Maelstrom was aided by a revamped line-up and a bit of help from pal Mike Portnoy. In  2014 Damon Fix told Prog the world seemed their proverbial oyster. Alas, we;ve not seen another album since...

Bigelf’s home studio, perched at the top of Los Angeles’s Laurel Canyon, is “a bit like a time machine,” says frontman Damon Fox. Like the TARDIS, it appears to be bigger on the inside than the outside. Its collection of rock memorabilia transports visitors back to an era when Atomic Rooster, The Beatles and The Nice ruled the world. Fox proudly shows off the crimson-walled studio, which not only includes a rack of Les Paul guitars, but also a pinball machine and a tape machine once used by The Beatles.

“There’s Mellotrons and Hammond organs; the standard Bigelf arsenal,” says Fox. “I usually have one wall in here with a full Moog modulator, like Keith Emerson’s, but it’s being fixed.”

Fox has always worn his influences on his velvet-jacketed sleeves. But Bigelf’s new album Into The Maelstrom is more than just the band’s usual mélange of pomp-prog and psychedelic power pop. Right from the opening track, The Incredible Time Machine, it’s apparent that Bigelf’s new trio line-up (plus guest drummer Mike Portnoy) have created a forward-looking album.

“We were listening to a lot of Rage Against The Machine, System Of A Down and more aggressive, non-retro rock music,” he says. “I wasn’t listening to stoner music. I wasn’t listening to Sabbath stuff. I wasn’t inhabiting the space of The Sword or Tame Impala. I’m trying to figure out a way for Bigelf to be the Radiohead of metal.”


(Image credit: Press)

Into The Maelstrom arrives at a time when psychedelic sounds are back in vogue. But Bigelf will have to work hard to re-establish themselves. After all, it’s been almost six years since the band released their last album, Cheat The Gallows. That record’s melodic singles, Superstar and Money, It’s Pure Evil, constituted a breakthrough. Dream Theater and Porcupine Tree came calling with tour support slots. Audiences at festivals such as High Voltage were captivated by Fox, who stood at the helm of the stage, flanked by vintage Hammond organs. Dressed in his signature top hat, he seemed like the keyboard version of Slash.

But Bigelf failed to capitalise on the moment. Internal conflict threatened to dissolve a band whose entire career has been characterised by setbacks.

“What people don’t know is that we’ve been slogging away at this for years,” says Fox as he takes a seat in The Incredible Time Machine studio alongside bassist Duffy Snowhill and guitarist Luis Maldonado. “We had a tragedy during our roller-coaster ride. Our Behind The Music documentary would be pretty devastating.”

If Damon Fox had his own incredible time machine, he’d return to the summer of 2001. Bigelf were playing Sweden’s Hultsfred Festival. The band, touring their debut album Money Machine, had just settled into their third line-up with Finnish bassist Duffy Snowhill and drummer Steve ‘Froth’ Frothingham. It should have been a triumphant moment. But guitarist Andrew Butler-Jones, who had diabetes, fell ill backstage. 

“We both had 103 degree fevers,” recalls Fox. “Getting antibiotics in Europe wasn’t easy, but I waited three hours. He said: ‘Fuck that, I’m just going to have some whisky. I’ll be fine.’ He didn’t know he had pneumonia.”

Butler-Jones suffered an attack that left him in a coma. “I would have never left Andy’s side at the festival, but we didn’t recognise exactly how ill he was,” says Fox, visibly paling as he speaks. “If I could go back, I’d get him the antibiotics that he needed sooner. He wouldn’t take them back then.”

The musician was airlifted back to the United States and remained in a coma for eight years before he died.

“It’s a life event that changed the course of the band and changed everything about us. I had to call his wife,” says Fox, his voice trailing off. Snowhill, a man of few words, creases his face at the memory. 

By way of therapy, Fox wrote three songs about Andy Butler-Jones on Into the Maelstrom: The Professor And The Madman, High and Mr Harry McQuhae (the latter’s title is a reference to the deceased guitarist’s middle names). 

“I’m still dealing with some post-dramatic stress disorder about this,” says Fox.

In the years after the tragedy, things started to look up for Bigelf. Finnish lead guitarist Ace Mark joined the band for their second album, Hex (2003). Soon after, a chance meeting with Linda Perry, singer of 4 Non Blondes anda songwriter and producer for Pink and Christina Aguilera, resulted in a big break. Perry released Cheat The Gallows on her label, Custard Records. Mainstream success beckoned. In
a surreal moment, pop star Alicia Keys gave Bigelf a shout-out during an interview in Oprah Winfrey’s magazine. But once Bigelf finished touring the album, the bottom fell out.

“We got dropped from Custard,” says the songwriter. “We’re incredibly grateful for what Linda did for us, but she had to stop a wound from bleeding. It wasn’t turning into anything big.”


(Image credit: Stephen Linsley)

After the many years of toil, fame and fortune still eluded the band. As a result, long-simmering issues within that line-up – ranging from salary disputes to hindsight disagreements over the sound of Cheat The Gallows – came to a boil. Worse, the timing coincided with challenges in the band members’ personal lives, including “a really dark time” for Fox. 

“What was about to happen was another Captain Fox pep talk: ‘We’re going to go get ’em. We’ve got our armies to this point and no one can take us,’” says the bandleader. “But it wasn’t going to work for Ace. He quit. He had a baby and his father had passed away. That changes your perspective on life.”

Fox mimics the sound of an egg cracking to describe what happened next. The yolk had spilt. Bigelf were over. 

Fox stands shoulder to shoulder with Snowhill on top of a cliff near the studio and peers into the night. Far below, the orange freeways and blinking city lights look like streams of running lava. It’s not the first time the two men have stared into an abyss. 

“I was always sure Bigelf was going to come back,” says Snowhill, who looks like the epitome of a rock star thanks to his dreadlocks, beard, flared jeans, velvet jacket and navel-length necklaces. “All my friends said, ‘You’re still waiting? Are you stupid?’”

Fox remembers: “He used to send me emails at 2am, saying: ‘What the fuck is this bullshit with Bigelf? Is it ever going to happen?’” 

“I’d be sitting there with my whisky bottle, thinking: ‘What am I doing?’” says Snowhill. 

The keyboardist eventually invited the bassist to jam in the studio, but with the stipulation that Bigelf were in the past. Fox had begun writing songs that captured the reckless feel of Bigelf’s early work. When it came to recording the drums, the duo recruited an old friend, Mike Portnoy. In turn, the legendary drummer encouraged Fox to reactivate Bigelf. 

“I really wanted him to do his thing versus copying the Bigelf thing. He was worried it wouldn’t sound like Bigelf. I said: ‘Don’t worry. The Bigelf DNA is stronger than you think.’” Portnoy’s performance on Into The Maelstrom emphasises the groove side of his drumming over his busy fills.

“When I played it to my friends, they said: ‘Who’s this guy? Where’s Portnoy?’” laughs Snowhill. 

There are times when Portnoy’s pyrotechniques come to the fore, such as on the eight-minute prog epic Into The Maelstrom. And when the band recorded Alien Frequency, a song that sounds like The Mars Volta gone pop, Fox instructed the drummer to “go fucking apeshit”. Portnoy responded by laying down a blitzkrieg that could drown out the guns of Navarone. 

“I thought: ‘Wow, I just made a four-minute pop song and gave him a 30-second drum solo,” Fox marvels. 

Fox also wrote a song for Portnoy called Theater Of Dreams. It was a response to the vicious criticism the drummer received following his departure from Dream Theater. “It was a friend-to-friend thing,” says Fox. “I think my own feelings about my own band were fuelled in it as well.”

The reconstituted Bigelf still needed one more important element: a lead guitarist. And one who understood the band implicitly. Enter Fox’s long-time friend Luis Maldonado, a session player for Glenn Hughes, James LaBrie and UFO. The Hispanic musician credits his background in Flamenco guitar for his fifth-gear speed on the fretboard during the solo for Into The Maelstrom.

“I almost forgot that I did that the other day when I sat down to learn it again,” explains Maldonado. I was like: ‘This is a good solo!’ I did a handful of solos on the album, but I was really here more as a creative friend and moral support.”

The three-piece line-up are clearly enormously proud of Into The Maelstrom, and they’re pretty eager to tour the album. This time, however, they’re tempering their expectations for the future.

“The only thing Duffy and I ever wanted for Bigelf was just to sustain it,” Fox says, before heading back into The Incredible Time Machine. “If it goes beyond that, we’re thrilled. Let’s just see what happens.” 


(Image credit: Stephen LInsley)