"I think there are actually probably more people outside of Australia who have heard More Than A Dream than in Australia.” Unitopia keyboard player Sean Timms chooses his words carefully. We’re discussing the progressive septet’s debut album, which appeared in 2005, as a precursor that will lead us to discussing Artificial, the band’s third and latest album, just released on the InsideOut label. Yet given that the band have been a going concern, in some form or other, since 1996, three albums doesn’t seem like a particularly ball-busting work rate.
“Yes, I think we spent almost 10 years on More Than A Dream,” says Timms. “But there was a reason for that…”
“Well, Unitopia kind of got together when myself and Mark [Trueack – or Truey as he’s naturally been dubbed back home in Adelaide – co-founder and vocalist] first met up. We had a mutual friend who was aware of the similarities in our tastes in music and decided we should meet. So we all went out for dinner and started talking about music and I guess the whole thing took off from there.
“The partnership seems to work really well too. I tend to come from a deeper, slightly esoteric area when I’m writing lyrics, whereas Mark is a lot more straightforward. Plus he seems to have a million ideas a minute.”
Such humble beginnings were matched, initially, by a relaxed approach to the music. Both had a background in music – Timms a composer, arranger and producer who had worked in film and advertising, whilst Truey had worked for EMI Records and even fronted a Genesis covers band, The Genesis Touch – but although ideas flowed freely, the end-product was taking its time.
“Well, much of that has to do with my wife at the time,” says Timms ruefully. “She wasn’t very helpful when it came to dealing with the band and allowing me to take the kind of time out to deal with the band.”
Fortunately Timms’ current domestic situation with his new partner is one of pure bliss, made all the more family orientated by the arrival of a baby. It’s also one that’s abetted Unitopia’s progress. Despite Timms still running the post-production facility Timms Tunes and Truey moonlighting as a sales rep for a window tinting company (well they are from Australia, where the weather is, how shall we say, a tad more clement!), things have moved on apace from More Than A Dream.
“Yeah,” chuckles Timms, “I think we spent about three years on The Garden, and we had Artificial wrapped up in about 18 months. With More Than A Dream we didn’t really have a band but had a group of musicians from Adelaide to work with us, which included Timothy Sexton and the Adelaide Art Orchestra. After we started performing live, we realised we needed a more constant band.”
Those early shows saw the band debut in 2005 at Adelaide’s Cavern Club and hit the road in support of Aussie stalwart, ex-Sherbet singer Daryl Braithwaite. By March 2006, More Than A Dream had been picked up by Canadian label Unicorn (home to Mystery, the band fronted by current Yes singer Benoît David), by which time the band amassed a line up that would lead them to where they are today, adding Matt Williams (guitar), Monty Ruggiero (drums), Shireen Khemlani (bass) and Tim Irrgang (percussion).
However the real boost on the worldwide stage was signing a three-album deal in 2008 with Thomas Waber’s InsideOut label, and the release of the excellent double-CD The Garden. Even before you got to the impressive symphonic rock, it was the stunning album artwork of Belarusian Ed Unitsky that grabbed the attention.
“Mark came across some of Ed’s art on MySpace and just emailed him and asked him if he’d like to work with us,” enthuses Timms. “Ed’s such a lovely guy, he really has kind of become like an extra member of the band. His English isn’t great but we still seem to be able to communicate really well regardless. And his work for Artificial is amazing.”
Indeed, whereas The Garden was a sprawling mass of ideas, spread across two CDs, with ideas ranging from the beautifully simplistic One Day, the whopping 23-minute epic title-track, and 321, a song about the 2006 Beaconsfield Mining Disaster in Tasmania, Artificial is perhaps more streamlined. It’s on just one CD and is an altogether more assured release, this time centring, as the title implies, on the ever-encroaching forms of artificial life and intelligence we have to deal with in every day life. The album also saw drummer Jamie Jones, bassist Shaun Duncan and sax player Peter Raidel join the band. But if Artificial proves that The Garden was no flash in the pan, it also suggests a burgeoning interest down under in things progressive. Writing as someone who grew up on a diet of AC/DC and Skyhooks in Sydney in the 70s and who didn’t know such a thing as prog rock even existed until journeying to the UK, things might have taken their time evolving, but with Unitopia, as well as the likes of The Butterfly Effect and Karnivool, are we seeing a new Aussie prog movement?
“I don’t know about that,” chuckles Timms. “There’s certainly something happening at the heavier end of the spectrum with Karnivool, Cog and The Butterfly Effect. But when it comes to the more symphonic end of the prog spectrum, there’s really only us. It’s been a while since [70s/ 80s symphonic prog pioneer] Ian MacFarlane!”
There’s equally no denying that the logistics of being an Australian band that have proved a sticking point in the past, not least the long distance bands have to undertake for any meaningful tour, is something that it’s taking time to overcome.
“It’s a nightmare trying to get a US work visa from Australia,” sighs Timms. “If we wanted to even attempt it, and there’s no guarantee that you’ll be granted one, the whole band would have to travel from Adelaide to Melbourne [over 400 miles]. And it would cost us each $131 to apply, and that’s non-refundable. So you’d lose that even if you got turned down. And so many bands are getting turned down these days.”
However, for us here in the UK, things are much rosier in the Unitopia garden. Following on the heels of The Butterfly Effect and Karnivool, the band are ready to make their first foray to these shores later in the year.
“We’re coming over to play Summer’s End Festival in Lydney in October,” Timms enthuses. “We’re so looking forward to playing that. It’ll be our first time as a band over there and I think we’re trying to book in some other shows around it. But all in all, with the release of Artificial, and the fact that our reputation around the world seems to be growing day by day, I have the feeling that 2010 could be a really important year for Unitopia.”
This article originally appeared in issue 15 of Prog Magazine.