Innovative creativity can be an elusive quality that burdens many acts, especially those who have been on the familiar write/record/tour musical treadmill for a few decades.
Yet for Saga, who return with the ambitiously named Sagacity, it’s never been an insurmountable problem.
For this latest album, the band decamped to a secluded cottage, located on the shores of Canada’s Lake Erie, to sharpen their ideas. Such remoteness does, of course, offer certain benefits, not least that it removes the band members from the rigmarole of daily life, allowing them to focus solely on their multifaceted music. The downsides are the potential for cabin fever to set in, with band members passionately sparking off each other in order to try to force their own, individual ideas into the collective thinking. Is that something guitarist Ian Crichton was conscious of?
“A little bit,” he says with a laugh. “I mean, we’re all different guys. You know, I want more guitar and I think my stuff is a little heavier than what fits for Saga. Some of it will end up getting on to the record and it’s always a push‑and-pull kind of thing. But we all have our heads pretty much screwed on. After all these years, we realise what the style of Saga is and what people like, so we can pretty much come to an agreement. I’m not going to worry about something that doesn’t make the record. Of course, at the very beginning of our career, it was really emotional. I think everyone thought they were right and we all knew everything back then.”
Saga have always defiantly steered their music between the two markers of prog and AOR, often blending the two in a way that few other bands have. Sagacity is, however, a departure from their last two releases, possessing contemporary and highly accessible songs that allude to their early works. Creating such an album was the result of a deliberate attempt to move away from complexity and return to a more organic sound, as Crichton explains.
“On this record, the only thing we talked about before we even wrote a note was our first four records,” he says. “Saga have always been about melodic prog rock. Our arrangements on the first few records had some magical parts that worked well together, so we thought it would be great to write a record that sounded like those early albums. It’s music that isn’t too complicated and without us going crazy on wild licks. There are a few moments like that on this record but we’ve tried to make the songs as uncomplicated as we can. We didn’t want 600 notes flying at you at once as I’m personally really tired of that.”
Appearing at the end of the 70s, Saga’s timing couldn’t have been worse. With prog rapidly becoming hugely unfashionable, the band’s signature sound couldn’t have been further away from the type of music that was populating the charts at the time. Yet the band defiantly stuck to their approach, and with their debut selling decent quantities abroad, the industry began to take notice.
“The one thing about Saga throughout all of these years is that we’ve kept what we feel Saga is about,” says Crichton. “We started in the 1970s and we were at the back end of prog. I remember that our first album was being pressed and the record distribution plant was filled with Saturday Night Fever records. It was all about John Travolta and the Bee Gees and of course we didn’t fit into that genre. But the album had its own legs, took off in Germany, and that’s what really gave us our start.”
Such a declaration that the band have always stayed true to their sound does ignore their 1994 Steel Umbrellas album, which was, in hindsight, an ill-judged attempt to cross into the mainstream. Recorded as the soundtrack for the hapless American TV series Cobra, it failed to heighten the band’s popularity and, understandably, caused a fleeting fan backlash against the slick, 80s pop sound.
“We thought it was a great opportunity for a band like us,” Crichton says. “The record was based around the show, and it wasn’t regular Saga music, that’s for sure. I mean, it was a well-produced record that was really fresh to play as I was playing a lot of rhythm guitar, which was a change for me. I still like it but the fans went, ‘No, this really is not what we want.’ So we quickly went back to what we were. We stepped out of the box there.
“Personally, being in Saga, it was nice to do something different and it always is. But people perceive you a certain way and expect a certain thing out of you. We just went back to what we did and certainly didn’t have any more TV shows. The fans really let you know when you’ve gone astray.”
With Saga scoring a hit single with On The Loose in 1981, they came under pressure from their record label to manufacture a follow-up. Indeed, Crichton recalls when one of the more ‘colourful’ record label bigwigs paid them an unannounced visit while they were recording the track Cat Walk a couple of years later.
“They did put pressure on us to do that, in their way, and the next single was Cat Walk,” he recalls. “I remember Frank Dileo, who managed Michael Jackson and looked like a Mafioso-type guy, coming into the studio in England. The rest of the band were out on the lawn talking with the record company about something, and I was in the control room with Frank. We were listening to Cat Walk and he looked at me and said, ‘Cat Walk? Where are the chicks? Where are the broads?’ So we laughed about that. But we’ve always known that you can’t go too far into the stratosphere. The general public like a big, strong melody with interesting music – something that makes you feel something, really.”
Recent years have been gruelling for Saga, with singer Michael Sadler leaving the band in 2007. The band recruited Rob Moratti to replace him, and although 2009’s _The Human Condition _was well received, it was his onstage inexperience that would prove to be his downfall. Despite the band’s misgivings, they began working on a follow-up with Moratti, before Sadler contacted them, mid-recording, to declare his wish to return. Although Crichton is too polite and respectful to say it openly, it was clearly a relief for all concerned.
“That was fun,” he says sardonically. “Mike was gone and the pressure was on. It’s still one of my favourite records in a way. The people bought it more than the previous record with Mike Sadler but we went on the road and it just didn’t happen. Rob’s a really nice guy but he didn’t have a lot of live experience and I was throwing him in front of a headline audience. It was a little much. Mike has the live thing down as we had been playing live forever, whereas Rob hadn’t, so it didn’t work out. The audience gave us a good break and on the first tour, the houses were two-thirds full. Then we were given another 12 shows the year after and we had a couple of losses, and that was it.
“We had a record deal, we were doing the record and basically the thought was that we should just plod on anyway. But I was told that financially we wouldn’t be able to tour, so I knew it was pretty much over at that point. But we just kept going. We would put out the record that we had started and I didn’t want to not finish it. The next thing we know, the phone started ringing and we are getting back together with Mike.”
The band also played a successful set at this year’s Cruise To The Edge event in the Caribbean. Crichton confesses that it was his first time on a cruise ship, and although he duly enjoyed the performance and watching the numerous other acts on the bill, he admits: “Once you leave the cabin, it was kind of like living in a shopping mall for a week, with that constant racket of a few hundred people all talking at the same time.”
Crichton remains optimistic that their latest album has the potential to revive Saga’s fortunes. As for the album’s name, which is defined as the “ability to be perceptive and make good judgements”, he reveals that there’s no deep meaning. Laughing, he says, “No, we were looking through the dictionary and came across it. That was really it…”
Sagacity is out now on EarMusic. For more information, see www.sagaontour.ca.