A Personal and Candid Talk with Mike VanPortfleet of Lycia

And Tara Vanflower TOO!

By , Columnist

Simply put, there are no bands like Lycia. Not one! Likely, there never will be. Birthed by the unusual sounds originating from Mike VanPortfleet's own head, Lycia soon became a collective effort with the addition of David Galas and Mike's now wife, Tara Vanflower. The music of Lycia is powerfully emotional, and it would be well worth your time to see if they fill any of your musical voids.

I recently had the pleasure to talk with Mike VanPortfleet, Lycia's primary songwriter. I threw a fan's set of questions at him and he responded in as thorough a manner as any individual I have ever interviewed. Any kind of biographical lead-in to this interview couldn't add anything new that Mike VanPortfleet hasn't covered in depth in his answers.

Lycia's music is as unique as it is important. To me, this is where institutions like the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame fail. Given the limited array of nominations every year, the probability of inclusion and the short-sightedness of the committee creates a black hole of worthy potential nominees that have changed the landscape of music, but are rarely noticed for their incredible contributions. Lycia has created some of the most challenging music in their genre. Anyone who hears it are changed in ways that they may never be aware of.

Mike, inside us all are forces of creativity that need to be released. Some possess the necessary tools to express them. Most do not. When did you begin to hear the unstructured parts of your music within you?

It was always there, though it wasn’t until I was 16 or 17 that music became a way to vent what I had always been feeling and perceiving. As a child I was very preoccupied with the aura, sense, whatever you’d call it, of time and place, this overwhelming feeling that really is beyond any type of verbal description. When I was young my way of losing myself in it was through just thinking about it and just feeling it. There were times when I felt very in tune with my surroundings and the moods associated with that were extreme. As I grew older I wanted to express these feelings in a creative way. I loved music, which to me seemed like the perfect outlet for these moods. That’s what led me to the guitar and songwriting.

Ionia is but the forerunner of Cold. While you hear the familiar expanse of Lycia in Ionia, it certainly is brought to a magnificent art form in Cold. How long did it take Ionia to escape your head and blend into the tapes of the mix?

Ionia represents a period of major change for me, not only musically, but personally. I think time passes in a gradual fade for most people, as it does for me now. But back then I tended to go from one stage to the next with a clean break, walking up stairs instead of a ramp. The change during that period was a big step. Lycia’s roots go all the way back to 1981, but through most of the '80s I was musically lost; perhaps timid is a better description. In 1988 I made one of these ‘steps’ and Lycia finally took off creatively. Over the next few years the sound morphed as I collaborated with two different people.

I would also work on material alone during this period, but since Lycia was a band I tended to shelf the solo material in favor of the band material. The songs from this era landed us a deal with Projekt and I was working on our first release with Will Welch. The style was slow motion. It was ambient yet in a harsh way. Those sessions, as well as my working relationship with Will, fell apart. I still (barely) had a deal with Projekt so I forged ahead alone. I started going through all the shelved solo material and found a unified sound that really seemed to flow. I pieced together what I had already taped, going back to the fall of 1990 up until that point in time which was May 1991, recorded new parts as well as a couple of new songs. I finished everything up in June and it was mixed with Sam Rosenthal in LA in early July. In my mind Ionia is Lycia’s true start. It’s when the Lycia sound was finally realized.

What does Ionia mean as a standalone piece? The orchestral urgency of “November,” the heat of “Desert,” the threateningly dark “Monsoon” pieces? Did Ionia represent a whole concept? Or is it a series of thoughts that had incubated for a while before being realized in music?

When I first started to assemble the song fragments that eventually became the Ionia release there was no theme or connection between the individual pieces, other than they shared a similar style because they were written and recorded in the same time period. But when Ionia began to really take shape, towards the end, when I was working on the last songs, the connection between all the pieces became a bit more apparent to me. But the connection wasn’t a deep theme or concept, it was just in the mood of the songs, and in the symbology of the lyrics.

One of the memories that stands out most for me regarding Ionia is something that happened at the very end, when the release was finally completed. I went over to LA to mix with Sam at Projekt. The last day we finished up in the late afternoon and I decided to drive back to Phoenix that evening. I was somewhere in western Arizona when I decided to stop at a rest area. There was no one else there and I sat on a table to have a cigarette. It was early July so it was hot. It was very quiet, very dark, the sky was full of stars, and off on the far eastern horizon a massive monsoon storm was lighting up the night sky. I just sat there fully absorbed in that moment, and it struck me that all the themes of Ionia were coalescing right there in that moment.

A Day in the Stark Corner is infinitely more dark than Ionia. I can point to songs that even the titles indicate are moments in the aether. Titles like the lengthy “The Morning Breaks So Cold and Gray,” with its lingering and infinitely stretched notes, along with its ominous whispering; “Everything is Cold,” a minimalist musical arrangement filled with whispers of self-loathing (“everything is cold...life is so bare...I'm such a liar...I don't think I can take this again”) and “Sorrow Is Her Name,” using sorrow as a visiting woman in metaphor. What birthed the desolation of this album?

I’ve always been aloof. And I’ve had times where a melancholy definitely takes over. In late 1991 I drifted and things felt pretty dark for me for many months, well over a year actually. I lived in a small empty studio apartment and I spent a lot of time there alone. I remember looking at the white walls, and the empty corner of the room, and thinking how stark it all felt, the room, that place, that time, myself. Thus the title. When I wasn’t at work I was in that apartment, most of the time doing nothing, some of the time writing and recording music (usually in a very drunken state). It’s a time where I really pushed what I could do on the four-track. I experimented, didn’t take notes, and created in very different ways right on the spot. In one productive evening I came up with the basic ideas for the first four songs on the album.

But there were also long stretches where I couldn’t create anything. Stark Corner wasn’t an envisioned release. It’s more of a compilation of three different creative spurts. But since my mood was constant throughout that whole time period, the mood of the music was constant too. What that music portrays, the moods, the atmospheres, is what I was feeling at the time. There were faceless people that I wrote to, that helped me navigate that time, but besides that I was very isolated and alone.

The Burning Circle and Then Dust found a feeling of questioning, desertion, and yet a realm of hope within. This album also feels like it was designed to fit into more emotional compartments than your previous releases. What emotions delivered the wealth of songs found on this album?

The transition from the Stark Corner to Burning Circle stages of my life was a very clean break and a very large step. That transition really took place in the summer of 1993. Earlier that year I was still very much in that isolated Stark Corner mind set. But by that summer I was working towards the Stark Corner tour and I had also started working with David Galas. By the fall my mood had completely turned around. The Stark Corner tour went well and it revived me. David and I moved full force ahead with recording. First with Bleak~Vane and immediately after that The Burning Circle. It was a vibrant and active and exciting period for me.

We started on Vane in November 1993 and worked solid, with no breaks, until January 1995 when we completed what became disc two of The Burning Circle. By that time Tara was involved with both Lycia and with me. Most of the Burning Circle songs were written during the fading days of the Stark Corner period. So the lyrics reflect this. But they were recorded later when I was in a much more positive emotional state. So this release really is about that transition. The 'Burning Circle' represents the endless cycle of the darkness that I was feeling, and the ‘and Then Dust’ represents the passing of that and the moving forward towards new and better times.

LyciaCold.jpegCold is what many feel is a masterpiece in Lycia's catalog. Certainly it delves into the most frightening of places tucked away inside all of us. Tara's singing in the album adds even darker elements to the pieces. The music is unrelenting in its attack. It's forceful, scary, haunting, and inspired. As a side note, I once had a co-worker who asked me to turn it off because she has never felt as frightened by music as she was with Cold. It became real even to the casual listener. Cold is one of the more perfect albums in rock and roll history. What could be credited as having inspired such a monumental work?

It’s a culmination of all the styles, directions and moods that Lycia had explored going back to Ionia. At that point David and I had worked regularly together for nearly three years, and we had just finished several months of touring. Musically we were tighter than we had ever been. Creatively we were very connected. It was the point that I had always worked towards and it clicked — musically, that is.

Personally, there was a lot of restrained stress and conflict. There were also a few intense individual situations. It made the process uncomfortable at times. But all that strife and tension actually fueled the sessions. I believe the songs, and the release as a whole, became better because of it. Add to that we had a major change of scenery. We relocated from Arizona to Ohio. We live in a third floor apartment on the edge of town which looked out over open wild fields and woods. We recorded in winter, and the snow and the cold and the sense of isolation really found its way into the music. I remember working on the piano parts for "Baltica" and "Snowdrop" with the keyboard right by the window, and outside it was snowing hard, a major storm. It was light years from the desert but just as stark and isolating. It paralleled what I was feeling. I didn’t know what the future held for me at that point.

Lycia was in the initial stage of derailing, due in part to health issues and a new set of limitations that I had to live by. We forged ahead with Cold. It became my central focus as well as a distraction from the things I didn’t want to deal with. David was going through his own personal war. Tara held tight and we all pushed ahead and completed the sessions. When we finished I actually felt as though we had failed. All the tension distorted my perception. About six months after Cold was released, I listened to it for the first time since the day we received the finished CD. That’s the day it really clicked for me. I realized it was our best work. I still feel that way.

Cold is being reissued as a remastered limited edition vinyl set with pressing in audiophile grade 180g weight, in a small run of colored vinyl (as well as the standard black). How do you feel about the vast interest in a suite of works that you created, especially its introduction in a storied format that many still hold in audio value over CDs and digitally distributed files?

I’m surprised that the interest is still there actually. Cold came out 13 years ago. It’s nice to know that our music still means something to some people. I spent the last ten years or so feeling like a relic. There were times when it seemed as though Lycia was nearly forgotten. So I’m pleased with the renewed interest.

There are several more albums in the Lycia catalog (a subject we can expand on in a subsequent interview). I just want to say that I feel that Tripping Back Into the Broken Days is a great album if a little ignored by fans, and displaced by the brilliance of Cold. In all of the albums that are yours, which stands out as the most beautiful to you? In addition, which stands out more than all the rest (sometimes it's not always the one most perfect)?

Mike Van Portfleet.jpgFirst, regarding Tripping Back, I feel it is one of our stronger releases. Tara and I clicked working on those songs. We nailed the exact mood that we were shooting for. But yes, to a degree it was overlooked. That was such a strange time for the band and for us in general. Tripping Back wasn’t even supposed to be a Lycia release. We had planned to release it under the Estraya name, as a follow-up to our self-released EP The Time Has Come and Gone. At the last moment, just before it went to press, I decided to make it a Lycia release.

This was just one of many strange and erratic decisions that I made during that period. It was released at a time when the Lycia success from the '90s was definitely fading, and fading quick. A year or so earlier we were in store listening stations and in major magazines. By the time Tripping Back came out it was hard to even find a Lycia CD in a store. It was promoted as something that it was not, and what little press we got seemed more preoccupied with that then the actual release. It seemed like the end of the line at times. The saving grace was that we really believed in that release. In fact to this day we occasionally get out the acoustic guitar and perform these songs to our baby boy or to the rare visiting friend. As far as what Lycia CD stands out as the most beautiful, that’s hard to answer, because I have strong connections with most of the Lycia releases.

Cold is definitely up there, I do think it’s our best release, but The Burning Circle and Then Dust definitely has its moments too. I have a strong personal connection to Quiet Moments and I think it stands right up there with Cold. Perhaps over time I may feel Quiet Moments is the best Lycia release. I’m still not removed enough from the creation of Quiet Moments to make that kind of judgment. "Wide Open Spaces" and "Pygmallion" from A Day In the Stark Corner definitely are up there also. I guess this would also apply to what stands out the most for me.

Moving away from albums, let's explore technique and style. You have used the ominous, often cold, more often haunting whisper in your songs. What does the “whisper” mean to you in its use in your art of expression?

Well, I see it as a quiet singing as opposed to a whisper. Because I am actually singing, it’s just subdued and quiet. Add the reverb and it has whisper qualities. Viewed either way it is just an extension of my personality. What you hear in Lycia is what I am, though the moodiness is probably a bit magnified in the songs, as compared to my everyday life. Like everything else I do in Lycia, I leave space and stay minimal. I find this is the best way to achieve the moods and textures in the music. This style of singing, and this style of music, creates a very close and personal feel, as if I am whispering directly in your ear, yet it is also extremely distant, cold and unapproachable. I’ve been told that’s the way I am too.

How has Tara become a muse for you? Her vocals are a natural blend into the musical landscape of wherever your head seems to be at the moment. When you create your music, do you hear her voice contributions before she goes in to to lay down her vocal tracks? In your words, how does she enhance the importance of Lycia?

Going back to the early days, back in the '80s, I always felt that there was room, or a place, for female vocals in the band. It’s something that I toyed with, but I could never find the right person, right up until Tara joined the band. What I first heard of her was from some raw demos that she sent to me back in 1993. Musically it was quite a bit different from what Lycia was doing, but there was a tone, a feeling, it’s hard to explain exactly what I heard and felt, that seemed like a fit. When she came out to Arizona in the fall of 1994, David and I were finishing up the recording of The Burning Circle and Then Dust.

I had a couple of additional songs that we were going to record. I didn’t have vocals completed yet so I decided to let Tara give it a try. Those songs became "Nimble" and "Surrender." Right then I knew that she was a fit for Lycia. She captured the mood I was looking for and from that point on we’ve worked together from the same angle. When I write a piece that I want her to sing on I may have rough ideas style-wise that I’ll tell her about. But I mostly just let her do her thing. I trust her musical instincts and that's why she became part of the band. She’s definitely brought out a different side to Lycia, one that is very different from what I bring, but also one that completely complements and gels with my Lycia vision.

Lycia's sound has never truly lost its way. It never tried to emulate, keep up with the times, or throw its weight into a new form. Instead, like any true entity, it has intelligently evolved, incorporating new parts along the way. What are your thoughts?

A major problem of what I did musically in the early and mid-'80s was I tried to imitate the bands I liked. It wasn’t until the late '80s that a Lycia sound started to emerge. And the way that sound did emerge is we stopped trying to emulate other bands, and started to go deeper into our sound. I remember back in '88 or '89, John Fair and I realized that the new material we were working on was influenced by our earlier songs. We started to imitate ourselves and it snowballed from there. That’s when this inward approach really took for me. From that point on the Lycia sound really began to take shape, eventually evolving up to what I did with the Ionia release. From the late '80s on I have been focused, or probably better described as obsessed, with my vision for Lycia.

You seem to have alternating fascinations with two elements of our year, that is, winter and summer. In powerful imagery, winter expresses desolation, emptiness, cold. But summer has its own share of those elements, plus heat, which can be debilitating, deadly. What do these two periods possess that trigger your creative juices?

It‘s all related to my lifelong preoccupation with the sense of time and place. The seasons play such an important part in this. Trying to take in that sense of a time and a place is dominated by the sensation of a season, the smells, the temperature, the views, everything. When I think of my childhood, my memories are dominated by feelings of places, more so than actual events. I could go on and on about this, but it wouldn’t mean anything, it would just be eventless snapshots of time and place, it would sound like nothing.

But for me, on a personal level, it means everything. With the lyrics and themes of Lycia I have always used symbology. The extremes and the sensory aspects of the seasons fit perfectly in all of this. You’ve described it dead on. I’ve drawn inspiration from the winters of my childhood in Michigan, as well as my six years in Ohio, and the summers here in Arizona. The beauty on one side, and the starkness and loneliness on the other side, is there in both a gray winter day and a hot summer afternoon in the desert. There is a lot of intense and powerful symbolic imagery associated with both.

In a short time, you will be delivering a brand new Lycia album to the world after a bit of a hiatus. I understand such music as is the hallmark of Lycia cannot be stifled for too long. How did the songs of Quiet Moments take shape? Were they songs that were in your head for quite some time, swirling like galaxies ready to be formed? Or were they spilled from you as you turned the spigot on again to produce the new music?

QuietMomentsCover.jpgThere are a number of stories regarding the evolution and beginnings of Quiet Moments. It first started to take form right around the same time that I was working on Fifth Sun. With both Fifth Sun and the material that would eventually become part of Quiet Moments, it was a musical restart of sorts. I hadn’t worked on a fully realized concept since my solo CD back in 2004, and even that wasn’t as focused as what I had done earlier with Lycia.

The decade of the 2000s was a difficult one for me musically. At times it really felt that my time had come and gone. It felt like I had lost it. There were many started and then aborted releases in the 2000s. In the summer of 2008 Tara was asked to do a solo show in LA and she asked me if I’d help in prepping her set. I ended up performing two songs with her and that got us excited about trying Lycia live performances again. We worked hard through the fall of 2008 getting a Lycia set together and performed a show in January 2009. It was a complete disaster, which was a shame because the rehearsals leading up to that show were some of the best ever for Lycia.

In the spring of 2009 I tried to revamp the live set, because I was still enthused, but after much reflection I realized that Lycia was a studio band, not a live band, and that I should be directing my energies toward new material and recording. That was when both the initial Fifth Sun songs as well as Quiet Moments' "The Visitor" were written. After the completion of Fifth Sun I just kept on working and came up with five other Quiet Moments songs. I initially planned for it to be an EP, but decided to add more material and make it a full-length. There was something about the feel of the new songs that reminded me of the moods of some of the material from an earlier aborted session.

Those sessions, from 2006 and 2007, with additional work in 2008, were dubbed the Strange Star sessions. The material was experimental and all electronic and unfinished for the most part. One song was close to finished, "The Soil Is Dead," but the rest were in various forms of completion. When I re-listened to this material it felt like a perfect match for what I was doing with Quiet Moments. So I added additional textures and guitars and finished up the lyrics and vocals. With this addition Quiet Moments became a full-length and as an overall concept it really worked for me. There was one other song that I always regretted not finishing. It was from the same time frame as the Strange Star songs but it was an acoustic song. Just acoustic guitar, that’s all I had. I decided to reinterpret that song and what resulted was "Spring Trees." With that, Quiet Moments as a whole was fully realized.

Questions for Tara

Tara, how do you feel that Lycia has changed your life?

Thankful! I have had so many amazing experiences thanks to Lycia. I can’t fathom what my life would have been without discovering Lycia and, of course, Mike.

When recording for Lycia, how were you given the inspiration to create some of the most chilling vocals ever laid to tape? Did you listen to the basic tracks of your involvement with Lycia, and then reach in (somewhere) to bring out those vocal contributions? Were you as entranced by the music as we fans were for each album?

TaraPromo.jpgMike always gives me a reference track to practice with. For The Burning Circle Mike sent me a tape with "Surrender" and "Nimble" on it, I wrote to it, and then came to Arizona to record in Dave’s studio. For all he knew I could’ve come up with something absolutely horrible. I suppose it’s debatable whether or not that happened. He always gives me reference tracks to listen/write to. I am pretty much always flattered when he hands me a song because to me, it’s not a given.

Lycia is Mike’s and I am thankful to be involved. It’s never a “given” to me. I take this as the gift it is. It can be intimidating. The last thing I wanted to do was screw up Lycia. And early on there were people who said that. Which is fine, because I completely understood/stand. People have their preferences. As I’ve gotten older this responsibility gets more and more mammoth to me because I realize the opportunity may not arise again. In the beginning words and melodies came easy to me, now I put so much weight on them that I have to work a lot harder.

In another interview for the future, I'd like to find out more about Tara Vanflower. For now, how did Lycia shape the solo efforts that you produced?

Everything I do solo-wise is pretty much its own beast. Since I am not really a traditional musician I literally do everything based on experimentation. I don’t try to sound like Lycia because that would be impossible for me and really rather pointless. But Lycia has given me a good foundation for getting music out there, which I am obviously thankful for.

Mike and Tara Questions

In your own words, what is Quiet Moments to you?

Mike: Thematically Quiet Moments is the most important release I’ve ever done. I remember reading an interview years ago with Pete Townshend of The Who, and I’m just paraphrasing this based off my fuzzy memories. I believe the question was about his solo album in the '70s, in which he stated that Quadrophenia was the closest thing he did to a solo release, based on how personal it was. That’s how I feel about Quiet Moments. This is a very personal release for me. It’s the closest thing I’ll ever have to an autobiography.

Of course in typical Lycia fashion so much is hidden in symbology, the main one being the Antarctica/Greenland theme. Antarctica is seen as something desolate and distant, but underneath all the ice (if you believe theories thrown out in speculative archeology) are remnants of something quite the opposite. Greenland, as its name indicates, was presented as something purely wonderful, but in reality was empty and stark. Opposites, the same.

That’s the symbology. But that’s just a small part. There are numerous connections with my childhood, and many other personal references to different parts of my life, right up to the recent birth of my son. I don’t want to go in too deep about the personal relevance, because it is personal, and I also strongly believe that a release like this is as much about the listener as it is the creator. Let it mean what it means. This was the release I always wanted and needed and tried to make. This is the closest I’ve ever gotten. I’m happy with the results and for people that know me that is a rare thing.

Tara: A surprise. There were times when I never thought Mike would ever record again. Mythic. I see places that don’t exist…or existed a long time ago… when I hear this album. Since I didn’t hear it until it was completely finished it was just as special to me as it may be for the people who listen to it for the first time.

How excited are you to get Quiet Moments into the world for fans to hear?

Mike: I’m excited, and cautious and nervous too. I’m hoping it is received well.

Tara: I am really interested to see how people will feel about this release. Since it’s the first new music in quite a while, and is sort of theme/style-wise a sort of continuation of A Day in the Stark Corner and Mike’s solo album, I am interested in seeing how it is received. Of course others may get a completely different vibe from the album, but that’s what I feel when I hear it.

I want to thank both Mike VanPortfleet, and his wonderful wife, Tara Vanflower, for their valuable time in providing such a rare and introspective look into Lycia.

The vinyl reissue of Cold is available on June 11 in a limited run of 600 double-LP, 180g-weight vinyl (300 standard black, 300 clear milky white with brown haze color vinyl). The new album, Quiet Moments, will be made available on August 20. Both sets are being released by the Handmade Birds label, and can be ordered from there as well.

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Matt Rowe began his life with an AM radio, listening to anything that was considered music. Since, he has labored intently to build a collection of music, paring it down, rebuilding, and refining as he sees fit. His decided goal is to keep up with new music by panning for the nuggets among literal mountains…

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