Interview with Mark Zonder - (Oct. 2, 2009)
Mark Zonder is perhaps best known as the former drummer for the 1980s heavy metal band Warlord and progressive metal band Fates Warning, which he joined in 1989 for 15 years. In the mid 1990s, he teamed up with Kevin Moore to play the drums on Chroma Key's three-song cassette demo and the band's 1998 debut album, Dead Air For Radios. Most recently, he has served as the drummer for the hard rock band Slavior.
Q: How and when did you first get involved in the music industry? Where did you study and what were your first jobs?
MZ: I had my first drum lessons around age 7. I was hanging around music stores at a young age handing out flyers in trade for equipment. I had a few various teachers, played in the school bands, etc. When I was younger I worked in a few restaurants, worked at IBM and also did construction.
Q: Who were some of your main influences as a young drummer? What were your favorite bands growing up?
MZ: I loved the first three Journey albums and Aynsley Dunbar was a big influence. My parents played all kinds of music from Tujunga Brass to the 5th Dimension. So I had all kinds of various influences.
Q: How did the opportunity to join Fates Warning come about in 1989 and why did the opportunity to join the band appeal to you? Were you a big fan of their early music?
MZ: Actually, I did some of the drum tuning on the earlier albums and became friends with the band. Also, they knew of me from Warlord and Jim [Matheos] was a big fan. I think Jim was looking to expand the music and wanted to update the drum position. When he called me I told him that I was not a big fan of the earlier material as it really wasn't my cup of tea. So he sent me out a couple of the new tunes. I think the first was "Part of the Machine," and I started working on the tunes and sent them back to him.
Q: Obviously, you were first introduced to Kevin through his work with Dream Theater and his guest appearance on Fates Warning's 1989 album, Perfect Symmetry. What was the relationship like between Fates Warning and Dream Theater back in those days? Was there a healthy respect and friendship between the bands?
MZ: Since I lived in Los Angeles and everyone else was basically back east, I was not involved with this much. Never really met Kevin until he came to Los Angeles to work on his own stuff. Honestly, not really listening to Kevin's stuff at the time. I know Jim and Mike [Portnoy] are good friends and have been for awhile.
Q: How did Fates Warning form such a close bond with Kevin? After leaving Dream Theater in 1994, he served as a guest keyboardist on two Fates Warning albums, A Pleasant Shade of Gray and Disconnected. Did he just have a certain chemistry with the band? What is your opinion of his keyboard work and what did it add to those albums?
MZ: I wasn't really around when he was recording, but to the best of my knowledge Jim had the basic keys ideas that he wanted. I don't remember it being a collaboration. I think Jim is such a strong writer that the keys were more for flavor and atmosphere, not a key element of the band.
Q: Was there ever a discussion to ask Kevin to join Fates Warning as a permanent member or a touring keyboardist?
MZ: No, and he did not want to play live.
Q: Talk to me about A Pleasant Shade of Gray. I remember reading an interview a few years back where you said you were proud of what the band achieved in that album. What do you find so special about that album?
MZ: I think that album is magic. Each song is such a great piece of music with serious various styles of music. Each song by itself and then as a complete work. I remember playing it live start to finish and it seemed like a perfect journey with peaks and valleys. Plus, I think the musical performances are very very good.
Q: Aside from A Pleasant Shade of Gray, are there any particular songs/albums or accomplishments that you are most proud of regarding your time with Fates Warning? What do you say to those who credit the band with defining the progressive metal genre?
MZ: I think "Eye to Eye" and "Monument" are pretty close to perfect songs. That is a very nice compliment, but it would have been nice for the band to progress and become a bit more successful in the commercial sense. I think that would have helped things along instead of us always sort of struggling with good tours, etc.
Q: With Chroma Key, you played on Kevin's three-song cassette demo as well as the 1998 debut album, Dead Air For Radios. Let's start with the demo. How did you get invited to work on it and where/how was the recording done?
MZ: As I remember, he called and asked me if I wanted to work with him on his music. He sent me the stuff and I worked on my parts and then recorded them.
Q: What was your opinion of those early Chroma Key songs? Were you impressed with the sound and Kevin's vocals and songwriting?
MZ: I thought the songs were very special and unique. A total happening vibe going through the songs. Very original. I thought the vocals fit the music perfectly. You could believe the presentation of the vocals and it intertwined with the music perfectly.
Q: During those days, did you and Kevin ever discuss his decision to leave Dream Theater arguably at the height of their popularity? Did you think it was a crazy decision or did you understand his need to branch out and express himself on a solo basis?
MZ: We worked on music together. Never discussed other things. Not really any interest to me as well as Kevin didn’t bring it up, so I wasn't going to. I was only concerned with delivering the best possible drum parts for his music.
Q: Tell me about the album, Dead Air For Radios. In my opinion, you took some very good songs and made them excellent with your drumming. What was your approach? Did Kevin give you free reign to do what you wanted or was it more of a back-and-forth process?
MZ: We used to sit in one of my small studio rooms with the lights out and play. Two sides of the coin… First, he would have exact ideas that he heard (splash hit here, tom there, etc.), but he also wanted to hear what I thought would work. I had this crazy drum groove that he actually wrote the song "Chroma Key" to. This is on the demo, not the album. So it was both. I found Kevin extremely easy to work with. I had no agenda to try and play what I wanted, but instead wanted to satisfy the writer and add to the music, not try and steal the spotlight. I wanted to add a groove style as well as some air to the music.
Q: I find it intriguing that you and Kevin actually rehearsed with the lights out – I'm not sure how you could see the instruments! Whose idea was that and is it something you do often? Why is that an effective method?
MZ: Actually, there was a window with outside light, so it wasn't completely in the dark. It was more for mood, or maybe Kevin thought the lights were too hot. It was just more of a vibe thing and it worked. I really don't do that much.
Q: What are your thoughts on the Dead Air For Radios album as a whole? Do you have any favorite songs? Were you pleased with the reception it received from fans?
MZ: Not sure really how it was received by the fans. But I thought the first five songs were stunning. Not a big fan of the overproduced-sound effect stuff. But to each his own.
Q: Let’s talk about certain songs from that album. The single was "Colorblind." What was your approach in the drum parts for that song?
MZ: Straight forward, strong but laying back in the pocket.
MZ: My Steely Dan drum groove. Love this song. One of my favorites.
Q: "America the Video"?
MZ: Honestly, really don’t remember to much of what went into this.
Q: Needless to say I'm not a drummer, but I find something very distinct about your style. Instead of banging the heck of the kit and overplaying or striking on the predictable downbeats, you seem to strike at the less obvious moments that really add to the character of the songs (ie. "Colorblind" and "Even the Waves"). Does this style come naturally to you, or do you make a conscious effort to play this way?
MZ: I basically just listen to the music and react. I do spend alot of time experimenting and trying different ideas to see what works best as compared to some guys just use whatever comes out first or the most obvious. It is a matter of spending time and letting the creative stuff take over and not being afraid to really stretch it out. I always thought the point was to sound original and have your own stamp.
Q: Did Kevin ask you to play on the second Chroma Key album, You Go Now? I believe he was in Costa Rica at the time, so that might be the reason why he didn't ask.
MZ: Nope. I let Kevin spend months on end in my studio recording and mixing the album. Honestly, never really heard from him again. As you know, not the most communicative person going.
Q: It's been a long five years since the last Fates Warning album, FWX. For those who don't know, what was your reason for leaving the band? Was it strictly to pursue other interests or were you unhappy with the direction the band was taking?
MZ: Actually, I told Jim that I didn’t want to tour with the band. Touring was very erratic. We would put out on album, not tour, and then two years later tour. I had a life and did not want to just stop everything at a moments notice. I love to tour and play, as Slavior did go to Japan and I have gone to Europe to play with Joacim Cans of Hammerfall, but it seemed like Fates was sort of stalling and after 14 years or my life it was time for a change.
Q: Do you still talk to Jim Matheos and Ray Alder?
MZ: Not too often.
Q: Has five years been enough time apart from the band? If they asked you to return for a new album, would you consider rejoining Fates Warning?
MZ: Actually, about six months ago I called Jim and let him know to throw my hat in the ring if they were considering drummers for a new recording. I love recording with Jim, it is very easy and very satisfying. He is a true professional.
Q: In my interviews with Gavin Harrison and Phil Magnotti, they also raved about how great of a guy Jim Matheos is. What makes him so easy to work with?
MZ: I didn't mean he was this great guy that we drink beer together and have family cookouts, as we really never hung out, more that he is a professional when it comes to the music and easy to communicate with during the writing and recording process.
Q: What is your opinion of the current progressive metal scene? Are there any bands that you are particularly impressed with or do you think the genre has hit a lull?
MZ: I think if you take Dream Theater out of the discussion, there really isn’t much of a scene. Not a big fan of the bands that are out.
Q: What are your thoughts on Dream Theater's early albums with Kevin, particularly 1992's Images & Words?
MZ: I think "Pull me Under" got the whole thing rolling. Like I said before, I really don't listen to much outside stuff.
Q: In a recent interview, Jim said that he had a certain drummer in mind before he asked Gavin Harrison to play on OSI's Blood album. My gut told me it might be you, because of your history with Jim and Kevin. Was it you?
MZ: Never asked me. Needless to say, I would have done it in a heartbeat. Like I said, I explained my position about recording and touring very clearly to Jim.
Q: Tell us about your current band Slavior. What is the band up to right now? Were you pleased with the fan reception for the first album?
MZ: Probably on the wrong label for the style of music but was told that the label wanted to go in a bit of a different direction, which didn't really happen. We are currently recording new songs for the second album. We have about 16 new tunes.
Q: When should fans look for the new Salvior album and what should they expect this time around?
MZ: Should be the next few months. This album is a bit different. We have had time to refine and define the song writing a bit more. This album is also a bit more cohesive. A bit more on the heavy side and not so layered. Again, all of the songs were started and based on drum riffs that I came up with. Really looking forward to recording bass with Philip Bynoe. Even though he has been in the band for awhile and went to Japan with us, never really got to record album quality stuff with him. That will also be a huge difference from the first album to the second.
Q: Are you working on any other projects right now?
MZ: I get hired to do other people's songs. I am lucky enough to have a recording studio in my house, so I can track drums. I also am doing a lot of drum clinics at various guitar centers on the west coast. I also have a DVD out of the 13 songs and ideas that I use for my clinic. You can get it at www.markzonder.com.
Q: What CDs and bands have you been listening to lately?
MZ: Not much as I spend most of my music time practicing and working on new ideas for Slavior.