Mack Maloney

Life is about taking on new challenges...right? So once you've established yourself as an award winning writer, besides writing another best seller what do you do? Well in the case of Mack Maloney you take your craft and apply it to music. That's what's behind his latest project called Sky Club. Here's my conversation with Mack where he spills all the details. 

Jerry Lucky: What were the events that led to the creation of Sky Club? What was your motivation to undertake a project like this?


Mack Maloney: I’m a full time writer – I’ve been writing sci-fi and military novels for almost twenty years. In fact, my 33rd book came out the same day as the SKY CLUB CD. A lot of times when I’m writing I’ll listen to music through headphones. Depending on the type of book I’m doing, I’ll listen to prog music – Yes, Patrick Moraz, Marillion – or sometimes jazz, or sometimes, believe it or not, movie soundtracks. My favorite soundtrack composer is Ennio Morricone; he did the music for all the Clint Eastwood Spaghetti Westerns and many other movies. One night I was writing and listening to music and the idea came to me that it would be cool if the book I was doing had a soundtrack, something the reader could listen to while reading along, something where the music was connected to what was happening in the story.


I thought about it, and realized that while doing a soundtrack for a 350-page novel would be a huge undertaking, a soundtrack for a short story might be more manageable, if it was the right story. Right around this same time I’d read an extensive article about Otzi, the prehistoric man whose body was found frozen inside a glacier in the Alps. He was fairly well preserved, as were his clothes and the items he had with him the day he died. That got me thinking: what if a spaceman was lost on a deserted planet and was found thousands of years later with his personal belongings still intact. What would these items be? And what kind of a story would come from that? That’s how the idea for the CD began.          


JL: Tell us how you selected your musical cohorts.


MM: I’ve been friends with Mark Poulin for a long time, and while I’ve been lucky to meet many famous musicians over the years, he’s one of the best musicians I know. I couldn’t have done the CD without him because not only does he do all the vocals, and play all the bass, all the drums and about 80% of the guitar, he also helped select and arrange the songs and he co-produced the project. So he’s the major musical force behind the CD and when I first got the idea to do a soundtrack for a short story, he was the first person I talked to.


The next person I talked to was Rich Kennedy, another fantastic guitar player, who just happens to be my brother-in-law. We’re both big fans of old sci-fi movies and I knew he’d get into the idea right away. He’s a devotee of the Jimi Hendrix/Eric Clapton style of guitar and we felt his playing would complement Mark’s perfectly, so we got him involved immediately.


We met our sax player, Amadee Castenell, through the studio where we did the demos for the CD. We’d put a synth sax on one of the early songs and when the engineer first heard it, he asked if we wanted to put real sax on it, because while the synth-sax part sounded OK, it lacked any kind of soul. We’d never considered putting any real horns on the CD, but we said OK, why not? So, he introduced us to Amadee, who, it turns out, has played with Paul McCartney, Paul Simon, The Eagles, Bonnie Raitt, Fats Domino, Elvis Costello, The Neville Brothers, on and on – at least a couple dozen big artists. He’s from New Orleans and we’re from Boston and that’s like a million miles away musically speaking. But he heard the song, and put down a perfect sax part in like five minutes. So then we said, how about this song or this song? We had left a lot of open bars on some of the demos, places where we planned to put guitar solos in later. But now we had this fantastic sax player, so we wound up having him play on almost half the tracks and as soon as he did, the CD went up to another level. He’s an amazing musician and the hardest part was figuring out which take of his we should use, because everything he did was right on the money. Plus, on top of it all, he’s a really good guy, a lot of fun to be around and to talk to. We’re still in awe of him.


The fifth guy is Chris Billias; he plays all the piano on the CD and he’s also our producer. We mixed and mastered the CD at Bristol Recording Studios in Boston. It’s a pretty famous place, it’s where New Kids on the Block record, plus a lot of other well-known acts including a number of hip-hop artists. It’s right across the street from the Berklee School of Music, so it’s definitely in the right neighborhood. When we first went there, Chris was the guy they assigned us and it couldn’t have been a better fit, because he understood right away what we were trying to do and the sound we were going for. He’s also a great piano player: I’d seen him play live a couple times and he was just lights out. So, as the project went along, we were able to utilize his piano talents as well as his producer talents. Again, we were very lucky to hook up with him. 


JL: How did the actual name come about?


MM: Well, I’m really telling tales out of school here, but right up until the time the CD was going to be pressed, the name of the album was “Ipodius” and the name of the band was “Sky Club.” I don’t want to give away the whole plot so to speak, but “Ipodius” is the name given to the spaceman whose story we follow over the course of the CD. But at the last minute we weren’t sure just how Apple Inc would feel about us using a variation of the word “iPod” as part of a commercial enterprise. We certainly didn’t want anything holding up the release of the CD – something like a massive lawsuit. So we agreed with the record company to change the name of the CD to “Sky Club” and put “Mack Maloney” as the artist. While this was also a way for people who read my books to see that I was also involved in a music project, I’m still not comfortable giving my name top billing, because the other four guys are such great musicians and I just play the synths, which anyone can do these days. But that’s just how it turned out.    


JL: I get a sense that music is very much a part of Mack Maloney?


MM: Yes, absolutely, but again, at the same time, I don’t consider myself a real musician. I don’t have the “musician gene” that the rest of the guys do. But I’ve listened to a lot of music over the years, like I said before, I listen even while I’m writing. The Beatles are far and away my favorite band, because to me, it all started with them, not just in their music, but in the cultural impact they had when they were together and still have today. They made pop music an art form, and that’s a major historic and intellectual achievement. But beyond that, when you consider how many people picked up a guitar and discovered they were musicians just because of the Beatles – that number must be in the tens of millions over the years. Think of all the new and different kinds of music we’ve enjoyed because of that. The whole Beatle phenomenon is such an amazing story and again, it’s still on-going today. They’re still the top musical act in terms of sales; their music made $1.5 billion last year alone.


On a more personal level, I saw John Lennon interviewed years ago and he said something that has always stuck with me. He said, “Don’t be a snob about rock music.” He urged everyone to listen to different kinds of music, classical, jazz, avant garde. He was saying, be open-minded to all of it. And I’m glad I heard him that day, because I took his advice and got into classical and jazz and other types of music. Like recently I’m really into House and Trance music, as odd as that might sound. And I know this sort of open-mindedness really helped us when we were putting the CD together.       

JL: I mentioned in my review that in some ways it’s not that big a leap going from the printed word to creating an actual audio soundtrack…was it as simple as that?


MM: I’m not sure anything is simple these days, but for the most part, I agree with you. I mean, way back before reading and writing were prevalent, people told stories in songs because a song is easier to remember. And that’s still the case. You can probably hum the entire melody for “She Loves You” or “Roundabout,” but can you recite word for word the newspaper article you read last week? So, yes, it’s not that great of a leap.   


JL: Did you actually write a full story of Sky Club? Something more than the notes in the CD?


MM: Not as yet – but I hope to expand on it someday, maybe even a full book. Once we got going, the idea was to have a short story appear on our website, something people could read to go along with the songs on the CD. But as things progressed, we changed that to putting a series of artwork on the website that would tell the story both visually and in words. We were lucky then that Rob Ayling, owner of Voiceprint Records, liked that idea so much, that he said we should print up the images in a booklet and include it with the CD. Not many record companies support their artists like that these days, never mind a new artist, but Rob made it happen and the book that comes with the CD is getting a lot of great reaction, as it should. The main artist on that by the way is a guy from Nova Scotia named Mike Dominic Just like we couldn’t have done the CD without Mark Poulin, we could never have down the accompanying booklet without Mike. He was a tremendous help.    


JL: I guess the big question a lot of people will have is why you chose those particular songs?


MM: Once we had the idea about a guy lost and alone on a deserted planet, we went about looking for songs we could use to tell his story. In fact, the other day someone called the CD the first ever “covers concept album” and they might be right. A lot of the songs we’ve just liked over the years, even though they might not be so well known to a lot of people. For instance, many people probably don’t recall that The Who did a song called “Don’t Let Go The Coat.” But for our purposes it was the perfect song to start the album with. I’ve always been a big fan of Cream, and again, “Deserted Cities of the Heart” fit really well into the concept, as did the Journey song. “Send Her My Love.” Same with the two Jars of Clay songs, “Flood” and “Worlds Apart.” In fact we’ve gotten some really nice reviews from religious music magazines, which is interesting because, while on one level I think the CD is spiritual, it’s by no means “religious” record.


JL: Does each song have a specific meaning to the story line itself?


MM: Each song has a sort of loose connection to the story. Again, the idea is this guy is alone on a planet, his misses his home, his misses his wife and he knows he’s never going to be rescued. And these are the songs he listens to during this difficult time. So, when you hear the refrain “Can You Hear Me?” in “Silent Running,” and again at the end of “Cross My Heart,” you know that’s what’s going through the spaceman’s mind. When you hear “It’s been so long, since I’ve seen her face,” in the Journey song, you know the spaceman is thinking about his wife. When you hear the surf music in “Star Surfing 1962,” you know he’s thinking about when he used to surf before he became an astronaut. We wanted the songs to be both connected and inter-connected and I think we did that. But what it all really comes down to is the old “desert island” question. If you were alone on a desert island or a deserted planet, what music would you want with you? For the spaceman in the story, it’s these 12 songs.


JL: Looking back on the project, did it come together more smoothly than you expected or were there some unexpected hiccups along the way?


MM: There were hiccups, but nothing major. The biggest hurtle was getting it done in between writing deadlines for my books and Mark’s busy schedule as a working musician. It took us almost three years from beginning to end to complete, but it was a lot of fun doing it, a lot of laughs. If people go to there’s a section there about the making of the album, behind the scenes stuff, and I have to say so myself, some of it is pretty funny.  


JL: Is this something you’ll look to try again?


MM: We're talking about a second CD. We have a few things we have to do first though. One is that we've been invited to contribute a track to an upcoming tribute CD to The Flower Kings. We're doing "Church of Your Heart;" in fact we were rehearsing it last night. Plus I have a book due later this year. But once those projects are done, I think we'll start talking seriously about a second CD. As Rob Ayling said in a recent interview, maybe the spaceman had two CDs with him, who knows?


JL: Would you look to change anything…Do it differently?


MM: I don’t think so. I think we picked the right songs for this CD. People write us every day telling us this song or that song is their favorite and that they’re going back to listen to the original artists’ version, which when you think about it, is sort of a compliment. At the same time, I also think that when people hear the concept about a guy who’s lost in space, who’s yearning for his wife and his home, that it might be easy to assume the CD is sort of an early Moody Blues fairyland-type album – but it’s not, not that there’s anything wrong with that type of music. I think you’ll agree that overall it’s a powerful album, that a lot of the songs have power and really rock out, and have a lot of emotion to them. That’s what we set out to do here and I think we’d do the same thing if there were a second CD. 


JL: Any thoughts about taking this to the stage and doing some live shows?


MM: This is probably the number one question we’ve been getting – and we’ve been talking about this too. Truthfully it would be a huge production to do it right, but that doesn’t mean it’s impossible. We’re good friends with people like Patrick Moraz of YES and The Moody Blues, and Matt Malley of Counting Crows and these guys are veterans of big shows and how they are produced and what goes into them. So at some point we hope to talk about it with them and others and see where it goes.


JL: Last question then…normally this is my “desert island” disc question…but for you…if you were stuck on a deserted planet…tell us what 5 discs you’d want to have with you and why those particular discs.


MM: It’s funny you asked that question, because we’ve also heard from lots of people who are burning their own Sky Club-type CDs. That is, putting together collections of songs they’d want to have if they were in the same position as our spaceman and were alone for the rest of their lives.   


But to answer your question, and it’s a tough one, here goes: 


1.        The Beatles: “Number One Hits.” The best of the best. 

2.        Yes: “Close to the Edge” The perfect prog record.

3.       Patrick Moraz: “The Story of I.” The very first world music album.

4.        Matt Malley: “The Goddess Within.” A hidden gem from a great musician.

5.        Ennio Morricone: “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.” A great soundtrack for my favorite movie.