Jerry Lucky: So Steve you’ve been at this prog “thing” for quite a few years now. What’s your evaluation of the state of prog in the music world these days?
Steve Roberts: Well, I think that it has certainly "gone underground" yet again. Of course in the late 60s/early 70s "prog" groups were part of the 'mainstream' of music to a large degree. The bands were releasing albums on major labels (or sub labels of majors.... Dawn, Nova, Brain, etc.) and were getting some high profile press. Then as the mid-70s saw the heyday of disco and the dawn of the punk movement only the really big groups seemed to stay in the public eye. Bands like Yes, Jethro Tull, Genesis, Pink Floyd, and a few others were able to weather the storm so to speak. Most of the other bands that could be considered "prog" either began to self-release their work or were only found on small specialty labels. In the days before the internet it was often difficult, if not impossible, to find out about some releases since you wouldn't read about them in Rolling Stone or Melody Maker and depended on word-of-mouth or small independent fanzines with little or no distribution. In 1983 the cycle started over again with groups in the "new progressive" movement getting major label promotion and high profile press. Then by the end of the 80s the genre had gone underground again. The next emergence around 1992 saw groups using the new tool of the "Worldwide Web" to circumvent the previously standardized business model of label/distribution/promotion by third & fourth parties and began to be able to connect with fans & potential fans in a whole new way. Groups like Spock's Beard, Anglagard, The Flower Kings, and Glass Hammer were able to sell sufficient numbers of CDs to maintain at least a semi-career playing the music they loved without having to rely on some corporate entity to support them. Some of the older stalwarts like Camel and IQ also adopted this kind of business model and were able to continue on in the face of "music industry" indifference. Fast forward to today and the underground prog scene seems to be holding its own amidst the sea of downloading and file sharing that has since taken over the lion's share of music distribution. I suspect that artists/groups will always try to make interesting music in a variety of genres and "progressive rock" is no different. Only time will tell.
JL: If memory serves we connected back in the mid-eighties when I came across a ZNR Records mail-order catalog and ordered a stack of vinyl. What got you into the progressive rock mail order business?
SR: My partner Charlie Zitnik (the "Z" in ZNR) and I started out by buying LPs at yard sales and discount stores in the late 70s. We advertised our wares in the back of a magazine called Trouser Press. Before we knew it we had made enough money to finance a trip to England which was a dream we both had so we said "why not"! We did try to make a go of it with an eye to having a store maybe eventually and doing that as a career. Of course these things rarely work out as one initially thinks they might and we both got married and took other jobs, Charles eventually moving to northern Kentucky and so we split the business with the ZNR name staying with me. Charles still sells LPs under the moniker "Zounds, Ltd". At this point I just said to myself that if I was going to continue to sell music via mail-order I would focus on my first love which was progressive rock. And so I have been making my small contribution to the scene ever since.
JL: Looking back, pre-Internet, it seems like that would have been quite a ponderous undertaking. Was it very successful?
SR: To a certain extent it was a success but it has never been a viable business where I could support my family selling music. I wish it could have been but then again perhaps that would have taken the "fun" out of it? I don't know what might have happened had I made some different choices along the way. In my view, that kind of hindsight stuff is never very useful.
JL: What were some of the highlights and low-lights from that era for you?
SR: I had a small label that released some very nice CDs. I would have liked that to have been better received. Of course I did releases that were music I thought was worthwhile but apparently the prog community didn't always agree. Sad.
JL: If I recall you were playing with French TV around that time. How that that association come into being?
SR: I met Mike Sary from an ad at a local record store around 1978 or 79. I was going to the University of Louisville School of Music studying composition. We got together and found many mutual interests. We tried a few things that didn't really work. Then we teamed up with Jeff Jones to form Festung Amerika. A group that had Zappa and dadist influences. We did mostly Jeff's tunes but we never did a proper recording. Too bad as some of it was pretty interesting. "Under Heaven There is Great Disorder" from the first French TV album dates from this time. I think we called it "Equal Opportunity Annoyer". Jeff played sax on the French TV version on the album. "Spill" was also something that we did that later appeared on the first French TV album. We did a killer version of "21st Century Schizoid Man" but no tapes survived. I played drums for this group. Mike & I wanted to go in more of an instrumental fusion-like direction. So Jeff left and we started auditioning keyboard players & guitarists. Some of them were good players but really wrong for our concept. One night this kid Mike had met came by to play drums with us. I had purchased a Roland synth as a composition tool and we jammed. There was never any real discussion. I just became the keyboardist and Fenner Castner was our drummer. Fenner brought his find Artie Bratton around to play guitar one night and French TV was born.
JL: What brought about your departure from the band?
SR: Family responsibilities, indifference to doing music in a world that didn't seem to care and general doubts about my abilities as a musician all contributed. Mike wanted to take the group in a more linear direction where I was always more interested in the harmonic aspects of music. So that was a factor, too.
JL: Did you get involved with Ut Gret soon after? Or was there a “wilderness” period for you?
SR: Big wilderness period. From about 1985 to around 1996 or 97 I didn't really play music at all except to plunk around on the piano at home. Joee Conroy had moved back to town and we talked about doing a fusion trio kind of thing with me on drums, Joee on guitar and a bass player friend making the trio. It never got past the "I think this is a good idea stage" but I did start getting together with Joee occasionally to jam and work on some ideas. I was trying to get back into drumming but once again circumstances found me behind the keyboard. After about 5 years of wandering around musically we started to rehearse in late 2001 or early 2002 with the group of musicians that would finally become the new version of Joee's lifelong project called Ut Gret. I am fascinated that everyone always seems to want me to play keyboards since I don't really think I am a very good player, though I have improved in recent years. But I think I am a pretty good composer and come up with some original ideas. Unfortunately my playing abilities sometimes hold me back from some of the things I might want to do. Still I think the last CD with Ut Gret is very good and I think the new one will be even better.
JL: I’m interested in a couple things that perhaps cross-over. One is your passion for the style of music created by Ut Gret and how this fits into your views of progressive rock. Perhaps you could explain?
SR: I have always been a "fusion" guy at heart. Now, to me, that doesn't just mean "jazz-rock" but any attempt to fuse disparate musical forms into something new. I think Shakti, Oregon, Henry Cow, Samla Mammas Manna, Magma, a.o. are all examples of this paradigm. It is really natural for me to combine folk, rock, jazz, classical (whatever that means), world music (whatever that means) and whatever into our sound. Combining written music and free improvisation seems natural to me, too. So Ut Gret are sort of a perfect symbiosis of styles and attitudes. How this fits into "progressive rock" is that we really are a rock band at heart in the same way that Henry Cow and Samla Mammas Manna are really rock groups even though on the surface they may seem very anti-rock with all the free, stream-of-consciousness types of things that they do. If you don't have a very narrow view of prog rock so that it just has to be things that sound like a certain subset of bands like Yes, King Crimson or Genesis (pre1978 of course) or groups who sound like them then I think we are very much "prog rock".
JL: So here we are almost 30 years on from when we first made contact…are things better now?
SR: I don't really know how to answer that. I am still here and still passionate about unusual music. How's that for evasive?
JL: How have you changed?
SR: I guess I'm a little more cynical than I used to be but that's just part of the aging process I think. I am more open now to simpler music than I used to be. I can enjoy the beauty in artists who I used to only see the thin veneer of their sound and now I can see beneath the surface to find their beauty. When I started this in 1977 I wouldn't give jazz the time of day. Now I am a huge jazz fan. Things like this certainly inform who I am in 2012.
JL: With the Internet so much a part of everyone’s lives these days comes the obvious question about illegal downloading and internet piracy. Perhaps you can share your views on this controversial subject. And I guess I’m wondering if you have any solutions?
SR: Well I know a lot of people think this is what is causing the lower sales of music CDs. Here is my view. Just as with the whole "home taping is killing music" campaign waged by the music industry in the 80s there is really no way to draw a causal link between downloading and lost sales. As with the home taping issue in the pre-internet era you simply can't say that every time someone downloads (or tapes) something that means that they would have purchased that item if they couldn't have downloaded it. Every time the music industry has tried to draw this link they have come up with the opposite conclusion. People who tape albums from their friends were found to have purchased twice as much music as people who didn't tape. I think the reason for this is simple. Those are the kind of listeners who actually care about discovering new music and for whom music is a big part of their life. Intuition might tell us that downloading is really hurting the music scene but there simply aren't any studies that I am aware of that show that this is true. Certainly no studies that show to what extent it is true. Do some people who download a song or album (a quaint term I know) never buy it? Certainly. Do some people download just so they can avoid spending money? Undoubtedly. However, if you want to look to what is really hurting music sales I have a couple of suggestions. First there is so much more demand on people's attention these days that music has become less of a force in their lives. Video games, YouTube, Facebook, movies on demand in multiple formats and available at the touch of a button, etc, and so on. Second, people have much less disposable income than they used to. They have to pay their cellphone bill, their cable/internet bill, rent is higher, gas is $5 a gallon! A kid who used to have maybe $100 a week to spend on whatever he wanted (and used to spend a sizeable percentage of this on music) now, at the very least, has a $50 a month cellphone bill plus $5 a gallon gas and video rentals and on and on. Third, and this might be the most important part, we don't teach music in school anymore. It isn't surprising to me that the last few generations don't really value music. There is no community that says musicians are special, beyond that some musicians are celebrities which is a whole different discussion. When is the last time you heard someone under the age of 30 talks about their favorite guitarist? I will tell you that unless the person in question is a musician him or herself, it never happens. Most of these listeners don't know the difference between a guitarist and a bass player. Amazing but true. Now I am not saying that you have to be a musician to appreciate music but if children are exposed to music at an early age in the form of trying to learn to play an instrument then there is a connection in their minds between the music they hear and what the musician has to do to produce that music. And at some subconscious level that affects how that person experiences listening to music. And that filters down to the level of 'well music just happens doesn't it?' kind of mentality. They don't make a connection between the musician's efforts to create and record and the end result. So it is not surprising to me that some folks think music should be free. Lastly I think that the demise of the retail record/CD store is going to have serious consequences. Browsing for music on the internet is NOT the same as looking through the stacks at Amoeba (or insert your favorite store's name here) and it never will be.
JL: Is the future so bright for Steve Roberts that you have to wear shades?
SR: The future becomes the past all too soon. And then you have to ask such questions all over again. I'd rather live in "the now".
JL: Any closing thoughts?
SR: Creative artists will always find a way to survive. Sometimes they find ways to flourish. Progressive Rock is and always has been a footnote to rock history but it is important to many of us who value creativity. Yeah, sometimes it gets full of itself and does things that it later finds embarrassing (like a favorite relative who talks in all seriousness about how he or she thinks alien abductions are real). So sometimes you have to overlook a shortcoming here or there (Asia, GTR - I am sure they seemed like good ideas at the time) but overall it is a good relationship. Like all worthwhile relationships it sometimes takes a little work.
JL: Thanks for taking the time to chat.
SR: Thank you.
I first came in contact with Steve Roberts, way back in about 1986, when I was rediscovering the new progressive rock scene. He was running ZNR Mail Order way back then and so I ordered some new prog through him. The fact that he's still around, not only in the prog mail order business, but also as part of the progressive band Ut Gret, is well deserving of an interview. Here it is...