Tomorrow marks the release of Michael Whalen’s Imaginary Trains. In the below interview, he talks about his electronic music influences, creativity, the upcoming EMEAPP concert – and his love for trains.
BT Fasmer: It is easy to sense that Imaginary Trains is not “just another album,” but an homage to your electronic music influences. You mention Vangelis, Tangerine Dream, Keith Emerson (ELP), Mike Oldfield, Larry Fast/Synergy, Mark Isham and Kraftwerk. Still, it is always a challenge to try to live up to one’s heroes. How was it to record Imaginary Trains?
Michael Whalen: That’s an interesting question. For every artist, you have to distinguish your “influences” from the people you are imitating. I am very clear on who and what are my musical influences and I work hard to not consciously “copy” anyone. That said, the process of making this album was intense because I second-guessed myself about whether I should celebrate my love of German Electronic Music. Would people be interested? Actually, I think that’s the WRONG question. The RIGHT question is what will empower my creativity? Finding a creative balance between what you NEED to express and the WANTS you might have is also a struggle. In the end, it was important to me to honor this part of my creative life for myself. As soon as I finally committed to the project, the music flowed and it was really fun to do.
I have been very transparent about who my influences are and some have criticized me. I find it funny that artists try to hide their influences and their music sounds like a rip-off of their heroes. In 2022, we have more creative freedom musically than composers have had EVER. Why not use that freedom to create something new? We’ve reached a point where we don’t even walk about genre or style anymore. I think Spotify has had a lot to do with this change by giving listeners the vocabulary of mood or activity to describe music instead of style. I really like it because genre names like “jazz” have so much baggage with them.
You may pre-save/pre-order Imaginary Trains here: michaelwhalen.lnk.to/imaginarytrains – and here is the first single from the album:
BT: Most of these artists are known for their 1970s and 80s analogue synth sound. Your album, on the other hand, sounds cutting edge. Did you set out to “update” this sound, or is that just a product of recording an album in 2022?
Michael: I am NOT an “analog versus digital” guy. I am only interested in creating great and compelling NEW sounds. I have no interest in being vintage and redoing any of the classic sounds or approaches from the 1970s or 80s. I love old hardware and I find it inspiring. But that equipment is only valuable when it can still create new sounds that look forward – not backward.
That said, I work hard to evolve my sound and approaches to sound state-of-the-art and to be leading things musically and creatively. This is difficult because there is a lot of great music being created. We mixed Imaginary Trains to Dolby ATMOS and I learned a lot about my own music and about what I should be doing creatively to be making the projects I am making in 2023 and beyond. I need to be very conscious of every sonic choice I make. There’s no hiding or masking anything in a surround mix! (Laughs)
BT: I understand that you wrote the ten titles before composing the music. Is this something that you usually do – and how did that work out for Imaginary Trains?
Michael: Yes. I always create my titles before the music is written. I have been doing this for years. I love framing the music with a programmatic story. For example, the song The Journey to LightsEdge is a title I have had knocking around in my head for 20 years. The song turned into an epic ambient/prog rock anthem using the palette of the entire Imaginary Trains album. Having the title inspired the musical choices I made and it made it so much fun to record. Someday, I will do a full-on prog recording.
BT: To your fans, you are just as much a storyteller as a musician. Your music is very visual. Regarding Imaginary Trains, you say that: “Before I could transport anyone, I had to take the journey myself.” Tell us about that journey.
Michael: I love trains. I love the sounds they make, the movement and the idea that you are literally being transported from point A to B effortlessly. Staring out the window of a train going 100 MPH is amazing because inside you are in a cocoon. Outside, you are blazing through the world. On the new album, I love the idea of creating music with a kinetic motion that drives forward with other sounds that soothe, relax and bring you peace. This contrast is wonderful. So, I literally “took the journey” by falling in love with trains as a child and then translating it into music 40 years later. Wonderful.
BT: You are streaming a concert from EMEAPP (EMEAPP.org) on April 22nd. Which songs from the new album are you going to perform?
Michael: Do you want a set list??? (Laughs) Here we go! The Ribbon of Time, Across The World, The Wayward Sun, Imaginary Trains, Against The Sky and The Journey to LightsEdge. After that, I have a surprise and I will do a JAM with some of these incredible instruments. I will end the concert by playing a few songs on Keith Emerson’s 9-foot Steinway Grand Piano.
It was hard to decide what to do and what not do. I wanted to feature the album but musically I want to give myself the space to NOT emulate the album. In fact, in many cases, I will veer away from the album because of the sounds I am using and the adrenaline of the moment!
BT: You have worked with some incredible artists on this album, both the recent Grammy winner Ricky Kej and Donna Lewis. The album also contains four brilliant remixes of Across the World to Be With You (by Bombay Dub Orchestra, Simon Phillips, Larry Fast-Synergy and Ricky Kej). I guess you are happy with the way it all tuned out?
Michael: I am thrilled. Collaboration is the key to everything. If I am the 100% source of every note I create, I will burn out. It’s only in working with great collaborators that the energy started by the initial song can GROW and create something more beautiful than you ever anticipated. The remixes will be released over the summer and they are stunning.
BT: Sacred Spaces (2020) was a recent turning point in your career in the way that you now “reinvent” your sound on every album. Tell us about the creative process behind a new release. Has this become easier or harder with the new approach to music composing?
Michael: Thanks. I think that is an insightful perspective. Sacred Spaces was a watershed moment for me as a recording artist.
In 2020, I got really honest with myself about what I want to do in my recordings and how I want it to sound. Too many artists try to make music for their listeners and they end up resenting those fans in the end. For me, the most important thing is to be authentic and real about the music for myself and people hear it immediately. Since Sacred Spaces, the bar keeps getting higher for me as my own and the audience’s expectations grow. Imaginary Trains is part of this honest growth and development as an artist. In other words, you’ll notice I am not doing more “ambient piano” music!
BT: Many tell me that one of the main problems of being an artist today is the incredible number of synths and instruments available – but you seem to enjoy the process of selecting and fine-tuning instruments. Do you have any tips for artists who browse through “1000s of VSTs (digital instruments) without finding anything”?
Michael: Great question. The advice I give about selecting ANY instrument, computer, software, interface or anything else is to ask the question: “does this instrument WORK in my personal workflow”? The question assumes that you know what your workflow is and that it is working for you. It just comes down to trying things BEFORE you buy them. Seeing how other artists work does not mean that their process or favorite instrument will work for you. Musicians spend a lot of time trying to walk the same path as their heroes only to find every creative process is unique to the creator. Make your own choice. Make your own creative narrative with your music, your gear, how and when you create and how you collaborate.
For more information and music samples, visit michaelwhalen.com.
You may pre-save/pre-order Imaginary Trains here: michaelwhalen.lnk.to/imaginarytrains
See New Age Music Guide’s Michael Whalen coverage here.