Interview with Vikram Shankar - (Sept. 4, 2018)

Vikram Shankar is the keyboardist for the progressive metal band Redemption, which he joined earlier this year, and appears on the band's seventh studio album Long Night's Journey Into Day.  He is also the keyboardist for the progressive rock band Lux Terminus, which recently released their debut album The Courage to Be, and is a member of the band Our Destiny.  In addition, Shankar is known for having posted dozens of cover songs online for progressive rock/metal acts including Anathema, Evergrey and Dream Theater.

Q: For starters, welcome to Redemption!  For fans who aren't familiar with you or your work, where are you from and how would you describe yourself as an artist/musician?

VS: Thank you!  I am a keyboardist and producer from Cleveland, Ohio.  You might know me for my piano covers, as I have been doing piano covers of prog, metal and other artists for many years prior to joining Redemption and launching my own bands.  I play in the progressive rock trio Lux Terminus, symphonic metal band Threads of Fate, and some others that haven't been unveiled yet.  Connecting with other people and uplifting through music is my favorite thing in the world, and I'm overjoyed to have the opportunity to do so with the talented folks in Redemption!

Q: When did you first start playing piano/keyboard and who introduced you to the instrument?  Where did you study music and what were some of your early musical influences?

VS: I first started seriously playing when I was around 6 or 7, although I dabbled on my family's cheap keyboard before then.  I began my serious studies thanks to a family friend, who observed that I had perfect pitch and encouraged my family to invest in a proper piano and lessons.  I studied for 10 years at the Cleveland Institute of Music, after which I went to Oberlin Conservatory and got my degree in music composition for film.  Early on, I was influenced exclusively by classical music (especially Mussorgsky, Liszt, Debussy and Beethoven), but my world exploded in middle school with my discovery of, well, everything that isn't classical music!  Some of my biggest formative influences include Pink Floyd, Emerson Lake & Palmer, Rush, Dream Theater, Herbie Hancock, John Coltrane, Nightwish, Howard Shore, Pendulum, and Anathema.

Q: How did you become introduced to the guys in Redemption?  How long had you been a fan of the band before joining them and what were some of your favorite songs/albums by the band?

VS: I had been a fan of Redemption for many years, ever since I first heard Snowfall on Judgment Day, which was my favorite album by the band until Long Night's Journey into Day.  Given that I operate in the Progpower USA orbit, I suppose Nick van Dyk and I would have run into each other eventually, but the process was expedited by Tom Englund, with whom I have become good friends with over the course of a couple years.  Tom showed my work to Nick, and is therefore ultimately responsible for me joining the band.  Nick and I hit it off terrifically in our first meetings – we have similar musical sensibilities, but also gel really well together as friends.  We hung out at Progpower USA 2017 and then the next month in LA, when I met the rest of the band and was formally welcomed into the fold.  It's been nothing but a thrill ever since!

Q: What was the extent of your involvement in the writing/recording process for Long Night's Journey Into Day?  Any contributions you're most proud of?

VS: I wasn't really supposed to be on the new record at all – I was only able to slide in there at the last minute because of luck and happenstance, as the record was already sent out for mixing.  It was certainly an eleventh-hour situation, and the sum total of my contribution really is textures and "ear candy," but I'm honored to be on the record at all, because I really think it's an outstanding piece of work and I'm thrilled by how positively people have been reacting to it.

Q: What should Redemption fans expect from you in the band’s future music?  Is there anything specific you hope to bring to the band's sound?

VS: What I would really love to achieve, working on our next record, is take the Redemption sound to the next level – whatever the heck that means!  We'll only find out as we do it, I suspect. :)  For me, the defining characteristic of Redemption is Nick's compositional voice, and both Tom and I have agreed that the "soul" of Redemption has to come from Nick.  It's also important that Tom doesn't turn Redemption into Evergrey 2.0, or that I turn Redemption into Lux Terminus 2.0.  That being said, Tom has a remarkable vocal sensibility, and I certainly write and play keyboard parts in a particular way.  All of us are extremely excited to be writing and recording together, and I'm especially excited to see how exactly the injection of fresh perspective enhances the flavor of the music.

Q: What's your opinion of the keyboard work on Redemption's past albums by Nick van Dyk and Greg Hosharian?  Any favorite solos/sections?

VS: I have always enjoyed the keyboard work on past Redemption albums, both by Nick himself (whose compositional voice on the instrument is killer) and by Greg, who is of course a monster player and whose work on Snowfall is really outstanding!  My favorite element of Redemption's keyboard work, as performed by Nick and by Greg, is the emphasis on piano textures – the sound of piano over heavy guitar riffing is a fairly particular flavor that I find really appealing!  Lux Terminus is almost entirely piano driven, as is most of what I do, so I suppose Redemption is quite a natural fit for me as a keyboardist in that respect.

Q: With multiple new members in the band now, what's the camaraderie and energy been like so far?

VS: The chemistry has been really incredible thus far!  I don't take that for granted at all, because the first Redemption album came out when I was just 7 years old (now, there's a scary thought…), so really, I wouldn't have been surprised if I came into the fold and was treated as "the new guy."  But it totally hasn't been that way – it's wonderful and truly flattering to be accepted into the family with such open arms and such a degree of mutual respect.  Every time we have hung out together as a band has been a wonderful time, and we have gelled together really, really well I think. We're stoked to take that camaraderie and chemistry to the stage!

Q: How exciting/meaningful is it to make your debut appearance with the band at ProgPower USA?

VS: Playing Progpower is a dream come true!  The festival has always been a sort of mecca for me as a fan of progressive and melodic metal music, and I've been dreaming of playing the festival since even before 2014 (which was my first year attending as a fan).  Doing so as a co-headliner, and as part of such a killer band, on stage with one of my favorite singers of all time, is truly going to be a trip.

Q: How have the rehearsals been going?

VS: Given that it's no easy feat to learn and rehearse Redemption material, the rehearsals have been going quite smoothly!  From the very first time I played with the guys, there has been a genuine chemistry and electricity in the room that has been really wonderful to be a part of.  There's a certain joyous spirit to playing exhilarating progressive music and locking eyes with another band member as you nail some crazy meter changes or a unison run, and it’s been getting better and better, and more and more fun, every time we play together.

Q: Do you plan to perform Redemption's keyboard parts exactly as they sound on the studio albums or do you plan to put your own spin on them?

VS: I've been encouraged by Nick to put my own spin on the way I play the older material – although to me, some material is sacred and I don't plan on changing it.  That being said, I play keyboards in a manner particular to myself (as every musician does), and I'm grateful that I'm being encouraged to express that within the framework of these legendary songs.  It's going to be a blast!

Q: Was it hard to learn some of the band's older songs?  What was your approach?

VS: Although Redemption's music can hardly be described as a walk in the park to learn, I wouldn't say that it’s been an overly challenging process for me personally.  I typically learn new music by listening to it a ton, getting it in my head not just the notes and harmonies but the vibe and most importantly paying close attention to, and internalizing, how each song makes me feel so I can express that through my playing.  Then it's a matter of practice, keyboard programming and sound design, and all that.  The process has been fairly smooth, perhaps facilitated by the fact that I've been familiar with much of the band's output over time and the internalization process hasn't been too arduous.

Q: Let's talk about one of your other bands: Lux Terminus.  You guys have a new album out called The Courage to Be, which is your debut record.  What can fans expect?

VS: Lux Terminus is a "passion project" for me, if you will – a progressive rock trio comprised of keyboards, bass and drums.  Our style sits somewhere between prog rock and jazz fusion with further influence from djent/metal, symphonic music, and electronic – and we do it all without a full-time guitarist or vocalist!  (We do have guest appearances on our record by Anneke van Giersbergen, Timo Somers and Raphael Weinroth-Browne to flesh things out where appropriate.)  The music is driven mainly by piano, it's quite dynamic, conceptually driven, and extremely stylistically diverse.  I'm deeply proud of The Courage to Be, and if anyone reading this wants to really get inside my head as a musician and songwriter, I think it's a pretty good place to start! 

Q: How did you and the other band members, Matthew Kerschner (drums) and Brian Craft (bass), meet?

VS: Matt and Brian were the rhythm section of the first "real" band I joined, Gravity.  Gravity were to some degree local legends in Cleveland as far as prog goes, and I played some cool shows with them like opening for Dream Theater on the Dramatic Turn of Events tour stop in Cleveland.  Eventually, the band went on hiatus, and after a few years of not really having any bands, I decided to hit up Matt and Brian to play, of all things, cocktail jazz with me.  Our ambitions were really no greater than perhaps making some fast cash playing restaurants.  But when I have an ensemble of talented players at my disposal, I write for them, and the original music I was writing was definitely progressive rock, with various other influences littered throughout.  We figured we would just ride the wave of what I was writing and see where it took us, and we're all pretty stoked with how things came out!

Q: Anneke van Giersbergen was outstanding on the song, "Epilogue: Fly," which you guys released a lyric video for this summer prior to the album's release.  How was it to work with her?

VS: Working with Anneke was a dream for me, as she is quite literally my favorite vocalist ever and her voice and music have been hugely important to me for years.  I'm both shocked and deeply thankful that she was receptive to my offer to do a song together!  What is still striking to me, every time I listen to the track, is how much she shaped the song and made it her own by singing it – phrasing nuances, embellishments, and just general character…  I can honestly say that her performance on the song is one of my favorite vocal performances ever, as a fan of hers, although of course I know I'm as biased as can be!  I can't say enough good things about her as a singer, as an artist, and as a person.

Q: What's next for Lux Terminus?  Any possible tour dates?

VS: Lux Terminus would love to hit the road to support The Courage to Be!  Everyone knows touring is a massive endeavor, and all of us in LT are enormously busy with our own lives, but it would be great fun to play this material out, as it already has been during the couple shows we've played together thus far.  I would love to hit the prog festival circuit as well, and I think that's probably more likely at least in the short term!  Aside from that, we'll be working on our follow-up record, and trying to build on what we've accomplished, which I am tremendously excited for.

Q: Can you tell about your other band: Our Destiny?  

VS: Our Destiny is a project that I have had for years with my girlfriend and gifted vocalist, Lauren Nolan – it's actually how I met and got to know her!  We have existed for many years, making piano and vocals (and sometimes other instrumentation) covers of our favorite songs (Anathema, Nightwish, and many more).  However, it's high time we start releasing some original music, which we plan to do this year.  Several songs are already in the bag and it's extremely exciting and rewarding for me to make this kind of uplifting yet deeply emotional music.  It makes for a nice contrast to a not-at-all-uplifting, deeply emotional project that should hopefully be announced soon! 

Q: Getting back to Redemption, I heard Nick van Dyk mention in an interview that Tom Englund had been a fan of a cover version you had done of Evergrey's "Distance," which I also loved by the way.  What inspired that cover?

VS: Thank you!  Tom himself inspired that cover, actually.  He and I first met in person during Evergrey's 2017 U.S. tour, and the morning of the show I recorded a quick one-minute version of "Distance" and posted it on social media.  They used that audio as the "intro tape to the intro tape" of their live show that night, which was pretty neat!  Some time after the fact, Tom told me I should make a piano arrangement of the full song – and a "request" from Tom freaking Englund is not something one takes lightly!  

Q: What other progressive metal bands have you covered?  Do you have any cover songs that you're most proud of?

VS: I've covered quite a lot of stuff in my time, and some of it I am still genuinely very proud of.  (Some of it doesn't age quite as well, as my first piano covers date back to when I was 14 or 15 years old, but that's what growing and developing as a player is all about!)  Some of my absolute favorites I've done include: all the Anathema arrangements I've done (massive fanboy alert: I've actually done probably more than 10 Anathema covers, including album medleys of Distant Satellites and The Optimist that I am quite proud of, although my favorite I've done of theirs is "Lightning Song" probably), the aforementioned "Distance" arrangement, my medley of Ocean Machine by Devin Townsend, "On a Tuesday" by Pain of Salvation, "The Greatest Show on Earth" by Nightwish, and "Lune" and "The Way the News Goes" by Periphery.  It's not progressive metal, but it was great fun to reinvent "That Song" by Amaranthe into a jazzy, bluesy solo piano performance as well!

Q: I've heard your covers of various Dream Theater songs on YouTube, and I particularly loved your take on "These Walls" and "The Count of Tuscany."  How has their music influenced you and do you have any favorite Dream Theater albums/songs/solos? 

VS: Thank you so much!  Dream Theater is as important to me as any band could ever be, as they are arguably THE reason I entered the wild and wonderful world of metal (not just progressive metal!) in the first place.  Alongside Nightwish, they really opened my eyes to what was possible in a heavy context, and Dream Theater in particular showed me that it is possible to tap into the visceral power of metal while exhibiting a dazzling level of intricacy and virtuosity that I hadn't really encountered since my many years studying classical music.  My favorite Dream Theater track will always be "Octavarium," as it was the song that I first fell in love with (and to date it is one of my favorite compositions in modern music), but I truly enjoy the vast majority of what they have done, from the "classics" in the 90s all the way up to the Mangini-era albums, which I think are quite great in their own right.

Q: One of my other websites is The Mooreatorium, an unofficial online community for fans of keyboardist Kevin Moore (ex-Dream Theater, Chroma Key, OSI).  As a keyboardist what are your thoughts on the keyboard work of Dream Theater's three legendary keyboardists (Kevin Moore, Derek Sherinian and Jordan Rudess) and what they each brought to the band's sound?

VS: I'll have to check out The Mooreatorium – super cool stuff!  I feel the same way about Dream Theater’s keyboardists that I do about Nightwish's singers – the band really is blessed to have so much consistently wonderful yet extremely diverse talent throughout the years!  Moore's playing of course has a memorable quality that really shines through, and many of his keyboard lines and lead parts are truly iconic in the progressive metal canon.  He has a way of setting a profound mood through what may seem like simple textures that is really remarkable as well.  I love Sherinian's sense of aggression in his playing, although I think his genius really shines more in the context of something like Planet X, whose records I am a huge fan of.  Rudess was one of my earliest and biggest inspirations as a keyboard player, and even to this day he never fails to impress me.  I think some fans criticize him as being soulless and mechanical, and I suppose given his technical proficiency I can understand why they might perceive his playing as such, but to me Rudess's playing is the exact opposite of that.  To me there is so much pure joy in his playing – nothing is forced, nothing is contrived, this is just who he is, in all of his nerdy brilliance.  He simply can't help but be a next-level musician, and I personally love that he doesn't curtail who he is and lets it rip.  (He also can play extremely beautifully and emotively, as his piano solo album Notes on a Dream illustrates.)  Also, it's worth noting his talent as a composer and improviser – every single thing that guy plays sounds album-ready to me, even when he's just noodling around on a Facebook live stream or improvising to test a piece of gear.  I guess you can probably tell from all this who my favorite Dream Theater keyboard player is J but I do want to emphasize that all three are monstrous talents, and all have been inspirational to me during my journey! 

Q: What's next for Redemption after the ProgPower USA show? 

VS: We have, of course, the headline show at the Whiskey in Los Angeles, which is going to be great fun!  We'll be hoping to do some more live dates to support the new record, although I don’t know exactly where those will be yet.  Then, it's all about diving into writing the new record, which we are all extremely excited about.  I think the best is yet to come (as great as the present music is!), and the prospect of taking what we do the next level couldn't be more exciting for us all!

Q: What kind of gear do you use?

VS: Live, I'm a one-board guy – I use the Korg Kronos 88 for just about everything.  I love the internal sound engines on it, to the point where regardless of what I do in the studio, I'll probably just end up recreating it on the Kronos.  If something really is particular to the source material and can’t be easily recreated, I'll sample it in and trigger it.  In the studio, I work primarily with software synths and VSTs.  There are too many to name in full, but I'll just mention a few that I have been using a great deal lately: Spectrasonics Omnisphere, Imperfect Samples' piano libraries, Synthogy Ivory, the Arturia V collection, Native Instruments Massive, and for orchestral work largely a mix of Spitfire Audio, EastWest QuantumLeap, and ProjectSam stuff.  I'll usually use my M-Audio Hammer88 as the controller, although I'll use my Kronos or a simple Oxygen-25 if I need more faders (I rarely do, personally).  I use the Kronos for a lot of synths in the studio as well, in particular all my leads (which are built from scratch on the Kronos) or lush analog synth type tones from the Kronos's really outstanding Polysix engine.  I do have my gear-whore impulses, as most musicians do, I think, but I do my best to practice restraint and make the most of what I have.  Some of the best ideas come from imposed limitations! 

Q: Where can fans go to learn more about you or hear more of your music? 

VS: If you want to know more about me or find out what I'm up to, your best bet is on social media (Facebook and Instagram @VikramShankarMusic), or my website vikramshankar.com.  Thank you so much for the interview, and hope to see you all on the road soon!


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