Tuesday, December 19, 2023

Annimax: An Exploration of the Solo Metal Project by Joel Wiseheart

Early Days and Inspiration: Joel's musical journey began in childhood, inspired by iconic performances from Alice Cooper and Gene Simmons. His initial attempts at playing guitar led to discovering a natural affinity for bass, facilitated by his friend, Chopper Stepe. Joining his brother's band marked Joel's first official step into music.

Career Evolution and Naval Service: Joel spent his early years in cover bands, interspersed with six years in the US Navy. Realizing the limitations of cover music, he shifted to original compositions in the '90s, contributing to bands like Xcalibur and later Nightshade.

Formation of Annimax: Post-2002, Joel initiated Annimax as a solo project, named creatively after his children. The project was born from the necessity of self-reliance in production and distribution. Annimax is not just a band but also a record label, Crystal Crown Productions.

Creative Process and Challenges: Joel's songwriting starts with lyrics, setting the tone for the music. He records each instrument individually, balancing roles as a multi-instrumentalist, vocalist, and producer. Major challenges include time management, financial constraints, and recording in a non-professional environment.

Musical Style and Influences: Joel's music with Annimax blends various metal sub-genres, each chosen to suit the song's theme. His influences range from Dream Theater's John Petrucci to Stevie Ray Vaughan, shaping a unique sound.

Debut Album 'Asphalt Assault': This album showcases Joel's eclectic style, featuring songs written over several years. Each track represents different phases of his musical and personal evolution.

Technology in Music Production: Joel relies heavily on technology, using tools like Cakewalk by BandLab and a Tascam 2488Neo 24-track recorder. He admits to using AutoTune for minor corrections and programmed drum tracks for practical reasons.

Advice to Aspiring Musicians: Joel emphasizes the importance of understanding both the artistic and business sides of music. He advises learning about copyrights, licensing, trademarks, performance rights, and distribution.

Future Plans and Legacy: Joel plans a heavier second album for Annimax and aspires to impact the metal music scene, not just with his music but also through his approach to production and distribution.

In summary, Joel's journey in music, from his early inspirations to the creation of Annimax, reflects a blend of passion, adaptability, and self-reliance, setting a unique example in the world of metal music.


Interview Q&A

Early Inspirations and Musical Beginnings:

Joel, can you take us back to your early days and describe the moment you realized music was your calling? What were the pivotal experiences or influences that set you on this path?

Music in general has always  been in my blood. Maybe it was when my parents made me lip-sync to Alice Cooper's "School's Out" for their friends while standing there in only my underwear (I had only come down to wish them goodnight!). Embarrassing, but got huge applause! Maybe it was being a small child watching Gene Simmons breathe fire and spit blood in his Kiss demon costume. Either way, I caught the performance bug and wanted to grow up to be a rockstar.

 As far as beginning to actually realize that goal, my friend Chopper Stepe (who's still playing, check chopperstepe.com) tried several times to teach me lead guitar, but I had a hard time fitting my big fingertips on those tiny strings and tiny frets. Then he suggested, "Have you ever tried playing bass?" We went to his brother Steve's room who had a bass. From the moment I touched it, it immediately felt more comfortable. 

As fate would have it, my brother was a drummer in a band. They had no bass player. The guitarist Jim Laurino had a cheap Fender P-Bass copy that he sold me for $60. So, I didn't know what I was doing, but I took my brother's set list and started figuring out bass lines one note at a time. Cream "Sunshine Of Your Love" was the first song I ever learned, "Fire" by Jimi Hendrix the second. After one week, I had learned enough bass lines that they hired me as their bassist, and Jim took me under his wing and started teaching me how to play correctly. So the end result was I was officially in my first band one week after buying my first bass!

 I was mostly in cover bands until about 1990. During that time, I wa spending 6 years in service to the US Navy, and was part of two bands that got to play shows on the flight deck of the USS Nimitz CVN-68 (How many people can list "the middle of the Indian Ocean" as one of the venues they've played?). In the 90s I started to realize I'll never get anywhere playing only someone else's music, so I switched to only playing in original bands.

 In 1990, I was in a band called Xcalibur, that never released any albums but did get interviewed by KISW's "Metal Shop" program in Seattle 99.9 FM. I played an Xcalibur show at the Ballard Firehouse club with another band called Triathlon. Who knew at the time that in 1994 Triathlon drummer Frankie Rongo would join a band called Nightshade? That leads perfectly into the next part of the story...


Formation of Annimax and the Solo Venture:

You've transitioned from being a band member in Nightshade to creating Annimax as a solo project. What motivated this shift, and how has this transition influenced your creative process?

Into Nightshade: I was fortunate enough to receive the honor of being bassist for Nightshade from 1994 - 2002. There are 8 bands named Nightshade according to the Encyclopedia Metallum; to avoid confusion, this is the one that shares members and history with a relatively famous band called Q5. Q5 was famous for having Floyd Rose, inventor of the locking tremolo system as one of their original guitarists. They have 2 tracks with over a million streams on Spotify from their 1984 critically acclaimed "Steel The Light" album, have opened for a laundry list of legendary bands (including Quiet Riot during my tenure), and even had one of their songs "Ain't No Way To Treat A Lady" covered by Great White. The singer Jonathan Scott K and the other guitarist Rick Pierce carried on into Nightshade in 1989, and I joined as their second bassist in 1994. I was the bassist on their second album "Men Of Iron", the only other studio recording I am on to date. 

The Departure: In 2002, circumstances arose that precluded me from being able to tour, so I quickly and gracefully bowed out so they could find a replacement in time for an upcoming festival in Germany. I was replaced by former Q5 bass player Evan Sheeley, who I was already acquainted with. So unlike many band members that leave squabbling over artistic differences or money, I am still not only friends with them to this day, but even friends with the man who replaced me! 

Annimax Begins: Although I have played in several bands with many bands with many great musicians, none of the songs that I wrote were ever recorded and released. In 2008, being stuck at home and rather than focusing on what I can't do, I focused on what I can still do. After all, I can get worldwide distribution through CD Baby. I can have Physical copies manufactured at Disc Makers. For music videos, I used to try to get signed to a label that could try to get me into rotation on MTV or VH1; today I can just put a video up on YouTube. And I can't play live shows, but I can still reach fans through social media. So, I decided, "If you want it done right , do it yourself." I began the process of multi-tracking an entire album, performing all roles as bassist, guitarist, keyboardist, drummer (okay, those are programmed), singer and producer. 

What's In A Name? (Part 1, the band): I figured my band should have a name. First, I wondered if I could make one out of the names of my 3 children. As luck would have it, their names in chronological order are ANdrew, NIcholas and MAXwell... AN-NI-MAX... ANNIMAX! I didn't have to look far! Ironically, to alleviate confusion as to whether the "N" was the second letter of Andrew or the first letter of Nicholas, I figured I'll just spell it with 2 N's. That was a stroke of luck; the domain name annimax.com was available, animax with one N was some Japanese anime thing. 

What's In A Name? (Part 2, the label): Record labels have finite resources. They can't support everybody. Most don't want to back a middle-aged bass player with no band that can't tour. So, I started my own label, Crystal Crown Productions, named after my wife Crystal. So I am now a one-man-band-and-record-label.

 Creative Process and Songwriting:

Could you walk us through your creative process when you compose music for Annimax? How do you balance the various roles of instrumentalist, vocalist, and producer?

There are no hard and fast rules, but I generally like to start with writing the lyrics. That way, you know what mood you're trying to create with the music. From there, I have to write, rehearse and record all of the parts, and add the tracks one at a time. Typically I put the drums in first to help keep everything synchronized. Then I go back through and record the bass, then the rhythm guitar, then the keyboards if any. The last two things in no particular order are the lead guitar and vocals. For vocals. I record the main vocal, and then go back through and add in any harmony parts. 

To write guitar solos, I usually make a jam track just the drums, bass & rhythm guitar for only the solo section of the song. I loop it, and record myself improvising solos over the jam track loop about 20 times or so. Then I go back and listen to what I recorded, piece together the best parts , and practice that as the final guitar solo.



Challenges and Overcoming Obstacles:

Every artist faces challenges. Could you share some of the significant obstacles you've encountered in your career and how you've managed to overcome them?

Time: I have a day job. When I finish that, I have to take care of my family. In my spare-spare time I get to work on music. So if I get a spare hour, the next problem is knowing how to spend it. I have to divide that time between all of the instruments, so I tend to be a jack-of-all-trades. 

Cost: In a "normal" band, the guitarist buys his guitar, amp, strings, strap, effects, etc. Likewise, the bassist buys his bass gear. The keyboardist? Synth, stand, monitor, seat. Singer? Mics, maybe a small PA. And let's not forget the Producer's 24-track recorder, mics, interfaces, etc. I perform all of those roles, which means I have to buy all of that equipment myself. Sometimes I end up having to cut corners, and do the best I can with the cheap equipment I can afford. 

Recording Environment: No recording studio; all of the album Annimax "Asphalt Assault" was recorded in a spare bedroom of my home. No professional soundproofing or iso-booths or anything. I have to pay close attention to background noise. For example, I noticed I have to remember to shut off the bathroom fan in the bathroom next room over. And if my neighbor decides to mow his lawn, it means I won't be recording for a while. Even ice cream trucks driving through the neighborhood are the enemy!



The 'Annimax' Sound and Musical Evolution:

Your music incorporates a blend of different metal sub-genres. How do you approach blending these styles, and how has your sound evolved since the inception of Annimax?

I'm a storyteller. I like to use whatever subgenre of metal best fits the theme and mood of the song. For example, more sophisticated song topics lean toward progressive metal. Fist-banging blood-pumping songs about things like fast cars and angry break-ups are best told with power metal. One song, "~ Day I Pass Away" (pronounced " 'Til the day...) was based on the legendary funeral march Chopin's "Piano Sonata No. 2 in B minor, Op. 35 III. Marche Funรจbre: Lento". Definitely doom metal. That's one of the benefits of running my own label; I don't have anybody else forcing me into one particular subgenre or brand.


A challenge I face being a storyteller is that stories like books and movies usually reach a climax near the end. Similarly, many of my songs deliver their message in the bridge or 3rd verse. However, with today's streaming mentality, many people only ever listen to the first minute or two of a song before moving on. In my case, they're bypassing the message of what the song is about. I either need to improve maintaining a listener's attention throughout the song, or start writing much shorter songs.


Influences and Musical Heroes:

You've mentioned a range of influences from different decades. Can you elaborate on how these diverse influences manifest in your music? Are there any particular artists or bands that have been instrumental in shaping your sound?

I could list hundreds of bands, so I'll touch on the primary ones. For guitar, there are four primary masters that I studied, depending on what I needed. For something with an intricate melody, John Petrucci of Dream Theater. Blazing fast speed? My former guitarist Rick Pierce of Nightshade. For raunchy noises and squeals? Dimebag Darrell Abbott was the master. Finally, some leads like "The Bottom Line"  needed a bluesy feel. At first I tried blues legend B.B. King, but he was the king of "bluesy blues". I needed more of a "rock blues" sound, so I ultimately turned to Stevie Ray Vaughan for that. 

For keys, I'd say Kevin Moore & Jordan Rudess of Dream Theater, and of course 10 out of 10 rock keyboardists are influenced by Jon Lord of Deep Purple. 

For vocals, I can't say much... My favorites are Russell Allen (Symphony X), Ian Gillan (Deep Purple) and Eric Adams (Manowar) and the legendary Ronnie James Dio. Of course, my voice isn't anywhere near as good of any of these, but I do the best I can with the voice I have. 

I learned a lot about drumming style from a tutorial by Mike Portnoy of Dream THeater. There's a lot of his influence in "Flattened World". Other than the obvious tempo changes and odd time signatures (even 11/8), I also employed a technique of playing the same guitar riff over and over, but putting a completely different drum rhythm under it every time. 

Finally, my main instrument of bass. There are hundreds, you've heard the names. Steve Harris, Geddy Lee, Victor Wooten, Chris Squire, John Entwistle, Les Claypool, Cliff Burton, Davide Beale (a.k.a. Davie504), etc., etc.  I learn a little something new from each bass player I hear. The


Album 'Asphalt Assault':

Your debut album 'Asphalt Assault' marks a significant milestone in your career. Can you tell us about the themes and stories behind this album? What does this album represent to you personally and artistically?

The album is all metal, but subgenre eclectic. It doesn't have any cohesive theme, but rather is finally releasing disparate tracks that I had written over the years but never got released. For example, "Waiting For The Reaper" was written about someone I broke up with in 1987. So to the rest of the world this is a brand new song, but to me it's 36 years old.


What was your songwriting process like for 'Asphalt Assault'? Did you approach this album differently compared to your previous works?

About the only point to be made here is "evolution" of my songwriting skills. The more recent the song, the better written it tends to be. All of the songs were written at disparate times over several decades, with completely different life experiences fueling them, and at different levels of maturity in my songwriting skills. so it's kind of all over the place.


Do you have any favorite tracks from 'Asphalt Assault'? Could you share the stories or personal significance behind these songs?

I could do a whole separate interview with a rundown of each song! I'll just pick one for now. Although not my most popular song, "Flattened World" is probably my favorite. A progressive metal song clocking in at 9:18, it was my very first attempt at writing something "Dream Theater-ish".  Musically, I threw all consideration of making a radio-friendly hit out the window. It has a lot of what you expect from progressive metal: odd time signatures, tempo changes and riffs and solos that push the limits of my playing abilities on all instruments (even bass!). Lyrically, it's one of the more sophisticated songs on the album. Where others are about fast cars and breaking up with girlfriends, this one is about the economic leveling effect of globalization and outsourcing on the American economy; Americans have become lazy and complacent, and need to step it up to remain as a world leader in today's world. Of course, it has nothing to do with the geometric shape of the planet. It's spherical. We've been to The Moon and verified this! 


Live Performances and Interaction with Fans:

As a solo artist handling multiple instruments, what is your approach to live performances? How do you connect with your audience during shows?

Unfortunately I don't. I can play all of the instruments, but not at the same time.


The Role of Technology in Music Production:

How has technology influenced your music production process? Are there specific tools or software that you find indispensable?

I will start by saying this: For a DAW, use Cakewalk by BandLab. It's FREE. Yes, you read that correctly. BandLab obtained the old code base of Sonar 8 from Cakewalk at a garage-sale price, so it is a fully functional professional DAW that can compete with ProTools or Logic. Did I mention it's FREE? BandLab decided to give away a free DAW as a loss-leader for their other products. Any VST plug-ins you have should work just fine with it. 

That being said, I actually record on my Tascam 2488Neo 24-track recorder, and then transfer to the DAW. I completely avoid latency issues when recording to a dedicated recorder. 

Touchy subject: AutoTune. I do use it sparingly to correct minor imperfections. Some may argue if you miss a note you should redo the track. The problems with that are that it takes more time and wears out my singing voice. Worst of all, sometimes when you redo a vocal track, you nail the pitch but lose the emotion. 

To avoid any criticism later, I openly admit that all of the drums are programmed on an Alesis SR-18 drum machine. Everything else is performed. Three reasons I use programmed drum tracks:

    • Noise. I record in a spare bedroom of my house that is maybe 10 feet from my neighbor's house. Real drums would draw police complaints.
    • Cost. a $250 drum machine is a lot cheaper than a $1,000+ drum kit.
    • Learning Curve. Consider playing a C major scale. The notes of a major scale don't change just because you're playing them on a different instrument. So if you understand music theory, the only thing left to figure out is the mechanics of how to generate the note you want on the new instrument. It's like driving a car: If you've always driven Toyota's and you switch to a Chevy, you have to get the feel of the controls of the car, but it's not like you have to learn the rules of the road all over again. The rules of the road didn't change, just the car you're driving on them did. Of course, the exception to this rule is drums. On drums you're learning rudiments and paradiddles instead of scales and arpeggios. I hope to take up drums for future albums, but in the interest of releasing an album in this century, for now they have to be programmed.

Advice for Aspiring Musicians:

Based on your extensive experience in the music industry, what advice would you give to young musicians who are just starting out?

There are two words in the music business: "Music" and "Business". Make sure you spend as much time learning the business as you do your instrument. Things like:
    • How do you obtain a copyright from the US Copyright Office?
    • How do you get a mechanical license (Harry Fox Agency) that is necessary for cover songs?
    • How do you trademark your logo with the US Trademark and Patent Office (you'll need at least 4 classes: 9 for music, 16 for posters & stickers, 25 for clothing and 41 for live performances)
    • How and why do you need to register with a Performance Rights Organization (ASCAP, BMI, SESAC, or my preference: the new indie-friendly AllTrack)
    • Why do you also have to register with SoundExchange?
    • What is available for merch vendors (for beginners, research Print-On-Demand services)
    • How to choose a distributor like CD Baby, Distrokid & TuneCore to name a few to bring your music to the masses?
    • Resources for developing a website?
I could go on... but the point is that there is A LOT to the music business. You need to spend as much time learning this stuff as you do learning arpeggios.

Future Plans and Aspirations:

Looking ahead, what are your future plans for Annimax? Are there any new projects, collaborations, or directions you are particularly excited about?
There is a second album in the works, and I have a couple completed tracks I will most likely release as singles, like an appetizer between meals. the second album will be a little heavier. If some of the material on Asphalt Assault seems "very 80s", that's because it is. My more recent material on the upcoming album has more modern influence like Shadows Fall & Lamb Of God. One of the songs is by far my favorite Annimax song to date, but you'll have to wait to find out what it is...


Legacy and Impact:

Finally, what do you hope to achieve with your music in terms of impact and legacy? How do you want Annimax to be remembered in the annals of metal music?
I wanted to bring my music to the masses, to entertain as many headbangers as possible. I have already achieved that with Asphalt; everything else is just icing on the cake. But luckily, I have a real sweet tooth and love A LOT of icing!



Annimax Socials

Echoes of the Twilight Path - Fictional Lyric Story

Created by Indie Mastered
Copyright Joel Wiseheart 2023

Echoes of the Twilight Path

In a world draped in the veils of twilight, where the mists of uncertainty lingered like unspoken secrets, there began the tale of a solitary wanderer. This was not just any traveler; it was one whose heart bore the scars of choices made and roads taken. This is the story of the journey through "Temptation's Toll," a tale spun from the lyrics of Annimax.

Our protagonist, whom we shall call Erian, found himself on a path shrouded in the dark mists of nowhere. It was a road that seemed to materialize only under his weary feet, a manifestation of his destiny. This road was unlike any other, for it was paved not with cobblestones or dirt, but with reflections of his past. Each step Erian took echoed with the weight of memories, of moments squandered, and dreams dissipated into the void.

Erian's journey was haunted by the specter of his conscience, a demon that mirrored his deepest regrets. This demon, an ethereal presence, seemed to leer at him with eyes that knew too much, its lips curled into a sneer that whispered of wasted years. The demon, a constant companion, was both a tormentor and a reminder of the pain Erian had caused in his pursuit of fleeting desires.

As he traversed this desolate landscape, Erian realized that his life was no longer his own. It had been claimed, bit by bit, by the very temptations he had once embraced. These forces, dark and seductive, had drawn him away from the light, leading him to a destination fraught with the damnation of his soul.

The chorus of his life, a lament that echoed in the void, was a plea to the heavens. Erian's voice, laden with despair, reached out to the skies, seeking mercy, seeking a sign. But the heavens remained silent, indifferent to his plight. This silence was a burden, a reminder of his isolation in a sea of his own making.

In the darkest recesses of his journey, Erian walked alone, guided only by the flickering flame of his inner demons. This flame, a beacon of temptation, cast long shadows that twisted and turned, mirroring the turmoil within his soul. His path to perdition was one he had paved with his actions, thoughts, and feelings, a road that led inevitably to the inferno of regret.

Bound by chains of addiction, Erian found himself at the brink, clinging to the frayed ends of hope. He questioned the very existence of redemption, pondering if a soul as tarnished as his own could ever find solace.

Yet, in the depths of despair, a revelation dawned upon him. The voice of a higher power, perhaps the Lord he had implored, whispered a truth that shattered his delusions. Erian was not locked out of salvation; it was he who had chosen his path, he who had walked willingly into the abyss.

Thus, the chorus of his life took on a new tone. It was no longer just a cry of despair but a realization of his own agency. The skies remained silent, not out of indifference, but because the answers he sought lay within him. Erian understood that he was sinking, but now he saw that it was he who had to reach for salvation, to swim against the current of his own making.

"Temptation's Toll" was not just a journey through darkness; it was a journey of self-discovery, of facing one's demons and acknowledging the power of choice. Erian's story is a testament to the human spirit's resilience and the eternal quest for redemption amidst the trials of life.

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