Interview with Jonathan Mover (GTR, Steve Hackett, Marillion) about ProgJect

Every prog story begins somewhere. I know that many Proglodytes readers (myself included) can remember the first time they heard a progressive record, down to the exact album they chose, the feelings they felt on that first listen, even the tactile sensation of holding the record. In the case of drummer extraordinaire Jonathan Mover, his prog story eventually compelled him to become a professional musician, and in his case, that passion and skill led him to play with legendary acts such as Steve Hackett, Alice Cooper, Joe Satriani, and more. But Mover never forgot those feelings that he felt when he was a young man, learning to drum along to Carl Palmer and Bill Bruford and Phil Collins.

After a last-minute fill in gig with The Musical Box, that strong affection for classic progressive rock was rekindled, and Jonathan came up with the idea to form a supergroup of sorts that would honor those classic progressive rock tunes that had left such an imprint on his soul. After a few meetings and phone calls, ProgJect was born. As these songs are quite challenging, Mover sought to recruit a group of musicians that could handle the high level of technical skill that the songs require, but he also sought out musicians that shared his passion for these foundational progressive tunes. Mover recruited a truly jaw-dropping roster of musicians to take on the road: Michael Sadler (SAGA) on vocals, Ryo Okumoto (Spock’s Beard, Asia) on keyboards, Matt Dorsey (Sound of Contact, In Continuum) on bass, and Mike Keneally (Frank Zappa, Steve Vai, Dethklok) on guitar. Mover dropped in to talk to Proglodytes about his musical history with prog rock, his influences, his favorite prog tunes and musicians, as well as the impetus for bringing ProgJect to life. ProgJect is currently touring the United States and tickets are available via the band’s website. Please check out their videos and make the effort to see them live- you’re not gonna want to miss this one.

You recently said “prog is the reason I play drums”. Can you expound on that?

It was “prog”, as in Emerson, Lake, and Palmer, that got me interested in music in the way of wanting to play an instrument. I believe I was ten when I heard “Lucky Man” on the radio and specifically, the outro with Keith Emerson’s Moog solo had me captivated and wanting to play keyboards. I asked my parents to buy me the record, and when we got to the record store and flipped through the ELP bin, I saw the cover of Brain Salad Surgery, and even though “Lucky Man” wasn’t on it, that was the record I chose. I remember immediately being taken with all of “Karn Evil 9”, the story as a whole, and especially “The 3rd Impression”, with the robot and the ‘sound’ of the entire composition. I absolutely remember hearing “Toccata” for the first time; as soon as I heard Carl Palmer’s drum solo triggering Moog synth sounds, that was it for me. From there, it led to the obvious – Yes, Genesis, Crimson, Jethro Tull, Gentle Giant, etc.

Who were some of your biggest sources of inspiration? 

Well, if we’re talking drummers, as I just mentioned, Carl Palmer was the first. From there, it was Bill Bruford, Phil Collins, Chester Thompson, Barriemore Barlow, John Weathers, etc., all from the prog bands that were next for me to get into. Which of course, led to many other prog bands and the related drummers- Mark Craney, Rod Morgenstein, Prairie Prince, Neil Peart, Willie Wilcox… But also, outside of “prog” I was listening to and being influenced by all the great players, Simon Phillips, Steve Gadd, John Bonham, Tony Williams, Billy Cobham, Terry Bozzio, Vinnie Colaiuta, Dave Mattacks, Andy Newmark, Richie Hayward, Keith Moon…

And there were certainly musicians aside from drummers that were inspirations as well. Keith Emerson, Chris Squire, John Paul Jones, David Gilmour, Joni Mitchell, John Coltrane, Jaco Pastorius, Richard Thompson, Geddy Lee… Don’t take this the wrong way, because I love Neil Peart’s parts and creativity, but I was the only drummer at a Rush concert that wasn’t watching Neil, I was watching Geddy.

Jonathan Mover. Photo taken in Atwater on 07/26/21.

Tell us about the origin of ProgJect. What made you decide to form this group?

The idea and inspiration came from my getting a last-minute rescue call to play with the Genesis tribute band, The Musical Box. It was literally last-minute, with a Tuesday evening phone call to me in Los Angeles, followed by my getting on a 6:00 AM flight the next morning from LAX to Boston, and then a drive north to New Hampshire to meet them for the first show – no rehearsal and not much more than an introduction and I was onstage. From that moment on, I was taken right back to my teen years and experiencing the very same feelings I had when practicing to my favorite bands and records, which just happened to mostly be prog. I stayed out with The Musical Box for a bit and had an amazing time, but when I got back home, I felt something I hadn’t felt in a long, long time…a void. I really missed playing that music every night.

As you referenced earlier, prog rock is the reason I play drums, but by the time I turned pro, prog in the classic sense was over. And, although I got to work with some prog-associated artists, such as GTR (with Steve Hackett and Steve Howe), and Marillion, neither was the ‘prog’ that I grew up wanting to play, and so my career took a decidedly different, though incredibly fortunate path, which included working with artists such as Alice Cooper, Aretha Franklin, Joe Satriani, The Tubes, Shakira, and others; though I never lost my desire to play the prog I grew up listening to. So, being onstage, in front of an audience, playing songs like “Robbery, Assault and Battery”, “Wot Gorilla”, “Watcher of the Skies”, “Dance on a Volcano” and “Back in NYC” had me very happily reliving my childhood, and reminding me of why I started playing.

So, there I was back in L.A., thinking about how much fun I had just had, along with missing the experience of playing the music that I love, and several nights a week, so I thought, “How can I do this for myself and continue the love affair?” Then, I thought about all the tribute bands out there: “If there’s an audience for Genesis, and an audience for Yes, and Pink Floyd, and ELP, and King Crimson, etc., there’s an audience for all of them. So, why not play them all, since I love them all, and assemble a team of extraordinary musicians that feel the same as I.” And, so I did. And they, like me, wanted to play a variety of prog from all our favorite bands, and therefore agreed with my concept of an ‘homage band’, instead of a tribute band.

Ryo Okumoto. Photo taken in Atwater on 07/26/21.

Choosing a group of musicians  that could honor these songs might have felt like a daunting task, but, for the record, the group you’ve assembled is sort of like The Avengers of Prog Rock. How did you choose the people that would be performing with you?

A daunting task was exactly what I was expecting, but surprisingly, it all came together very quick and very easy. I have to thank two people in particular- Erik Madsen and Alan Baillargeon – that helped make this dream a reality. And this is exactly how it happened on the first day. Erik, a great friend and guitarist here in L.A., is the first person I told of this idea I had as soon as I got back from playing with The Musical Box. I wasn’t living here that long, so I didn’t know of a lot of the L.A. players, but Erik did. I asked him who was out there, and if he could think of anyone [that could play]. The first name he brought up was Ryo. I didn’t know Ryo, but I had heard of Spock’s Beard. Erik texted Ryo and Ryo’s immediate response was, “Give Jonathan my number and tell him to call me, I’m very interested.” The second name Erik brought up was Mike Keneally for guitar, to which I thought to myself, “Wishful thinking. Keneally’s not going to be interested in this, he’s busy with Joe [Satriani],” Anyway, later that very same day, Erik and I were in Pasadena to see Brand X, and wouldn’t you know it, we walk up and get in line to go in, and who’s standing directly in front of us…Ryo.

We met and spoke for a bit and without even playing a note together, it was a done deal. A few days later, I was on my way back to Boston, and while I was there, I was scheduled to be interviewed by Alan for his NewEARSshow. He wanted to talk to me about playing with The Musical Box, as well as my other prog associations, but after the interview, once we were offline, I told him about my idea, told him about Ryo, and the thought of Keneally, and asked if he could recommend a bassist and/or a singer, that’s related to prog. He told me about Matt [Dorsey], who is originally from the Boston area and now living in Los Angeles, and then he mentioned Michael [Sadler], to which I thought, just like Keneally, “He probably won’t be interested in this, he’s busy with SAGA.”

Well, I called Matt and Alan called Michael, and the rest, as they say, is history. It was all immediate with everyone. Of course, Mike [Keneally] didn’t come into the picture straight away because the last time I saw him, which wasn’t long before, he was on tour with [Joe] Satriani, so I just figured he was busy and off doing that. We went through a few guitar players, and then got bailed out by my good friend and great guitarist Jason Bieler, who I’ve known and worked with over many years. Jason knew he wasn’t the guy to permanently fill the position, but he offered to step up and step in, in order for us to get some recording and filming done, so that we could launch the band. And with that, I reached out to Mike, now two years later due to COVID, and he replied straight away that he was into it.

Mike Keneally

Picking a set list of amazing prog classics might feel daunting to the uninitiated. How did you decide what songs you’d play? Was it more democratic, or did the members join the group with more or less an idea of what songs they’d be performing?

This is going to sound very undemocratic, but I assure you it wasn‘t, and isn’t. I put it all down on paper first, then did all my edits, revisions and arrangements in Pro Tools before I played anyone anything. And as I said, it was a mixture of everything. Then, as soon as I started finding the guys, I played them what I had and everyone just said, “Yes.” They loved the song choices and the medleys I pieced together, and then, as soon as we started playing them, everyone had the opportunity to put in their two cents, and we arranged more and morphed from there. But there were some songs that were decided on by the guys. “Squonk” was a song I had on my list, but hadn’t decided on 100%; Michael saw it on the list and said it was a favorite and he always wanted to sing it, so no argument there. And when I mentioned doing something from U.K., thinking “In The Dead Of Night”, it was Ryo who said, “Rendezvous 6:02” and we all agreed.

This group is stacked with incredible talent. Many of the members, including yourself, have had extensive interactions with the musicians you are covering. Do you feel like playing with musicians such as Steve Hackett and Steve Howe gave you extra insights into some of the songs you are currently playing? 

No, not at all. Playing with Steve and Steve was an incredible experience and one of the most important career opportunities I had, because let’s face it, joining a “supergroup” at 21 with the guitar players from YES and Genesis was pretty amazing for me. But, let’s also face it, GTR was basically a pop/rock band, that had a little bit of prog dusted on it. It didn’t start out that way, but it eventually came out that way. And, I was already a fan of both Steves via Genesis and YES, so even if I had never played with them or met them, I’d still be doing this.

As for the repertoire, the songs that we’re playing are really just a bunch of songs that I love, and/or always wanted to play, and for a variety of reasons. For example, “Karn Evil 9” is such a prog masterpiece, and was so monumental in my development as a musician, I’ve always wanted to play it. “Siberian Khatru” happens to be the very first song I played start to finish on a kit when I began playing…and it’s such a great song. For technical abilities and level of difficulty – the “Bruford Medley” is not for the faint or weak of heart, and the same for Crimson. Anything from Genesis worked because every song is an epic and we as a band, love everything from them. “Two Weeks In Spain” [was chosen] because it’s such a fun song, it breaks up the density of the set a bit, and more people should know about Gentle Giant. And, it’s not often you get a song of such beauty like “Rendezvous 6:02”, so that was an easy choice. And of course, “Solsbury Hill”, which is just such an incredible song–lyrically, melodically and rhythmically, it’s a perfect piece of music. The set is a bit of everything, and certainly satisfies all of our needs and desires, although, we’re already compiling a list for the next batch to dig into.

And, I have to mention. It’s one thing to want to play these songs, but it’s another to actually be able to, mostly due to finding musicians of such high-caliber to do so. And with that, I’m very lucky to be surrounded by such amazing talent, all helping to make my dream (and theirs) come true.

I know you’ve mentioned that many of these songs have been in your heart and soul since you first started playing drums, and that the drummers you’re covering (Collins, Bruford, etc.) are some of your biggest influences. What are some things you noticed or (re)discovered about the drummers and musicians you are covering as you learned this particular set of classic prog songs? 

Great question…and an easy answer. Drummers first. I really didn’t (re)discover anything new about my guys, because I’ve known it from the start and never felt any different. [With] Phil Collins, aside from his impeccable groove and feel, his chops were second to none. He had an amazing single kick, and his ideas, when it came to parts, are just insanely good. Bill Bruford is one of the most intelligent drummers on the planet; very clever. You listen to Bill the first time, or for the first one hundred times and you think, “That’s so cool how he dropped that beat, or he displaced an accent to change the rhythm.” Then, you really listen and/or chart out what he did and you realize that there was absolutely a method to his madness. He knew exactly what he was doing with everything he did, which I feel is the opposite of Phil, who had the ground work done, but just grooved and let it flow, and magic happened. Love them both, for all of those reasons. And then you get someone like Barriemore Barlow, who is just so fucking amazing at everything, that you have to sit back, take a deep breath and wonder, “Where did this guy come from?”

For Musicians: These compositions and their composers never cease to amaze me, and included in that are the musicians that played them. And, listening to this music, the obvious focus most of the time goes to the keyboard player, and for good reason. Keith Emerson, Rick Wakeman, Kerry Minnear, Eddie Jobson–all extraordinary talents that changed music and shaped a genre. But, beyond that, the unsung heroes are the bassists! Chris Squire, without doubt, is absolutely the top man, he’s the Jaco of rock! As much as I love Bruford, and I do, I cannot listen to Yes and not equally take in Chris. His bass lines make the tunes. Mike Rutherford, the same – that descending bass line in “In That Quiet Earth” sums it up. His bass playing adds so much to Genesis. And rediscovering ELP, I’m even more in awe of Greg Lake. Not only appreciating his playing so much more than when I was a kid; his bass lines are incredible, but he is the glue of the band. Geddy Lee, as I mentioned before, is just a force to be reckoned with; he did it all, and did it all very well. The same can be said of Ian Anderson as a vocalist, composer and player. His phrasing and sense of rhythm are unmatched. That’s one of the beautiful things about prog; you take in everything and everyone, and each time you listen, you hear something new from someone else in the band. 

Matt Dorsey

I’m sure many progheads out there see this group of musicians with tremendous songwriting skill and think, “I wonder what their original music would sound like”. Is that something you all have considered as a group? 

It isn’t anything that we’ve talked about in the sense of a timeframe or approach, but it’s been mentioned, and it’s looming, so its most likely inevitable. Of course, like you are asking, we’ve already been offered/presented interest from some labels asking, “When?” and saying, “Please,” but first we need to establish ProgJect as it is right now. Once we’re fully out there and solid, the rest will fall into place.

I saw that, among the prog classics on your list, you have The Tubes as well, who might be slightly out of the “prog canon”, but certainly fit the description.

I think with The Tubes, most people associate them to the songs that they know and recognize from the radio and/or MTV, which of course, is going to be, “Talk To Ya Later” and “She’s A Beauty”. But, if you, like me, listened to the first album, and the next few, The Tubes are definitely prog. Upon first listen, they reminded me of a theatrical Zappa-esque band, and “Up From The Deep” is one-hundred percent that. It’s odd time, it’s a multi-layered and orchestrated composition, a very complex arrangement, drum fills galore, synths, sitar, counter-rhythmic and melodic guitars, and the musicianship is top-notch. And let’s not forget songs like “Telecide” and “Tubes World Tour”, and some of the tracks on Mondo Birthmark have more odd time in them than an entire Rush album. It all comes down to how you interpret the word “prog” or “progressive”. The Beatles and Frank Zappa are two of the most progressive artists in the world, and happen to be my two favorites, but most don’t think of either when you mention prog.

What are some other bands that you feel like don’t get the love they deserve from the prog world?

Gentle Giant is Numero Uno when it comes to not being recognized to the degree that they should have. Those guys are un-fucking-believable musicians/composers, and I know of very few players that can tackle their material. And I don’t just mean a song like “Cogs In Cogs”, which is a feat in and of itself, but something like “On Reflection”, which every time I saw them live, they nailed note for note in front of a live audience. No samples, no sequencers, no tape loops… just five guys that could really play and sing. And every record, right from the start, was brilliant. The debut UK record is a desert island disc, no question. And of course, Bill’s band Bruford, is prog brilliance and unlike any other. Mike Rutherford’s solo record Smallcreep’s Day is an absolute prog masterpiece. The Utopia RA record is another must-have if you’re a prog fan.

I was a big Happy The Man fan, and their first two records should also be included in any prog record collection. The Brand X records with Phil especially, but don’t forget Masques. Chris Squire’s Fish Out Of Water. The Dixie Dregs What If. And there are a few records out there that most I’m sure don’t know about, but should definitely check out – the first Group 87 record with Terry Bozzio; Triumvirat’s Pompeii record with Curt Cress (the lyrics are a little corny, but the music and drumming are great); the first Captain Beyond record, the Canadian band FM, Crack The Sky had some cool tunes, and I love Penguin Café Orchestra, who are very progressive, although not in the traditional sense. And I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the Swiss band Nik Bärtch’s RONIN. Talk about progressive, they’re doing shit with time and layered rhythms unlike anyone else I’ve ever heard. Absolutely check them out!

Michael Sadler

I appreciate that you are not just a drummer, but a fan of drumming. Your work with Drumhead Magazine is proof of that. Who are some drummers, in and out of the progressive rock world, that are inspiring you these days?

It’s funny, whether it’s drummers or artists in general, I’m still mostly listening to what I grew up listening to and loving, and still find inspiring… The Beatles, Zappa, Genesis, Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, YES, ELP, Peter Gabriel, Crimson, Joni Mitchell, Jethro Tull, Rundgren, Weather Report, Mahavishnu Orchestra, Gino Vannelli, Fairport Convention, etc., and all the drummers associated. I will always default to them.

As for new(er) artists, definitely RONIN, who I just mentioned, but the only band and drummer to come along in the past 30-plus years that really knocked me out and consumed me, that I include in my favorites list, is Jane’s Addiction, with Stephen Perkins. Their first two records are desert-island discs for me. Of course, XTC is worth every minute you spend listening to them, especially The Big Express and Nonsuch. For more recent players, you can’t deny how good a band like Snarky Puppy is, and I really enjoy and appreciate them when I see a YouTube clip or when someone plays me something, but I’ve not gone out to buy any of their music or create a playlist on my iPhone. I really enjoy the Icelandic band Agent Fresco and their drummer Hrafnkell Örn Guðjónsson, otherwise known as Keli. They’re quite different, very creative and extremely talented players. No one else comes to mind at the moment, but I’m sure I’m leaving a few out.

But when all is said and done, I find myself going back to my first loves and listening to the same thing(s) over and over and over again… The bands that I listed before, and drummers Simon Phillips, Phil Collins, John Bonham, Steve Gadd, Terry Bozzio, Vinnie Colaiuta, Tony Williams, Bill Bruford, Jim Keltner, Andy Newmark, Dave Mattacks, Billy Cobham, Barriemore Barlow, Mark Craney, Rod Morgenstein, The Marotta brothers, Manu Katché, Steve Jordan, Chad Wackerman… do you have a few hours? I could go on and on…

Thanks so much for speaking with us, Jonathan! Please make sure to catch ProgJect on tour! Tickets can be purchased via the ProgJect website.

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