By: William Clark
Ian Crichton is easily one of progressive rock’s most experienced and talented guitarists: he has contributed to several recording sessions with Asia, released several successful solo albums, and aside from that is a founding member for one of the world’s largest and most successful progressive rock bands, Saga.
Throughout these past 35 years and 21 studio albums, Ian Crichton has demonstrated true dedication to his art, and is a credit to guitarists that help the longevity of any band that exists and is still successful at their level.
Throughout each and every one of the Canadian group’s albums, Ian’s complementary playing style has brought an extra layer of depth to the band’s music, and it’s his remarkable guitar playing that has proven to be one of the stabilizing and consistent forces in Saga.
This proves to be an even truer fact when you listen to Saga’s new album, 20/20. Ian’s guitar playing serves up a a few home run on the new album, as it assists in providing each track with that same “wow” factor that helped make Saga’s original releases hits.
I recently tracked Ian down to talk about 20/20, his preference in instruments, and some interesting insights regarding the band’s history and future.
William Clark: There are some typical reasons people decide to play guitar – they were inspired by a great player, they want to meet women, or they have some poet in them that wants to break free – What was your inspiration to first pick up the guitar?
Ian Crichton: Well, I mean back in the beginning, I was about 13 years old. I think I was most influenced by my brother Jim, who plays bass in Saga. Jim’s three years older than me, and I was impressed. And it really kinda started that way.
William: What prompted you and your brother to form Saga and did you have some process in deciding who else would be in the band?
Ian Crichton: Uh, yeah, sort of. I mean, when I started my career, I was playing in a cover band called Kick Back, when I was 18 years old. Everything we played was half original, half cover songs. It went on for about a year and a half.
Meanwhile my brother Jim was in a band called Fludd, which was a recording act, and it had two brothers, the Pilling brothers, Ed Pilling and Brian Pilling. Brian acquired leukemia at age 26, and he passed away, which ended the band because he was the main writer.
And Jimmy decided to start an original progressive rock band, Saga, which he always wanted to be in. I was the first choice to come in there. I quit my band. He played with Mike Sadler, who’s the singer in Saga, for a few years already prior to this in a band called Truck, so he knew Mike. The other two members, Peter Rochon and Steve Negus, also came from the band Fludd. So, that’s how Saga was formed.
William: What songs did you cover in Kick Back?
Ian Crichton: Oh, wow. Some Led Zeppelin stuff, a band called Trapeze, some Aerosmith. But, we also had around half original material, too.
William: What is the story behind the firefly-looking mascot of Saga, found on your debut album?
Ian Crichton: When we started this up, my brother Jim, Mike Sadler, and Peter Rochon were writing the lyrics for our debut album, and they came up with a story which ended up being spread out over four records, and they were called chapters.
The first record had Chapter four and six, which was a bit of a riddle, and you had to have all four records to get the story. Behind the story was this creature based on Albert Einstein, and this creature had a vision of things to come.
William: Has there been much sibling rivalry working with your brother over all of these years or do you find music a glue that binds you together in some fashion?
There’s always been little discrepancies sometimes over arrangements or material, and stuff like that. But, that’s not rivalry, if anything the fights that have all happened were in the band, where you have four or five people with different opinions.
William: Tell me, what was the story behind Saga’s eighth album, The Beginner’s Guide to Throwing Shapes?
Ian Crichton: Well, that idea came off of a tour that we did in Europe, where Loverboy was the opening act. It’s a bit crazy, actually! (Laughs)
The tour lasted about six weeks, and in the morning of each show, the tour manager would be waiting for us in the lobby, and someone would yell, “Shape!”, and we would strike a pose for a picture. It was an ‘on the road’ type thing.
So, Throwing Shapes really means an appearance of people when they’re mad, happy, whatever.
William: What’s the weirdest thing that’s happened to you while on tour – or would you rather not talk about that?
Ian Crichton: (Laughs) Well, there’s been a lot of crazy things. But, let’s just take the latest tour, for instance. Last November, we were on tour, and we had a heck of a time.
Everything was going fine, we were doing a series of split headlining shows with an English band called Marillion, and everything was fantastic. Two weeks into the tour, it was a four week tour, and all of a sudden we had some trouble with our keyboard player. It’s one of the worst things that happened to us, actually.
He had had eye corrective surgery a few months before in Toronto, and two weeks into the tour his lens detached from his eye, and he had to go into surgery right away, in the city of Cologne, Germany.
We had one day off, and the next day we had to play Tempodrom, in Berlin, which is a really nice venue, and we had one day to fill the vacant spot in our lineup. We got the hottest keyboard player in Berlin and we rehearsed from nine in the morning to seven at night, and Saga’s music has a lot of keyboard licks, so basically what happened was we taught him all the chords and sequences, and then I played all those licks myself. And we got through it!
William: How did you discover Rob Moratti? Do you think he was a good fit as a member of Saga, and what was it like working with him on The Human Condition?
Ian Crichton: Well, it was a real hard search, actually, when Mike left the band. We had to find a new lead singer, and with all of our choices, Rob was hands down the best vocalist. Working with him on the album was a pleasure. I mean, we were working really hard on the record, and Rob has a studio in the basement of his house, so he recorded some very high quality vocals at home.
We shared over the Internet and telephone, and were working all the way up to New Year’s Eve in 2008. It was a real pleasure working with him.
William: Do you feel like The Human Condition would’ve sounded very different, had Michael Sadler still been in the band?
Ian Crichton: It would have been different, of course. Mike and Rob are two completely different singers. I think Rob has a little more commercial sound, but Mike has a much more progressive rock sound.
William: Saga’s new studio album, 20/20, was released recently. What are your thoughts about the new album, and what was it like working with Michael Sadler again after 5 years?
Ian Crichton: It was really great to have the family back together again. I mean, we started work immediately, and this record still took a couple of years to complete, for various reasons. Mike is out in Los Angeles, my brother Jim has moved back to Canada, so everyone is really just split out all over the place.
But it was fine. It was a lot of fun, actually. It was just worked on periodically a few months here, then a break, then a few months there, and took a couple years to do it.
William: Some guitarists have 30 or 40 or more guitars or G.A.S. (Guitar Acquisition Syndrome) – What and how many guitars have you found that best suit your electric and acoustic needs?
The guitar I’m using most right now, and have for the past 30 years, is a Lado by Joe Lado. He’s got a custom shop up in Lindsay, Ontario. It’s like a Stratocaster, but it’s by Lado.
The other one is an Ernie Ball Music Man. It’s active, it has a battery. And for acoustic I’ve gone to Takamine. I have a nice Takamine that works great for me.
William: Besides guitar, do you have any other interesting interests or pursuits?
Ian Crichton: Well, basically I’m a guitar player. I’ve been one my whole life. Everything else is, just whatever.
William: Is there anything in particular you think old time fans will appreciate about the new album? What’s your favorite track to listen to or your favorite track to play? One and the same?
Ian Crichton: I like “Till The Well Runs Dry”, “Anywhere You Want To Go”, and “Six Feet Under”. It’s nice to play guitar on them. They’re more up-tempo, and I personally like the heavier, up-tempo stuff. Except for the slower stuff, because it’s nice to play solos on, and you can sort of milk a solo instead of winding out. You can add great melody.
William: Throughout these past 34 years, what are the most apparent changes do you find in the band with respect to making an album?
Ian Crichton: Up until a couple albums past, Beginners Guide To Throwing Shapes, we were recording on tape. But, in the ’90s, we leaned more on the Pro Tools, mixed with having drums recorded on two inch tapes, and the rest recorded on Pro Yools. It’s a lot easier for editing, you don’t have to take a pair of scissors out and cut the tape.
William: You feel that technology is really all that has changed in regards to the way you would record an album?
Ian Crichton: Oh, yeah. I mean, we almost come from the dinosaur age, you know? (Laughs)
We used to put a metronome, the kind you would put on a piano, we would record that, and put it on track 24. And that would be our click track. You know, that sort of stuff. I mean, when we were making Worlds Apart, which became our really big record, MIDI was not invented yet.
Rupert Hine, who was the producer for that album, did all kinds of hard wiring tricks to make that record the way it was. It was difficult, but ingenious what you had to do in order to get past not having technology.
William: Anything we can look forward to from the members of Saga?
Ian Crichton: Well, we’ll see what happens when the new album comes out. In today’s age, I’ve heard somebody say that at some point, pretty much all bands are going to go. So, what the hell are we going to do a record for?
I mean, a new album is on the Internet for free before it’s even been released! So how do musicians even survive? It’s incredible.
Saga’s been going on like this since the ’90s. We’re in 2012 right now, and it’s been about 20 years of “Take the album for free”. So, go figure, right?
All the money musicians make has to come from live shows, and that’s pretty much the case with everybody.
Even the biggest artists out there, when they release a new album in the United States, a #1 record has 300,000 album sales.
But, back in the ’80s, Saga would release an album in the States and sell several million copies. Soon when we were only selling 500,000 records, the record companies thought we were just going downhill! (Laughs)
Nowadays, if you made those kinds of numbers, you’d be #1 all over the planet, you know? So, it’s made the music business really tough.
I really pity those new bands coming out and trying to make a go out of it. You see this for even the bands that open for us live, they might only get the chance to play a few shows, and then the rest of the year nothing happens. (Sighs)
William: Sounds like it’s very tough to be a musician in this modern music age.
Ian Crichton: Well, it is, unless you’re established like we are. We can go out whenever and do a massive tour. We just got back from doing a bunch of shows, and we’re about to head back out in October or November and play 25 cities across Europe. So, that’s quite lucrative.
William: Well, had you not had a music career, what do you think you’d be doing these days – a short order cook in the Yukon or the Prime Minister?
Ian Crichton: I would rather be the Prime Minister of Canada or a human cannonball. You know, $200 to $300 to be shot out of a cannon. (Laughs)