Interviews

Interview With Kerwin Tsang (Gothik Serpent)

Gothik Serpent is a collaborative progressive rock studio project based in Singapore. Fronted by Kerwin Tsang, the project prides itself on producing technically-accomplished concept albums in the modern age of streaming and ‘cherry picking’. We caught up with Kerwin and asked him a few questions about Gothik Serpent’s history and mission statement:

Your music features a wide range of influences, from progressive rock to surf. Can you tell us a little bit about your musical background and what first inspired you to start writing?

I actually became inspired to pick up music in  2006 while pursuing my college degree in Los Angeles. A friend of mine turned me onto Rush, and the level of songwriting was unlike anything I had heard before. One day, I made a half-joking comment to a college buddy that it would be pretty cool if I could play bass like Geddy Lee. He immediately persuaded me to actually go through with it and drove me to a Guitar Center to pick up a bass and amp.

As it turns out, I discovered that I had a pretty good ear for music and joined a hip-hop group with some college mates called Honor Flow Productions. That was my entry point to discovering all kinds of musicians and genres. At the same time, I began listening to more progressive sounding records from King Crimson, Dream Theater, Yes, Genesis, Tool and so on, but it was when I discovered Porcupine Tree and Steven Wilson that I was blown away by what you can accomplish with amazing songwriting that blends multiple genres together. In 2013, two things happened: I reached a point in my bass playing in which I was starting to become bored, and I started feeling the urge to try my hand at songwriting, rather than just being a bass guitarist. I left Honor Flow Productions and, with a lot of fire in my belly, began work on my first record. Three records later, I’ve found songwriting and music production to be far more rewarding and that’s where my focus is right now as a musician.

 

Much of your music (specifically the arranging and guitar work) is highly-technical. Can you tell us about your background in instrumental tuition as well as what tutors/artists you found most helpful?

Aside from a few parent-enforced piano lessons when I was 8, of which I have little to no memory of (I can’t play a piano to save my life today), I have no formal musical training. Everything in my songwriting is driven by pure instinct. I hear a melody or a rhythm in my head, and I do everything I can to manifest what I hear into the songs in my records. I have tried watching some formal music lessons on YouTube, but honestly, it feels like sticking my face in a hot oven. Instead, I am more informed by listening to a variety of artists whose music brings something exceptional to their respective genres, such as Steven Wilson, Nine Inch Nails, King Crimson, ABBA, Duran Duran, The Beach Boys, Magma, The Dillinger Escape Plan, Meshuggah, Everything Everything, Karnivool and Tool. These are bands that put more emphasis on great song arrangements, rather than crazy solos that last an eternity. A lot of “technical” music like Jazz Fusion often features musicians taking turns to solo, punctuated by the band playing a chorus in between each solo. I’m more interested in music in which ALL the instruments are moving together as a single unit, and the structure of the song itself is complex, rather than any individual instrument.

Each of your albums follow a concept or theme. Why do you think this is important in the modern day climate of streaming and ‘cherry picking’ tracks off of albums?

People today don’t treat music with the same respect and attention they would give a book or movie, because there’s just so much of it out there and it’s so convenient to hear whatever you want based on your tastes, rather than spending time to seek out new music. I think the idea of an album being a collection of songs is outdated and is part of the reason why music culture has devolved into cherry picking. I believe giving albums a continuous narrative or theme is a way to stand against this and elevate music onto the same level as all other works of art that involve these elements.
Usurper is part storyline, part concept. It’s the continuation of the narrative established in my previous two records, in which the old world (Interloper), having been devastated by warfare (Extremist), has been rebuilt (Usurper). Conceptually, it touches on a lot of the political uprisings that have been happening in the past decade, such as in the Middle East, United States, Great Britain, and the Philippines, and examines both the positive and negative repercussions of such uprisings. Art in general typically skews positively towards revolutions and uprisings, but I thought that was kind of boring and wanted to paint a more objective picture.
Tell us a bit about your compositional process, from initial idea to finished track

There’s a huge number of ways I get inspired to write a song. Usually I hear something in a band I’m listening to that gives me the “spark”, other times, a melody will just spontaneously enter my head while I’m on the way to work or having dinner. On very rare occasions, I will actually dream of the song. Closer to My Name, the fourth track on Usurper, is one such song that I dreamed.

The next stage is to compose everything as meticulously as possible. I use Guitar Pro, a tablature program, to map out everything: drums, bass, guitars, vocal melodies, horns, strings, and synths. I have extremely high expectations for what makes it through to my record, so this process takes a very long time as I fine-tune every nuance of the song. If it sounds great on Guitar Pro’s mediocre sounding VSTs, then it will sound amazing when recorded for real.

After that, it’s onto the actual tracking process. I always start with drums, then bass, then guitars, synths, and vocals last. Then begins the painstaking and arduous process of editing, mixing and mastering.
In my first two albums, I worked with a number of people to bring my vision to life. However, I wanted Usurper to sound as close to what I heard in my head as possible, so I did most of the work myself and had to teach myself how to mix and master. It made the process that much longer, but I’m very happy with the sound of the album and I consider it to be my best work so far.
What’s next for the Gothik Serpent project?
Currently I’m remixing my second album, Extremist, using what I’ve learned about mixing and mastering over the course of making Usurper. I’m proud of it as it exists now, but I want to do an alternate version that sounds much, much closer to the original vision I had. Beyond that, a fourth album is also in the works. I’m still in the exploratory phase, figuring out what the sound and concept of the album will be, but I definitely want it to be more diverse in the range of sounds it will have.
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