A household name even beyond music circles, Winter Moods is indisputably Malta's most popular rock band and has been so for quite some years. Its latest album The Journey, released last month, marks the 30th anniversary from the band's formation. Though inspired by the band's own journey in music, the songs on this album are anything but retrospective, maintaining the band's melodic clout while hinting at a broader mindset in terms of direction with very intriguing results. Winter Moods frontman IVAN GRECH talks to Michael Bugeja about the band's past, present and future.
The Journey is clearly much more than just the title of your latest album. Looking back to those early days, did you ever think you'd still be together three decades on?
The album is literally a trip back in time, revisiting unforgettable moments of our career all the way to the present. In the beginning we were just living a dream. We lived for the band, nothing was more important and whatever came in between was pushed aside; the band was always something much bigger than any of us individually. We never really thought much ahead, simply riding the wave of excitement and creativity that hooked us. I don't think any of us imagined Winter Moods would still be around 5 years on, let alone 30 years later.
How do you feel the band's initial aspirations have changed over the years?
We were always about writing and performing our own songs, hardly ever playing covers. In the 1980s it was all about concerts and festivals, so we always looked forward to any opportunity to play live and share our music with as many people as possible. That all changed in the 1990s, and our song-writing and creative sessions became directed towards recording albums, releasing songs to radio and TV, and the social media, and performing to promote it. Naturally we've matured a lot, and through experience we've found common musical ground, but each one of us contributes in his own way. Seeing it all come together is rather fascinating and quite overwhelming.
What are the most important things you've learnt as a musician, and as a human being from the experiences that being part of Winter Moods has taken you through?
Being able to help people and contributing to charities through music has given me so much joy and a sense of achievement and peace in my life. We've all gladly given so much of our time and supported many different causes and NGOs along the years, and through these experiences, I've learnt to appreciate life so much more, to make the most of all I have been blessed with. Today, besides helping other causes I am proud to be a trustee of the BOV Marigold Foundation, an ambassador of the Special Olympics Malta Team and I'm very active and attached to Puttinu Cares. Of course, there are limits to how much time and support one can give especially when free time is a luxury, but I do my very best to give back to the society that I am part of. I'm lucky to be in a band that shares my passion to help others, their support means a lot.
What do you think has enabled the band to stay together at the top of the local scene for so long?
Keeping our feet glued to the ground, no ego clashes and true passion for music are the primary reasons behind the band's longevity. We truly enjoy what we do, from the thrill, energy, mystery and vibe of the whole writing process and experimentation in the studio to recording and releasing new material and performing live. We still get a kick out of all this, we live it and embrace it as it's what keeps us going. The key factor to our success is not about how long we've been together, but about us being consistent and relevant throughout the journey. Our popularity is based on our music, and I feel truly humbled to know so many people out there truly relate to our songs, and how something I wrote about my experiences in life can become completely theirs. Our songs spell our hearts, speak the truth about life in general and find their way into the hearts of people of all ages and from all walks of life. We are five ordinary people in a band and the constant support and feedback we get from the people inspires us to do more.
What targets did you set for yourselves in terms of direction when you started working on The Journey?
The song-writing and recording sessions of this album were probably the best we've ever had. We had such a good time together, working in harmony with no pressure of deadlines whatsoever. Musically there were no barriers, no guidelines and no rules, we just let every song take its course lyrically and musically. We spent a lot of time away at remote places, literally living together for days at a time just writing songs, at the end of which we had a bunch of good songs and potential bits and ideas ready to take to the studio.
The studio sessions that followed were much more relaxed than usual, which enabled us to take a more experienced and confident approach, even to be a bit more adventurous and experiment with sounds and arrangements. Each of us had more space and time to explore new ideas, and David Vella's input as a producer, approaching the songs from another perspective and bringing those extra ingredients to the table, has always been an asset to the final outcome of our work. We've been working with David at Temple Studios since 1994, so his input and guidance is also an integral part of what we've achieved so far.
And what were the album's main inspirations, lyrically in particular?
Lyrically, I sincerely feel this is my best work to date. Thoughts, feelings and emotions flowed comfortably and easier into words and melodies, sorrows and joys of past and present, the richness of belonging and the hurt of loss, from the sweetest to the darkest of lines. The muse was so alive that on songs such as Not The End, This Will Never Die, Love You, Hate You, Adore You and Lights Are Fading Out, I just walked to the microphone and started recording my vocals with hardly any pre-written lyrics, only the subject and a few lines and ideas in mind. 90% of what I sang stayed in the songs, just a few tweaks and that was it. When one revisits our previous albums, each one had its dark moments, but perhaps the diversion into darker songs, sounds and lyrics is more evident this time round. The ups and downs of a 30-year journey, the sense of musical freedom and the positive vibe among us at that point in time were the main inspiration for The Journey.
At the album launch you said that after making this album there was a rather challenging period that actually delayed the launch of the album and tested the band's spirit and determination. I'm sure there have been other trying moments in the past 30 years and the band has always come out stronger...
Unfortunately, after an overwhelmingly positive and productive period, a certain apathy surfaced, a mixture of individual personal circumstances and conflicting opinions related to the process of finalising the album, which contributed to months of unease and disagreements. We discovered that being over-enthusiastic can be as bad a lack of it; we were there in the same room yet distant from each other, unable to find common ground. It was a dark phase that made months feel like years, but it is during these moments that the band's strength is tested, the positive outcome proving that Winter Moods is bigger than any one of its members. It was the force that won us over and brought us together, reaffirming our friendship, respect and passion for music to bring us back on track. It's not easy being part of Winter Moods; this isn't just a hobby, it's a 'family' of five strong, different characters and so is bound to go through rough patches. Being in a band requires commitment; there's a lot of fun and reward, but it also takes a lot of hard work.
Despite having left the band some years prior to his demise, I sense that Steve Caruana Smith remains an integral part of the band, even on this album....
Hardly a day passes that Steve is not mentioned whenever we're together, and it is always with a smile that we recall so many memories and flashbacks of one of the most unique characters one could ever meet. He was an amazing guitarist and of course one of the founders of Winter Moods whose contribution still echoes strongly in everything we do. Steve was actually meant to play on the song Lights Are Fading Out on the album, but unfortunately it was not to be. We still refer to it as his song and his presence still lingers throughout... we also dedicated the album to his loving memory.
The album was launched with an intimate concert last month, but I'm sure there are bigger plans to mark this special milestone...
The launch gig was a blast, we couldn't have hoped for a better way to launch The Journey. We wanted to start at a small intimate venue, and Hard Rock Bar hosted us once again with pleasure. The demand was bigger than we expected and the gig sold out in a couple of days. We tested some of the new songs with a willing audience and the reaction was overwhelming, a promising sign of what's to come. Having already performed to record- breaking crowds at the Valletta Waterfront and the Granaries in Floriana, we're looking to do something different for our 30th anniversary celebration concert this summer, details of which will be released soon. We'd like to thank all the ex-band members for their contribution to the band's journey and all those who stuck with us through thick and thin, your support will always be our main inspiration, and as long as we love it and you do too, The Journey continues ....
An edited version of this article was first published on the Sunday Times of Malta (05 April 2015)