There aren’t a lot of records I get seriously obsessed with, or manically hooked on. One of them though, is Shadowplay from Theo Young. As you may have figured given this statement, that’s the central drive which brought today’s article to the light of day. The instrumental prog rock/metal boom from the early ‘10s was something I was heavily invested in, in parallel with the advent of djent. Aside the emotional charge of catching a current in its incipient, there’s also the awe of witnessing fresh awesome material and bands blooming from what seems like virtually nothing. Fun times.

Anyway, during my digging sessions for music, I ran across Shadowplay sometime in late 2014 or something like that. I was instantly sold on it. It’s a short journey through vivid, lively, and almost kaleidoscopic soundscapes which feel as tender as much as energetic. To me, basically every moment on that EP is an absolute certified banger, especially “Cold Snap”, and “Petrichor”. While “Cold Snap” and similar sounding bits will have me rolling through my room and bobbing my head in large swings, just grinning with enjoyment; “Petrichor” and its homologues really tug at the heartstrings. Although, especially the ending to “Petrichor” which is impressive in its ability to do so via its unexpectedly elegant and simple composition. I never thought a song could wring out so much from two repeated notes slapped over a couple of chords, a simple beat, and a stripped-down string arrangement. I remember having moments where I actually cried over what I was experiencing during the ending of that song. It’s so damn beautiful.

Anyway, I’m sure you get the picture, so let’s dispense with the nostalgia trip and back up a little. I saw that Theo Young will be releasing a new album sometime in January. I was absolutely thrilled to see that after such a long silence, we’re getting new material from him. So I figured, what better way to double down on my love for Shadowplay, while also digging into the new album, than to talk to him about all of this? So here we are today, where Theo Young will offer his insight into his works and himself.

His follow-up to Shadowplay, Tales from the Inland Sea, is charting explorations into entirely new territories. So, it bears little to no resemblance to its predecessor. It’s still in a vaguely similar stylistic area, but really stretching itself into a different mindset and emotive charge. It’s immediately noticeable that Tales from the Inland Sea has something of a theme which ties into the implication of the title. It appears that each song seeks to tell a different story, instead of them uniting and telling different parts of the same story. When holding this up to Shadowplay, it’s obvious that there’s no particular unifying thread, other than a penchant for diversity and eclecticism. Tales from the Inland Sea is also obviously tapping well into the progressive side of the music, as well as offering a much lengthier development in size lending to a proper feeling as a full-length album. I’ll let him take it away from here to continue this thread in detail:

Tales from the Inland Sea really is much longer than Shadowplay, because I wanted to have a go at making a ‘full-length album’, and wanted to see what would happen if I committed to that! Embarking on making a full-length album was also a way of saying, ‘I’ve been dilly-dallying with music for so long, it’s time to finally commit to becoming a professional and doing this as a career, so I need to get my voice out there‘.

As for diversity, I just felt so compelled to explore more diverse sounds, and really push myself with experimenting and imagining. I can’t say I deliberately tried to tap in to the progressive side of things; it’s just how my music ends up sounding! I basically give myself permission to make whatever I want, regardless, which sees my music finding a comfortable home under the ‘progressive’ umbrella. The wonderful thing about progressive music is just how far you can push things and try new things out with it still being acceptable, and trusting that there are people out there who are going to be in to that too.

You’re right about the individual stories, and I’m glad you can pick up on that. It’s how the album is supposed to sound. Each track has its own character that I wanted to accentuate, explore and bring to life. And as the material for the album developed, I started to tune in to that more and more. It was exciting to recognize the diversity in what I was writing, and I found my vision for the album really embracing that. I tried to squeeze out the individuality of each track throughout each production stage – writing, recording, mixing – which was a really engaging (and fun!) creative process.

A word that I might use as a more fitting substitute for ‘tales’ or ‘stories’, though, is ‘dreams’; I like to think of writing music as a kind of dreaming, and that’s how It feels to me sometimes. So, each track is like a dream sequence. I don’t think the states of dreaming-in-one’s-sleep and being-in-the-creative-flow are too far away from each other. With dreams, I love how on one level they’re nonsensical, but on another level, they make a lot of sense, and can be imbued with such a sense of meaning and adventure. Anything goes in dreams! So, I like it to be that way with my music too. ‘Tales from the inland sea’ was actually a phrase a meditation teacher of mine used to describe dreams, which struck me as very beautiful when I first heard it. It stuck with me, hence the title!

I think a lot of what gave Shadowplay its uniformity was where I drew my inspiration from at the time, which informed what I felt comfortable putting out there. At that time I had a few really potent musical influences (Periphery, Plini, Sithu Aye, David Maxim Micic, CHON) who embodied a sound that I became very familiar and confident with, and wanted to put my own spin on. So, there were things I would write and mess around with, to which I would think, ‘No, you can’t do that! People wouldn’t like that; it’s got to sound more like THIS!‘ Even if I was actually really in to it, which limited my creativity and output to a certain aesthetic.

‘Essentially, with Tales, I’ve blown the lid off of that and it’s been totally the opposite! It’s been a more radical embracing of a far wider range of influences, both musical and non, and an allowing of all the different voices of my imagination to come through and have their time in the sun. I’m daring myself to say, ‘you know what, my imagination is doing this and wanting to make this, and I’m just going to say ‘yes’ to it, whatever it is!’ Which can feel scary, venturing in to the uncharted territories of what I feel comfortable making, but liberating.

In terms of stories, “A Spectre Comes to Visit” is by far the most prominent in terms of an explicit narrative, which sees a nightmarish apparition appearing to a young man and haunting him. But as their relationship develops, they actually become very close and fond of each other, and depart as close friends. The writing began with the heavy intro riff, which sparked the original image of this haunting apparition, but as I messed around with chord progressions and structures, the music then started to inform the image and the emerging narrative. Like when the first ‘chorus’ kicks in, with the ‘noodly’ lead guitar lick, I had an image of the specter bursting in to this dance routine and totally surprising the young man, which sparks the beginning of their friendship. By the time the second ‘chorus’ comes around, the young man is dancing too!

The other tracks don’t have as much explicit narrative, but are more simply image based; holding an image/resonance in my awareness that has a certain meaning or feeling, and allowing the music to emerge from the holding of that image.

“Chamomile Mountain” was a really strong one; I could practically smell these lush rolling hillsides and taste the cool air as I felt the yellow headed chamomile flowers underfoot, and I had a strong sense of being in Switzerland. It was very powerful, and I was really pleased with how well I managed to capture that one.

“Dear Psyche” was all about trying to enrich and compliment the beauty of the lead melody. It tapped in to such a yearning for beauty, and it reminded me of my Buddhist teacher, Rob Burbea (who unfortunately died a couple of years ago), who was very skillful at inspiring a taste for beauty and ‘soulfulness’. So, I called it ‘Dear Psyche’ as if I were writing a letter to my Psyche requesting admission to those divine realms.

“In Sanity” and “Give Me My Money Back” were very much written by ‘the trickster’, and had quite a subversive feel. “In Sanity” was like embodying this big, arrogant bully who didn’t give a shit, and was just happy to have a good time trampling over everything. For “Give Me My Money Back” I reverted to being a naughty child who knew they weren’t supposed to be doing what they were doing, but were going to do it anyway just for the sake of being naughty.

‘“Moontown” started with a strong image, which would be very hard to put words on (it is with all of this!), but it got a bit lost as the writing unfolded and I didn’t manage to hold on to it as much. It’s still probably my favorite track on the album though.

For “Never Worry”, there was a particular flavor of emotion that I wasn’t quite comfortable with but wanted to have a go at exploring, so I went for it. It’s more ‘happy’ than what I’d usually go, but it had a sense of charm and joy that I felt drawn to, so I managed to get the whole track sounding like that.

“F.M.P.” and “Anicca” are very ‘dreamy’, but didn’t have particular accompanying images. They just seemed to want to have a life of their own. It’s the same for the remainder of the tracks, “Sea of Souls”, “Little Creations” and “Mwnt Bay”, but they all had such distinct characters and flavors that I could really immerse myself in them and have a vision for how they wanted to sound.

I think the common denominator for Tales is, paradoxically, it’s eclecticism.

So there you have it, a bunch of little stories about a bunch of little stories. I’m sure there’s a joke to be made in there, but I’ll let y’all fill in the gaps. Anyway, I couldn’t help but notice that “Sea of Souls” is a heavy throwback to Shadowplay in practically every way. It basically sounds like it was a song that didn’t make it off the cutting room floor. Speaking of throwbacks, “Anicca” was released as a standalone single a few years back and I was thinking it may have been some kind of foreshadowing in regards to the eventual emergence of Tales from the Inland Sea. Alongside all of that, I have to say, it’s hard for me to let go of the experience of Shadowplay in order to wholly embrace Tales from the Inland Sea and I’m left wondering if we’ll see this side ever reprised. I’ll let Young detail and clarify upon these points:

‘“Sea of Souls” started as some riffs I wrote just before I wrote “Spoil Me Toast Boy” back in 2014, and they hung around for ages! So it’s a track very much from that time, hence the throwback to the old days. I dredged it up from the depths as I was working on Tales from the Inland Sea and liked how it contributed another face to the album, so I went for it. I would have liked for it to have been even more like the Shadowplay tracks, but I didn’t quite execute it well enough production-wise.

I feel quite tired of that particular sound, having lived it for so many years, and just find venturing in to the endless landscape of sonic possibilities too exciting to relegate myself to just that. So, I’m interested in exploring other things. It certainly does not, however, mean that I’m NOT interested in it, or that it’s off the table!

As for “Anicca”, it was something that happened very naturally, and I think it really found its home on Tales. I certainly never meant for it to be part of a future body of work. I was also pretty disappointed with how it sounded when I released it back in 2017, which has been a long-term frustration for me – feeling like my production skills fail to do justice to my musical ideas and compositions, which I see as my forte. So, I wanted to give it another go and squeeze more juice out of it, which I think I just about managed…!

There’s a strong contrast between Shadowplay and Tales from the Inland Sea, so I was left thinking that there’s more to it than it meets the eye. Surely there was a long-winded string of events that led to this very palpable change on all levels. As Young expands on below, it ties wholly into the personal realm of developments:

One of the biggest things that’s happened for me in the 8 or so years between Shadowplay and Tales from the Inland Sea, is that I’ve undergone quite a drastic personality change. I had an unhealthy relationship towards myself and life-in-general back in 2012-2014, which was making me very unhappy, so something needed to change, and eventually it did. It was very welcome, but also very challenging! It really started to happen when I discovered meditation in 2015, and I’ve been very dedicated to that ever since. So nowadays my mind works very differently and I’m a lot more inclined towards softer qualities like gentleness and kindness, and I enjoy that.

Something that has happened as a result is being more open, not only in general, but to new styles of music. So, I’ve learnt to appreciate and value the musicality of softer and slower music with more sensitivity, instead of just hard-panned, distorted electric guitars and syncopated rhythms! Not that I don’t still dig that, I’m just really in to exploring this new world of music that’s opened up for me.

So, as I’m settling more ‘in to myself’, I’m also settling more into discovering my own voice as an artist, and I’m more able to tap in to the kind of music that really runs deep in me and has the strongest sense of meaning, which I naturally want to put out in to the world.

Something else that’s really helped open these doors is production skills. For example, experimenting with different guitar and drum sounds, and finding that you can paint sonic pictures with tones and textures. It makes me really inspired. In turn, Tales from the Inland Sea, has been like a big exploration and celebration of everything that’s opened up to me like that.’

This all makes sense, as of course, the artist dictates the course of his tunes whether directly or indirectly. Which leads me to my next point – rummaging through these songs, it feels like a musical identity isn’t yet entirely crystallized, as if, Young is still in the process of defining this side of him through freeform exploration. Though, it also feels like, to an extent, the fleshed-out identity thus far revolves around diversity and eclecticism. He goes on to confirm this, as well as offering his account of what’s up with all that:

‘I’m certainly still in the throes of it, although it’s becoming clearer and clearer. It’s a very exciting thing, I’m finding, discovering my ‘voice’, and I’m often surprised at what comes out. I think you’re right in saying that my identity is quite built around eclecticism and diversity for now, but I sense clearer strands of that eclecticism being drawn out. I’m open to it becoming anything though, and I don’t want to be closed to anything!

The development of my musical identity does seem to run in parallel with my own unfolding as a human being, and I’d imagine it’s the same for most artists. It’s because art is such an intimate pursuit, it’s not separate in the slightest. This is probably a slight mis-quote, but my Buddhist teacher, Rob Burbea, would say, ‘Do you make the art, or does the art make you?‘ and I think there’s really something to that as he was a professional jazz player before becoming a Buddhist teacher.

Another thing I’d say is that, compared to Shadowplay, Tales from the Inland Sea is way more ’Theo’. It’s just got way more of my character in it, and it comes from a place of more integrity and honesty. I’m not trying to emulate other players nearly as much, and I’m becoming more confident in just saying what I have to say (musically) and letting that be. The music feels closer to my core, and I can only envision it getting closer. How that will sound, though, we’ll all have to wait and find out!’

I was obviously very curious to find out how did it all came to be as we see it today, both the artist and his art in relation to their respective influences. How the whole trip of becoming and shaping defined the end result we see as music. Young’s modest demeanor and background belies the vibrancy of his music, as you can see for yourselves:

‘For Shadowplay I had intense obsessions with a select number of musicians/bands. Corelia were probably number one, closely followed by Periphery, Protest the Hero and Plini. Others were Sithu Aye, David Maxim Micic, Disperse… It was so long ago I can’t remember now! I think my influences were all music-related back then, with a strong emphasis on technical guitar playing.

Since then I’ve been really into Vulfpeck, Louis Cole, Knower, Clown Core, Snarky Puppy, Jakub Zytecki, Plini (still), Jeff Beck, Aurora, FORQ, Guthrie Govan, The Aristocrats, Michael Kiwanuka, Karnivool, Tame Impala, Mac Demarco… Probably a few more I could list! So, it’s way broader and I love that.

Vulfpeck’s sound had a big impact on Tales from the Inland Sea, and I got really in to how strong a sonic aesthetic they have. The drum sound is a big part of that, and that’s what I really like about Tame Impala too – big, dirty drums with a lo-fi feel. Louis Cole (with Knower and Clown Core being his side projects) really inspires my sense of humor, and the recognition that things definitely don’t have to be serious all the time — hence — “Give Me My Money Back!”. Guthrie Govan also needs mentioning here, because I can hear his sense of humor coming through in his guitar playing too, which I just love.

‘For influences outside of music, the British countryside is a big one, especially where I grew up. I’ve been living back in Norfolk since 2016 so I’ve been more in touch with the land and the trees. That was actually starting to come through in Shadowplay, but I’ve really tuned in to that a lot more since then.

The other big influence that’s opened up for me since Shadowplay is, as I’ve already mentioned, meditation. It’s the exploration of the heart, the mind and one’s humanity in the direction of something awe-inspiring and, at times, mystical which never ceases to fire me up. It brings the humility, clarity and perseverance needed to really dig deep in to one’s artistic practice. And its a process of transformation too; new depths are always in reach, and it’s very far reaching. So, it’s changed my relationship to myself, to others, my family, to nature, to the world, to politics, to art… and brings a feeling of intimacy and care which unavoidably makes its way in to the music I make.’

Going even a little further back, I think it would be nice to have a backstory on the historical aspect of how it all came to be. But, also to jump back to the present and maybe lunge further than that for the sake of a complete picture. Young happily obliges, providing us with the ‘missing pieces of the puzzle’:

‘I can’t exactly remember the timeline of all this, but I know I used to have this 5 track CD of The Strokes that we got for free with a newspaper. I used to play it on repeat as I played Lego Rockraiders on our computer and it was just magic! It really lit the fire. I think I must have been about 7. I still love listening to those tracks.

Around the same time, my uncle would come round to ours and he’d bring a guitar with him (he was a violin maker at the time, so had access to instruments). I can remember him teaching me the D-chord and I was totally enthralled. I thought it was the coolest thing. So, I asked for a guitar, and that was that!

I had weekly lessons with a local guitar teacher until I was about 15, and he’d teach me a lot of country, blues and finger style playing. The theory side of things went straight over my head (still does) but he would transcribe a lot of songs for me, so I’d just get really stuck in to playing those. He was a great player himself.

Things really started to pick up for me, though, when I stopped having lessons and started taking things in to my own hands. So, I’m largely self-taught in that respect, and I’ve learnt most of my skills just through staying inspired, being curious, experimenting and messing around. I also started to write and record my own material when I was about 12, and by the time I was 16 I was really in to it. Discovering I could record myself, and then play back over the top of it was just mind blowing to me – I was hooked! Hence, I’m still doing it!

Looking to the future, I think I’m going to get back in to listening to more music. Something I haven’t mentioned yet is that, despite all the above, I haven’t been listening to that much music in the last 5 or so years, compared to how I used to at least. It just felt appropriate to do that, and it’s allowed the non-musical influences to really shine through. But I sense that changing now, and I want to get stuck back in and go deep. One reason for this is to develop my production and engineering skills – ‘what do great performances, tones and mixes sound like? Can I absorb that to give my own music more impact?’ Another reason is… it’s fun!

As for an end game, from my current perspective, it’s being able to write the music which feels most meaningful to me, and being able to perform, record and engineer it to a really high level. I want to share my musical visions with others in a way that translates, in a way that moves them. So, a lot of this actually concerns production skills. In terms of guitar playing, I’d love to be more fluent and fluid around the fretboard, because I feel a bit stuck there. So, I’m going to look to theoretical, technical and improvisational practice for that.

Also, very importantly, I want to make music a full-time career. Which means making enough money from music that I can continue to make more of it, and earn enough that I don’t have to work other jobs. It’s a dream and a goal that I rejected for many years as being impossible, but I’m dedicated to it now.

There you have it! Theo Young comes off as a dedicated and authentic musician who is wholly in love with his craft and his evolution as a musician – as any musician should be, really. I had a lot of fun unfurling all of this with him, as well as digging into his tunes, and obviously, I hope y’all do too.

Make sure that you follow Theo Young on Bandcamp, his website, YouTube, Facebook, or Spotify!

Robert Miklos

Robert Miklos

What can I say? I love slapping keys and listening to squiggly air.

One Comment

  • This is so interesting about Theo; I know him personally, and to discover the images and themes of his inner life just adds depth to the many facets Theo is and a has. He is a dark horse indeed. Or, may be, the better metaphor is ‘still waters run deep’.

    I find his music spellbinding in parts, and other parts throw me back away in their manifestation of fear and dread which bring forth a bodily experience in me. His ability to conjure emotion is profound and a testament to his journey through his own emotions. He knows that “inland sea” and then opens me to my own inland sea of troubles and joys. Thank you Theo. Please keep giving us this wonderful, challenging, and profound music. And thank you Robert for interviewing him…I may never have heard this stuff without your piece!

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