Erik Norlander has made a career conjuring otherworldly sounds from towering racks of gear. Now the multi-keyboardist, known for everything from sound design to tours with the super-group Asia, returns with a new solo release, Surreal, which marries evocative instrumental textures with a classic rock lineup.
“In 2009, I recorded an album called The Galactic Collective, which [included] my ten favorite instrumental tracks that I had written for other projects,” Norlander explains. “I gathered them all together and went into the studio with an awesome rhythm section. It was meant to be like an anthology, but the album really caught-on, so we also released a DVD featuring live footage from the studio. Then a year later, I released a live DVD of the album as well. And so while the project was sort of meant to be a one-off, it had a lot of inertia. I kept getting invited to tour and play festivals five years after the album was released. I had intended to record a follow-up album a lot sooner, but as John Lennon said, ‘Life is what happens while you’re busy making other plans.’ So it took about six years to get this next album, Surreal, out.”
Norlander has been making sonic waves in his native California for decades. “I was born in Hollywood, believe it or not” he says. “I started playing piano when I was eight years old, and I kept that up right through college. I majored in music at UCLA, but I got bored with the rigidness of that as soon as I started playing in rock and jazz bands, so I ended-up graduating as an English major. My first band was called Rocket Scientists, and we put out our first record in 1993. In 2014, we celebrated the 20th anniversary of the band by releasing two albums. In fact, the two guys in the band—Mark McCrite on guitar and Don Schiff on cello—actually appear on Surreal and have been great friends of mine for my entire adult life. I’ve also made 10 studio albums with my wife, vocalist Lana Lane, who appears on Surreal, as well. So for a lot of my career, I’ve been juggling three different bands—Rocket Scientists, Lana Lane, and my solo work. I was also touring with Asia featuring John Payne and doing other projects.”
In addition to Norlander’s live and recording work, he is also a much sought-after sound designer who was on the original Alesis Andromeda design team. “It’s funny because I don’t really consider myself a keyboard collector,” Norlander says, “but whenever I say that, my friends laugh in my face, because I have something like 25 keyboards, including a Moog modular system, a Hammond B3, a Mellotron, a Prophet-10, four Minimoogs and more. It looks like a keyboard museum in my studio, but I acquired these instruments because I feel they each have classic sounds. They’re amazing sounding instruments, whether they are from 1950 or 2016. When we were designing the Andromeda back in the 1990s, we all brought our favorite synths into the design room. We wanted to model all of the elements of our favorite synths. That’s why it’s a very special instrument, built with a tremendous amount of love.”
Norlander is equally fascinated by both vintage and modern gear. “I think the recent Moog products like the Minitaur are fantastic,” he says. “What a great little synth! It’s about a tenth the size of my original Taurus pedals, but it sounds just as good in a different way. I also use things like IK Multimedia SampleTank 3 and T-RackS, and the Arturia and Spectrasonics plug-ins. I don’t care if something is old and vintage or the latest thing that came out last week, as long as it sounds good!”
Surreal has both a majestic and unhurried feel to it, a rarity in an age of single-driven, over-compressed music. “I actually used the word ‘unhurried’ myself when describing my arrangements to both the musicians and the mastering engineer,” Norlander explains. “We really tried to create an album of music, not just a bunch of songs that would go together. It’s meant to be like a movie, with an arc, different acts and scene changes. The album is meant to be an experience. I even worked with the mastering engineer to not completely hard-limit every track. I wanted it to breathe, and I went crazy over the little details. But it made a huge difference.”