What can I say? Oklahoma-based singer/guitarist CLAY WITHROW went about it a little differently. Rather than getting his start in a band and moving on to that solo project, WITHROW began his career as a solo artist with his 2007 release ĎDISSONANCE RISINGí. Enamored by the talents of drummer BRANDON LOPEZ, keyboardist ABE HARTLEY and bassist CARLTON DORSEY, CLAY turned his solo project into the band VANGOUGH. Taking their queue from notable progsters such as DREAM THEATER and THE DEAR HUNTER, VANGOUGH couldnít be more eager to point out the absurdities and the ills of modern American life on their debut CD ĎMANIKIN PARADEí. The albumís title track mocks the glorification of anti-intellectualism. Abusive Catholic priests are the target on DISORDER QUOTIENT while PARADISE FOR THE LOST is a seething indictment on the Church of Scientology. ďI love the tongue and cheek moments in ĎMANIKIN PARADEí where I directly address the audience with certain little phrases.Ē says WITHROW. ďThose moments stand out the most to me because of the social commentary. That is something that I am always trying to put into the music.Ē

ROCKWIRED spoke with CLAY WITHROW of VANGOUGH over the phone. Here is how it went.

Talk about your thoughts on the finished album?
Iím really happy with it. Iíve been living with it for a while. LOPEZ and I recorded it back in 2008 and the more I hear it, I still manage to appreciate it just as much. Iíve even got it on my mp3 player.

You began as a solo artist a couple of years ago and now you are a band. How did that happen?
It started out as my second solo CD but when I got LOPEZ to collaborate on it, we decided to turn it into a band. It was easier to market it that way. This is my second CD but for VANGOUGH, itís the debut. When I recorded my first nationally released CD ĎDISONNANCE RISINGí, I had a band to support that album for live shows. We probably didnít play more than ten or twelve shows during the lifespan of the band. It was hard to market the band because we were progressive metal. People had a problem with the name and the genre and I thought it was time to move on to something and that was why we adopted the name VANGOUGH..

You have got to be the third prog act that Iíve interviewed this year alone. Up until recently, prog music was something that was kept underneath the radar and now itís out there with bands like INTO THE PRESENCE and THE DEAR HUNTER.
Itís really strange to me too. Iíve noticed that as well in the last two years and I donít know if itís because of some of these pseudo-prog bands like MARS VOLTA and DREAM THEATER gaining a little more traction. It could be related to that.

Well then your band is in good company then. Talk about how music began for you as an individual.
In high school, it was really thrash metal that was my calling. I started out playing a lot of MEGADEATH, METALLICA and PANTERA. When I had my first band, we did all of our original stuff but it was very much in the vein of thrash metal bands at the time. This was back in the mid-nineties when that kind of thing was past its prime but we were still doing it and it was a lot of fun. In college I kind of left all of that behind and I had moved on to progressive music. I was listening to a little bit of everything. It just seemed like a natural progression to move from some kind of metal genre to something progressive and I just got hooked. I do listen to a lot of other different kinds of music like video game music, folk and classical music but prog music fits in well with all of those genres. It is a genre that takes something from here and there. I started out playing guitar and have been playing ever since. Or at least trying to.

Describe the differences between recording as a solo artist and recording as VANGOUGH.
There is a huge difference. Itís still just as stressful because you are not dealing with the democratic process or having to make a session and you do everything your own way and focus on your own performance. When I had LOPEZ in the studio, I thought he was awesome on almost every take and it was very interesting to have to let go of what my expectations were for the recording. So that was a little different. It is the same with the other musicians. They come in and lay down their tracks and Iím thinking that what theyíve done isnít the way I wouldíve done it but I trust their judgment.

You were the producer and the engineer of this album. How difficult is it to sit in the producerís chair and then step in front of the mic?
For me, itís a lot easier to be the producer in the studio because all Iíve ever done is written music and arrange things and work with LOPEZ. When you are in the producerís chair, you have all of the time in the world to file things down so making the transition from singer and guitarist to producer was really easy. Iíve had a lot of little projects that I have recorded in the past that had built up to the stuff that I have done on DISSONANCE RISING and MANIKIN PARADE.

Explain the creative process to me. How does a song get written for you?
Itís interesting that you asked that because I teach a songwriting class at the University here. I actually start with titles of the song and from there, I construct the song to follow the theme that is suggested in the title. It kind of keeps the overall tone of the song consistent. So I start with the name and music follows it. That was how I went about writing the songs for this album. I didnít start with the music like Iím sure a lot of people do.

Talk about the members of VANGOUGH. Who are they and what do you think each of them brings to the table both musically and personality-wise that makes it all work?
The guy that I keep calling LOPEZ Ė his first name is BRANDON Ė is awesome. When I firs met him, he was working at a GUITAR CENTER and he just jumped right on board with this project. He just worked so perfectly with everything that I ever threw at him. Iíll give him a song and he listens to it and heíll just do his own thing to it and it always blows my mind. I am just eternally grateful for him taking that leap of faith with this project and now being a part of the band. He contributes tremendously to the band. He is also there to tell me if things arenít going to work. The other guys like ABE and CARLTON havenít been featured on the album yet but they have been playing with us live for a while. They are both just really awesome musicians. The truth is, they both fit in musically with what Iím writing so it has worked out pretty well. They will be featured on future albums. Weíre working on a cover album that they are recording on, so that will be kind of cool.

Talk about live shows. Iím curious as to how a project like yours can go out and get gigs and what the reaction would be like.
Itís really interesting because we have a lot of online fans all over the word but weíve kind of struggled here locally in Oklahoma to just get a gig. I donít know if the market right now is just really tough for bands or what. At the moment we are rarely playing shows. The shows are very sporadic but the reaction is always very good. We donít play a whole lot of shows. Weíre more of a recording band. We spend a lot of time in the studio just recording stuff.

It seems like some of the tracks lend themselves well to some sort of visual representation. Have you ever thought about that?
Yes definitely. That is something that me and LOPEZ definitely want to implement. Weíd like to have a projector screen for when we go on tour. That is something that a lot of other prog bands do and it looks killer.

From this album, what musical moments stand out for you the most and why?
Honestly, everything kind of stands out in itís own unique way. For me, each song kind of has that moment. I love the tongue and cheek moments in MANIKIN PARADE where I directly address the audience with certain little phrases. I do the same thing on CHRISTMAS SCARS. Those moments stand out the most to me because of the social commentary. That is something that I am always trying to put into the music. For me personally, ONE DARK BIRTHDAY is a stand out track for me because it is a very personal song whereas everything else is very conceptual and based around a story.

Talk about the artwork on the CD.
That is very cool thing! This guy named TYLER DUNLAP from San Francisco did all of the artwork for the CD. Right now, weíve just got the new edition of the CD which has even more artwork and a twelve page book. He did a little bit of artwork on the last CD and for this one, he did all of it. It is amazing to me how he took the concept and turned it into images.

What would you like someone to come away with after theyíve heard this CD?
I hope they come away being huge fans. I hope they love the CD so much that they spread the good word. Thatís all I can ask because we love doing what we do and we can only hope that people out there will appreciate it as much as we do.