A Conversation with Alek Darson: Serbian Guitar Virtuoso and Composer
DK: So tell me how you came to play music, namely the guitar? What drew you to the particular style of metal that you play?
AD: When I was 10 my mom gave me her old nylon string, which she bought for herself when she was a teenager, but never learned to play. I had some lessons with a couple of teachers, mostly in classical and pop music. Later, as I progressed on my instrument, I got into rock music and consequently metal, which got me into playing electric guitar. When I got introduced to the music of Steve Vai and Joe Satriani, it was all done.
DK: I’ve listened all the way through your EP Panopticon and it is quite a wonderful display of musicality and technical ability within the sphere of metal. Can you discuss the themes explored in the record, as well as the process of writing and creating it?
AD: Thank you very much, Derek. Panopticon was put together over a large period of time, perhaps 5 years or so. Many songs were written, revised, rewritten, and all the shades in between. The themes are explorations of my personal thoughts and view on the world we live in today. “Sprockets” is how is hear and feel that prison we’re born into, the big machinery with interconnected cogs and gears. Flight came from reading a book called Flight by Sherman Alexie, very metaphysical and pan temporal/spatial, resonating very much with my recent experiences of transitioning to the US. “Waltz of Titans” and “Spiral of Sanity” speak of the minds above – the overlords, and how they influence our lives, where one can only stay sane if turning towards insanity. Rind is a story of a soldier who went crazy after a war, and suffers from delusions caused by medication in the asylum. Last, but not least, “Fingers Painted Purple” is a personal vision, a look back at a time of my life that felt particularly purple.
The writing process was usually similar: start with a good riff, follow with drums/bass, put a melody, and spice it up with atmospheric sounds.
DK: Being Serbian, undoubtedly your culture is inextricably linked to who you are. How has your ethnic background influenced your music and your life?
AD: I was born and raised in Belgrade, Serbia, so it’s a huge part of who I am. Serbia is an interesting environment to grow up in, especially at the time I did. Its geo-political position is making it act as a bridge between the east and west, and those cultures have been influencing on our people for centuries. Personally, I usually get swayed by the inflections in the melodic instruments, and those often come up in my writing without me even noticing. Sometime, it happens that I realize the influence much after I finish a work, and it’s quite a realization of that Balkan spirit within me.
DK: Having experience playing in both countries how does the music scene in the United States compare to the scene in Serbia?
AD: Serbia is a drastically smaller market, but has a lot of zeal. All the bands live their music, and make no compromises in their art, even though they might never gain any revenue from it. In the States, things are much more set on the business side, and there is a much more developed feel for community. I feel like both markets have something to learn from each other.
DK: Jordan Rudess of Dream Theater said this about you “Alek has a unique approach and sound. His music and guitar playing are incredible.” I can only imagine what a rush this was to hear this. How did it come about that he heard your music and made this statement?
AD: Indeed it was, that day was one of the highlights of my US/Berklee experience so far. I grew up on Dream Theater. They are my musical heroes. A great friend of mine – Eren Basbug, who also did a string arrangement for one of the songs from Panopticon, works with on Jordan’s projects as an orchestrator. On one occasion, he had a chance to play my music for him, and Jordan liked it so much that he bought the album and sent me a video message, stating how he feels about the music. Having that kind of support from Jordan Rudess means a world to me. However, my greatest satisfaction was that he actually felt inspired to start playing the guitar again after listening to “Fingers Painted Purple.” The same feeling he and DT had given me so many times during the years. It was an honor beyond words.
DK: You have experience playing in bands and as a solo artist. How have these experiences shaped you as a musician?
AD: Being in a band is much different than leading one, it’s crucial to know the taste of both sides, and always consider them equally when making decisions. I find that both roles carry the same significance. It’s extremely important for everyone to know exactly what their role is, and what they can expect from the others. It’s tricky business, as there are emotions involved in most cases. Being a sideman for years gave me good insight of how I want to have my band members feel in my band (and how not to). For me, it’s all about that sense of a unit when on stage and the energy pulsating from it. It’s imperative to keep the band in correlation with itself, so we can deliver the show to the audience, which ultimately becomes one with the band (at least for a bit).
DK: When you perform live what kind of experience do you want your audience to have? What do you want people to feel or think when they hear your body of work?
AD: My goal when playing live is to have the audience emerged into the music to that extent that they make it their own. Instrumental music is good for this, as there are less pointers to lead you in the “right” direction. I want people to enjoy a sense of safety, surprise and even anxiousness perhaps. I know for myself, when I compose and perform this music, I go through a multitude of strong emotions. I strive and evoke this catharsis in each member of the audience. People need to do this, it’s healthy and unique experience that no one can take away from you.
DK: I’ve noticed you play some unique guitars that I’ve never seen before (and I’m a rock/experimental guitarist that has been playing a long time); can you discuss how your Wood Guerilla guitars achieve your desired sound?
AD: Wood Guerilla has an authentic and very organic brand. The main builder – Dalibor, has an excellent grasp over the mechanics of what makes a stringed instrument, to that extent that it goes into a realm I do not understand. Tone-woods that he uses are top notch, and they are put together with such love and passion, and the results merely appear at the end. I own 6 of his artworks, and each of them have a special sound unique to that instrument. This helps me to differentiate my sound and playing technique, as I adapt to the instrument. This adaptation, in fact, goes both ways, and it’s that interaction that creates ones sound. In short, I love these instruments for their durability and character.
DK: Can you discuss what studying at Belgrade’s VISER College and Boston’s Berklee College of Music helped you achieve in your music career?
AD: As a musician of the 21st century, one needs to take in all the aspects of music; an unavoidable one being the music production side. That’s what I learned at VISER, along with some nice video technology chops, which came along with the major (turns out that’s also needed for a 21st century musician). Berklee thought me the modern artistic musical approach and how to utilize all the knowledge and skills I gathered over the years towards one goal. The highly international environment in our beloved “Berklee Bubble” gave me a virtual tour of the world and all of its cultures. Playing and writing music with all these difference artists was invaluable. Ultimately, it shaped me into the artist I am today, and more importantly, I learned to shape myself with the ever changing times.
DK: I have noticed that we have some similar influences for the guitar (Steve Vai, Joe Satriani, John Petrucci). How has their playing impacted you as a musician and a creator of music? Are you influenced by any specific artists or styles outside of progressive rock and metal?
AD: Heavily! In the manner of their music. I’m a big fan of guitar driven music (obviously). The basis of guitar techniques I learned from studying their work, as well as composition/songwriting approach. However, I constantly try to expand on that, play with the medium, form, and sound. This tendency probably came from listening to modern classical like Gyorgy Ligeti, Igor Stravinsky, John Cage, Krzysztof Penderecki, as well as the Old Masters. I also love contemporary jazz artists like George Benson, Pat Metheny and (the not-so-jazzy) Snarky Puppy.
DK: You also define yourself as a composer, arranger, and producer. Is this primarily with your own music or with other artists?
AD: Both really. These are my top three crafts, aside from that I do audio engineering, videography, and session guitar/bass work. I like thinking about all of those as one-package.
DK: Where do you want your music to take you in the future?
AD: I’d love to tour the world, and live out of playing my music to the people.
DK: Do you have any projects you are working on at the moment?
AD: I try and keep myself busy. At this moment, I’m producing two albums (Progressive Metal, and Modern Jazz), working on arrangements, and writing music for a short film, all these for different artists from Brazil, US, Dubai, Serbia… In between I focus in and compose new music for my next release. Also, a music video for “Sprockets” is in post-production phase, and another live playthrough video is in pre-production. Needless to say, it’s enjoyable to be working on so many different projects. The amount of talent involved is refreshing and a great motivation to move forward.
DK: Is there anything else you would like to say before we close this interview?
AD: It’s been my pleasure answering your great questions Derek! I wish you the best luck with your future musical endeavors! I’d like to send my sincere greetings from Boston to everyone reading this interview. I invite you all to subscribe to the newsletter on my website, it’s the best way to keep in touch with the times at AD headquarters.
Alek Darson can be found at: