Wednesday, December 6, 2023

A Conversation with Circle of Sanity

Circle of Sanity is a hard rock/metal band that has been performing and recording for fifteen years, developing a loyal following in the Northeast USA amongst a series of personnel changes. 2023 marks yet one more evolution for this band, and one that is poised to make waves in both its sound and band configuration. For the first time in their history, founding members Josh Sapna (Guitar/Bass/Vocals) and Kevin Horner (Drums) have added keyboards into their group in a major way. Classical/Prog Metal keyboard legend Vitalij Kuprij of Trans-Siberian Orchestra, who has spent the last couple of years releasing his latest solo album, Progression, as well as releases with prog-metal outfits Majustice and Ring of Fire, has come aboard and has officially joined Circle of Sanity. 

I had the honor and pleasure recently to sit in on their rehearsals as they played much of their forthcoming new EP live and chatted with the guys on the history of the group, their latest lineup with Kuprij now involved, and upcoming plans. They talked candidly about their music and band, and I came away from this experience quite impressed with their unique combo of hard rock, prog metal all with a strong melodic ingredient.  We also floated the new song past a few musicians and got their thoughts, shared at the end of this interview.

Dan Roth: Can you tell me a little about how the band originally formed and when?

Josh Sapna: We formed this band in 2008.  Prior to that I had a band called Mad Souls that put out a 14-song record, and for a while I was in a cover band called The Bugs.  The Bugs was booked by Media Five and we did the shore scene, big crowds, good money, but no outlet for my art. I put an ad out and Kevin Horner hit me up and we found a bass player and a second guitarist.  I started bringing my songs to the table and we wound up recording an EP at Barber Shop Studios with the late, great Jason Corsaro, the Grammy winning engineer.  It was our first release and overall were not as happy with it as we would've liked.  We wound up being a little rushed getting it done.
 In 2014, we released a full-length album, Twisted Into Shape, which had some new songs and a few from that original EP that we wanted to re-record and put out there in a more final shape. It was co-produced and mixed by Grammy award winner John Seymour (Alice in Chains, Dave Matthews, Santana).

Roth:  Tell me about the name "Circle of Sanity". 

Sapna:  At the time I was really into the band A Perfect Circle. Also years before that, I wrote a song called “in circles”, which was produced, but only released locally through a few hundred CDs. It’s a song I would love to redo and release in the future.  I knew that the next band name would have “circle” in it and whatever  I came up with would be the last one I would ever have to create. I released all the songs I’ve written from that point on under that name, regardless of whoever was playing them with me. Thinking about all the craziness that works its way into peoples lives got me thinking that when we were there in our circle playing music, none of those things could exist there, and the name was born “Circle Of Sanity”. That night I called Kevin and ran it by him and explained my thoughts of how I came up with it and he agreed it was a good name and so we went with it.

Kevin Horner: You never know what's going to happen when you walk out the door each day, but in here, with these guys here in our circle, this was our circle of sanity from outside worries.

Sapna: Once we had that settled, I started thinking about our logo and we were the first band to put the letters of their band name in an emblem like that.  I designed the logo and that will be on our albums and banners.

Roth: The band lineup seems like it has evolved over the years.

Sapna: Well, Kevin had taken a sabbatical at one point.

Horner: Yeah, I had stepped away from drums and was really done for a long time. Spent time with the family. But then over the last year or so, I filled in at a few Circle of Sanity shows and then one day Josh called me and tells me about his new writing partner and invited me back to check things out. With the talent level in this room, which was all it took for me to be back in. 

Roth: Has the band always been a trio?

Sapna: No, it started out as a four-piece, but when Dan Molkenthin left to join Back in Black, the AC/DC tribute band, we stayed as a trio from that point on. We have been through a couple different bass players over the years.  I have led a trio for most of my years on my musical journey. For this new lineup, we are currently writing and recording as a trio. 

Roth: Josh, through all the years of this band, you have been the one mainstay the entire time. Are you sort of the keeper of the flame, as it were?

Sapna:  Yeah. For the last two records, I wrote everything on them except for "The Oath"; Kevin wrote the lyrics and Dan Molkenthin had written the music  on that one. I do all the vocals and guitars, and on our last record, Celestial Mechanics, I also wrote all of the bass lines too.  We'll see how that goes for this new album.

Roth:  On the Celestial Mechanics album, you guys did a Crowded House cover, which was somewhat unexpected, but it worked. You definitely made it your own. Where did the inspiration come to cover that, and is doing a cover something you would do again?

Sapna:  I've always loved "Don't Dream It's Over" and I like to throw in a cover and see what we can do with it.  I want to do a cover of The Doors' "Strange Days" on our next album. You might not think a band like us would listen to eighties music like that, but I love some of it and it was fun to record.

Roth:  I know bands don't always like to label themselves, but do you consider yourselves a metal band?

Sapna:  Not by today's standards. There is metal in there of course, we are all metalheads. But today "metal" means something different than it did thirty years ago.

Roth:  Josh, who are your inspirations?  

Sapna:  In the early days, it was Led Zeppelin, Allman Brothers, Pink Floyd, Traffic, and on up to Iron Maiden, Pearl Jam, Nirvana, Chris Cornell.  I am a huge fan of Rush, Tool and Karnivool. My well of influences is really deep.

Roth:  How about you Kevin? Any significant influences?

Horner:  I love Vinnie Paul, Dave Lombardo, Neal Peart. Lars Ulrich of course too after listening to him for the last forty years.  But Vinnie Paul is probably the style that I bring to this band.  I'm probably more of the "heavy" guy in the group, even though the band is more melodic. I bring the brawn to the melodic.

Sapna:  Exactly, we do have a way of staying out of each other's way, while bringing a lot to the music. It just happens naturally.  When you listen to the three of us performing, there is a lot going on but nothing steps on anything else.

Roth:  You have referenced the current lineup a couple of times here.  Let's talk about your newest member, and the first time the band has had a keyboardist, Vitalij Kuprij.

Sapna:  I started playing out again once things started opening back up after the pandemic, I had a different bassist and drummer, but we were out there playing songs from Celestial Mechanics and the prior record.  And over the course of the last year, I met Vitalij just socially.  We were playing darts and talking music.

Vitalij Kuprij:  We met at a social club not far from where I live.  We would be playing pool or darts, but always talking music. Over time, he would share with me his songs and then Josh invited me to jam.  For me, I never really wanted to do anything locally unless it showed true potential.

Sapna:  Just as I wouldn't expect to find a world-class piano player at the local fire company, he wouldn't expect to find a songwriter who does what I do at my level. It is just by grace of God that this came together like this.

Kuprij:  As I got to know Josh, I realized that this made sense on a personal level.  We have the same passion, the same kind of point of view, the same attitude toward 'no shortcuts, no winging it, make a statement on the highest possible level', which led us to getting together and the rest is history. I came here and we just started playing and it led me to join them on a full-terms commitment basis.

Roth:  Is this the first time you have had a keyboardist in the band?

Sapna:  Yeah. It was never anything I thought I needed to seek out for the band. .  The piano is the most beautiful instrument in the world. To hear how that can go with TOOL-ish kind of music, you don't always get that. When you listen to my heavy riffs and hear what Vitalij does to complement them and drive the song to higher levels!

Kuprij:  And we work really well together. You know, I have had my own bands where I did the writing for them, but Josh does all of that. To me, I want to look for incentive, not to just be a keyboard player. He starts creating something, a split musical creation where I can be part of it compositionally which is a big incentive for me to commit to anything. My golden times are gone where I just show up and play keyboards for someone. I'm not that type. I want to be part of this on a deeper level than just performing keys. 

If the musical idea one of us brings is good, we combine our forces and develop it. To me, this was something that was important to me before I would commit to the band.  We never argue, and we all value each other.

Roth:  You have such a deep classical and prog-metal background. Do you find it easy to add your element to this band?

Kuprij:  I just try to fit them in into the puzzle, and this is a good puzzle and it works. It is just natural and you have to grab that.

Sapna:  "The Great Escape" is our first single and I had that written and arranged, then Vitalij added his musicality to it. Then we got into this other song where I had the riff and a verse and chorus, but then he came up with this whole other part that took it to another level.

RothCan you tell me a little about the lyrical content of the song? The lyric "You can feel how the tension builds,  no regard for the dreams it kills. Now we all have to fight this machine, or our dreams could expire." stood out to me. 

Sapna My thought on that was for people to escape all the media propaganda that is directed at setting people against each other and for humanity to escape that and come together for the good of all. That’s the message of that song.

Kuprij:  Another reason that I really value my commitment to this is that I've always been a European-oriented individual for most of my life. When I got to the USA, it was classical and TSO.  I've done some damage in Japan, as you know, but I never wanted to do something in the U.S. market because TSO took that over for me. Those two months playing in arenas were good enough for me. We still play some cool rock songs after the rock opera story. To me, that was enough. But with these guys, we have a multi-genre type of sound that we are crafting. That's what it feels to me.

Sapna: We could go out with a Breaking Benjamins or even a Shinedown.

Horner:  It's classical, a bit of grunge and metal.

Kuprij: Yes! I can sneak in with the classical and my own rock stuff that I do. 

Roth:  So many records these days are made remotely, with musicians in various parts of the world  sharing files. Vitalij, you did that most recently with the releases from Majustice and Ring of Fire. And that is almost the standard these days. With you guys writing and recording here in this studio, do you have a preference?

Sapna:  It is way better all being here in the same room. Working with files, you have to work with what is given. With us all working it out here in person, I'll come up with something that I think a song will go, and Vitalij or Kevin will come in with something that I hadn't even planned and we change the song. That's the kind of stuff that doesn't happen when working remotely.

Kuprij:  It is like talking to Voyager. You come up with an idea and you have to wait seven f**king days to get a reply. [Laughs]  Let's jam and get it done! I started with Roger [Staffelbach] the same way. There's three of us and we are writing and recording five feet away from one another!

Horner:  There is an energy that this band has that is undeniable. It's the energy you feel when you see certain bands. The biggest thing for me is this is fun. I'm not even looking to be a rock star. I love coming here weekly and writing with these guys because I know they're going to challenge the shit out of me and it's a blast. These guys are just really amazing musicians and you don't get this with every other band.

Roth:  So, tell me about this new record you're working on with this exciting new lineup.  An EP or a full album?

Sapna:  It's an EP at this point, but if we keep writing, it may be a full-length album. But we'll see. Releasing records these days is different than it used to be. It may make more sense to release a shorter EP and then follow it up with another. What we are thinking is it may be five songs and a cover. I'd also like to do an acoustic version of a song from one of our previous albums, just a new take.

Horner:  Acoustically, our songs sound just as heavy, but served up differently.

Roth:  Once the album is released, do you have plans to tour?

Kuprij:  Absolutely! I get the TSO tour done, come back and get some things scheduled. We want to bring our music to the people and they are going to love it!

Roth:  Any label lined up yet? 

Kuprij:  Not yet. We have some interest already, but we will be considering offers. You know,  we have a bit of everything. The riffs. the heaviness, the melodies, the power, the wide-open choruses.

Horner: The choruses are sing-a-along choruses, but still heavy.

Kuprij:  We play it humanly with balls, none of that sampled bullshit. 

"The great escape” is just that…a great escape from the norm that takes you on a wonderful rollercoaster ride of music and melody’s. It travels through a progressive metal time warp that is full of superior musicianship. A perfect match of grooves, riffs and intensity that is just as I said…”A great escape” - Chris Caffery (Savatage/Trans-Siberian Orchestra/Spirits of Fire)

“The Great Escape: Heavy and has a nice grinding groove. The melody is catchy and I really like the vocals as well.” - Rosa Laricchiuta (Headpins/Trans-Siberian Orchestra)

"Badass !!!!" -Al Pitrelli (Alice Cooper, Savatage, Megadeth, TSO)

Get the music and follow Circle of Sanity