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Everest - 2002 Interview with Ric McDonald

INTERVIEW: Everest (Jan 2002)
The higher you climb. The Everest story as told by Ric McDonald.

In The Spotlight - Everest
Interview with Ric McDonald
Written by: Gdazegod (January 2002)

Do you think any mere mortal has climbed to the top of a mountain? Not just any mountain. Try the top of the heap.. Mt Everest. Well in keeping with the tradition and the name, we recollect a Canadian rock band who've encountered a few mountains themselves, in the climb to the top of their particular summit. That being the Canadian rock scene during the 1980's. These guys were the aptly named outfit from Toronto called Everest. Riding on the success of local legends such as Saga, and following hard on the contemporary success of UK outfits Yes, Genesis and Asia, who were riding the charts at the time, the early eighties was a prime opportunity to exploit what was popular on radio and on the charts. Perhaps Canada was looking to cash in on a little bit of that success too?

Well as lady luck would have it, success proved to be just as 'out of reach' as that legendary summit at the top of the Himalayas. Where Hillary and Tensing conquered their mountain many years ago, did the chaps from Everest acheive their goal? Time and history would say no. The story is a long and interesting one, and who best to share it but bassist and lead singer Ric McDonald, now based on the outskirts of Toronto in that sprawling metropolis of Mississauga, where so many top Canuck musos hang out now..

I begin by asking Ric just what were the earliest origins of Everest.
Jim MacLellan (drummer) and I go back to elementary school days and the first band I was ever in, at around age 12 or 13. Over the years we were occasionally in different bands, but got back together to form a band called Tour De Force (no pretence there!) that laid some of the musical groundwork for Everest. When the original line up disbanded, we resorted to the ad-in-the-newspaper route to recruit Don Gaze (guitars) and Frank Reid (keyboards) and continued, ostensibly under the same name. After spending a couple years under wraps rehearsing and writing, wedecided to get some exposure to live audiences as a group. Since our own sound wasn't quite settled, we covered a bunch of Pink Floyd material and went into the club circuit as Floyd 'clone' band - a big trend at the time - with a few Genesis and Yes tunes thrown in. We were extremely meticulous with reproducing covers note for note, so we attracted quite a following, and it gave us a chance to test out a few original songs. At the launch, we adopted the name Everest. I can't lay claim to coming up with it - it had been the name of Jim Gilmour's band, but once he joined Saga, he had no problem with us using it.

Did the band have numerous lineup changes during it's formative years?
Aside from the original Tour De Force line up, no. It was Jim, Don, Frank and I throughout.

The band has a distinct melodic but progressive groove throughout. Bands like Yes, Genesis and Asia were huge back then. Did you draw any influences from them as well as other UK acts?
Yes, those three groups probably formed the nucleus of influences that we drew from. Subsequently, we were fans of the band UK, with John Wetton (of Asia), Eddie Jobson and Bill Bruford. Beyond that, I guess the melodic/progressive blend is more me coming through as the principal writer. My influences range from Hendrix to ELP to classical and I've always been attracted to beautiful melodies, as well as chord progressions and textures that aren't run of the mill. Nevertheless, you can hear the Yes in 'Hold On' and 'I Know You're There'; Genesis in 'You Make Me Shiver' and 'I Don't Know' and Asia in 'Right Between The Eyes' and 'Only A Moment', even though I wrote the latter before Asia came out. The grandiose intro to the album was a product of me sitting in the control room at the keyboard messing with ideas directly inspired by UK's 'Alaska'.

Just focusing on Canada, did acts like the fabulous Saga or Rush give you some fuel for inspiration?
Only from a competitive standpoint. As I recall, Saga was in the same studio as us around the same time, and since they also drew some influence from Asia, there might have been a little one-upsmanship going on to see who could achieve higher elevations of pomp. I think we consciously carved out a niche with a little harder rock edge. As for Rush, there's all kinds of ties that weave through the years that maybe I'll elaborate on another time. In brief, Jim and I went to high school with Neil Peart and were often competing with him in local 'battles of the bands.' I toured with another Canadian band in the mid-70's for whom Rush opened on a few dates while they still had John (Rutsey), their original drummer. Geddy and Alex actually asked Jim to join them, but with a new wife, he declined, so Neil was recruited. There's more to it, but suffice it to say that they were more an inspiration in terms of what they achieved than musically - not to mention a sense of rivalry on our part.

From the outset, was the direction of the band always going to be keyboard based?
Yes. The influences pretty much dictated that. Besides, I'm one of those weirdos who writes songs on the highway, or in the shower, and hears the entire arrangements in his head. I guess I couldn't get my head wrapped around capturing it all with just guitars and no keys.

Did you just stick to the local Toronto scene to promote the band?
Initially, but we did one Vancouver to Toronto tour in support of the album. We were lucky enough to skip most of the brutal club and bar circuit.

There must have been a fair degree of interest in the band?
It seemed to spark something in a lot of people who had been waiting for Canada to produce something like this. FM radio DJ's across the country were really enthusiastic. It was different, and because we'd laid low for so long, it seemed to come out of nowhere. They were thrilled to put it on the air, though honestly, probably in part because it gave them a way to capitalize on the wave of progressive music at the time and still satisfy Canadian content broadcast rules. Remember, Asia was riding a huge wave of popularity and Yes had just launched their monster come back album '90125'.

The debut album came out during 1984. On a big label too (CBS). How did this come about?
Doug Hill at Phase One studios in Toronto deserves a lot of the credit. He worked with us to do some early demos and introduced us to a well known A&R guy at CBS at the time named Jeff Burns - the same guy who signed Loverboy, Platinum Blonde and several other successful Canadian bands - who was looking for his next pet project. He liked our demo and the fact that we could reproduce it live, and believed it could be really big, so he signed us for a one album deal for starters.

One of GLORY-DAZE's favourite producers Paul Gross twiddled the dials on the album. How did you find working with him?
Paul's a great guy. We met him at Phase One, as he was Doug's partner. Doug has taken it about as far as he could, so we handed the controls to Paul, who really helped us to construct a framework for our sound.

Obviously with Paul working with many so great Canadian artists at the time, were you wanting him to define Everest's own sound, or perhaps a hybrid of all those he'd worked with previously?
We were looking to him for help in reigning in the wall of sound that comes with that big prog rock sound - the heavy guitars, multiple keyboards, Moog bass pedals and massive drum effects - but we definitely weren't looking to sound like anything else he'd done. It turned into quite a challenge for all of us. We went through a couple approaches to mixing it - a very layered one by Paul and a harder, more in your face one by me - before we arrived at a middle ground that seemed to work pretty well. Unfortunately, it created some dissension in the band in the process because I was pretty stubborn about it. I was hearing it a certain way and it took us a while to capture that. We even got some input from Bob Ezrin, (the wizard behind Dark Side of the Moon), who's from Toronto and happened to be back in town at the time.

It did very well upon release. You must have been pleasantly surprised?
Blown away. There's nothing like hearing your music on the air for the first time and seeing it on the charts. After two weeks, it was sitting between Huey Lewis and the News 'Sports' and Yes '90125' on Toronto charts. But what was really surprising was the breadth of audience appeal. Radio stations were getting calls from rockers for some of the heavy cuts, while young ladies were making a fuss about 'You Make Me Shiver' and 'Danger Zone.' Out of the gate, we couldn't have been happier.

What do you recall of the material of the album? You've obviously read GLORY-DAZE's posthumous review on our 1984 page?
Yes - well written, by the way. I still listen to it every now and then. I think it holds up pretty well and I'm still proud of most of it. That may be partially because many of the cuts, especially 'I Think It's My Heart', have special meaning for me. I wrote most of the album during and immediately after a marital break up. Speaking of your review, I believe you noted that 'I Don't Know' was a bit of an odd fit and I know that's one of the less understood cuts. It was actually about getting lost in Mattel's Intellivision - the first decent video game system. Don, Frank and I were hooked.

I know I was after a copy of the thing as far back as 1984 but yeah, it sold out. Do you recall the album getting any noticeable press at the time?
It started well. CBS had reportedly reached agreement to delay Burton Cummings' solo album release date by a couple weeks to help us. We then opened for Jethro Tull's Toronto tour date at Maple Leaf Gardens, bumping Honeymoon Suite who opened for the other dates. The shock came when the marketing push from CBS halted almost immediately.

I understand the label didn't bother to re-press the album when it's first run sold out. Surely this must have been an obvious sign for them to get more out?
You'd think so, but there was more to it than that. I personally went into record stores across the country where staff were complaining that they couldn't get the product.

If the label didn't do it's job, then one can only assume that foul play was involved. Would you care to elaborate? (change names if you have to, protect the innocent.. (ha ha))
It's a pretty ugly story that I'm sure is all too common, or at least was at the time, but this is how it was relayed to us by insiders. Briefly, CBS Canada had just brought in a new President from the US to improve profitability. He didn't approve of Jeff's (A&R guy) style, or more probably his profile, and decided to clamp down. He proclaimed that there were to be no more signings of acts without his personal approval. Evidently that didn't sit well with Jeff who was used to calling his own shots and felt he had the track record to justify it. He signed us without consulting the President. The Pres. decided he'd teach Jeff a lesson by showing him what happened when a project didn't get his personal backing, and as Jeff's pet project, we were the example. All marketing budgets were withdrawn and the album was never re-pressed after the first 10,000 copies sold through. Ultimately, they spent more on Gowan's (the Pres.'s counter pet project) 'Strange Animal' album release party than they did on our entire marketing effort.

What happened to the band beyond 1984 then?
We spent some time working on demos to take another run at it, but we were pretty dispirited. Then classic melt-down started to set in. The whole process - especially recording - had kind of put a spotlight on me. The reality of who was actually creating and driving our sound was something we'd always downplayed and I guess it became tough for the other members to deal with. At the same time, I was growing distant, feeling that we needed to change the format somehow and were just beating our heads against the wall. Ultimately, we split in the summer of '85. The other 3 guys tried to keep going and actually won a Toronto radio station's 'Home Grown' (best new act) competition, which was rather odd, but never did much else. I wound up going into business with our manager and have spent most of the time since being a corporate exec. (yikes!). Several months later, he showed me a stack of fan mail he'd received from all over Europe about the time we were dissolving and he hadn't wanted to show us then. It was depressing but gratifying.

Long Island Records over in Europe saw fit to release Everest in 1994 (LIRC 56). This is how I came to acquire it. I suppose Coney Hatch's Carl Dixon can take some credit for this?
To be honest, I have no idea. It was a last ditch effort by the other members to make some noise, and possibly some money. I'd originally agreed to register all our material as being co-written for publishing royalty purposes, which ironically I saw as a way of preventing dissension given the lop-sided writing situation. Jim came to me for my consent, but I had no other involvement in it.

I asked you previously about a second albums worth of material. The Rush team of Terry Brown and Alex Lifeson were involved on these. I understand there's a story to be told about these?
Yes, in fact it was produced ('the 'One Step Away' album LIRC 76). Terry and Alex were involved, but not together. In brief, we worked with Terry in doing the demos that followed the LP. He was great to work with and certainly gave us a different feel from Paul, but the songs were mostly a fishing expedition looking for that format change I mentioned. Terry threw in a couple ideas and I was pushing the other members to write to ease tensions. It produced a few good tracks, but it was all over the map and, for the most part, not material I would have released. While the album was being re-mastered for re-release, the guys resurrected the tapes. Through Jim's ongoing contact with Rush, he persuaded Alex to re-mix the demo material at his home studio. They added an instrumental that Jim, Frank and Don had recently written and, voila, they had enough for another CD. The funny thing is, there were a couple of songs from the very first demos we did with Doug Hill that they forgot about that I thought were better songs than most of what went on that second CD.

I suppose for you Ric, being part of the Canadian scene for a while, have you noticed a resurgence with some of these classic bands coming back? many of them have been featured here at GLORY-DAZE.
Yeah, it's incredible. Everybody from April Wine to Goddo. I think in some cases, like the Guess Who with their amazing comeback tour, or Trooper, it's great to see because they've still got it. Others have lost so much of their voices and abilities that they should just stay home. The trick is being honest enough to know when you're done, but there's certainly enough crap out there now that good music is always welcome. Nice to see your article on Honeymoon Suite. Hope they do well.

What chance Everest doing likewise then?
About zero to none. I can't speak for the other guys trying something, but for me there's just too much water under the proverbial bridge to do anything with them. I've toyed with the idea of doing something myself. In fact, I still write and play in a group, but only for fun. I don't smoke and got away from drugs early enough that the throat's still there, and I think I write better now than 15 years ago. But doing a lot of live playing doesn't appeal to me, so I'm thinking about working toward doing soundtracks for films.

And what are you, Frank, Jim and Don up to these days?
I just finished a 5 year stint as Executive Vice President of a Toronto telecommunications company, which has given me the downtime to think more seriously about music again. Sad to say, I haven't had any contact with the others for years. Jim and Frank went into business building sound studios and Don was into computer programming last thing I heard.

I understand you're a Tolkien buff. Been to the movie yet?
Twice! And almost went a third time. (The first time I was too distracted by all the events and details from the book that they left out to completely absorb it.) Jackson did a great job. I've been a huge fan since I was a kid. Can't wait for the second installment.

Finally, thanks for recounting your history with us Ric. I'm sure many melodic rock fans will be that much more the wiser.
My pleasure. Any time. Nice to think there's still some people out there who want to hear it. Best wishes for success at GLORY-DAZE.

Related Articles:
Everest - 1984 Everest
Everest - 2002 Interview with Ric McDonald

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