Some people are just overflowing with talent, and when it spills over to other media, it’s a truly wondrous thing. Mark Wheatley is one of those people. You may know him as an award-winning comics creator, a frequent exhibitor at San Diego Comic-Con & Baltimore Comic-Con, or as an industrious entrepreneur. Knowing all those things about him, I was even more impressed when he told me about his newest project, a song & music video called The Witch of Everwhen. Checkout the teaser trailer:
Wheatley is working out the details for the full-fledged Witch of Everwhen video debut. The announcement should be made soon, and you can keep up with it all here at the Mark Wheatley Gallery.
I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised because he’s created music videos before for previous projects like Dance with Your Brothers , Surrender and Earth’s Farewell. But nonetheless, I had to find out more.
Ed Catto: This is a fascinating project – tell me how The Witch of Everwhen came about!
Mark Wheatley: I have been composing and recording music for as long as I have been writing and drawing comics professionally. In my early days looking for work in New York, while I was beating the pavement to show my portfolio to art directors and editors, I was also sending demo tapes to A&R reps at the various music companies. I was doing this right up until I landed my first monthly comic series, MARS.
The only musical “success” I had during that period was one of my tunes was picked for airplay on WNEW and one of their DJs was calling me to brainstorm how I would get more attention for my music. But when Marc Hempel and I signed our MARS contract [with First Comics], I decided that the time required to write and pencil a monthly comic was going to eat my life, and I stopped recording and sending out demo tapes. So, of course, two weeks after I signed the MARS contract Capitol Records offered me a three record deal, and I had to turn it down. A few months later, Columbia Records offered me a one record deal. Both of these offers would require me to also hit the road for live tours, so it was just impossible. After that, aside from recording some soundtrack music for radio and TV commercials, my musical efforts were limited to recording theme songs for my comic book creations.
The first of these for MARS, Red Horizons was premiered as a soundtrack for a MARS preview slideshow (and I do mean actual slides in a slide projector) at the Atlanta Fantasy Fair in the mid-1980s for an audience of over 800 people and got a tremendous response. That gave me a rare taste of what it might have been like to be on a stage and hear the thunder of applause on a regular basis. I could almost see the dollar signs dancing in our publisher’s eyes at that moment! Since then, I have continued to compose and record themes for my comic creations. These days it is a useful extra for presenting projects in our multimedia world.
EC: That’s just fascinating. And for a project like this, there must be quite a few steps. Can you explain it all to me?
MW: I am mainly a storyteller. Text, art, jokes, or music, it begins with inspiration, an emotional core, a desire to say something. I search for that emotional hook in myself that connects to the story I want to tell, and then I start to improvise. This works as well for music as for art. When the music I am playing makes me feel more like the story I want to tell, I start to build a song. At the same time, I am writing lyrics, as much or as little comes to me, and in no particular order. And as the song takes form, the lyrics get fitted to sections. Sometimes, the lyrics get rewritten to fit. Other times the music gets changed to fit the lyrics.
I have a guitar controller, but most of my musical work these days is done on keyboards. I have an original Yamaha DX7 I use. I am PC based for computers and I’ve been using Cakewalk (Digital Audio Workstation) DAW software since they began. Their top of the line Sonar Platinum serves my needs. This DAW is now available free through Bandlab, but I am still using the paid version.
Anyway, this is multitrack recording, and while I have the DX7, it has been ages since I actually used it as a synth, since there are endless inventive and cool sounding digital synths and samplers available these days as modules. I also have a variety of microphones to record vocals. For The Witch of Everwhen, I did all the vocals myself. I had to “fake” the female vocals with recording tricks, but I usually prefer to work with Fran Cincotta. She is a neighbor and an exceptional talent. But the pandemic makes that not worth the risk. It has forced me to become a bit more resourceful!
The Witch of Everwhen grew out of my desire to create an animated video for a fantasy world, one that would be a contrast with a harsh reality. My thinking for the song was visual from the start. And I have been working on bits of animation right along with composing and recording the music. But the music is the anchor, informing what I created visually. I started working on the song and the video back in late March. So, I worked on it across five months. But I also completed three other songs and videos during that period (including the Earth’s Farewell video for the Return of the Human series I do with J. C. Vaughn for Aces Weekly), illustrated about seven books, did development work on a TV mini-series and some short comics. So it didn’t take all my time.
By the way, about the time I had gotten my basic song structure for “Witch” recorded, when it was just a basic drum track and piano, I tried a different tune to see if it might work better. What I came up with turned into Dance With Your Brothers. My original idea spawned two very different songs.
EC: Who were some of your musical inspirations? Who were some of your artistic inspirations?
MW: When I was age five and six, I was something of a prodigy on piano and organ. I was given a lot of Beethoven and Chopin pieces to play. So that probably forged some permanent connection in my musical brain. But my real influences start with The Moody Blues, Yes, Emerson, Lake and Palmer, Genesis, Uriah Heep, Jethro Tull, and Kate Bush, and currently, I listen to a lot of Steven Wilson/Porcupine Tree, Opeth, etc. I also listen to folk, country, jazz and a good many soundtracks. There is usually some music playing in the studio at all times!
My artistic influences are all over the map. N. C. Wyeth and the Howard Pyle Brandywine school for painting top the list, and Roy Crane, Steve Ditko, and Johnny Craig have informed how I tell a story visually. But if I was really going to give you a full list it could run to hundreds of artists.
EC: And what do you think those folks would say if they could see this project?
MW: First, I think they would all be amazed to discover they were still alive. And they would then probably be completely distracted by the technology available to enable a single creator to sit in his studio and record a fully orchestrated progressive rock song with piano, bass, guitars, string sections, flute section, drums, percussion, and lovely back-up singer performances. And then, perhaps even more amazing, this same creator can then animate a spiffy video to illustrate the song. Back in their day, this would have needed a huge group of people, a big studio space and super-expensive tech gear.
Beyond that, once they had seen the video and what the song is presenting, they might comment on how little has changed in the world or human nature in nearly a century.
EC: I recently enjoyed your Songs of Giants book. So did my dad (and today is his birthday, btw.) How was that received and just how different is this project from something like that?
MW: Oh yeah, Songs of Giants collected the pulp poetry of Robert E. Howard, Edgar Rice Burroughs, and H.P. Lovecraft – and then I illustrated each poem. The book has been quite a success and is getting close to selling out. But it would never have happened if I had not originally been thinking of turning some Robert E. Howard poems into songs. The original idea behind Songs of Giants was that Tim Truman and I would collaborate on a selection of songs using existing REH poems as lyrics and release the result as a CD. Tim is an old friend and we have recorded music together before. Tim is a truly great guitar player. But, the more we got into the planning it became obvious that selling a CD of REH based tunes through the comic book market, where no one could hear the music, was likely to not pay off in any good way. So I recorded just one tune by Howard, called Surrender. And ultimately, I ended up playing the guitar part myself.
The main difference in composing Surrender and The Witch of Everwhen is that for Surrender I had to write music to fit the Howard lyrics. The Witch of Everwhen was able to evolve to allow both lyrics and music to be what they needed to be. I think that is a much easier way to make good songs. But it is possible to work either way.
EC: Impressive all around, Mark. Thanks so much.