Boston’s Jon Reilly AKA Jon of the Shred has fascinated fans for a good couple of years with his terrific (sometimes horrific) work, and upon partnering his instrumentally eloquent skills with Scythe Saga Records, he’s stayed steady in producing new solid material. Since the release of March’s sci-fi rock opera The Dawn of Paragon, Jon has continued at an even faster pace to prepare our minds for audio entertainment beyond this galaxy. Fortunately for readers, The Cosmic Inquisitor, Lord of the Dungeons, Lord Raven was granted an audience with the undisputed “King of Shredwave,” and we have the conversation logs to prove it:
First things first. Jon, welcome to the Dungeons.
Thanks, I had to kill a few minor demons and a mini boss in the way in. Lovely decor.
Thank you, we try to give company a warm welcome whenever we can. Let’s get started. I mainly wanna talk about your most recent release on Scythe Saga Records, The Dawn of Paragon. How glad are you to have that out at such a fairly busy time in the synthwave release season?
The busy release schedule definitely makes it harder to make a splash without coming across as “spam,” but I like to cook up interesting ways to market that serve more than just a sales pitch. I regularly hire David K Jones to provide professional voice-over work. He reads scripts that serve as trailers for our compilations and album releases. Dawn of Paragon has its synthwave moments, but synthwave has always just been one of many influences on my sound. And by that I mean the things I grew up with- soundtracks to horror and sci-fi and action movies, video game scores, and the like. But there’s a ton of prog rock and metal influence, there’s a nice little Spaghetti Western section, some funk sections, blues, industrial… I like to mix as many elements together as I can to try and forge something entirely unique and fresh, whilst simultaneously also providing nostalgia. It’s a strange line to walk.
But as far as the scene, I keep myself rather apart from it these days, as I like to maintain my unique sound and wouldn’t want to be influenced by my peers. I’m trying to help shape and push synthwave towards new musical directions, as are many others. And I’m sure there’s tons of killer stuff being dropped though, no doubt about it. But as far as listening to synthwave I usually check out my friends works and get a good fill with every Scythe compilation. We always have a good roster with our compilations.
From the first to the last track on The Dawn of Paragon, there is a ton of intense emotion in each musical instance. An instrumental narrative that goes along with not just each song title, but the concept of the album described in the album’s liner notes on Bandcamp. Many other synthwave artists attribute a vague story to their releases, but yours is different. Not only is it detailed and innovative, outside of the standard “cyborg on a motorcycle fighting demons” narrative, but it sounds to be truly told as a coherent story in mood. Are you envisioning these stories in your head as you write and record? Do scenes play their way out in your mind?
Yea, each release in the Scythe discography, be them compilations or artists releasing solo albums, all tell a story within the universe. So essentially with each song, piece of art, and music release we are adding more to this lore. This latest album is particularly important in the scope of the universe. Kaleb Alfadda (KFDDA), Scythe’s Art Director, wrote a backstory for the founder of Paragon- one Dr. Zaine Grimm. This album was my addition to his outline- I wrote this chapter to humanize him. He’s just a young scientist, brilliant and unrivaled in skill and ingenuity, but he is socially ostracized for several “unorthodox” methods and theories. (Kind of parallels our current societal state of political correctness.) The real height of the story is the loss of his daughter, which drives him into a downward spiral, and ultimately breaks him. The next two albums in the Dr. Grimm trilogy are MUCH darker, as the man has lost hope beyond attempting to stop the inevitable apocalypse. There’s a lot of depth to it, for sure, I appreciate that you noticed! We’re still experimenting with ways to fully expose our fans and listeners to the extensive lore.
It’s hard not to notice! We know that second concept album in this trilogy of Paragon stories you’re working on with Scythe is finished, and the third is in the works. What’s the release date for that sequel, Paragon Rising? Can you tell us anything at all about where our tragic protagonist, Dr. Grimm, is now moving in his studies and research?
Dr. Grimm actually has a political agenda in Paragon Rising. He has returned to his home country after being in isolation for several cycles. Of course, he returns under a disguise… The story has many twists and turns that, much like The Dawn of Paragon, really fill in some lore and connects some dots between various releases in our discography. As far as a release date, we’ve actually got two other releases on the Scythe Saga schedule to be dropped first. FUBAR is going to be releasing a full-length and it’s sounding amazing! Very cinematic, really pushes the boundaries. Then we’ve got a new compilation which is a sequel to another one of our earlier compilations… to be released soon. After those two, Paragon Rising will be dropped. And by that time I’m sure part three will be finished as well. As far as release schedule the best I can give you is all three parts of the Paragon trilogy will be released in 2017. And I might even manage a fourth Jon of the Shred release as well, I’ve been writing music nonstop.
That’s wonderful news. As we mentioned before, there’s an honest variety of sound on The Dawn of Paragon. In just the first three tracks we hear an inspirationally soaring opening credits sequence (“The Wonders of Discovery”), a deep and heavy passage that borders in some sections on even Western-esque (“Visions”), and a riffing adventure that sounds like it could be ripped straight off of a Van Halen record (“Youthful Excess”). Many artists express that they defy genres, but you actually cash in on this claim. How does this variety of genres while staying in the boundaries of synth rock come into play in your process of creation of a Jon of the Shred record?
Ultimately the music pretty much writes itself. For The Dawn of Paragon, Paragon Rising, and the tracks I’ve started for the third chapter, they’ve all been recorded at my work! I work in a security booth, so I set up my music studio every day, and generally I will have a song finished in one or two work shifts. I’ve had some pretty wild recording sessions in blizzards and thunderstorms. My booth is a glass box so I am pretty much outside. What I can say about the genre mashing, it’s really just me being selfish. When I write a track, I’m always trying to create the sound I wish other people were, so to speak. In other words, I think up what about me an “ultimate listening experience” for myself, and then that serves as a sort of mental template to strive for. Elements from my favorite music, regardless of genre, thrown together to sound like the Jon of the Shred signature sound.
The narrative really helps with composing. A lot of these tracks sort of write themselves. “Tragedy” off Dawn of Paragon, for example. That track is about Dr Grimm’s realization his infant daughter had died while he was out of the country, scouting new locations to continue his research in secret. That narrative thread is evident throughout the song, or it should be – just the tormented mind. And the song following that one, “Two More for the Road”, signifies his binge drinking, which is why it has a bit of bluesy stumble to it.
Well, it’s easy to see here that your rock operas are very thought out releases, with very meaningful passages and musicianship. This sticks out in a scene where droning and atmosphere reigns. You’ve taken the synth world by the neck and thrown it into a progressive whirlwind. Do you feel there is an importance in keeping things fresh in a genre that can otherwise repeat itself year after year?
I think what is important is sincerity. I feel like society almost penalizes sincerity these days – everything has to be said with a wink, nudge, and slap on the ass. I don’t know if it’s the meme culture or just general internet apathy, but the sarcasm is way too prevalent. It seems to me like it’s stifling out sincerity. So I think artists should just be sincere. Record the music that speaks to YOU, and YOU alone. And ya know what? It’ll probably speak to many others peripherally, as well! I’ve heard a ton of great music within the scene, and tons of artists pushing themselves to make something entirely unique to themselves. In a scene such as this, copying is perfectly fine! And by that I mean- once you carve your own signature niche within it, and sound a bit unlike everyone else, than you can just copy yourself, so to speak, or rather, follow your own formula, refine it, add new elements, put it in a blender with some other genres you’ve never tackled. We’ve got a world of opportunity with one key stroke, considering the music technology afforded to us now. Reaching new musical heights has never been more efficient!
That’s beautiful. You’re definitely one of the most unique guys on the scene right now. You’re a very experienced and serious musician, that much is evident in your work and commitment to your original craft. Tell me more about your musical history. I’m sure you’ve played in bands before starting this project.
From roughly 7th grade to the end of high school I had a metal band. We wrote in a style heavily influenced by Iron Maiden, Manowar, Judas Priest, Black Sabbath. Very traditional metal sound. When Crimson Steel disbanded, I started playing solo shows as Jon of the Shred. This eventually landed me in the group Positive Mental Trip, which featured Luke Weiler (PMT himself) as a one-man looping band, me playing lead guitars and keyboards, LC as the MC, and Cappy Franti (son of Michael Franti from Spearhead fame) as a second MC and beatboxer. We played a string of festivals as I moved from spot to spot in NY. We played up and down the east coast, and I got the awesome opportunity to sit in as guest guitarist with many bands in the jam band scene. My next project was formed at the Freedom of Expression music festival in upstate New York. I had two solo sets, but for the second set a bunch of musicians from various projects jumped in and jammed with us. We formed a band out of it, FOEX. We played a number of festivals and shows, but it was rather short lived, as I hail from Massachusetts and everyone else was from New York.
The next project I had was Neighborhood Formula. We placed runner up in the Strange Creek battle of the bands and ended up getting a spot on the festival. We played TONS of shows, had a Wednesday night residency at a local hookah bar/venue called Electric Haze, played a good dozen festivals or more, had a blast! We had a very unique sound in the jam band scene, it was more heavy, sort of leaning towards 70’s prog rock but blended with funk. It was a ton of fun playing shows all the time! But we eventually disbanded as well.
All the while I’ve been recording music from my home studio. The Scythe Saga Universe was actually originally conceived in 2003 – 2007, when I was in high school. I penned a 20 song rock opera called A Gathering of Darkness about a post-apocalyptic world. The story served as a template for the universe, and I STILL have those tracks. A Gathering of Darkness is 100 cycles in the future from the current timeline. I’ll get there eventually! My first solo album, Apocalyptic Dawn, was released in 2013 I believe. It features my longest song so far, the 38 minute title track. Had a LOT of fun recording that one over the course of 2 weeks.
Other than that, I’ve had placements here and there for small indie movies, a documentary on Huntington’s Disease, I composed the soundtrack to the Primal/Wen concept animation (upcoming horror movie), have a few songs that will be in Dead Pixels II (upcoming horror game on Steam.) I would love to get more opportunities composing filmscores and whatnot! I’m already composing scores to the movies in my head, so I’ve got years of experience!
That’s a remarkable variety. We’re big Manowar fans here in the Dungeons.
You’ve definitely got an extensive resumé. Hell, Jon of the Shred speaks for itself. Tell me about your upbringing into music. Through the metal, the jam band, the soundtracking. Some of your influences going into not only your most recent release, but your musical career in general.
My interest in music was always more video game based as a child. And movies, naturally… the Star Wars music always had me captivated, but so did the soundtracks of Donkey Kong Country 2, Ocarina of Time, Star Fox 64, and so on. It was in 6th grade when a circle of friends I was in all started listening to Slipknot, and similar bands. But my trajectory changed pretty quick when I discovered Iron Maiden, who opened the gateway to a world of heavy metal mastery I never dreamed of. I never stuck to just metal. But I would cling to certain bands and consume their entire discography. Binge listening. I think it started with Black Sabbath, then moved on to Ozzy, then Iron Maiden really hit the ground running for me. Manowar got the binge treatment- saw them front row! managed to snag Joey DeMaio’s bass pick and Luca Turilli of Rhapsody’s guitar pick. Also have Michael Romeo of Symphony X’s guitar pick, he tossed it to me after I called the encore as they left the stage. “THE ODYSSEY!” I yelled. He nodded and tossed the guitar pick. 2 minutes later the song started and it was a 24 minute journey. Was front row for that show too.
I always loved soundtracks as well… zombie movies were my big obsession. The Day of the Dead Soundtrack, and of course Goblin’s soundtrack for Dawn (of the Dead)… Also the NOTLD 1990 remake. Every movie by John Carpenter was inspirational, he is by far my favorite director. I could go on and on, really. The jam scene really opened my musical palette. I’ve done a bunch of tracks as MC, once smoked a blunt with KRS-One and had a good half hour long conversation, have jammed with DJs in resort festival VIP rooms… It’s been a wild ride, truly. I guess for the future I really want to take Scythe mobile. I want to take my mobile studio with me from state to state, country to country, collaborate with others in person, record a piece of music with each new place I set my studio up in. With a bigger budget I have so many huge plans for Scythe, to take it to the next level. But I can only do much as one man, and my art director KFDDA (who does an equally HUGE amount of work and dedication into the project) has the same time constraints as I do, even more so than me really. But as the team grows (JPVD helps me conceptualize stories, and the “Lleh” stories are usually entirely based on his outlines) (Max Irming is the sound engineer, does great work) hopefully we will begin to realize more of my vision, so the universe can be better understood. How things connect, the depth of the locations, characters, and factions, etc.
That’s great, and that’s such a massive and amazing concept. KFDDA and you conquering the world is a great thought. I first came into contact with your work when you were featured with your track “Gotham City” on Retro Promenade’s Batman of the Synth compilation. That album was released almost three years ago, and it seems you’ve continued making music since, non-stop. What keeps you so motivated to continue raising the shred at a constant rate, aside from your ambitions to ascend from King of Shredwave to King of the World?
Well I actually took a major break after my 4th album The Specter City Slasher. That was in 2015. Scythe was hiatus mode until KFDDA contacted me some time last July or August. That is also when I started to set my music studio up at my work every shift, and I began putting hours of work every shift into everything. Hear the Living Dead was a big splash to get started again, over 30 tracks with a ton of synthwave artists. A free for all! This was one of two Scythe releases that was non-canon, and didn’t share in the lore like the rest of the releases. But it was a great way to get our heads back into the game. Ecliptic Prophecy was actually a collection of songs recorded from 2008-2014-ish. And Dawn of Paragon was the first album I recorded at work.
What really has me moving so fast now is my upgraded DAW. Not only did I move to 64 bit Ableton, I actually purchased the license (had been using a friends secondhand license for too long and wanted my own.) It was like all my years making music was running with 100 LB dumbbells attached to every limb. Crashes, freezing, fully lost songs (at least a full albums worth of lost songs exists). But once I bought my own copy and took the plunge, and upgraded to that 64 bit system, everything began to run smoothly. I could finally compose and record at the same speed the ideas were coming to me. It’s kind of like how the guys on South Park do each episode in the week leading up to the release. I will come in to a work week, and by the end of the work week will have one or two new finished songs. I honestly just plan to keep writing song after song until the creative well dries up, at which point I have plenty other creative pursuits to move on to. Hopefully I’ll land some soundtrack gigs before the well dries, that’d be nice! I don’t want to drop too many Jon of the Shred albums this year.
Some new soundtrack gigs would be great. Speaking of gigs, how’s the live performance front going for you?
My work schedule kinda keeps that from being viable at the moment. Definitely in the future.
That’s understandable. I’d imagine you’ve got a very willful stage presence. You’ve got a distinguished presence in these circles, that’s for sure. In fact, I think you’re the only guy with dreadlocks in the synthwave scene. Jon of the Dreads. How long have you been rocking those? It definitely sets you apart.
Actually, Kyoto Dragon has some pretty rocking dreads. Rick Shithouse himself from Synthetix.FM, commonly referred to as the grandfather of synthwave, has some insane dreads as well. But yea, the character from my second album Precipitous Ascent is called The Lone Musician. Just a guy that traverses the apocalyptic landscapes with an electric guitar he uses tactically to combat foes and trick the Impaled (zombies) and whatnot. I have plans to portray this character myself, I got the perfect Blade Runner jacket for it and the dreads already look post-apocalyptic. I could hit bars and tell women I used to be Johnny Depp’s stunt double.
That’s an amazing and detailed revelation of every dreaded head in synthwave. The Lone Musician is pretty badass. You’ve refrained from buying into the cutesy, polished look that a lot of synthwave artists adopt with their music, and I think that’s due in part to your metal heritage. It’s quite admirable.
Well there’s a certain aesthetic to the 80s that has quite the charm, so when I see people recreating that I don’t really see them as foes, just the other side of the coin, really. And it can be endearing, although an in-joke within the scene among us all is, of course, mocking the laser grid and palm trees and whatnot. I suppose my look just naturally and gradually morphed into someone that wouldn’t be out of place as an extra, or even primary ancillary character (laughs) for a post-apocalyptic film. If I do live Jon of the Shred, I’d love to do the show as a sort of journey, with songs being performed having different projects to represent where in the story the album is. That’d be fun to do! Maybe a bit excessive though. I don’t really dislike the “cutesy” aesthetic, it can be very endearing. There’s plenty of ladies of synthwave who rock it and make me wish my Tinder reached further geographically! (Rimshot on synth drums with heavy gated reverb followed by Hawaii Five-O drum fill.)
That was, of course, the only acceptable way to end that response. Well, that’s about all the time we’ve got for tonight. Thanks for joining us here tonight, Jon. It’s really been an honor.
Thanks for having me here in the Dungeons. I’ll see my way out, and take a few more demons out on the way with this laser powered guitar rig.
I’ll call for a few undead to escort you to the top floor, but feel free to gun as many of those devils down as you please. I bid you goodnight, Jon of the Shred!
Thanks again to Jon Reilly for the interview. It was an honor. You can grab Jon of the Shred’s The Dawn of Paragon on CD and digital download over at Scythe Saga Records on Bandcamp.