Nick Layton - Living the Dream! From DRG to Q5

 


Many of us at DRG know Nick Layton. He's a longtime member (and sometimes contributor) and the guitarist and songwriter of FireWolfe, the band he started with singer David Fefolt. Nick also runs his own online guitar instruction business, and produces instructional videos. Nick and I have been friends for a long time. When I heard he had landed the Q5 gig, I was absolutely thrilled for him. Aside from being a truly great guitarist, Nick is also one of the nicest guys I've met through DRG. So this literally couldn't have happened to a nicer guy! 

I'm always pleased when any of my Dino brothers attain a measure of success and validation, so this was a pretty big deal! Here's (literally) one of us — one day he's teaching guitar, the next, he's in a name band from the 80s getting ready to record and tour. I suspected there was a good story in there, so I asked Nick if he wanted to tell it. He generously agreed to write about the experience. So here is Nick's first installment.

Part One

How I Got The Q5 Gig

It’s November 19th, 2018 around 2pm. I’m out for a run, something I love to do to clear my mind. I always take my iPhone with me in case of emergency and because I use an app to track my miles. I’m about two miles in to a four-miler when I hear— Ding! Ah, the unmistakable sound of Facebook messenger. Looks like it’s my friend Jeffrey McCormack from Seattle. He’s the drummer for some great Seattle bands like Q5 and TKO. I’d been acquainted with Jeffrey for a few years but don’t know him very well. We’ve only met once, in the summer of 2017, to talk about him potentially working with my band FireWolfe. I figure Jeffrey’s message has something to do with that. I was wrong. 

Jeffrey: Dumb question…you have time for another band?

Me: Tell me more…

Jeffrey: (One of the guitarists) in Q5 has to step down from the band to dedicate himself to family and business. We’re writing a new album that will be produced by Floyd Rose…hoping to get it done by summer… looking to tour or do some festivals in Europe after the album.

Me: I’m tracking…

Jeffrey: I would love to have you in the (other) guitar spot.

Whoa! I wasn’t expecting this turn of events, seemingly out of the blue…yet, I know none of this kind of stuff ever happens by accident. Jeffrey and I go back and forth—I’m typing and reading. My run outside in the chilly November weather has turned into a (very excited) walk. Jeffrey tells me that a big challenge would be rehearsing. Q5 rehearses twice a week in Seattle and I live three hours south near Portland, OR. So for me to even have a chance at the gig, I’m facing a fairly significant commute at least a few times per month just for rehearsals. I had to pause for a minute and ask myself the question: How bad do I really want this opportunity? I’d be joining a known band, that just got back from European tour and signed a deal with Frontiers records on their 2016 album. Touring outside the States has always been a dream. Working with record label(s) on the level of Frontiers also could open many doors. In many ways this would be a dream realized. Everything I’ve been working for as a musician since I was 17 years old, with a guitar and a dream.

I'm thinking: Is the possibility of living this dream as a guitarist in Q5 worth the sacrifice? Travel, gas money, time away from my guitar teaching business, wear and tear on the car, weather, etc, etc. I found my answer by asking the question: If not now, when? These kinds of opportunities don’t happen very often. In fact, this kind of opportunity has never come my way, and may never come again. I’m 48 years old. I repeat, if not now….when?? So, I told Jeffrey that yes, I would love the chance to be the new guitarist in Q5. Next step, an audition to play a few tunes with the band and meet everyone.

The Audition

My Audition was November 26th, 2018 (just one week after Jeffrey contacted me) in Seattle, WA. I arrive at the Q5 rehearsal place they call the “bunker” at around 1:30pm on a Monday. Jeffrey came early to meet me and chat a bit. The audition wasn’t until later in the evening, but I wanted to get there early, get set up, and grab some lunch without having to worry about anything other than playing, and interacting with the guys. After unloading stuff we went around the corner to a pizza place and I grabbed some food and had a great discussion with Jeffrey about the band—the people, the music, the plans going forward, and how I might fit in. It all sounded great to me and I got a really good vibe from Jeffrey that eased my mind. Now it was just down to playing the tunes and hopefully getting along with the other guys.

They asked me to learn three tunes from the classic Steel The Light record: Missing In Action, Lonely Lady, and Steel The Light.  I also learned an extra one called One Night In Hellas from the recent Q5 album. I was to play solos on two of the tunes. The other guitarist, James Nelson, had just joined the band a year earlier but had done a European tour with them and he helped me feel comfortable as we talked through some things and got our sounds dialed in. Bassist Evan Sheely and singer Scott Palmerton, aka Jonathan K, seemed like really cool guys, too, so as we prepared to start playing I was feeling good.

I remember telling myself this right before we launched into the first song: it's time to grab this opportunity, I’ve prepared my whole life for this, I know the tunes, now let it rip and have some fun! And that’s exactly what I did. I played well and was feeling good. I think the guys were impressed that I knew the material so well and didn’t really hit any clams. We played the three songs, plus the extra one I learned and it couldn’t have gone better. It was my first time using my BluGuitar Amp1 in a live band setting and it sounded good through a Marshall 4x12 they provided. I had brought a back up Marshall head just in case, but didn’t end up needing it. So, in terms of the sound and playing, all was well as we finished up playing. I was impressed with the talent of the other guys. Guitar wise, James had some monster chops, and everyone played and sang well. So now it was time to chat with the guys to find out if I was going to be a part of Q5.

The Decision

When the rehearsal was over we sat down, and from what I could tell, everyone seemed pleased with how it went.  James and Evan spoke up relatively quickly and said they were in favor of me joining the band. I was pretty sure Jeffrey was in my corner, so now it really came down to Scott.  I could tell he had some hesitation. His issue was the logistics. Scott wasn’t sure about my commitment level, as I would have to drive to Seattle a few times per month for rehearsals. From his perspective I totally understood how my living three hours away could be a potential problem. So, we said our goodbyes that night without a final decision. I drove home that night with a generally positive feeling, but was unsure how things would play out. At the end of the day, I'd done all I could. It was now out of my hands. The next day, Jeffrey sent me a text saying that if I could commit to rehearsing up in Seattle a few times a month, Scott was on-board.

And that was it! I was now one of the guitarists in Q5—the same Q5 that the legendary Floyd Rose founded, and the same Q5 that crreated the classic album, Steel The Light back in 1984. I was thrilled and knew that this would begin a new adventure for me that would likely lead to some opportunities that would challenge and test my “metal.” I was ready! My biggest challenge was keeping my mouth shut. They wanted to wait until New Years Day 2019 to announce that I was in the band. I had to keep a lid on it for over a month! I finally got to tell the world I was in Q5 January 1st, 2019.

The Exciting Journey Begins

After talking with Jeffrey early on about potentially getting involved with songwriting, it seemed that there would be an opportunity to contribute creatively to the new Q5 album. That was the initial focus—working on a new Q5 record, getting three to five good songs together, and contacting labels to gauge interest. Q5’s most recent album, 2016’s New World Order, got the band a one album deal with Frontiers Records, one of the biggest hard rock/melodic metal labels. But we were going to need to write some great stuff to create interest for another deal from Frontiers or another label. Personally, I felt right at home with writing and recording. I had less experience working with a label, but I am the main songwriter in FireWolfe (along with singer David Fefolt), and we had signed to a good, albeit smaller label called Limb Music from Hamburg Germany.

But this felt different, with new guys I'd yet to build chemistry with, and for an opportunity to play in the big leagues with better record labels. I was the new guy, so I didn't want to overstep when it came to the creative process. On the other hand, I had written and recorded demos for 15 songs intended for the next FireWolfe album, but David Fefolt could not commit to the album, and I had been unable to find another suitable singer. So I submitted these songs to Q5. I knew some of them might not be a great fit, but I put them out there for consideration anyway.

Before we got to any of those, the guys had four of five songs they had been working on before I joined the band. These songs were co-written by Floyd Rose and singer Jonathan K (Scott). James had also contributed to a couple tracks. So the plan was to rehearse those songs, record a demo, and shop it to various record labels to see what kind of offers we’d get. Any touring plans were contingent on getting things dialed in with a label and recording a new record.

Recording The Demo—Part 1

So after getting the songs dialed in, we headed to a studio in Stanwood, WA, near the Canadian border, surrounded by beautiful mountains, scenic rivers and farm land. Scott lives in the area and his friend Richard had a studio in town. Richard recorded and produced New World Order so we knew we’d get a good sounding demo. Although we were all excited to record the demo, there was an undercurrent of tension I had noticed between James and a couple of the guys. There was also some palpable pressure to make these songs sound good for Floyd Rose who was on tap to produce our new album. Because Floyd had co-written some of the songs, we felt we needed to respect his wishes for the arrangements, and not stray far from his ideas. That was a little strange for me, but hey, I was the new guy and I was just happy to be in the band.

I thought the material itself was good—well written and melodic—but to me, it didn’t really sound like classic Q5. The recording session itself was an all-day affair. We recorded the entire band live, and then went back, fixed things, and added guitar solos later. For my tone, I ran a Friedman BEOD pedal into the clean channel of my BluGuitar Amp 1 out to a Marshall 4x12. In hindsight my tone was a little thin. If I’d had more time, I’d have opted for a thicker tone, but for a demo, it was ok. Everyone played well and the recordings went off without a hitch. After a full day we had 4 tracks done and Scott was set to record vocals the next day. We all went our separate ways feeling good about what we had done. Now we’d wait for Scott to do vocals and get some mixes to listen to. As I said, the plan was to send out the demos and begin gauging label interest. But sometimes things have a way of going down an unexpected path, and that’s what happened next.

Curveballs and New Plans

After hearing the finished demos, none of us were very excited with the results. It wasn’t a performance issue. We just weren’t excited about the songs. And if we weren’t proud of the material, we certainly weren’t going to shop it to record labels. So we were back to square one. Around this time, things really started going south between James and the other guys. I got a text from Jeffrey saying that they were letting James go. Just too much friction. A couple days later he was gone, and we were looking for a second guitar player. Q5 has always been a two guitar band, so there was never thought of me handling all of the guitar duties. Q5 uses harmony parts here and other fun stuff for little subtle differences in the rhythm guitar parts. I think Q5 should be a two guitar band—plus, when the chemistry is right, playing with another guitarist can be a lot of fun.

After some discussion we decided to try and get Dennis Turner to come back into the band. Dennis was the guitar player who left band a few months earlier, creating the opening for me to join. I knew Dennis on Facebook only (which we all know doesn’t mean much) but I liked what I saw from him, and was, by all accounts he was a great player and cool guy. Dennis actually sent me a private message when I first joined Q5 wishing me success. I already liked the guy. So he came to a rehearsal, we played as a group, and it was clear we weren’t going to miss a beat. Dennis is a very talented player and one of the nicest guys I know in the music business. Not only that, but our styles mix well. He’s got a devastating picking hand whereas I’m more fluid and legato. I think it’s a nice contrast.

Moving Forward With The New Lineup

After regrouping, we decided to focus the songwriting primarily on the music I had provided for the band.. Over a full album's worth of music without vocals/melodies. I was thrilled we’d be using my stuff. Songwriting can be one of the most enjoyable musical activities there is, for me anyway. Nothing excites me more than hearing something I’ve written musically come to life when collaborating with others. But it can also be utterly frustrating when things don’t click. And for whatever reason we could not seem to get any songs finished. The chemistry wasn’t working, and as the weeks passed without any progress, we became frustrated.

Further, we were putting so much emphasis on the songwriting/record deal angle, that we weren’t rehearsing the existing material as much as we normally would have. Our first show with the new line up was by now only about 6 weeks away. So, we decided to scrap the songwriting for the time being, and start polishing the live show. And because Evan lived about 7 hours away and couldn’t rehearse very often, it was really important to focus in when he was present.

Without going into any personal stuff, it’s safe to say that some of us were a little disappointed about the lack of new material and what that meant for us going forward. Without a new album, we weren’t going to get a new deal, and we’d have to just focus on being the best live band we could. Not everyone agreed about what we should do long term, and some friction was building that we’d need to address soon. But for now, it was all about getting ready for the gig.

Tulalip Casino, Marysville WA, June 21st 2019

The week of the gig we had a couple of great rehearsals on Monday and Tuesday with the show coming on Friday. We were ready! And despite the previous tension, we all seemed happy to be together and ready to put on a great show. I drove up to stay near the casino where we’d be playing a day ahead of time. I had family and friends who’d be attending, and that did put a little more pressure on me. I wanted to perform well in front of my family—many of whom had never seen me play live, and certainly not on this level.

I woke up on the day of the show feeling great. I went for a morning run of about 3.5 miles to clear my head. Then I had a family lunch gathering that lasted until early afternoon. I headed back to the hotel around 2pm and started getting ready. A quick run through of the song highlights and some of the solos and it was time to head to the venue for soundcheck.

The Tulalip Casino is a great place. I had never been there, and had never played a casino, so I wasn’t sure what to expect. But it was a nice big stage, killer setting and seemed like it was going to be an awesome place to play. Sound check went well. The sound guys really knew there stuff, and the band sounded great. I had a few nerves, but I was well rehearsed and confident. Mostly I was just excited about getting onstage and rocking in front of a live audience—something I hadn’t done in a while. The venue started filling up, and friends, family and many unknown faces were ready for Q5!

Showtime!

The band had a nice dressing room backstage. We had a chat and prayer, then ventured out to the dark stage, ready for action. I was to play the opening riff to Let It Go after Jeffrey's count-in. It’s a fairly simple riff but moves a bit and in the dark I wanted to make sure I didn’t screw it up. Click, click, click, click…guitar! It was on! The first song went great. The crowd was into it. The band was moving, performing and playing well.

I had the first solo and it was no problem. Nerves turned into adrenaline and it was amazing how fast the entire 90 minute show flew by. Overall, the band was super tight. Personally I was happy with how I played and moved, but I made some personal notes about some things I could do better next time. I have to say it was probably the most fun I’ve ever had on stage. I want more! The first show was in the books. Family and friends seemed blown away and the reaction was very positive overall. We were certainly off to a good start, and on track to becoming a killer live band. Next up, we take some time off during the summer and come back ready to start preparing for a short run of gigs in October through Seattle WA, Victoria, and Vancouver Canada.  Stay tuned for Part Two!

 

An Unexpected Ending

Sometimes in life—OK, most times—things do not go quite as expected. In the case of Q5, I knew that the band probably would be done touring and disband by the end of 2020. Some talk about certain members retiring and the desire to do other things crept into some band

chats.  I was hoping that we’d at least get to do some touring over in Europe in 2020. We were already scheduled to play at the Metal Assault festival in Germany in February 2020. So, it was disappointing, and surprising to find out that Q5 was calling it quits immediately, and there would be no tour or festivals.

Without getting into details, personality conflicts and differing agendas ultimately caused the break up. Certainly not a unique story with rock bands. In some ways it felt like a waste of time for me—all the travel, money spent, time invested—but the prevailing feeling I’m left with is being grateful for the opportunity. And more than that, I know that I grabbed the opportunity, did my best, and kicked some ass while I was in the band. So, I’m at peace with it all, and remain friends with the guys. In fact, Jeffery McCormack (Q5 drummer) and I will be working on some new FireWolfe material, and there are some preliminary plans forming to get FireWolfe over to Europe. So my energies have shifted and I’m on to new things now.

Being a guitarist in Q5 was a cool and interesting ride while it lasted. I proved some things to myself, got to know some great guys, and we did get one killer show together that I’ll always remember. 

Onwards and upwards!