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William Shatner: space explorer and progressive rock's unlikeliest star

Prog: the final frontier. The culmination of one man's 45-year mission to merge music and drama.

Bill Shatner's debut album, 1968's The Transformed Man, allied Shakespeare with Dylan and The Beatles. Thirty-six years on, Has Been contemporised his prose-poetry, before 2011's Seeking Major Tom was embraced by prog fans. Now he's about to unleash Ponder The Mystery, his first exclusively original album, co-written with Billy Sherwood and backed by Circa (guests include Rick Wakeman, Steve Vai and Robby Krieger). Before his live debut, Shatner considers prog's final frontier.

How did you come to record Ponder The Mystery with Circa?

I had already done an album on the Cleopatra label called Seeking Major Tom and Brian Perera, who is the head of Cleopatra, asked if I would be interested in doing another. I said, absolutely, but what to do? Brian put me in contact with Billy Sherwood, we hit it off right away. Billy has a group called Circa, Tony Kaye from Yes, Ricky Tierney and Scott Connor, so it’s a four-man group and me as the lead singer. We’re doing three club gigs in the Los Angeles area in late October with the idea of discovering what we’ve got, whether the material is good enough, whether I am good enough – they’re certainly good enough – and whether we have a future in making music in front of the public.

The Transformed Man mixed Shakespeare with dramatic interpretation of contemporary pop songs.

At that time I was a young actor from a Shakespeare background who loved the musicality and beat of the iambic pentameter I’d been brought up on. So the concept of The Transformed Man was to take a modern song with a good lyric and musically segue it into a classical piece of literature with Don Ralke’s original music behind it. It was an attempt to show that spoken word in a song, and in a piece of literature like Shakespeare, has common denominators. That was my intellectual attempt and I wasn’t always successful in that record, but I’ve since evolved the idea into Ponder The Mystery where the lyrics I’ve written have extended meaning beyond the surface words. There are things going on in those lyrics that bear repeated listens. The factor of being able to meet up with a genius like Billy Sherwood was opportune, he’s a true genius and I think that’s reflected in this album.

Is theatrical performance effective in conveying a lyric?

I think so, the great singers are able to project the extended note and the emotion, the less talented singers extend the note without the emotion while concentrating on technique. At the other end of that spectrum is the actor, who tries – sometimes vainly – to find melody in the onomatopoeia of the words.

Do you study the lyric as you would theatrical dialogue?

When I record cover songs I think about the lyric as a role. Something’s going on in the song and I seek to give it a truth that I think is inherent in the song, but perform it in my own unique way. So Mr Tambourine Man is a guy looking for a connection, Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds, a guy high on LSD and so forth.

Did being a face on TV inhibit your enjoyment of the 60s?

I swung to the best of my ability.

While committed to Star Trek you couldn't grow your hair.

I did grow the sideburns. And while I was never into drugs, I got into my share of trouble.

When studying American Kenpo karate, you shared a trainer with Elvis Presley. Did you ever spar with him?

Wouldn’t that have been a story? “I sparred with Elvis Presley and won, but got beaten up by his handlers.” Unfortunately, the closest I came was recording Has Been in his Nashville studio, which [producer/arranger] Ben Folds had bought, long after he had died.

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Has Been’s lyrics seemed extremely personal.

It came from my heart, as does Ponder The Mystery, which I fervently hope people will also like because I’m seriously in love with it. I wrote most of the songs on Has Been and I’ve written all of the songs here. I’ve just sort of wandered on, trying to perfect this actor musicality thing I’ve got in mind.

The prog rock community have taken you to their hearts.

Well, these wonderful artists, 1. people playing on all the songs, the 15th song is like an overture with only Billy playing on it, but all the other songs have an extraordinary individual playing a solo instrument and it gives the songs such character that I could never have dreamt of.

What do sci-fi fans and prog-rock fans have in common?

Look at the similarity in the intention. Science fiction seeks to explore the boundaries of the imagination about what the future of the world will be, [to] take a laboratory possibility and extend it into reality. Progressive rock seeks to extend the boundaries of music, and that’s the natural area of meeting between sci-fi enthusiasts and progressive rock followers.

This feature originally appeared in the November 2013 issue of Classic Rock.

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