HomeAn Interview With METRO: Ex-Pats In A Cappella

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Hello CASA readers! This is Del Coy bringing you what I hope will be a very interesting Q&A I just did with the a cappella vocal group, METRO. These guys have been singing a cappella professionally for over a decade, but despite that they are relatively unknown to the CASA community.

So I got in touch with them with the idea of doing an interview to kind of introduce them to all of you. I actually have a special connection with these guys. Not only are they friends of mine, but they are also former colleagues as well. I had the distinct pleasure of performing with these guys for 6 months aboard Celebrity Cruises way back in 2001. I’m also a fan of their music and I have the utmost respect for their vocal ability and musicianship. So sit back and relax as I help you to get more acquainted with Eric Monson, Sean Oliver and Kevin Thornton of METRO.

Del: So how did you guys get started and how long have you been together?
Eric:  I founded METRO in July of 1998 so we will soon be celebrating 12 years of performing all over the world. The original members of METRO are Sean Oliver, who I met through the Barbershop Society's college quartet competition and both Disney's Voices of Liberty and the Dapper Dans; Michael Lance, who was a music student of my dad's at Doane College in Nebraska, and sang with one of Nebraska's top collegiate men's a cappella groups, Doublewide; and Chris Riggins, who I met through Disney's Voices of Liberty. I had sung with a cappella groups after growing up watching both my dad and brother sing in quartets and I sang with the Barbershop Society's first ever International College Quartet Champions in 1992, Water Street Junction, from Luther College.

Del: What have you guys been doing since you got started?
Eric: We first began working for Celebrity Cruises in 1998. We performed on ships throughout the world until 2002, when we switched back to land and performed at Tokyo Disney Resorts until 2005. We loved Tokyo and the people and culture of Japan, but then we were offered to open the brand new Hong Kong Disneyland and moved there in July 2005. In 2007,  after working on and off for Disney for five years, we decided that we needed to fully plunge into the freelance artist scene. We developed our strategy while taking one last long cruise ship gig in Europe, and we moved to Hong Kong in December of 2008. Since then we have performed for companies such like Audi, American Express, Nespresso, The French Chamber of Commerce...and yes...we did sing in French, singing the classic “Autumn Leaves” and METRO's arrangement to Carmen's Overture...the three major beverage companies in Hong Kong (Watson's,  Vitasoy, and Swire) and many more. While we sing, we continue our outreach to schools in Hong Kong to help introduce the American style and tradition of a cappella singing. In March, we released our first major music video, “My Pride”, in English and Cantonese, and the reaction has been great. Cantonese is definitely by far the most difficult language we have ever sung with nine different tones to address while singing and arranging. Melodies just can not be improvised a lot as the direction of pitch will change the meaning of the word.
Del: You seem to have a strong barbershop influence in your sound. Have you always done barbershop?

Sean: Eric and I have our beginnings in barbershop music.  Eric’s dad, Larry Monson, who is also our coach, was singing in a very successful barbershop quartet called The Formalities, when Eric was born.  I joined a barbershop chorus in Cincinnati called The Southern Gateway Chorus when I was fourteen.  Both Eric and I competed in the International Collegiate Barbershop Competition and Eric sang baritone for the first ever college champs, Water Street Junction.  Barbershop has always been a part of METRO and we still have songs in our rep that are complete barbershop charts.   

Del: When did you start incorporating other styles into your sound?
Kevin: When I joined in the Spring of 2008, I brought a different style to METRO.  Not that METRO wasn't already amazing, but what I was able to add was a bit different.  I have a bit of background in barbershop singing, but not as much as the rest of the guys.  I have been singing since I was a little kid, but my training in university was more on the instrumental side.  Since I was in the 6th grade, I have been playing the trumpet. Honestly, that is what paid my way through college.  I studied trumpet and voice for six years at Western Kentucky University. So when I joined METRO, I was able to add more instrumental licks and sounds to the overall "METRO Sounds"/arrangements.  Using our voices to make instrumental sounds, using different syllables to make the backups sound more like instruments (trumpets, trombones, guitars....). This is also the time we started incorporating more vocal percussion to our arrangements.  Meaning, our bass, instead of just singing bass, was now our entire rhythm section.  He now sings bass and emulates the sounds of a drum set.  Now we use the perfect barbershop tuning, new contemporary sounds, and vocal percussion to make METRO sound like a full band.     
Del: Do you do your own arranging?
Kevin: Yes we do, and the reason for this is simple: we know each voice of the group.  Meaning, we know the range of each member, and we know what each person is capable of singing and doing.  Another way you could say it is, we know our sound.  We also sometimes like to do songs that have not been done before.  So usually when we pick a song, there is not another arrangement published.  We do like to push the limits and there is no telling what we are sure to come up with in the future.
Del: Do you do original music as well as covers? If so, do you write your own music?
Kevin: At this moment, we do not have any original tunes.  For our next album, however, we want 50% to be originals.  All of our past albums have been covers, so we feel its time to move to the next level.  We are in the process of working with some great song writers from the US, England and Hong Kong.  METRO is hoping to get in the studio before the end of the year to get some original songs recorded.
Del: So, what brought you to Hong Kong?
Eric: At first, it was an offer from Hong Kong Disneyland. METRO performed there as the Dapper Dans for two years and we are very honored to be a part of that a cappella family. We sang primarily barbershop in the park, but we were able to use our METRO repertoire for special events.  In 2007 we left Disney to focus more on developing our own style and performances.
Del: What's it like living and working in Hong Kong?
Eric: There are a lot of great things in Hong Kong. Personally I feel like it is the most international city in the world, even moreso than NYC.  English is widely accepted, much more than when we were living in Tokyo, and we meet so many different people from various backgrounds.  I feel like Hong Kong is the world's largest small city in the world.  In a city of 7 million people, you run into people you know all the time, no matter what part of the city you are in. I could be in a completely different part of the city than where I live or work, and get on the subway and someone from METRO is in that same subway car.  Which brings me to another point, the mass transportation system is awesome and inexpensive. The bad part about Hong Kong, simply put is pollution. The combination of cars and the factories from across the border in mainland China, make Hong Kong's air sometimes quite awful,  especially being a singer. The food....incredible...and much better and different than the Chinese buffets we are used to back in the states!
Del: Isn't it hard being so far away from your families? How often do you get home to visit?

Sean: It’s always difficult being away from family but we all do pretty well in getting home to visit.  I will get to go home twice this year.  It always seems like a whirlwind but it’s great to be able to take a vacation and see the fam.  We basically make our own schedules so it’s easy to take time off.  
Del: Do you plan on doing any performing in the USA any time soon?
Kevin: Unfortunately, right now, we have no tours scheduled for the states.  We were in the process of putting together a member's hometown tour, but other opportunities came up that are more definite. So, we had to push those plans back for a while.  We do hope, in the near future, we can work something out so that we are able to make it home to sing for our friends, fans and families.  We are always looking for contacts in the states that might want to sponsor a tour.

Del: Tell me about your vocal studio. How did that get started and what have you been doing with that?
Eric: All of us in METRO are music educators. When we were coming up with our business plan, I really felt that we needed a second income to make what we do with METRO possible so I decided to create a company called American Vocal Studio LTD(AVS). As the owner, I have hired the guys of METRO to teach voice lessons while we are not performing.  This has definitely not been an easy task, especially when we officially made our move back to Hong Kong at the height of the recent economic downturn, December of 2008. Immigration officers made it quite difficult for us when I made my first presentation to them for work visas. Basically I was told, "Why does Hong Kong need a singing studio and performers? Music is only a SHORT TERM skill!"

Fortunately for us, METRO had developed a lot of ties and support in Hong Kong from our previous time in Hong Kong, and we cleared that hurdle. We thoroughly enjoy being able to both perform and teach. Our clients have continued to grow, including pop singers from Hong Kong, CEOs from various large companies, and people from all nationalities. It's been a blessing to have such talented teachers already in METRO working to share our love and passion for singing. AVS's motto is Ambassadors for Excellence in the Fine Arts, and METRO really hopes we can continue to represent the a cappella world as ambassadors, opening up this style of music to as many people in Asia as possible.

Del: So what's next for METRO? What are your long term goals?

Sean:  METRO is doing a lot right now.  We are currently marketing ourselves all over Asia.  The marketing campaigns will take us through mainland China, South Korea and Japan by next year.  It’s tough keeping up with a schedule of releasing a new product every three months or so, but that’s what it takes to stay afloat and keep the audience wanting more.   
Del: If you could say something to the a cappella community, what would you want to say?
Kevin:  First and foremost I think we would all like to say thank you.  Thank you for all the support over the past 12 years.  We hope that everyone has enjoyed what we have put together so far, and from this point, it can only get better.  It has been an amazing ride, and we don't want this roller coaster to stop.  We had such a great following for our video “My Pride”, which we released on Youtube, and we can only hope that whatever we release in the future has that same following and more.  Keep on the look out for a new album to follow "Music for a METROpolis" in the close future, and please remember to keep up with us and contact us on our website, Alive Not Dead, Facebook, and YouTube.  You can also find all these links on our website: www.METROvocalgroup.com  

As you can see, these guys are doing a lot to promote a cappella in Asia where they literally are soaking up a cappella like a sponge. If you haven’t gotten a chance to check out their latest CD, “Music for a METROpolis”, I highly recommend that you go to iTunes and give it a listen. You definitely will not regret it, especially if you are a fan of pure a cappella singing without all of the production and studio magic. It’s just plain great singing and I am happy to say that I own it and listen to it regularly.

So there you have it. I hope you enjoyed getting to know a little about this very talented group as much as I did presenting it to you.

About the author:
Del Coy studied voice, vocal arranging, live sound reinforcement and studio recording techniques in the Commercial Music program at Shenandoah Conservatory of Music in Winchester, VA. While at Shenandoah he had the privilege of singing under the direction of Grammy Award Winner, Robert Shafer. He had the distinct honor of performing with the Washington Oratorio Society which performed the Verdi Requiem, Belshazzar’s Feast and Poulenc Gloria with the National Symphony Orchestra and soloists from the Metropolitan Opera at the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC.

He also studied voice and was a vocal arranger for the Jazz ensemble at Carnegie Mellon University. Del has over 15 years of professional and semi-professional experience in a cappella. His career has taken him all over the country including performing at Walt Disney World and Universal Studios Florida. He toured with the (national touring group) Four Shadow and has subbed with Blue Jupiter. Del also performed with the vocal group METRO on board Celebrity Cruises in the Caribbean.



Thanks for the interview Del.  If anyone is interested, our new music video can be found on YouTube:  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wm49mbQXAtQ

Let me know what you think. 

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