Based in the New York/New Jersey area, Shadow Circus first came to the attention of progressive rock audiences in 2007, with the release of their debut album, Welcome to the Freakroom. However, it was their sophomore effort, 2009’s Whispers and Screams – followed by their appearance at the 2010 edition of ProgDay – that put them on the map for the majority of prog fans. With their theatrical image and lyrics inspired by the cream of science fiction and fantasy literature, as well as a powerful yet melodic sound that, while harking back to the golden years of the genre, does not shun contemporary trends, the band have attracted a lot of interest in recent years. They are now working on their third album, which should be released in early 2012, and have just released a maxi-single with two new songs, “Rise” and “Daddy’s Gone”. The members of Shadow Circus (guitarist John Fontana, vocalist David Bobick, bassist Matt Masek, keyboardist David Silver and drummer Jason Brower) have kindly agreed to answer some of my questions.
Though your history is briefly but effectively outlined on your website, would you mind expanding a bit on the why and how Shadow Circus came to be?
John: I’ll try to address some aspects of that which might not have been mentioned before. I had been playing in some bands, such as Persona Grata, Violet Love, and Omnilingus, which were all born out of the early 90’s alternative rock scene. The music I had been doing was much more based on a heavy, funky, psychedelic thing, more akin to Jane’s Addiction, and Red Hot Chili Peppers. But, I always saw progressive rock as how I wanted to express myself musically, and so all of those bands had some of that element, albeit well-hidden much of the time. I took a break from it for a few years, and promised that when I returned to music again, it would have to focus on what I genuinely loved. As I auditioned for progressive rock projects, I had a problem that none of the recordings of my previous bands showcased what I could do in that context, so I made some demos to show what I could do with Prog. Dave heard what I was doing, and insisted that I form a band to perform the music I was recording, rather than just treat it as an audition demo. Those demos ended up becoming what is now called “Journey of Everyman”.
Dave B: Yeah, in the simplest terms, it became a vehicle for John to produce the “whirlwind extravaganza” that is going on in his head. Thus far that “extravaganza” shows no signs of stopping…LOL!!
Your lineup has changed since I saw you play live last year. How did you acquire your new members?
John: Well, our newest member is actually one of the original members. Our bassist, Matt, had to leave the band after the first album due to logistical issues. When we searched for a bass player this time, we contacted him on a long shot, just in case he could do it again, and we were very fortunate that the timing worked out perfectly. As for keyboards, we were originally getting ready to audition David Silver’s brother Harry, who realized while preparing for the audition that it would be more of a time commitment than he could handle, and so referred us to David, which also worked out incredibly well. Jason answered our online ad, and blew us away with his first audition. Then he blew us away even more with his second audition. He’s apparently made a habit of blowing us away every time he gets behind the kit…and piano, as well!
Jason: Thanks, John. Remind me to give you that 20 bucks next time I see you. I had seen the name Shadow Circus all over the place on Internet prog sites and knew they had a presence of some sort in the newer prog circles, so, when the opportunity arose to possibly be a part of that group, I contacted John, sent him some video of my playing and set up an audition. I’m glad I did. This is a great bunch of guys and a great band, musically and personally.
Dave B: Basically it was a necessary evil. No one loves auditioning. It can be a bit grueling but once Jason came in that first time the process just got easier. I’m not the most easy-going person on the planet but in a lot of ways Jason is. This really helped. PLUS…he’s a Kiss fan and as you also know Raffaella, that’s a big deal in my world…LOL!!! You are, too, so I know you understand :-). Finding a Keyboard player was a bit daunting at first. It always seems to be the hardest position to fill but MAN…David is just THE perfect fit for this band. He’s just nuts!!! He’s got this crazy sense of humor that works with everyone and most importantly he’s genius on the keyboards. So, we really try hard to accommodate his schedule and make it work. As for Matt…well…we were definitely getting a tad nervous without a bass player and I have always wanted Matt back in the band since the day he left but always figured, much like John did, that he would not be able to work things out. Alas, that was not the case. He actually jumped at the chance and to be honest, with Matt in the band it kinda feels like “home.” It’s the way it should have been from the beginning 🙂
David: As John said, my brother told me he knew of a band that was looking for a keyboard player. This was at a time when I had no interest in joining a band. But I listened to the music anyway and it reminded me of my musical roots while still sounding fresh. On reflection, I came to realize that the Circus had a lot going for it and I was lucky to have the opportunity to step into this situation. So, how did I come to join? I stepped in it.
Did all of you grow up with classic progressive rock as your main influence, or are there others that you would count as equally or even more important for your development, both as individual musicians and as a band?
Matt: A high school friend turned me on to Genesis in 1977 and I was hooked on prog rock from that time on. I had always loved the classic rock standards like the Beatles, the Doors, the Who and anyone from Motown but Genesis absolutely sparked my love of prog. I am classically trained so the sweeping melodic grand themes of prog remind me of the masters of classic symphonic gems. I would have to say that training laid the groundwork for my love of prog!
John: I had a friend in 6th grade who got me into classical music. He was a wicked violinist. Actually, I’ve recently been in touch with him, and he is now the touring bassist for Peter Murphy. But, I digress. He got me into Stravinsky, Beethoven, Brahms. Then I started hearing hints of classical elements in the music my older siblings were listening to. Hearing Zeppelin’s “The Rain Song” was a pivotal moment for me – what I loved about classical blended so beautifully with rock, and I was hooked. Also, I was very much drawn to the sound of the Moog synthesizer, and sought anything that used it, so I listened to everything from the Steve Miller Band to Isao Tomita. I’ve also always been a big Joe Walsh fan, so all of these influences find their way into what I write somehow.
Jason: I grew up with records always being played in the house. My parents had great taste in music and still do. I remember Dark Side Of The Moon and Wish You Were Here being played a lot! I would even request them at the age of five. It was one of the first times I remember being affected by music. Queen, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Elton John, Billy Joel, The Rolling Stones, Boston…all the classic rock stuff was in the house. There was also some country, doo-wop, standards, etc. The funny thing is, my three favorite genres of music (aside from all the classic rock stuff), prog, fusion and classical, were strangely non-existent (aside from Floyd, Queen and Zappa). That was MY music. Stuff that I discovered on my own and grew to love beyond description. My parents started me off right and I took it from there. As a performer, musician and composer, I can be inspired by almost anything, even non-musical things.
David: During my formative years it was pretty much all about The Beatles. Influenced by an older sibling, I was quickly making my way through the obligatory Led Zeppelin/Deep Purple/Black Sabbath phases when one day I heard ELP’s Pictures at an Exhibition. This rocking interpretation of classical music featuring Hammond organ and Moog synthesizer opened about 15 doors at once that I ran through and never looked back. In short order there were Yes, Genesis, Jethro Tull, Gentle Giant and Frank Zappa albums cluttering every surface (vinyl LPs were large, you know) and I began trying to learn various keyboard parts by ear. Like John and Jason, I realized that there was a logical connection between a variety of so-called musical genres and followed each path wherever it took me. A Frank Zappa concert one day and Victor Borge the next was what it was like in those days.
Dave B: Raffaella, you’ve gotten to know me a little over the last couple of years and I’m sure that when you think of my influences you will probably come up with one word…KISS! Beyond that, I listened to a lot of different things, but metal and heavy rock has always been my main influence. Queen became a huge influence in my life. I consider myself one of the lucky ones having actually gotten to see them live in 1982. Freddie Mercury was just mind-blowing. As you also know, musical theater also played a huge part in my life, opening me up to a whole different world that I did not know existed such as the song stylings of Miss Barbra Streisand, whom I consider to be the best singer on the planet. The list could go on forever at this point in my life.
Are any of you professional musicians? What are your respective experiences in the music field?
Matt: I work for a living music in the insurance field but I had attended a small music conservatory in Philadelphia for a couple of years, studying cello performance, hoping to play cello in a professional orchestra, but those plans fell through. I started on the classical guitar at age 9 and moved to cello by the age of 11. I remember days spent in the local music store as a kid lusting after the shiny new bass guitars and in my senior year first performed in a band at a talent show. I was hooked!
John: I have always depended on things other than music for sustenance, so, for me, it’s always been just for art.
Jason: I have been at every level that a musician can be except professional (laughs). Sure, we’ve all made money at it and sometimes really good money, but, never to the point that we could do nothing but. Hopefully, that will all change soon!
David: No. None. (Unless you count playing “Hoedown” on stage with Keith Emerson? Nah.)
Dave B: Thus far I have not gotten to the pro level but one should never say never.
What about the compositional process? Are you all involved in the songwriting, or it is rather something that involves only some of the band members?
John: I typically come up with the musical foundation, and I’ve gotten more involved with writing vocal melodies and lyrics, such as the choruses for “Daddy’s Gone” and “Rise”. Otherwise, the vocal melodies and lyrics have been Dave’s. Now, with Jason and David in the band, they have lots of great musical ideas, so I see that evolving now to be a more collaborative process.
Jason: I have enough material for, oh, I don’t know, eighteen albums or so and haven’t stopped writing. I like the challenge of not only writing for myself, but writing for a group that already has a sound, bringing my sound and ideas into the mix. I’m looking forward to hear how our separate styles come together and what we will create.
David: Once John and Jason are done, I may have a couple of suggestions for album # 26.
Dave B: What John said…LOL!!! Just kidding 🙂 Yeah, I write lyrics for most things but there are times where I am at a loss and John will jump in. A perfect example of this would be “Horsemen Ride” off Whispers & Screams. I just wasn’t feeling it or I just could not connect and he jumped in and came up with a great set of lyrics. There’s no ego here. If John can do better, then all the power. That includes Jason as well. He’s got some awesome ideas that we are fleshing out for the next CD which I think are going to just rock. I’ve already got lyrical ideas for it as we speak. Now if we could just get him to record it and get it to John we’d be golden. We’re working on it…LOL!!!
The lyrical aspect seems to be as important in your output as the purely musical one. How do you go about the process of writing lyrics, and what gets your creative juices flowing?
John: Dave will have more to say about this, but for my small part, I think of the vocal melodies in an abstract, phonetic sort of way. I think of the sound of certain vowels and the rhythm of the syllables. From there, I think about the story that the song needs to tell.
David: I’m still trying to picture what the vocals must sound like in John’s head. I imagine sort of like if Marlee Matlin were the lead singer.
Dave B: I’ll give you an up to date example. As you know there is a new Van Halen CD coming out this February and everyone on the Internet…well not everyone…just the trolls (You know who you are…)…are starting to put it down not because it’s bad but because Van Halen are using a lot of ideas that were written many years ago and revamping them. That is the case with me. A lot…not all but a lot of the lyrics that are on the first and second CD’s were culled from lyrics that I wrote years ago when I lived out in San Diego. A lot were written for the band I had out there and some were just written kind of like poetry. When we started putting things together for Shadow Circus many of those lyrics fit like puzzle pieces into the stuff John was writing. They were definitely tweaked and modified. One perfect example of this is the song “Angel” on Whispers & Screams. I actually wrote the lyrics AND the music for that song for my band Hang ’em High. It was originally called “Angel With the Dirty Wings”. John did some modifications to the music and I did as well with the lyrics and it…well…It “grew up” to be the song it is today. I find nothing wrong with taking from the past and letting things grow up. There is a song called “Russian Roulette’ off the latest Kiss CD, Sonic Boom, which was a song Gene Simmons wrote years ago. He modified it and it’s now one of the most rocking songs off that CD. Personally I don’t get what people are complaining about…well, I guess they just want to complain…LOL!!!
Beyond that, I love Stephen King and his stories have been fodder for many songs we’ve done. I think taking from literature is a great way to come up with lyrics. Iron Maiden has done it for years with “Rime of the Ancient Mariner”, “To Tame a Land”, “Alexander the Great”…and the list goes on. Stephen King has been a huge influence on me for that reason. I’m a lot less interested in writing about life experiences and more about turning crazy stories into crazy lyrics.
As a keen reader of fantasy literature, I am curious about your own interest in it, which is reflected not just in the songs, but in the band’s very name. Which novel or short story would you like to reinterpret for a future album, besides those that have already received the Shadow Circus treatment?
John: I’ve always wanted to do something with Anne Rice’s The Witching Hour. In fact, when I began writing “Project Blue”, that’s what I had in mind. The eerie intro to “Captain Trips” was originally intended to be the scene where Lasher first appears, with the circles of wind stirring up around the witch.
Jason: Keeping with the Stephen King themes, I’d love to do Salem’s Lot or Needful Things. We’ve talked about doing IT which I think would be incredible. I would also love to tackle Alice In Wonderland and The Legend Of Sleepy Hollow one of these days. Maybe the sixth or seventh albums (laughs).
David: I think a rock opera based on the Texas Chainsaw Massacre would be bloody wild.
Dave B: I’m definitely with Jason on this. I would love to tackle Salem’s Lot. IT is also on my list. In fact John has a song idea that was conceived with that story in mind. What we are tackling for the third CD is A Wrinkle in Time. John was very passionate about that story and it has really, really grown on me. We’ve got some epic things cooking as we speak. I’ll give nothing more away at this juncture.
One of the most impressive features of your albums, particularly Whispers and Screams, has been the artwork. Is the combination of music and art as important for you as for the original prog bands of the Seventies?
John: Absolutely. And, quite frankly, I wish that vinyl was still the standard medium. I liked when you could look at this big piece of artwork while listening to an album, unfold it and have easily legible lyrics and information about the band. CD packaging might as well be a candy wrapper. But that’s a whole other tangent.
Jason: Without hesitation, YES! It’s the first thing that invites you in and grabs you. Plus, being an artist myself, as well as a musician, it naturally attracts me and is very critical to the overall album experience. Like John said, it’s great to immerse yourself in the cover, art, lyrics, etc. while listening. They go hand in hand.
David: John told me H.R. Giger did all the covers. John?
What about the New York/New Jersey music scene, which is by many perceived to be more favorable to prog and classic rock than other parts of the country? What are the difficulties you encounter when it comes to finding gigs?
John: The biggest difficulty, I think, is that there is no place to play gigs on a regular basis. The Beatles didn’t become a great band by playing two gigs a year. They played five every day for years as a working band before setting out to record. Also, the list of bands that want to play these venues and festivals is so long, that you need to wait a minimum of three years before playing the same venue or festival again. The second biggest problem is that most American venues and festivals favor bands from Europe, and the venues and festivals in Europe will rarely, if ever, invite an American band to come and play.
Jason: The hardest thing that I’ve found about playing original music in NYC is gaining momentum and a following. Bouncing around from small dive bar or hole in the wall once or twice a month isn’t going to get you anywhere. You need to at least play higher profile venues with heavy tourist appeal and built-in audiences on a regular basis or open for a national act at the larger venues or even get into the college circuit. Promotion is key, as well.
David: To follow up on what John said, The Beatles not only benefited from working “in the trenches” in Hamburg, but then got to return to England as a hot band from Hamburg. Some things never change.
You recently played some dates opening for Italian band The Watch, for the second year in a row. What can you tell me about your experiences in a live setting – including your participation in last year’s edition of ProgDay, the longest-running progressive rock festival in the world?
Matt: I can be assured we all feel this way but when you can translate a studio result into a live result and people are happy, then you have done your job as a live performer. There is not much to rival that feeling!
John: We are so fortunate to have such good friends with The Watch. What a rare, and amazing opportunity to be able to play such great venues in front of such large audiences. We learned so much about preparing to travel to gigs, setting up and cleaning up quickly, keeping the set list tight. It’s been an incredible education. ProgDay was also a great learning experience, as well as the first real gig this band has ever played.
Jason: Opening for The Watch was one of the most enjoyable experiences I’ve had to date. Great band, great bunch of guys. I’m looking forward to a long friendship with them and, hopefully, many more dates with them here and abroad.
David: Agreed on all counts. Opening for The Watch was a great pleasure personally and a great opportunity for Shadow Circus.
Dave B: I just love working with The Watch. They are genuinely the nicest bunch of guys you could know. Very hospitable and would pay us a million dollars a show if they could. It’s just a great relationship that will eventually allow us to play Europe opening for them as well. Really, I mean every night we played with them it was just such a pleasure to hang out and watch their show. They are definitely pro and we all learn a lot from playing with them. Come ON…Simone is just SO awesome on stage it’s great!!! ProgDay…well what can I say Raffaella…that where we met you for the first time. It’s all good!!! \m/. It is a really great festival to play though. A great stage but a bit daunting as well. All the shows we have done including ProgDay have been learning experiences…like John said. Especially for me as the front man. Boy, do I have things to learn and I do with every show.
You have recently released two new songs, “Rise” and “Daddy’s Gone”, as a maxi-single. What has the response been so far?
John: We are getting a very positive response to the music. But, prog fans are a little old-fashioned in that they want an album, not a single, and they are even less interested in digital downloads as opposed to a CD.
Now something about your forthcoming third album. Do you see it as a logical follow-up to Whispers and Screams and Welcome to the Freakroom, or is it going to be significantly different?
John: I think that it is a logical follow-up. With each CD, we seem to get into bigger formats and themes. We had the short epic on Welcome to the Freakroom, then went further with an album-side-length epic on Whispers, and now we’re going for a full concept album. I also think that with each iteration, the music has more depth, more complexity in some respects, but we are also always pursuing the art of writing the perfect melody, however simple it is.
Jason: The single was great and a nice, easy way to introduce the new line-up and sound. Since this will be my first full album with Shadow Circus I can’t comment on the other albums, but, the excitement for the new album is really building within us as we get the material together and I think it’s going to be a great one!
David: I’ve noticed that the new hip thing is to release new material on vinyl, but so far my idea to put On a Dark and Stormy Night out only on wax cylinders hasn’t gained traction with the band.
Dave B: Among the many things that will be great about this next CD, I have to admit that the biggest deal for me is having Matt Masek back in the band and on this next CD. It’s literally full circle…ya know??? He’s so good at what he does and was awesome to work with on Freakroom…well, this is just gonna rock even more!!! I haven’t forgotten about you either Jason!!! You are a force to be reckoned with and you will make this CD everything the last two should have been!!! I think this line up more than anything will make this not just a logical follow-up but a GREAT follow-up. I’m just so excited to see what David Silver comes up with on the keys…it’s really very exciting!!!
Is your new album going to be an independent release like Whispers and Screams, or is a label going to be involved, as in the case of your debut?
John: I do think that a label will be involved in this release, one that is open to all of our approached to marketing and connecting with fans, but it is too early to announce anything formally.
David: Well, we were gonna put it out on a Black Label, but we couldn’t get enough proof. So I’m gonna let John handle this.
What are your plans for 2012, after the album’s release? I remember hearing something about a European tour…
John: We are invited by The Watch to come over to Europe and play some shows with them, so that will be our biggest priority.
Jason: Yes, a return to playing with The Watch here and then over in Europe, like I mentioned earlier, and hopefully a bunch of festivals. Basically, promote the album in any way we can and expand our fan base.
David: I think these days a new music act has to break on one of the reality shows, so I’ve got feelers out with American Idol, America’s Got Talent, Dancing With the Stars and America’s Next Top Model (couldn’t hurt). So far we’ve only had interest from America’s Funniest Home Videos (and Project Runway likes my jacket).
Dave B: For me, I agree. I want to go over to Europe because I think that is where our biggest market is BUT…I also think it’s important for us to get to Canada with The Watch this fall as well. They get really big audiences up there and I think if we do it right we’ll make a positive impact in those cities.
Thank you very much for your answers, and looking forward to hearing On a Dark and Stormy Night!
Jason: Thank you for taking the time to give us this interview.
Dave B: Same here!!! Thanks so much for taking the time to support Shadow Circus. It really means a lot to everyone in the band. keep rocking!!! \m/
David: I apologize. Truly. I apologize.