Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Archive for the ‘Interview’ Category

Based in New Jersey, Advent are one of the most distinctive bands on the current US progressive rock scene—though not one of the most prolific, having released only two albums since their inception in 1989. Now, nearly six years after the release of their second album, the highly acclaimed Cantus Firmus, Advent are busy writing material for their forthcoming third album. With a return gig that took place on December 11 (together with another talented New Jersey outfit, The Tea Club), and some recent lineup changes, the band are set to begin 2012 with a bang. Some time ago, I contacted core members Alan Benjamin and Henry and Mark Ptak, who have been so kind as to provide exhaustive answers to  my questions.

——————————————————————————————————————————————————————–

Let’s start with the usual, very boring question on Advent’s beginnings, for those of my readers that are not yet familiar with you.

Alan: I moved to New Jersey in 1987 and very quickly formed my first prog band, Tangent, with an old friend from high school. Within a year and a half, though, the project imploded and I went into a phase of trying to find an established group that had an opening—but that only led to a series of auditions for bands that I knew I would never be happy joining (usually something I could tell within the first 30 seconds). Once the realization hit that there probably wouldn’t be a satisfactory group to join, I decided to place an ad in a local (New Jersey) musician’s magazine called The E.C. Rocker to see if I could at least find any compatible collaborators—and, thankfully, Henry answered.

With the previous series of “nightmare auditions” looming in recent memory (at that time), I thought it best to schedule a preliminary meeting where we would do nothing more than listen to recorded samples of each other’s music and discuss our mutual interests. It only took a few measures of hearing Henry’s first tune on tape—a solo version of “Rear View Mirror”—for me to realize that this was exactly the type of person I wanted to work with. Fortunately, he seemed to like the tapes of my music as well, and Advent was born. Mark (Henry’s talented brother) graduated from Berklee the following year and immediately joined to complete the three-member core that has existed for over 20 years now.

What are your respective musical backgrounds and main influences?

Henry: My earliest influences were probably popular recordings of Polish songs my folks used to listen to—and they also had some classical stuff around (mostly Chopin, and things like Addinsell’s Warsaw Concerto), some of which I’d wind up hearing in popular-rendition form on Liberace’s TV show at that time. Like most people, my exposure to rock ‘n’ roll was from the local radio stations—Duane Eddy was an early favorite, followed by Elvis Presley, Hank Ballard, and Roy Orbison. By the time the Beatles arrived, I was already taking guitar lessons at the local music store. J.S. Bach, Procol Harum, and Keith Emerson got me into keyboards a few years later, and Genesis and Gentle Giant cemented the relationship. I got back into the classics mostly because of them—and Blood, Sweat & Tears (D. Clayton-Thomas era) also got me into jazz. Once the classical and jazz fields were opened up for me, I just devoured whatever my teachers (and anyone else whose opinions I valued) recommended. I listened to everything—a lot of the record stores back then had very knowledgeable staff in each department, and when they were unavailable, you could always look through the Schwann catalogs for a listing of those works most commonly performed by the best-known pianists and orchestras. In addition to Chopin, Rachmaninoff and Ravel were big favorites.

Alan: Having grown up with an intensely musical mother (who was quite an accomplished pianist and songwriter), music was everywhere in my early life. My mom likes to brag about how I “begged her for piano lessons” when I was two, but she forced me to wait until I turned three to start. Although dabbling with chord patterns from simple song books on my dad’s old F-hole Vega acoustic guitar, I eventually decided to take up the violin (around age eight) and became a bit of a child prodigy on the instrument, playing classical music with what had to be the best elementary school orchestra in New York City and also taking on extracurricular ensemble work.

My entire world became disrupted at age 12, however, by being sent (against my will) to boarding school in Pennsylvania—and, for some strange reason that I’m sure I’ll never uncover at this point, I was not permitted to bring my violin with me. On the bright side, though, my second roommate there obsessively played three albums that, almost immediately, shifted my primary interest toward rock music (in order of importance): Queen’s Sheer Heart Attack, Sweet’s Desolation Boulevard, and Kimono My House by Sparks. My mom bought me a Conn acoustic guitar that Christmas (which I was actually allowed to keep at school) and that ended up representing my ultimate change of primary instrument.

For the sake of brevity, I’ll just list some of the artists I discovered between that time and the end of the 1980s, in chronological, that each had a lasting impact on my musical psyche (in addition to Queen, the one that had really stuck from my roommate’s initial exposure): Rush, Kansas, Genesis, Dixie Dregs, Gentle Giant, Saga, and Pekka Pohjola. The most significant long-term inspiration came from Gentle Giant in the early days followed a bit later on by Pekka Pohjola. I should also add that purchasing Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells when it was brand new (over a year before going to boarding school) also seems to have had a lasting impact in the way I approach composition and arrangement, although this is something that generally seems to manifest itself in a more structural/logistical manner.

Mark: I’m going to work backwards here. Lately, it’s been a good deal of sacred music. Singing in a number of church choirs over the years (some with Henry) has opened up the door to some wonderfully beautiful music that I would never have known was out there otherwise. Before that, there was my training from Berklee in Boston. Over there I honed my music theory, arranging, and jazz harmony skills, while also learning how to get around technical aspects of the studio. And Henry stands behind all that, actually—because it was from him that I received exposure, at a very early age, to Gentle Giant, Procol Harum, Genesis, ELP, Weather Report, and various baroque, romantic, and classical composers. He was also my first music-theory and piano teacher—and a tough one at that. Of course, it didn’t hurt to look at all that cool ’70s keyboard gear he had amassed by the time I was about five or so. That’s probably what started the ball rolling, really.

What is the story behind your name, short and sweet like many of the names of historic prog bands?

Mark:  I believe Alan’s wife, Amy, suggested the name. And naturally, Henry and I being practicing Roman Catholics, identified with its liturgical significance in the Church as one of expectation, or “coming,” as it were, of Christ’s Nativity. So that felt positive, we thought. Plus, it had a nice, short, and “final” kind of ring to it when pronounced. So yeah, I think it works well.

Alan: Yes, the name originated from Amy (my beautiful and musical wife), who used to be a rather serious keyboard player in her younger days. She came up with the idea of naming a band Advent back in college, but never had the opportunity to put it to use. When we were starting to think about band names, she shared the idea and we immediately thought it was perfect.

Though Advent have been in existence for almost three decades, there have been long breaks between your CD releases. What is the reason for that?

Alan: There are actually several factors that have conspired to keep things moving so slowly in this regard. The fact that we’ve always been a band of married guys with families and day jobs is probably the most significant factor—often resulting in having very little time available to actually work on music. Beyond that, a combination of several lineup changes and, for an extended period, trying to focus on too many activities simultaneously, set us back quite a bit. In fact, I don’t think we would have ever finished Cantus Firmus had we not made a conscious decision to stop looking for new band members and dedicate virtually all our time to making the album. Additionally, our material is often very complex and intricate, and it just takes a significant amount of time and effort to get the tunes written, arranged, rehearsed, recorded, and mixed to our mutual satisfaction.

Henry: The short, brutal truth of it is that we have to continue to support ourselves while attempting to keep Advent moving forward. As wonderfully supportive, generous, and dedicated as the people in the prog scene have shown themselves to be in their commitment to keeping the music alive, there simply aren’t enough ways to sustain a full-time living from writing/performing exclusively, so we all have to do other things to keep the electricity turned on in what has proven to be an increasingly precarious economic environment. I teach piano full-time, and perform with an all-Beatles show called Mystical Majesty Band in addition to writing and playing in Advent, and it’s still a daily struggle to maintain the kind of sustained attention and focus that work as detailed as ours tends to require. When something is finally finished, we’re all happy with the results, but getting there (especially today) often demands the kinds of interruptions such as are required for simple survival.

What about your recent lineup changes? Have they influenced the writing of your new material?

Alan: We’ve been very fortunate to have some wonderful players in the band over the years. Drew Siciliano (drums) and Benjamin Rose (bass), representing our previous rhythm section, were both amazing players that came from more of a jazz background. Our new drummer Joe D’Andrea, an old friend (that found out about the opening via my venting on Facebook), has a very diverse set of influences but approaches the music from a solid progressive-rock perspective—and is also a very gifted vocalist who plays violin quite well. We also had a new bass player for about a year and a half, but I’m afraid that things didn’t quite work out in the end and we just parted ways in early 2012. (We’re actively looking for a suitable candidate to fill this new opening, but I’m already making preparations to start recording bass parts for the new CD if we can’t find someone quickly.)

Although I can’t really say these changes have dramatically influenced the way we’re writing or arranging new material for the album, we are starting to think about optimizing some of the arrangements for a single guitarist due to the fact that Greg (Katona, our second guitarist) is not planning on participating in future live performances with the band at this point. I’m very happy to say that Greg is still very actively involved in both our creative and recording processes, though, and has already laid down some beautiful guitar work for the third Advent album.

Mark:  Maybe it’s influenced us a little bit. I don’t know, I think we still approach writing mostly the same way we always have, only now we’ve been able to try things live during rehearsals with the full band and see what worked and what didn’t. That’s a nice thing to have happen because it makes the transition to live performance a lot easier. Much of the re-arranging gets cut down, which speeds things up for us—somewhat. (Ha ha.)

You have been called the most European-sounding of American bands, and especially Cantus Firmus shows your fascination with the Old World and its centuries-old musical tradition. Can you expand a bit on this particular subject?

Henry: I think the way we approach form has a lot to do with that. Most popular music (including many jazz standards) follows either a 12-bar form, or a standard “verse/chorus/middle eight/what-have-you” formula, which is very well-suited to shorter works. With longer pieces you have to consider how to sustain musical interest as you stretch out. I have nothing against the solution of extended soloing to fill the time, especially in the hands of great players like Pat Metheny, Joe Zawinul, or Herbie Hancock. However, I’m not drawn to that particular solution in the same way that I am to models which are more in line with the European classics, and if you go down that road, it’s inevitable that you’ll “discover” sonata form, counterpoint, thematic development, and all the rest of it—and pretty soon you find yourself referencing musical antecedents that lead all the way back to Gregorian chant. I’ve always been of the opinion that the audience which grew up on a diet of the simple pop tunes of early rock ‘n’ roll eventually wanted something a little deeper by the mid-sixties, which would account for all of the classical/jazz/folk/rock hybrids comprising much of the early prog catalog that became popular soon afterwards. I personally think it represented a hunger to reconnect with musical roots that ran deeper than the weekly chart-breaker—and, for me at least, that meant European music, which I believe is the best we have.

Do you see yourselves as “retro-prog”, and what is your opinion of such a label? Do you see it as unfair, or do you wear it as a badge of pride?

Alan: I don’t think the “retro-prog” label can accurately be applied to Advent—at least not based on any music the band has released up to this point. That being said, I believe our musical ethos to be more in line with many of the classic prog bands than most of the acts who fall quite squarely into that “retro” category. To further qualify, I think virtually all these (retro-prog) bands feature arrangements—especially from the standpoint of timbre—that sound as though their recordings could have been made in the 1970s. Our music, however, does not favor that approach at all and contains at least as many textures that would never have been heard back in prog’s heyday. Or, to put it another way, I like to think that we expand rather significantly on the retro sound, while still leveraging at least some of the elements that made classic prog music so appealing—but I don’t think anyone would ever mistake any Advent tune for having been recorded over 35 years ago.

Henry: If, as I suspect, “retro” is to be understood as describing a musical approach with influences directly traceable to the best work of earlier practitioners of a particular genre, I suppose I’m OK with that. Even to call what we do an “homage”, or “in the manner of” is in my opinion misleading, because (as Alan has already expressed), there’s other things of a more eclectic nature in what we do. The influences are there, sure, but the problem with the word “retro” is that it leaves one wide open to the philological mischief it affords to self-styled iconoclasts (like the chain-smoking Marxist motormouths of my college days),who want to bury the past altogether. I would oppose the use of the term to the extent that it is used with a subtly dismissive spin, the intent of which seems (to me at least), to suggest a want of imagination, or to put it another way, an absence of “progress”, if “progress” is to be measured along the same tired old deconstructionist/Socialist/Satanist agitprop measuring stick some of these people would confine it to.

Mark: You know, I really don’t care what you call us, as long as you listen to the darn music. What’s being said musically is what’s most important, in my mind. There’s a certain eternal connection your soul has with music, and that’s what Henry and I (at least) try to tap into. We try to knock on that door and make an impression on you that lasts – hopefully for a lifetime. Some music has done that to me, and it doesn’t matter one bit what its label is, or how people identify it. I just know that when I listen to it, it does something beautiful inside that words can never describe. My badge of pride would be to have that happen to at least one person with even a few bars of a tune that I wrote or helped to arrange.

And now, the obligatory question about your songwriting process. How do you go about it? Does writing new material come easy to you?

Mark: Very seldom does any one idea blossom into an entire tune for me. We’ve all got bits and pieces left over from other things, or short snippets of ideas that we constantly try to mix and match with each other’s fragments to see what fits. The cool thing that Henry and I like to do sometimes is to take an existing idea, throw it into a sequencer and flip it backwards or upside down, or even in retrograde inversion. That produces a lot of caca sometimes, and a good belly laugh other times—but every once in a while you get something really interesting that sticks. The middle section of “Awaiting the Call…” is actually an idea I had that was played in reverse, or upside down … I forget now. After a little revising, that became the dual acoustic guitar/mandolin part. Funny thing is, the original idea was just as good as far as I’m concerned. Who knows? You might hear that show up somewhere at some point.

Henry:  It varies. For most of Advent’s existence, we’ve tended to treat rehearsals as something of a songwriting workshop, where we’d each come in with sections of material prepared—sometimes collectively, though mostly individually—and try to move things forward section by section. Since we’ve got two locations equipped with recording facilities, that occasionally involves recording some of what we have in varying stages of completion to try to get more of a sense of how the final song is going to sound, and then make the inevitable adjustments where required. Starting from nothing, of course, tends to slow things down a bit—and since so much of the compositional process depends on finding the right arrangement for whatever raw material we’ve started with, it’s important to know early on whether the song idea in front of you has possibilities or not.

Alan:  We all approach the creative aspects of this task quite differently in my opinion—although I would also say that Henry, Mark, and I are all fairly consistent about wanting to develop our basic compositional structures and arrangements independently (before bringing the pieces into the group for additional input). I tend to spontaneously write small ideas on a regular basis, but it takes a concerted effort to turn one or more of these snippets into a complete piece of music—and this process typically involves a significant amount of time, effort, and discipline. In this regard, it really helps to have some kind of goal in mind which drives a commitment to get the piece done on some sort of schedule.

On the next Advent CD, I also composed two short pieces with (our other guitar player) Greg. This was a very collaborative process that started with my beginning each composition, transcribing what I had into Sibelius (the music-notation program), and sending both scores and Sibelius-generated audio to Greg. He would listen to the results and compose his parts to match what I started—and then, upon reaching a certain point, Greg would take the lead and develop the following section of the tune, for which I’d have to go back and write my parts to match. Once in a while we’d come to some form of disagreement, but that would eventually get worked out. In the end, though, I’ve been tremendously pleased with the final results and really hope that Greg and I can continue to work in this fashion well into the future.

As I wrote in my review, my first contact with the music of Advent was your contribution to Musea Records’s Dante’s Inferno 4-CD set. How did that collaboration come about, and what was your experience? Are you familiar with the literary work at all?

Alan: If memory serves, Marco Bernard (Colossus) reached out to us directly and solicited our involvement in the project. Although Henry and Mark were a lot more familiar with the text than I, we all thought it sounded like something which could be right up our alley. The assignment also provided our first opportunity to collaborate with Greg on an original composition—something that went very well in my opinion. I also think Henry’s daughter (Thérèse) did a wonderful job on the vocals.

Henry:  I was already acquainted with The Inferno, having read it in college and once or twice since then—so when Alan informed us about the Colossus-based project to do a prog collection encompassing the first canticum of Dante’s Divine Comedy, I thought it would make for an interesting subject around which to build a composition. Happily, we were all in agreement about doing it, even though we knew it involved another redirection of focus away from the new CD. First of all, it was the initial (and only) Advent studio recording featuring the six-piece ensemble that had been gigging since the release of Cantus Firmus—and the tune also provided an opportunity to showcase Greg Katona’s formidable skills on classical guitar, for which he wrote his own part. The style of writing was quite a bit darker than is typical for us, which one might expect given the subject matter. Coming up with a “visual” program to describe the events in “Canto XXVI” took a few tries, but when it was completed, I was amazed at how compellingly Greg’s contribution captured Dante’s “lament” over Florence at the outset of the work. I would have enjoyed being a part of the Purgatorio and Paradiso collections as well, but there just wasn’t time for additional detours from writing our new CD. Congratulations to Marco, Colossus, Musea, and all involved, though—great idea!

Mark: It was a very welcome experience as Alan and Henry have already pointed out. It was a little out of the way in terms of what we do, but the subject matter was an interesting one for all of us and enabled the band to stretch out a bit, compositionally. I’ve been aware of Dante’s Divine Comedy for years, but never read any of it until we signed on for the Musea/Colossus project. I read Inferno in preparation for what we were going to create, and I think that helped me a lot in the mixing stage. I started to read Purgatorio shortly after that and got through a decent part of it, but never finished. I’m confident I’ll get to the rest of it, and Paradiso, at some point. I’m a bit too busy right now, though.

You seem to have a keen interest in literature as an inspiration for your lyrics. Can you tell me something more about it?

Henry: I think we sometimes find it easier to form a compositional image when we have some sort of preexisting template to work from. Some people have difficulty visualizing a musical analog for a vibe communicated by a painting or a literary work, but we seem to manage it somehow. Perhaps growing up hearing everything from movies, to TV shows, to Warner Bros. cartoons, so skillfully set to music has left its mark. (I’m not sure.) Whatever the reason, the operation of transitioning from words-to-mental-picture-to-music seems a pretty natural one. I think it also helps that we all, by disposition, seem to have a preference for a type of lyric that most resembles poetry, where the images and references tend to be both varied and colorful. It seems to afford more room for the imagination to latch onto something useful in regard to projecting an atmosphere. Lyricists who write in that manner have a gift for finding ironic peculiarities in everyday things that most of us would miss—especially if things were not framed in quite the same way. I always felt that Arthur Hoffman (Advent’s lyricist on our earlier works) definitely had that “poet’s eye” and it made his imagery very easy to visualize musically.

Alan, Henry and Mark play a number of instruments, and also sing. Which instrument do you privilege, and what is your approach to playing live and in the studio?

Alan: While I play a fair number of instruments, I’m definitely most comfortable with guitar and bass, followed by Stick, violin, and mandolin. Beyond that, I tinker with things like recorder and flute—and still like sitting at a keyboard as often as time permits. I also love playing drums, but doubt that I’ll ever fulfill my fantasy of becoming the next Marco Minnemann. J Also, now that Advent has three impressively strong vocalists, I’m definitely the weakest link in this regard—but, like other things that extend beyond my natural abilities, I tend to compensate by practicing a lot.

We generally record most parts individually—and, in these instances, I tend to favor recording multiple looped takes of sections that are generally of a short-to-medium length. Since I have to double as recording engineer in virtually all cases, this approach allows me some time after starting the recording (and sometimes having to jump into position following that) to “get into the zone” and deliver a truly musical performance. When I have to record something live with one or more band mates, though, my tendency is to just practice like crazy to internalize the parts as much as possible in advance—which is really the same strategy I use to prepare for performing on stage.

Henry: I’m primarily a keyboardist who occasionally dabbles on the mandolin and guitar. Since a lot of what we do, both live and in the studio, involves fairly elaborate arrangements, we tend to use our instruments with an orchestral scope in mind. At present, we basically just try to reproduce, in a live setting, quite a bit of what we liked most about the recorded arrangements, with the occasional surprise worked in just to keep things interesting. Since this approach usually means rather involved performance demands on all of us, it tends to make for very busy hands (and sweaty palms) at gig time. That said, we all seem to prefer that to losing any part which one or more of us has come to enjoy hearing in the original, and the execution of the tricky bits seems to get better with each successive gig.

Mark:  Henry and Alan (and Joe, our drummer) are the real multi-instrumentalists in this group. I pretty much stick to keyboards and singing. If you put some percussion stuff in front of me, I can bang on it well enough to give you something pretty cool. And I can program a pretty mean drum part, but that’s about it. Actually, come to think of it, I do play the radio pretty well (and pretty loud). As far as live-vs.-studio approach is concerned, it’s the same thing in both situations for me, with the exception of missing the audience in the one case (and sometimes in both, LOL). Honestly, I try to keep things the same for both instances to make the transition easy and smooth—same gear, same setup, etc. The less surprises, the better, as far as I’m concerned. The keyboards are hard enough as it is without adding to the complexity of the performance itself. Even as a group, the performance mirrors the rehearsal, really. We haven’t consciously tried to deviate from that up to this point. There hasn’t been a need to in our minds, I think.

What have been your experiences as a live band?

Alan: That’s a surprisingly difficult question to answer, actually. On one hand, I think we’ve enjoyed many special moments and have been very fortunate, at least on occasion, to connect rather significantly with our audience. Given the complexity of the music and the corresponding amount of preparation necessary for each show, though, it’s really a shame that we haven’t been able to perform more than three times a year thus far—and I’d really like to be able to play a series of gigs in a row (or, ideally, book a short tour) where we could leverage all this hard work and make the kind of performance-related refinements that only seem to come from playing in front of a live audience on a fairly consistent basis. On the bright side, I’m very happy that we played out again, for the first time in over two years now (and with the debut of our great new drummer, Joe D’Andrea), at the NJ Proghouse on December 11th  – and having our talented young friends in The Tea Club on the bill as well was also a particularly special treat.

Mark: We’ve been very fortunate to have some wonderfully talented people in this band over the years. But as with any ongoing project with which you may be involved, especially if you’re at its foundational level, there tends to be a few revolving-door positions as people come and go, which is fine. It makes it a little harder and things tend to take a bit longer as a result, but we still manage to put together an interesting show. All members, past and present, have really put in a lot of hard work for full-band rehearsals and countless hours of home preparation for material that is not very easy to get around. Believe me, for that we.re very thankful. When everyone is in the pocket and the energy is high, it really is a mind-blower. And that just goes to show that the material is good, in my mind. When you can get excited all over again with different people playing the same arrangements, I think that says a lot about the tunes and their arrangements.

Henry:  In general, quite good. Audiences have been wonderfully supportive, especially through all those critical first few performances when we were all sort of still finding our feet as a live band. Our second gig ever was at ProgDay, and the people there were most forgiving and kind—especially considering the jitters and mental lapses we were so vulnerable to in performing things like “Ramblin’ Sailor” in its entirety for the first time. We’ve also had nothing but good experiences with those people entrusted with getting us a good live sound, in what can only be described as a very difficult mix to get just right. Special thanks to Jim Zipf and also Kevin Feeley for their fantastic work and patience on this count.

What is your relationship with the thriving New Jersey prog scene?

Alan: Well, I’d say it’s all very much centered around the NJ Proghouse, all the organization’s incredible “staph” and leadership, and the network of amazing fans, musicians, and venues that support it all. Amy and I started as concertgoers, actually, first attending the (pre-Proghouse) Flower Kings/After the Fall show that took place in New Brunswick over a decade ago. After attending quite a few gigs and getting to know Jim and the gang, we were so appreciative to have the opportunity to hold Advent’s live debut at the Proghouse—and, since that time, Amy and I have both become very active “staph” members ourselves, helping to put on some of the most incredible shows I’ve ever seen. On top of that, our great friendship with Jim, Ray, and all the other “staph” members is probably the best part of it all.

On a related note, how do you see the future of the US prog scene, especially after the announced demise of NEARfest after its 2012 edition?

Alan: That’s another tough question. I think it’s getting increasingly harder for anyone to monetize their music in general, much less that which clearly falls outside of any commercially viable genre—and, while we’re based out of New Jersey, I get the sense that this is a global phenomenon (at least in general). NEARfest coming to an end is merely indicative of the larger problem, in my opinion. Inspired composers and musicians will always strive to make great music and I think that intelligent, imaginative, open-minded listeners will always seek something new to hear—and, hopefully, own. It’s a complicated subject, though, and there are a lot of factors that come into play, including things like declining disposable income, increasing availability of free music (whether legitimately streamed or illegally downloaded), and the fact the market for nostalgia-based fandom is starting to dry up (due to most of the prominent old-school acts already having performed big festivals like NEARfest or simply not playing anymore).

When do you expect to release your new album? Have you already thought of a title?

Mark: As has been already mentioned, we’ll be shooting for a 2012 release, and hopefully earlier in the year than later. We’ll see. It’s never an easy task with Advent compositions and arrangements, but we’re working hard to get it done as quickly as we can. There are a few titles floating around in our heads, but nothing that’s been discussed openly yet, I think. That will probably come as we get closer to the end of the mixing stage. I should also add that we will be using Michael Phipps again for cover art. He did an absolutely gorgeous job on Cantus Firmus and I can’t wait to start working with him again on the concept for the new release.

Alan: I agree that we’re pretty well committed to having the album done in 2012, although I must confess to being a little less optimistic than Mark about the specifics and have a feeling that the second half of the year may be more likely. (I hope he proves me wrong, though.) Most of the tunes are fairly complete in terms of composition and arrangement at this point and quite a bit of recording has already taken place. As such, I think we have a pretty good idea of how it’s going to sound, but I wasn’t aware of any serious thoughts about the album title yet. I’ll have to see what the other guys are thinking.

Do you have other plans for 2012?

Henry: As of now, only two—release the best album we possibly can, and play in front of more people!

Mark: Something tells me it’s going to be practice, practice, and more practice.

Alan: From an Advent perspective, I’d say finishing up and releasing the new CD is definitely the top priority. After that, though, I really hope we can get back on stage and play a bunch of gigs. On a personal note, I hope to get a few collaborations into high gear and, perhaps, start working on recording some solo material.

All: Thanks so much for the interview, Raffaella! We really hope that you and your readers enjoy it. All the best!

Thank you for your time, and best wishes for the completion of your new album!

Read Full Post »

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?

MattA 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.

Links:
http://www.shadowcircusmusic.com

 

 

 

 

Read Full Post »

Seattle-based band Moraine, one of the most interesting finds by MoonJune Record’s volcanic mastermind, Leonardo Pavkovic, first came to the attention of the progressive rock scene in 2009, with the release of their debut album Manifest Density. Their reputation as purveyors of complex, intelligent and energetic music with a definitely eclectic bent – chamber rock with an edge – was consolidated by their exhilarating performance at the 2010 edition of NEARfest, and, earlier this year, by a short but successful East Coast tour. With the official release of their second album, Metamorphic Rock (recorded on the occasion of the above-mentioned NEARfest appearance) less than a month away, band members – guitarist Dennis Rea, violinist Alicia DeJoie, saxophonist Jim DeJoie, bassist Kevin Millard and drummer Stephen Cavit – have kindly agreed to share some of their thoughts and experiences on behalf of my readers.

———————————————————————————————————————

Let us start with a rather unoriginal, though obligatory, question. How did the band come into existence, and what was the reason for its inception?

Dennis: Speaking of metamorphosis, Moraine has mutated so thoroughly since its inception that its origins as a free-improvising duo between myself and cellist Ruth Davidson are barely discernable now. The project began as a casual series of get-togethers with no specific agenda; there was certainly no expectation that it would evolve into the type of band it is today. As the musical relationship deepened, both of us brought in some compositions and it soon became apparent that the music would benefit from additional instruments. So we enlisted violinist Alicia DeJoie and drummer Jay Jaskot and named the newly formed band Moraine, a term denoting the debris carried along and deposited by a glacier, very apt for our part of the world. I had worked with Alicia in singer-songwriter Eric Apoe’s group They and knew that she would be perfect for what I had in mind. Jay had been the drummer in my late-90s band Axolotl and we had always been keen to continue our musical partnership.

After briefly trying out a couple of bassists, we found the ideal fit in Kevin Millard, who had played with Ruth back in their native Minnesota; it was an odd coincidence that I met the two of them independently. This lineup persisted for a year or so until Ruth departed for graduate school on the East Coast and Jay relocated to New York City. The drum chair was filled by Stephen Cavit, a longtime musical associate of mine who, in addition to being a phenomenal drummer, is also an Emmy Award–winning film composer and choir director. We considered replacing Ruth with another cellist but didn’t know any in Seattle who had the right temperament for this particular project, so we decided to deploy woodwinds (primarily baritone saxophone) in place of cello. James DeJoie was an easy choice for this role because he is not only one of the finest and most versatile saxophonists in the Pacific Northwest, but also is married to Alicia and thus had already grown familiar with our repertoire. This lineup has been in place for about two years now, and there’s every reason to believe that it will continue indefinitely.

Most of the interviews I have read so far seem to focus on Dennis Rea’s background. However, this time I would rather concentrate on everyone else’s experiences prior to joining the band. What prompted you to join, and how different are Moraine from your previous (or even current) musical experiences?

Alicia: When Dennis Rea approached me about Moraine, I was immediately interested. I had played with Dennis before and had greatly enjoyed it, profoundly impressed by his unique sound and compositional prowess. I had also seen him in the group Axolotl and absolutely loved that band, and was very excited to learn that Moraine would be doing some tunes in common. Moraine is unlike any band I’ve ever been in – our sound is unique, ultra-creative, yet what I like to think of as approachable. In addition to the musical camaraderie shared amongst us in the band, we all get along extraordinarily well as people, which is another aspect of the group I love and appreciate.

Jim: Prior to joining Moraine, I was doing a lot of jazz (well, still do!). I’ve always played in a few large ensembles as well as my own groups. I feel I have a little different take on “jazz” than most, by including “rock” and “pop” elements into the revered jazz world. I have been into using effects on my saxes, flutes, and clarinets for years and really love exploring the sounds created with what are essentially guitar efffects. When Ruth Davidson (Moraine’s cello player) left the band to continue her educational pursuits, Dennis asked if I would be interested in joining. The range of the bari sax and bass clarinet seemed an appropriate replacement for the cello (and they were rehearsing at my wife’s and my house!). I did have some reservations at first, only because I knew my sound would be a completely different thing for the group. I said “yes” with the condition that if it didn’t work out, Dennis could fire me – no hard feelings. Needless to say, I think it’s working out fantastically!

Stephen: When Dennis called me to potentially replace Jay (how is that possible?!?), I was fully engrossed in my composition career — during which time I’ve won an Emmy Award and been named a Sundance Composers Lab Fellow, among other great honors. I had been pretty active in the Seattle music scene before returning to live in Los Angeles for work in early 2000. When I made it back to Seattle a few short years later I found the scene had changed substantially and I didn’t recognize many of the new faces. Which is what made Dennis’ call all the more sweet: I was really jones-ing to perform again!

Kevin: My earliest musical experiences in Seattle (having moved here in ’96) were in the experimental music circles; I met Dennis back then.  He was playing in a band I adored called Axolotl, and my own band at the time (Panopticon, we called ourselves “avant-groove” or “trailer park jazz”) briefly shared a practice space with them.  I also had known Ruth back in Minneapolis; when she moved here, I introduced her to Dennis’ music.  Fast forward several years: imagine my delight to find they had formed an amazing band.  A month after seeing Moraine for the first time, their bassist left town suddenly.  I auditioned, and the fit was very natural.  I love playing music with such good friends.  The band’s music itself is very close to my heart, being a fan of Dr. Nerve, Univers Zero, and 70’s King Crimson.

What is your approach to your respective instruments, and to the compositional process? What about your main musical influences?

Dennis: In a word, I am nondoctrinaire in my approach to playing the guitar; that is, I don’t subscribe to any particular doctrine, ideology, or school of playing. I’m not a jazz guitarist, I’m not a rock guitarist or avant-garde guitarist, but simply a guitarist who is free to exercise any of my many musical interests.

Although I started out taking the standard lessons like everyone else and have periodically studied this or that aspect of music making, I’ve had relatively little formal musical training. I long ago came to the realization that my gift is my ear and that a more intuitive, listening-based approach suits me best. I can read music with a gun to my head but prefer to communicate simply through playing whenever possible. Some people have commented that my playing has a ‘searching’ quality, and that’s because I am literally searching for the right note or phrase rather than following patterns and formulae. As for composing, most of my tunes begin with a single musical motif that gets embedded in my mind; from there I begin crafting variations and complementary parts for my fellow musicians. I typically compose the other players’ parts in my pieces while making sure to leave them ample room for soloing and interpretation. Most of this polyphonic writing actually takes place in my head rather than on paper, when I’m walking down the street or doing something similarly innocuous – I seem to have the ability to hear fully formed pieces in my imagination. I then bring the parts to the other musicians at rehearsal, either in written or recorded form or transmitted using a sort of musical onomatopoeia.

As for my main influences, it’s futile to try to compress them into a baker’s dozen, but some very important influences would have to include John Abercrombie, Art Ensemble of Chicago/AACM, Derek Bailey, Paul Bley, Anthony Braxton, Brotherhood of Breath, John Cage, Eugene Chadbourne, Don Cherry, John Coltrane, Cui Jian, Miles Davis, Stuart Dempster, Eric Dolphy, the ECM catalog in general, Bill Evans, free improvisation, Fred Frith, Stan Getz, Egberto Gismonti, Jimi Hendrix, King Crimson, Gyorgy Ligeti, John McLaughlin, Charles Mingus, Ben Monder, the NYC No Wave movement, William Parker, Harry Partch, Annette Peacock, Jim Pepper, psychedelia, George Russell, Terje Rypdal, Elliott Sharp, Soft Machine, Sun Ra, Toru Takemitsu, Keith Tippett, Ralph Towner, Robert Wyatt, and the music of Brazil, Cambodia, China, Korea, the Naxi people of southwest China, North Africa, Vietnam, and Xinjiang

Alicia: My approach to the violin is to be as present as I can with the instrument while I’m playing, yet free enough to plunge into the unknown, stretching the gamut of sounds the instrument is capable of making. The solid, sonic landscapes laid down by Moraine compositions provide compelling foundations which inspire me to explore myriad melodic and rhythmic elements when soloing. The compositions I’ve brought to Moraine have all started at the piano and migrated to the different instruments from there. I love knowing that when I bring a new piece to rehearsal, the rest of the band will contribute much more with their unique sounds and ideas. Every piece is then honed, enhanced, and ultimately transformed into an expression of the entire band.

Jim: Well, I’ve always approached all my instruments with the mantra “sound first.”  In other words, tone and passion – the effects I use are extensions of my acoustic tone and feel. Compositionally, my ideas generally come from the sax and piano – once an idea starts, I  try to keep fleshing it out until it feels done – I have many, many unfinished pieces! My main influences are wide: John Hollenbeck, Miles Davis, Yusef Lateef, Ornette Coleman, and Tom Waits are some of my personal heroes. Of course there are many others: Eric Dolphy, George Crumb, Morton Feldman, Jim Black, Chris Speed, Portishead, Battles, Anthony Braxton, Dave Douglas, David Bowie… There is so much great music to explore.

Stephen: I haven’t written anything for Moraine, probably because I am not a tune writer and feel more than a little intimidated by the prospect, but I do have a very developed process when it comes to scoring for film…..   I have pretty broad influences and, in regards to drumming, I would cite Paul Motian, Ed Blackwell, Gene Lake, and a few others of that ilk as my favs. When I first joined Moraine the music seemed to have a free-flowing jazz sensibility, more so than the driving rock sound it has today. The music spoke to me in that way and I feel, as a whole, our arrangements became tighter and more dynamic as a result of that shift.  In terms of what I listen to daily, I am mostly a classical music junky. I enjoy Eastern European post-minimalism, in particular, including most of the usual suspects like Arvo Part and Henryk Gorecki and some possibly lesser known composers like Petris Vasks. It’s hard to say how that listening effects my drumming on a conscious level, but I’m certain it does. There’s a much more direct influence on my choral, concert and film work.

Kevin: I am a bit of a “red-headed stepchild” in Moraine, given that I don’t read music and am self-taught on tapping instruments and bass guitar.  (I’m not ashamed to admit that the Violent Femmes and Tones On Tail helped inspire me to take up the bass.)  But when I picked up my first Chapman Stick, it encouraged my dabblings in music theory and into “fancier” music.  My only real ‘bass idol,’ as it were, is Mick Karn (RIP) – a humble, self-taught iconoclast whose lack of formal training helped him develop his own unique tones and voice.  As for composition, I am not much of a tune-writer, having contributed only one tune to Moraine thus far (which was a tune I wrote for Panopticon).  I prefer to take more of a collaborative approach to writing music, probably because I am secretly a lazy man.

How has Moraine’s sound developed since its beginnings, and how did it change with the addition of Stephen and Jim?

Dennis: As mentioned previously, the group began as a free-improvising duo, morphed into a sort of chamber-rock quintet with a ‘string quartet plus drums’ configuration, and then arrived at its current lineup of guitar, violin, woodwinds (including flute), drums, and bass (an eight-string NS/Stick, to be precise). The net result of this transformation is that we are much more of a rock band now, albeit one that is just as likely to make excursions into jazz, world (particularly East Asian) music, and any other musical dialect that interests us.

The addition of Stephen and Jim pretty cemented our current, more forceful approach, for a number of reasons. For one thing, we had often faced challenges making the cello heard in an electric band setting due to issues with amplification, feedback, and overlapping range, whereas Jim’s baritone saxophone, fitted with a microphone, cuts through loud and clear. And unlike his more straightahead jazz gigs, Jim sees in Moraine an opportunity to explore creative sound processing, so his use of various effects such as harmonizers further beefs up the group sound, to the point where it’s almost as though we have a second heavy-duty guitarist on board. Alicia has recently begun incorporating more effects into her sound as well, which opens up a whole other set of possibilities.

Our previous drummer, Jay Jaskot, is a gifted musician whose heart really lies in jazz. With Moraine, he tended to play freely across the bar lines rather than delineate the transitions in our compositions. This approach often produced marvelous results, but as our repertoire grew increasingly intricate, the music called for a more architectural rather than free-flowing style of drumming. While Stephen is also adept at playing jazz, his parallel career as a composer brings a more structural approach to the music, thus enhancing dynamics and lending more drama to the music.

Since I was present at NEARfest 2010, where I had the pleasure to meet all of you for the first time, I am interested in your take  on the whole experience – especially as the future of the festival seems to be hanging by a thread. I also know that most of you had had no involvement with the “prog scene” prior to the release of Manifest Density. What have been your impressions so far?

Dennis: For us, NEARfest was a dream gig in every respect. We were frankly stunned to have been invited, given our exceedingly low profile among progressive rock enthusiasts at the time. Indeed, I saw quite a few “Who?” responses to the announcement in Internet forums. That makes it all the more satisfying that our set was not only well attended but very enthusiastically received.

To put things in perspective, our gigs in Seattle are typically in small dive bars and cafes for about 10-20 people. We’ve landed some decent gigs at local festivals and performance series, but nothing remotely approaching the caliber of NEARfest. It goes without saying that we had never experienced such top-flight sound, lighting, and acoustics as a band, and indeed that’s what made Metamorphic Rock possible. For starters, the warm hospitality and overall good vibe fortunately elicited one of the band’s best performances to date. The recording we obtained from NEARfest was of superb audio fidelity, and subsequent mix work with legendary Northwest producer / sonic genius Steve Fisk and mastering wizard Barry Corliss made it even richer. It’s the best-sounding specimen of my own playing ever.

I was especially blown away to find myself sharing a stage with what was essentially Gentle Giant (Three Friends), one of my towering musical icons. And the experience of connecting with so many like-minded people (yourself included) was priceless.

I was dismayed at the sudden, unexpected cancellation of this year’s NEARfest – since we played on the festival’s last day in 2010, I sometimes quip, ‘Was it something we played?’ Seriously, I really hope that the organizers regroup and come back stronger than ever next year, and some of them have indicated to me that they will. I really don’t want to get caught up in the controversy over why public support for NEARfest dropped off so abruptly this year, though I suspect that part of it is that a certain segment of the once-loyal NEARfest audience doesn’t have the patience for newer bands like ours.

Alicia: We had a fabulous time at NEARfest 2010. I was thrilled at the response we received there, as well as the wonderful contacts we made and have kept since then. Our East Coast tour in the spring of 2011 was a small reunion of sorts with many of the people we met at NEARfest, which makes the release of our upcoming album Metamorphic Rock: Live at NEARfest that much more exciting to us.

Jim: I loved the experience. Usually, I consider myself a “journeyman” in a lot of groups – sort of show up and play and try not to make too many requests. But the NEARfest people were so accommodating and nice, it made the whole time a great experience (and for once I didn’t feel bad asking for more of me in the monitors!). The “prog scene” seemed really cool to me – full of people who truly love and are excited about music, a phenomenon not always associated with the “jazz” crowd. I’m disappointed to hear that the festival may not be happening in the future.

Stephen: If  having two drum techs is any kind of a taste of heaven, then I will be sure to be a good boy! We were so well cared for by people who clearly had a passion for this music. Fortunately, I was the only band member not to have any of the famous, high-octane espresso before the gig (I don’t drink coffee); otherwise, it’s possible Metamorphic Rock would have turned supersonic!!

Kevin: NEARfest was such a fantastic experience.  Having such an accommodating and friendly technical staff was a special pleasure (heck, having *any* technical help at all was a rare treat for us!, but seriously, the NEARfest crew was superb).  The coffee before the show was truly world-class.  And playing through not one but TWO full SVT 8×10 stacks was wish-fulfillment fantasy for me.  If NEARfest is, or was, the prog scene, then I look forward to more!  Such great audience and staff as well.

You recently completed a 4-date tour of the US East Coast. Do you consider it a success, or do you wish you could have done something otherwise?

Dennis: Though it was a modest tour by most measures, we felt that it was an almost complete success, marred only by some problems with borrowed equipment and a rather thin turnout in Philadelphia, but it was after all a Sunday night. Even so, we played very well that night and went down great with the the audience. Overall we received a tremendous response at every tour stop and offers to come back anytime (and we will). It was an almost disorienting contrast to our usual lot in Seattle (more on that below). In several cases people traveled long distances to see us, which was humbling; some had seen us the previous year at NEARfest and wanted more. Audience enthusiasm was palpable, and that fed into the music and charged up the performances. What’s more, we were astonished to actually break even on our travel costs through admissions and merchandise sales, which was wholly unexpected. We’ve also noticed that the touring experience has lifted us up to a new level of confidence and tightness – the Seattle shows we’ve done since then have been very high-energy.

Playing East Coast venues did underline our isolation in faraway Seattle. It was hard not to conclude that there is far more support for progressive rock in the U.S. Northeast than out in the Northwestern Hemisphere; folks back there might not think so, but all things are relative. Naturally, this makes us eager to return for more, but the geographical distance makes it a steep challenge to bring a five-piece band across the country without going deep in the hole. But we’ll be back, one way or another.

How did the new tracks featured  on Metamorphic Rock come about, and what makes them different from the material on Manifest Density?

Dennis: What’s different about our newer material is that it is being written expressly with our current instrumentation and musical personalities in mind, whereas many pieces on the previous two CDs were written before Moraine was formed and then adapted for our specific instrumental resources. Everyone in the band has a stake in the new material, and most of us are writing.

There are also different considerations when writing for woodwinds rather than cello. This will be apparent to those who listen to Metamorphic Rock who’ve also heard Manifest Density. We considered releasing a shorter version of the concert at first, to avoid repeating tracks that appeared on the first album, but found the total listening experience to be so cohesive that the energy would be sompromised by removing any pieces from the set list. We felt that it was excusable to reissue tracks from Manifest Density because with the new lineup, the arrangements are sometimes dramatically different from the previous versions. I’m pretty confident that people will be down with the record’s mix of new and refashioned material.

I know that you have been asked about your name more times than you care to admit, so this time I would rather inquire about the new album’s name, which sounds fantastic. Does it have anything to do with the Pacific Northwest being a heavily volcanic area?

Dennis: Not exactly, as volcanic rock is considered igneous rather than metamorphic rock. Due to the geological nature of our name, I like the idea of threading that theme through our work, not because it has any direct bearing on the music itself but because it’s a perennial area of interest for me. In fact, one of the song titles on Metamorphic Rock, “The Okanogan Lobe,” continues the theme, for the track’s namesake was a feature of the vast ice sheet that once covered parts of Washington State.

Strictly speaking, metamorphic rock isn’t related to moraines, except in an incidental way. Metamorphic Rock occurred to me in a flash of insight as the perfect way of answering that perennial question dreaded by musicians, ‘What type of music do you play?’ In our case we play a variety of rock music that continually seeks to transform itself, hence metamorphosis, hence Metamorphic Rock, which also plays on rock music and underscores that our music-making is a dynamic process.

While Seattle is commonly perceived as a sort of mecca for rock music, I know your experience is rather different, especially as regards getting opportunities for live performances. What are the main strengths (if any) and weaknesses of the Seattle scene?

Dennis: Seattle gets a lot of hype for being a happening music town, but personally I think it’s greatly overrated. As in any city its size, you can find many fabulously gifted musicians working in any genre you can name, but by far the lion’s share of opportunities and attention go to unimaginative indie rock and, lately, the fad for stovepipe-beard neo-Americana. There is no prog scene as such, and while there are a fair number of musicians whose music more or less fits that description, venues that will occasionally present that sort of thing are rare as hen’s teeth, and attention from the local music press scarcer still. Apart from the local jazz publication, where we have allies, Moraine has never received a single mention in any of the Seattle weeklies or arts/music scene rags – and yes, we do send them our CDs and press releases. But if I were to tattoo a middle finger on my forehead, guzzle a flask of Jägermeister, moon the audience, and throw up on the drummer, I can guarantee that there’d be a breathless feature profile of me in the local paper the following week 😉 While Seattle certainly has no monopoly on this sorry state of affairs, the fact remains that for a majority of listeners, physical appearance and attitude trump the music itself.

Lately I’ve seen some signs of a possible resurgence of interest in progressive rock out here, but it seems to be facing resolutely backward. For example, I came across a ‘Seattle Progressive and Art Rock Community’ Facebook group with great interest, but all I ever see discussed there are things like announcements of Kansas and Return to Forever concerts and calls for forming yet another Genesis tribute band. The few postings I’ve seen or submitted about live local progressive music events have been met with total radio silence – most of these folks would apparently rather hole up with their ‘70s records than support a living artform. In fact, I just heard about a local prog nut who passed up seeing a best friend’s first public performance in 10 years in favor of going to listen to old prog LPs at a local bar. There seems to be a persistent perception among many (particularly older) prog fans that local music is somehow always inferior, and that nothing can ever live up to the gold standards set by their ‘70s heroes.

But not to dwell on the negative… Whatever challenges Seattle progressive musicians face in terms of bookings and publicity, we’re blessed with an incredibly rich community of gifted musicians working in the areas of avant-rock, leading-edge jazz and improvised music, noise and experimental forms, world music, and more. Moraine cofounder Ruth Davidson informs me that Seattle has probably the best weird art-metal scene anywhere in the country, and extreme post-rockers like Sunn O))) are having a big impact outside of Seattle. Figures like Bill Frisell, Trey Gunn, and Stuart Dempster are recognized as master innovators around the globe. While many exceptional players end up following the well-worn path to New York or other big-league entrepots in search of more and better opprtunities, those of us who choose to remain here do so for any number of reasons that may or may not have anything to do with music – the inspiring natural surroundings, human-scale urban core, and so on.

Jim: Seattle is a great city with a lot of things happening. Generally, you have to search a bit to find those “happenings,” but there a lot of truly innovative musicians here. The Seattle music scene does tend to move in cliques, with the same group playing the same venues (especially true in the “jazz” scene). In my opinion, Moraine is one of the top jazz bands going. (I know, I know – jazz has such a bad rap these days, and unfortunately deservedly so!) Moraine sure ain’t Ellington, but I feel we exemplify what I consider the best thing about jazz: adventurous explorations into music.

Stephen: The strengths, as with any art scene, lie squarely with the array of great, creative players who make it up. Without a doubt, we have an embarrassment of riches in that regard. When things are good, that creative spirit is accompanied by a supportive, well established, infrastructure of venues and promoters/bookers who care as much for their end of the bargain as us players do for ours. There are some great people involved in booking here and a few great venues to showcase our wares, but for the most part, Seattle is not one of those high-functioning scenes. So far, as a general rule, we find our best opportunities outside of the Northwest.

Kevin:  In my experience, there are a great many Seattle “scenes,” and the town is full of good music, but it seems very clique-ish.  Each genre and sub-genre seems to keep to itself.  Fans of one band rarely seem interested in checking out other bands on the same bill. Also, there are thousands of bands (of all kinds) in the area, but we’re all scrabbling for the same short list of decent clubs.  Consequently, the venues often take the bands for granted – unpaid (or underpaid) and slighted.  But I have a hunch these are very common problems these days – I doubt this is unique to Seattle.

Do you see Moraine as a progressive (rather than “prog”) band? In case you do, how so?

Dennis: Well, I can’t rightly say, since nobody seems to be able to agree on a definition of progressive rock. If by progressive you mean a type of music that privileges instrumental and compositional skill and a spirit of inquiry over recycled forms, personality, fashion, and attitude, I’d say the label fits. But if progressive rock is taken to mean banks of florid keyboards, 20-minute multi-movement suites, and vocalists emoting dramatically about the battle at the end of the world, then no, we’re clearly not. Maybe this gets to the heart of the distinction you drew between ‘progressive’ and ‘prog.’

Based on many reviews and discussions I’ve seen, a lot of people seem to view us as a prog band. That’s valid to some extent, but I’m the only member of Moraine who has a progressive rock background, so we have to factor in the others’ widely varying musical backgrounds as well. One thing’s for sure, we did not consciously set out to become a ‘prog’ band. If anything, I’d say that Moraine has much more in common with the sort of avant-jazz-rock associated with the Downtown NYC scene; it has always puzzled me why more prog rock enthusiasts don’t embrace that music, which more faithfully carries forward the questing spirit of the progressive pioneers than most of the current crop of prog bands if you ask me.

Some reviewers have placed Moraine in the Canterbury or RIO subgenre. I don’t feel that we have much musical affinity to the so-called Canterbury scene since our music tends to be darker, is short on whimsy, and lacks vocals. Not that I’m not a huge fan of several of those groups, particularly Soft Machine. The RIO comparison is much more apt in terms of instrumentation and a somewhat similar compositional approach; I have no problem with that linkage. But in the end, we’re not consciously trying to emulate any models – our influences are going to show through sometimes, but that’s only natural.

Do you have any plans for a third album in the near future? I know you have been writing and performing new material in the past few months, and it would be great if Metamorphic Rock was followed by another studio album relatively soon.

Dennis: We’re getting close to having enough material for our third CD, which will be a studio effort and will probably see release in fall 2012 as MoonJune has many astounding projects to unleash on the world in the interim.

A little bird told me about a possible tour of South America and Europe in the fall or early next year. Any news as to now? Which countries are high on your list?

Dennis: Negotiations are underway for a possible tour of Brazil sometime in 2012, arranged through MoonJune contacts. It goes without saying that we would be absolutely thrilled to visit and play in that country, where we apparently have some fans. Several MoonJune artists were there earlier this year for a gigantic festival in Sao Paolo; they were very well received and had a fabulous time. Brazilian music – particularly bossa nova, tropicalia, and musica popular brasileira – have long been a major influence on me.

We also may have an opportunity to perform in a major jazz festival in Korea, in which case we’d try to set up additional shows in that part of Asia. The opportunity arose through our recent collaboration with Korean master musician Young Sub Lee, a national treasure in the field of Korean traditional music who was integrated into Moraine for a special performance of our East Asian repertoire, a memorable event.

As for Europe, the funding doesn’t appear to be there for that at present. We’d like nothing better than to tour Europe as we’ve gained a lot of fans over there, but realistically it will have to wait until travel funding is forthcoming. We will likely return to the East Coast and make our way farther down the West Coast over the coming year as well.

Thank you very much for your time and patience in answering all these questions! Really looking forward to listening to Metamorphic Rock, and hopefully to another East Coast tour.

 

Links:
http://www.moraineband.com

http://www.moonjune.com

 

 

 

 

Read Full Post »

 

Taking for once a well-deserved break from the posting of my own writings, I want to advertise a really excellent piece of work on the part of my friend Jim Russell, who is in charge of the Rock Progressivo Italiano genre team at ProgArchives. My husband and I, together with a few others, laid the groundwork in the second half of the previous decade; then, after we stopped being active contributors to the site, a group of very motivated people, madly in love with Italian prog (in both its vintage and modern incarnations), have been carrying the torch, introducing the visitors of the site to this incredibly fertile and diverse subgenre. While most of these RPI enthusiasts are not Italian (or even European), and some of them – like Jim himself – have never visited Italy,  the sheer enthusiasm and dedication with which they have been carrying out their “mission” has earned them the gratitude of many Italian bands and artists, and also increased the level of exposure of RPI on the international scene.

Over the past  few months, Jim and his collaborator Andrea Parentin (an Italian with outstanding command of English and an encyclopedic knowledge of the Italian progressive rock scene) have managed to track down three former members of one of the best original RPI bands, Rome-based Quella Vecchia Locanda (QVL for short), who in the early Seventies released two very highly rated albums before disbanding for good. In their exhaustive answers, Massimo Roselli, Donald Lax and Claudio Filice give some invaluable insights into the Italian prog scene in those heady years, even if (to the disappointment of the many fans of the subgenre) they put paid to any thoughts of  a possible comeback. The interview is a must-read for every fan of Italian progressive rock, and a wonderful piece of  journalism that puts  much of the stuff published on the “mainstream” music press to shame.

Here is the link to the interview: http://www.progarchives.com/forum/forum_posts.asp?TID=80190&PID=4243740#4243740

I also encourage all my readers to check out the excellent work of the RPI team on ProgArchives, and possibly join the discussion in the dedicated forum thread (called “The Italian Prog Appreciation Den”). Heartfelt thanks to Jim and his fellow team members for all they do on behalf of Italian progressive rock.

Read Full Post »


 Even though California-born guitarist and composer Willie Oteri may not be a household name for most prog fans, over the almost 30 years of his career he has built quite a reputation among followers of experimental music. Currently based in Austin (TX), Oteri is one of the members of duo WD-41, together with trumpeter Dave Laczko. The duo will head to Italy in mid-July, where they are scheduled to perform at the Portello River Festival in Padova and a couple of other similar events. They are also planning to hold some concerts and jams in the houses of fellow musicians and fans of progressive music.

———————————————————————————————————————————————————————–

Since many of the habitual visitors of prog sites are not familiar with your career, I guess we should start with a couple of rather trivial questions… Such as, how did you start playing your instruments, and what made you choose those particular instruments rather than others?

 Willie: I started out as a singer. At the age of 4 I whistled and sang everything I heard at home or on the radio. I also repaired an old record player, also when 4, on which I listened to a variety of music. At 7 I wanted to be a jazz singer like Dean Martin or Sinatra and only dabbled on instruments like violin or piano because they were in our house, my mother was a violinist who was in symphonies in her teens but gave it up for several reasons mainly to raise three children. I never really thought about much beyond singing. I had a cheap electric guitar around the age of 12, but I never really enjoyed it. I wanted a sax but my parents could not afford a good one. In my late teens I started playing bass so I could get into bands and I was the lead singer in couple of bands.  I also took up flute at that time since my sister had one she never used. Later in my twenties a friend convinced me to try pedal steel guitar so I could play in a country rock band he was starting. I played pedal steel for many years, in some situations you would never think of finding that sound and started dabbling on guitar but I was not real serious about guitar until the late ‘90s after coming back to professional playing from nearly a decade off. I was living on a sailboat at the time and guitar just made sense as a portable way to compose tunes. I’m not real sure I’m in love with guitar, I’m indifferent to it for many reasons, mostly from what I see as design flaws but I do truly love some of what can be done with a guitar. The sounds I hear in my head can often be made on a guitar. It seems to be working out for me.

Dave: In public school, we had a night where they had a bunch of instruments in the cafeteria  and my Mom let me pick an instrument to play in the band.  I immediately picked drums, but my Mom said, “I am not getting you drums!  Don’t get anything too heavy!”  I was disappointed, but I picked trumpet right away because I really liked Herb Alpert records.  He was so cool and jazzy and he had women hanging all over him.  I knew that was for me.

What can you say about your approach to your respective instruments? Do you see yourselves as musicians that transcend the usual labels of rock, jazz, avant-garde and such? And if so, how?

Willie:  A friend of mine, Italian guitarist Enrico Crivellaro, once said, “I just do what I do”. That pretty much covers it in my book also. I just do it without much thought of if it’s going to fit a genre label or two. I love improvisation and what is known to some as Total Improvisation but I don’t mind having things worked out.  My last four releases have been made by asking others if they wanted to jam and record it. That’s how I did Concepts of MateMaToot, Spiral Out and both WD-41 releases, just asking musicians if they want to jam. For Concepts of MateMaToot and Spiral Out there were some basic patterns to work from for a few tunes but for most of it and both WD-41 albums it’s just music that happens. I’m also working on arrangements for a more structured solo album down the road and perhaps a symphony based on ideas from WD-41 sounds.

Dave: To be honest, I’m only interested in transcending what I or Willie played last week. While I understand their usefulness, labels are generally for describing music, not playing it, so yes, I think our music goes  beyond a single category.  I notice that WD-41 is linked to at least 4 categories on your blog?  Not bad!  WD-41 is deliberate only in our attempt to play something totally spontaneous, inspiring and fun every time.  It’s improvised—that’s about all I can say!

As you know, the sites I write for generally deal with ‘progressive rock’ in all its various manifestations. What is your personal view of this somewhat controversial genre? Do you see WD-41 as belonging to a ‘prog’ context, or would you rather be identified as a jazz project?

 Willie: If a listener thinks we are progressive and wants to label us as such that’s fine. I like a lot of what is labeled progressive and a lot of it just does nothing for me. That’s how we all are. WD-41 got tossed into a lot of publications that deal with the progressive label because our publicist Lori Hehr deals mostly in that area. We also seem to do well inwhat is labeled the jazz arena (laughs), but I don’t really care what people call it. Just open your minds and listen.

Dave: I don’t have a problem with either genre being associated with WD-41. The fact that we are both electrified and 100% improvised with no specific rhythmic component makes me lean towards the prog side of the debate if I have to choose! I’m honored that either genre would have us, but even contextually I’d rather best be described in seven categories rather than one. I enjoy reading descriptions of WD-41 in the press, so call it what it sounds like, Raffaella! That’s part of the fun, isn’t it?

Even though we have been in touch for a while, I do not know how Willie and Dave first met and decided to join forces. How did WD-41 come about, and what does the ‘41’ stand for?

Willie: I’ll let Dave have this one.

Dave: A mutual friend (N.W. Austin, the artist who painted our cover art) told me that Willie Oteri might be moving to Austin and that I should look for him.  I’d heard a tape of his and was very impressed.  He was playing with Jazz Gunn and I was in a local swing band, playing 30’s and 40’s tunes.  We hung out some.  He told me about recording the Spiral Out CD, then he was gone to Europe.  When he came back from Italy, we were catching up and I asked him what was next muscally for him and he said, “I want to do something with loops.”  I said, “Wow, that sounds fun—can I play too?”  He had never heard me play before and when we got together the next afternoon, we knew we had something!  That’s how we began –  with no preconceived ideas.  We just sat across from each other and played.  We discovered that our approaches to music are very similar.  Our ears are open for what’s possible in the moment.  Also, we like a lot of the same movies and I think this adds a subtlety and some humor to what we do.

41 is one more than 40, that’s all I can tell you.  No need to get Interpol involved right now.

Dave, as most of my readers will probably not be very familiar with you, can you tell me something about your own musical career?

Dave: I guess my career started in 1980 when I joined a big band that played around Austin and was relatively successful in the 80s and 90’s.  Most of Austin’s best jazz musicians came through that band so I got to meet everybody.  That’s where I met Mel Winters, a flugelhorn soloist who had decided to switch to piano.  In ’87, I started playing bass on keyboards with him and we formed the Fearless Jazz Trio, which later became a duo of just Mel and me.  He is a prolific composer and an intense and thoughtful player, who sees chords and how they fit together in a way that is another universe.  He is probably the biggest influence on me musically (before I met Mr. Oteri!) and really pushed me to go for it.  He liked my ear and continues to encourage me to play what I hear.  It was “keep up or be left behind,” so I developed a way to be a more rhythmically interesting bass player in a drumless duo.  We have rehearsed on and off for over 30 years with only one gig!  Seriously… it’s still fun most of the time. Haha!  I do believe playing with Mel all these years got me ready to play with Willie.  Around 1998 or 1999 I helped start a local swing band that played around Austin for a couple of years.  I’m into a lot of different styles and I think early jazz is fascinating and fun.  That’s a completely different mindset than what I’m doing now with WD-41.  Who knew?

I always have a day job. I worked for Tower Records as a buyer during their stay in Austin (1991-2004) and I had a pretty cool jazz radio show for 13 years which was actually at night.

I have been so lucky as to hear Willie’s wonderful Spiral Out album, recorded with Tony Levin and Pat Mastelotto. How did this collaboration come about? Would you consider working with either of those artists again in the future, perhaps involving Dave as well?

Willie: I had just finished the Jazz Gunn album Concepts of  MateMaToot, which I produced and wanted to go beyond that by using another producer. I put out feelers in a few internet forums and one of the producers that contacted me was Ronan Chris Murphy who had worked with a wide variety of names from King Crimson to Chucho Valdés. After chatting with him on the phone I decided to fly to LA to meet in person and we immediately hit it off and started working on pre-production. While we were jamming a bit on ideas I sort of jokingly said something like, “Tony Levin would sound great on this” and Ronan said, “I can get Tony”. He went out in the parking lot and called Tony and arranged for us to send some him some ideas. I don’t remember if Tony agreed to the project before or after hearing the ideas but then we were off to finding drummers, we went through a few ideas and then decided Pat Mastelotto would be the best fit. Pat and I both live in Austin so it was easy to arrange to record there. Tony flew out from NY and the three of us just jammed for two days. On the second day we called trumpet man Ephraim Owens to add to some of the raw tracks and then while mixing in LA Ronan thought some keys would be good so he called Mike Keneally who drove up from San Diego. It all just sort of fell into being. I love all those guys and have done a few gigs with Tony, Ronan and Pat since. We chat now and then about doing another recording but it’s mostly about money and time. I would love to do another and Dave would be first choice for trumpet.

Dave: Willie knows I’d love to play with any of those guys any time and we talked about it at first.  After we started playing we knew we didn’t really need them. In Italy we’ll be improvising with musicians from all over the world.  I think we’re ready. . .

Being Italian, I would like to hear more about Willie’s artistic and personal experience in the four years he spent there. Italians like to complain about everything in their country, and are big fans of the old ‘the grass is greener’ shtick. How would you rate the Italian scene as opposed to the American one?

Willie: The grass is never greener on the other side of the fence but sometimes it’s mowed differently.. The past couple of years have been difficult for many artists both here and in Italy. I’m an older artist doing music for the last several years that is pretty far out from the new manufactured pop but for what I do it’s been easier to book gigs in Europe including Italy. Part of that is because of who I’ve worked with on records which is a selling point for venues and festivals. Musicians are sadly just a commodity when it comes to business. I would say that if most Italian bands or musicians came to America they would find it very difficult to get bookings and the day jobs here will eat you alive.  Moving to America doesn’t guarantee success or happiness.

Living in Italy is nicer in my experience for art, music, people, friends, food, the list goes on. When I lived in Italy I did most of my gigs outside of Padova by train going second class which is very affordable. You just can’t do that in the states and this is a big advantage for Italians. You can trim down your gear to a bare minimum needed. Often you can borrow drums and amps in other cities from fans or share with other bands. I rarely tour with my own amps these days and you will see this is becoming more common.

If I may, some advice for Italian bands and musicians just starting out, forget about America at least until you are very popular in Europe. Get your music out in the big cities in Italy and Europe (and a bit of advice for all young players) work your ass off on promoting your music. Book your own shows when you can. If after a year or so no one is paying attention then change something, change everything and try again. Remember that while self promotion is easy today everyone is doing it so often it appears as though you are just another artist. Try to raise money to hire a publicist and perform live as often as you can. Don’t be discouraged by booking agents or clubs not paying attention, it’s a business and it’s easy today for them so sell an old name playing the old tunes even without the original members or to sell a similar sounding act, cover (tribute) band or old jazz standards. Booking hyped manufactured pop acts is another story we don’t have time for here but, it takes a lot of money to promote and tour an artist in a big flashy way and sadly from this is where most people take their calling. In the eyes of most including many magazine editors and reviewers an artist is better if they are backed by a lot of money, sometimes borrowed from labels (often a bad idea) or often from their family, but don’t let it discourage you, big promotion does not equal big talent and there are still those who make it on hard work and word of mouth. Remember times change so be ready when the time comes. Get a good lawyer before you do anything involving much money. Don’t worry if you can’t afford to attend the big name music schools, training seminars, etc. They are not a guarantee of talent or creativity.

I hope all of you find good partners, band members or a spouse to help you on your way. It’s not easy to be creative and do all the work yourself with all your own money but if you believe in the music keep at it. If you have some family money then more power to you but be careful about taking money from labels or giving money to music taxi services. Take the energy that comes from discouragement and put it into your music.

Some things I wished I had learned early in my career: If you are shy, as I was when young then work hard at overcoming it. Shyness kept me from going to a lot of good auditions. Don’t spend too much on instruments or gear, computers, phones, cars, etc. Get instruments that are adequate and will get the job done but save your money for promotion not flashy gear. Remember too that sometimes the most talented are the least recognized. Everywhere there are numerous players and composers who you have never heard of who are just as good or better than the big names. Sometimes we need to seek them out to enjoy their art and you may find a good band member this way. Sting was once a school teacher who played local club gigs on weekends.

One final thought, you must think of your music beyond just being a hobby if you really want to make great music. Dedicating your life to music is a sacrifice that will show in the quality of your performance. A good read on making a living as a musician by Danny Barnes, a bit dated but still good advice: http://www.dannybarnes.com/blog/how-make-living-playing-music

 Dave, have you had any experience of playing in other countries than the USA? If so, what was your experience of an international context as opposed to a domestic one?

Dave: This trip to Italy will be my first trip overseas and my first experience playing my music outside of Texas, so I am excited to play for European audiences.  Can you ask me this question again when I get back?

Austin is known as a laid-back, artsy town, quite out of character with the rest of the state of Texas. However, I have often see you complain about the lack of opportunities for live performances. What are the positives and negatives of the Austin scene, if compared to other parts of the US?

Willie: We may complain but we could do more about getting gigs here even though there really are no booking agents or clubs to speak of that can handle what we do. Those that do (infrequently) promote improvised music tend to focus on getting acts from out of town.  A lot of bands from here never play here.  Oddly it was different several years ago and there were more places to play outside styles. Presently the scene is mostly singer songwriter, blues, cover rock, some start up pop bands and bits of the rest. There is an old saying here, “popular in Austin, dead everywhere else”(something like that). I’m not sure that if we gigged a lot here it would be such a good idea. (laughs) I am seeing a bit more experimental and improvised music in town but for now  the place for our music is Europe.

The positives of the Austin scene? There is a old expression “Austin is an Oasis surrounded by Texas”, Crime is low and there is a lot to do besides music. It’s a nice place to live and play and much less expensive than many big cities. There are places for up and coming bands and young musicians to perform and get experience. For professional musicians there are less opportunities. I think a lot of musicians live here because they were raised here or because they find the overall laid back vibe of much of the city just fits well with a musician’s view of life. It’s a pretty fun town, check Eeyore’s birthday party sometime for example or a wild night on 6th Street.  I’m often disappointed by the food here but that’s for another interview (laughs).

Dave: I should defer to Willie on this question.  I do have a few opinions, though.  Willie has met a fair amount of opposition to starting any improv. jam sessions here.  WD-41 is certainly not for everyone and I realize we appeal to listeners who understand the risks of improvisation.  That’s a pretty small audience amid the popularity of singer-songwriters, white-guy blues, cover bands and several thousand other groups of all kinds here.  Don’t get me wrong – there are a lot of great musicians in Austin. That fact is what has kept me here for so long.  You can throw a rock and I bet you’ll hit someone who at least says he’s a musician.  He has a guitar, a beard and a shirt from the 80’s.  He plays 3-5 nights a week.  Most audiences want to hear something they are familiar with.  In the “Live Music Capital of the World,” club owners, booking agents and politics play it safe and book what they know.  WD-41 is not safe.  We are different.  Our music is instrumental and improvised.  We often do not have drums.  We are full of danger, chance and mystery.  Austin may not be the open minded, smart and artsy city she thinks she is, but it’s not all her fault.  Austin is still the capital of Texas and she can’t afford to risk it.  Still, I love Austin, the people and the vibe here. It’s doubtful that I would have had the same opportunities in another city.  I am extremely fortunate to be able to play with and learn from two geniuses on a weekly basis!  Still, I can’t wait to play in Italy!

Can you tell us something more about your upcoming performances in Italy? I am particularly interested in hearing about house concerts, which are definitely one of the most effective new strategies for artists to get their music across without going through the usual (and increasingly frustrating) channels.

Willie: well we have the festival dates in Florence (live looping fest, July 16 and 17) and the Portello River Festival in Padova July 21 (three weeks of a variety of artists from around the world and films on a floating stage in a big canal) –  beautiful spot and really fun gig. We then have house concerts in various places with one that will include a live recording with three or four other musicians. We would be doing club dates but many clubs in Italy will be closed in July and while waiting for festival confirmations we lost advanced time needed to book some clubs. The festivals are more important to us. I feel that house concerts are perfect for us because we can play at a reasonable volume, although we do like to move a lot of air when we can. I think for most bands who work smaller venues house concerts are a good alternative. There are legal issues with sound and sales of tickets in many cities, so, often house concerts are booked as private parties or listed as Venue TBA.

Dave: Willie has worked very hard on securing our gigs and contacts in Italy, looking for the right musicians and the right opportunities for us.  He has played at the Portello River Festival several times and it’s exciting to be added to the line-up this year!  I think house concerts are certainly the way to go to get the audience you want to play for.  Also these tend to be very intimate settings where you can get a lot of immediate feedback and energy from an audience sitting on the couch next to you!

You used an Internet-based funding platform to raise money for your trip to Italy. This is another strategy that is rapidly taking hold in the community of independent artists, regardless of genre. Would you recommend it to any up-and-coming musicians, and why?

 Willie: Well, this is our first crowdfund but we have raised nearly all of our air fare to Italy and it looks as though it will go to more soon. It’s difficult to raise much from fans alone and several writings on the subject have mentioned that most successful crowdfunds are due to contribution from family and friends. It’s seems that a lot less people are reaching their goals lately as if the market is flooded. Fans don’t have the money to spread around to the thousands of acts asking for it. For our crowdfund we used ChipIn.com because you get whatever money people put in, you don’t have to reach your goal to get the money as with Kickstarter, also ChipIn takes much less of a percentage. It worked for us because part of our contributions were direct to us and not through the crowdfund. With Kickstarter it would have looked like we did not reach our goal, then we would have to go back to all the pledgers personally and ask for the money.

Dave: Willie set this up, and I think it has worked well.  Getting signed to a label often means working for them instead of them working for you.  In these days of labels with no budget and “pay to play” gigs,  DIY financing makes a lot of sense.

WD-41 have released two albums so far. What would you point out as the main differences between the debut and Temi Per Cinema?

Willie: Besides having others added to the mix on Temi Per Cinema we really developed our sound and now we are playing way beyond even Temi Per Cinema. It will be interesting to see what comes from more recordings with other musicians added. We have a few aces up our sleeve we are working on.

Dave: The main difference is the most obvious one, since we added  Dino and Scott on some of our tracks, which helped to expand our already expansive sound.

Temi Per Cinema was recorded with the collaboration of two other artists, Scott Amendola and Dino J. A. Deane. How did this collaboration come about, and are other collaborations in the pipeline?

Willie: as I mentioned above we have a few collaborations in mind. As for Dino and Scott I just simply asked them and then we worked out details. We thought of both of them because we have heard them on many recordings we enjoy, so it just seemed like a good fit.

Dave: I had heard some of Dino’s CDs and I was blown away by what I heard.  It was really more of a wish that we could collaborate with him.  Within 15 minutes or so of Willie contacting him he wrote back and said, “What do you guys want to do?”  I knew of Scott’s playing as well.  Willie contacted Scott through Facebook and we are very fortunate to have both of these amazing artists on Temi Per Cinema.  I still can’t believe they played on our tracks! I guess all you have to do is ask!  I am hoping that we will have some collaborations in Italy that will open up new possibilities for WD-41 and for our next recording.  We have a few Stateside ideas as well  . . .

What are your plans for the second half of the year, once you come back from your Italian tour? Can we expect to see WD-41 perform in the US Northeast, which is often celebrated as the hub for progressive music?

Willie: I’m not sure there is enough time to book far enough ahead for the last part of 2011 but we would love to play anywhere people want us. I may be touring by myself and adding musicians on the way as a live looping thing. It depends on a lot of issues. If fans want WD-41 in their town the options are to book a house concert or nag booking agents and festival promoters in your area.

Dave: I’d love to tour in the US if I can get the time off!  There is a possibility of playing with Dino in Albuquerque, NM, but that is still in the “maybe” stage.

A big thank you to Willie and Dave for their patience in answering my questions, and all my best wishes for your upcoming Italian tour!

Willie: Thank you too Raffaella!!  It’s been great knowing you though the internet and I hope we meet in person soon.

Dave: Thank you Raffaella for this opportunity to share my thoughts about music and WD-41.  It’s great fun to play with Willie, and for me that’s what it’s all about.  To think that in a month we will be playing in Italy is incredible!   Ciao!

 

Links:
http://www.myspace.com/wd41music

http://www.myspace.com/willieoteri

 

Read Full Post »

« Newer Posts