Tuesday, January 2, 2018

A Conversation with Alex Skolnick

Guitar legend Alex Skolnick is not one for sitting still. He started his career at 16 years old with the thrash metal band Testament. While he continues to be heavily involved with them, Skolnick has along the way picked up a jazz degree, formed his own trio, created a world music ensemble and can be found at any given time working with artists as diverse as jazz bassist Stu Hamm, metal drummer Mike Portnoy, violinist Joe Deninzon, Mexican guitar duo Rodrigo y Gabriela, and many more.  For this interview, we focused on his time working with Savatage, his move to New York City and and the beginning of his jazz career, and his involvement in Savatage's Christmas successor, Trans-Siberian Orchestra. 

Dan Roth:  I'd like to take you back a few years. It is 1993, you had left Testament and had assembled a new band, Exhibit A. Savatage guitarist Criss Oliva was tragically killed in a car accident and Jon Oliva decides to make a new Savatage record.  For a little history, lead me up to how you entered the studio for the Handful of Rain record.

Alex Skolnick:  I was still managed by Testament's management at the time and I had gotten a message through them.  After so many years of this period that was very intense, the last thing I wanted to do was jump into another band.  I told them that I was totally flattered but I don't think I'm the right guy for this.

I loved Savatage.  My friends and I used to trade tapes in high school because back then you couldn't get the first couple recordings.
Alex Skolnick with TSO November 2009
Photo Courtesy of James Marvin Phelps

Looking back, what I should have done is taken a "gap year".  You know, the year some take between high school and college? As far as my music career goes, that first wave of Testament was my high school. I didn't know what I was going to do to after leaving them, but I knew I wasn't looking to jump right into something else.

Somehow Jon Oliva had gotten my number and called me personally.  He said, "Look, the record is done, we just need someone to play the solos.  I know my brother and I know the one person that he would want to play the solos on this is you."

DR:  Wow.  That's heavy.

AS:  Yeah, that's pretty heavy.

DR: So this wasn't an invitation to join the band, this was more to wrap up the album.

AS:  Right.  Clearly the door was open though. Look, I'm a fan of the band and I know it's sacrilege to take the job as the band's guitarist and not be totally committed to it.  So, I told them, "Let's see how it goes."

It was great for me to do a record that was not thrash, but it was still heavy. It was based on heavy rock - influenced by Maiden, Sabbath, Deep Purple, but more modern. It was very different from what I had been doing with Testament.  At that time, there really weren't that many influences in that music: Motorhead, Venom, Slayer.  It was a real struggle to get my melodic ideas into the music and in the end, that's what really made Testament stand apart.

But recording with Savatage, it was so open; it was nice to do a record like that.

DR:  Did you do all of your recording at Morrisound Studios in Tampa?

AS:  Yeah.  We were holed up there.  I worked entirely with Jon and Paul O'Neill.  I didn't actually meet the rest of the band until the very end of the session when there was a photo shoot. I think I was there about a week or so. We did about three songs a day.

The music was done already and I was just recording solos over top.  There were a couple spots where I would add fills, like in "Handful of Rain". That has fills between vocal parts. That was new, and I don't think it was planned. I was just noodling in the studio and they said, "That's great! Let's keep that!"
Savatage Group Shot
(L-R) Doc Wacholz, Johnny Lee Middleton, Zak Stevens, Alex Skolnick

DR:  Did you play your own guitars, or did you use Criss Oliva's Charvel?

AS:  I played Criss' guitar on a lot of it. It's a very special guitar. It really has some magic to it. It has a great sound and really represents the best instruments of that era.

DR:  How much latitude were you given? Was there any pressure to emulate Criss' sound at all?

AS:  I just did what I do. The first song that I worked on was "Taunting Cobras".  I remember talking with the Morrisound engineer and telling him that I had been listening to the song and I have some ideas outlined. He said, "Great. Let me record them so we have them as a reference." I laid it down and first thing I heard was "That's great!" So right away I knew it was clear that we weren't going to have a lot of problems.  Sometimes I would give them a few different options and let them choose. Other times I asked for guidance - like I would ask if they wanted more of a melodic thing there or more of a heavier thing. In general, I ended up doing the solos the same way I do them today.

DR:  What was the mood like in the studio, with Criss' passing in the recent past?

AS:  It had reached a point when they were ready to move forward.  There were times when it would come up and it was sad, but for the most part we were all in good spirits.  Jon Oliva is such a character and the jokes were flying and a lot of stories being told.

DR:  Looking back on this album, do you have a favorite song or one that stands out to you?

AS:  The song "Stare into the Sun" is my favorite.  On that one I really got to play dynamically. I take heat sometimes because I play outside of the rock and metal genres and I enjoy working with musicians that play jazz or blues.  On that one, I felt like I was able to bring in some different influences. To this day, I hear from fans that cite that song as one where they really enjoyed my playing.

DR:  "Chance" is a song that has proven to be pretty popular from that album.

AS:  Yeah! That would by my second favorite.  Even though it was mostly keyboards and vocals, I really felt connected to that one and enjoyed laying down those guitar runs in there. I heard it made its way into the TSO thing not too long ago.

DR:  They performed it on their Beethoven's Last Night tours and also in 2015 at Wacken Open Air.

AS:  Wacken!  Yeah!  I saw some clips of that and remember saying "Hey. I played that!" [Laughs]

DR:  Were you invited to be part of that Wacken Savatage/TSO gig?

AS:  No.  I wouldn't have been able to make it anyway had I been asked.  No hard feelings there.  But it was fun to watch those clips.

DR:  Al Pitrelli has said that was the first show he has played in 20 years without a tailcoat on.

AS:  Ah.  It must have felt good.

DR:  You guys made a music video for the title track which got some MTV play.

AS:  We flew to Dallas to film that. It was a lot of fun.  I remember driving past the Grassy Knoll for the first time which was interesting.  I had played Dallas many times, but never went there before.  I actually hit it off with the actress in the video, Kelley Huston. We became a thing for a little bit after that and we're still friends.  And in a strange twist, she later dated the bass player in my Trio. [Laughs]

DR:  Was touring with Savatage part of the plan?

AS:  It was not in the beginning, but it was hinted at over time. I also had a great opportunity to let my own band at the time, Exhibit A, open for Savatage on the tour.

DR:  When the band went out on tour, you obviously were also playing songs and solos that Criss Oliva had recorded and was known for.  You changed up some of the solos which many fans didn't appreciate. It seemed like a no-win situation; if you had played them note for note, you could be called out for being just a stand-in with no originality. If you played them with your style, the fans of Criss would be upset.

AS:  I tried to reference his solos at times, and sometimes that was hard to do. I remember playing some very closely and some were a blend. I know if I am in a situation like that as a fan, I don't want to hear the exact solo that was on the record, unless it was something like "Little Wing" or "Running with the Devil" where the melody is part of the solo. Maybe I should've played them more like the record.  At the time, I was listening to a lot of Allan Holdsworth and more instrumental stuff that was influencing me.  Allan Holdsworth was known for playing radically different solos than were on his records. I recently was honored to play at an Allan Holdsworth tribute concert and one of the songs was his "Metal Fatigue".  Allan never played the solo on that song the same way twice, but I happen to love the original solo on the record.  So, when I went to play it at the concert, I played the original solo.  Sometimes as an artist and as a listener, you can see things differently. I try to see both sides.

DR:  Any songs on that tour that you particularly enjoyed getting to play?

AS:  Sirens! That was one of my favorite songs growing up and was great fun to play on stage.  "Jesus Saves" is another that has such great riffs. Some of the newer ones were fun too, like "Chance".

DR:  After the tour was over, you moved on from Savatage. Was there some consideration to staying?  Was there an offer to stay in the band?

AS:  I had a lot of things that I wanted to work on as an artist and staying in that situation just would not have been honest. I was actually open to it for a little bit but then it became clear that I was not going to be part of the creative process. During the tour, I really bonded with Jon.  He turned me on to these Deep Purple records that I hadn't been aware of and so many other classic rock records. I started brainstorming ideas about combining some of these classic rock influences and some of what influenced me growing up and I had some ideas about where we could go with the next Savatage record.  But then one day I get a phone call from Paul O'Neill; "Great News! Jon and I got inspired and wrote the whole record. It's done. We just need you to come down and record it."  He then read me the whole long Dead Winter Dead narrative over the phone with Sarajevo and a gargoyle [Laughs] - I loved Paul, but - I could tell that they were going to do to some great things with that record but this all just wasn't for me, so I respectfully declined.

DR:  After you moved on from Savatage, you did start working on some different things with bassist Michael Manring in Attention Deficit and then eventually made the move to New York City and started studying jazz in at the New School here.  Was that a long time coming?

AS:  Yeah.  It was in my head for a long time off and on. I was so afraid of doing it and finding out I had made a mistake.  I gave myself six months and then a year and so on. Instead, I realized that the mistake was that I should've come straight here after the original Testament lineup fell apart.  But then we wouldn't have Handful of Rain, we might not have had Attention Deficit.  It took a while, but I got here.

DR:  It was while you were in school that you met up and started collaborating with violinist Joe Deninzon in Stratospheerius?

AS:  Yeah. He was hanging up flyers for a gig that he was doing and saw my name on another flyer. At the end of every semester, every ensemble that was part of the class would do these public performances in the auditorium of the New School. Joe wound up coming to the performance and talked to me afterwards. He says, "Are you the same Alex Skolnick from the Testament records?" [Laughs] He had a gig coming up and he was looking for a guitarist. That wound up being my very first New York gig. We had a pretty good band. We had this respected latin drummer named Phoenix Rivera, a ridiculous bass player Rufus Philpot and of course Joe who is amazing on violin. We just continued gigging and eventually recorded the first Stratospheerius album which was a lot of fun.

DR:  So you are going to school here in the city, playing gigs and recording with Joe Deninzon and forming your own jazz trio as well. Meanwhile, Paul O'Neill, Jon Oliva and Savatage are releasing Christmas records and starting to tour as Trans-Siberian Orchestra. In 2000, you are once again working with them, this time in the role of  "Guitar 1" with the TSO East touring production. Connect those dots for me.

AS:  It was really the strangest thing. I was heading to one of my very first shows with my Trio - right around here actually - I was in a cab heading to the Izzy Bar which is the first place in New York that I was playing a lot. The Izzy Bar was a great spot where a lot of jazz artists were playing regularly, like the great bassist Richard Bona. The same guy who booked him knew who I was and started booking me there for various projects.  Anyway, I remember it was a misty night - heavy fog - and I see this figure walking down the street that looked like a ghost coming through the fog. I remember thinking how strange this guy looked but I had a feeling I knew him.  I hadn't seen him in five years but as we got closer I realized it was Paul O'Neill, walking through this dark mist, looking like this mad genius plotting something or other. [Laughs] Just as I realized it, I was going to roll down the window and say something, the cab took off.

Not two weeks later, I get this email from Adam Lind that basically said "My name is Adam Lind and I work for David Krebs. We hear you are in New York now and we need to talk to you."  What followed was this hilarious charade over several days of trying to reach David Krebs, who was not an easy person to reach at the time. Once I finally got through, it was hilarious, like right out of the movies. [In Krebs' voice] "We're looking at different guitar players. So, I'm listening to this record called Handful of Rain. Who is that guitar player? That's the guitar player you should get. Which one is that?  Are you that guitar player?" [Laughs]  We got to talking and he basically explained that he was managing Paul now, TSO has been spawned out of Savatage, and they were splitting it in two bands.  Pitrelli was in Megadeth at the time and not doing the tour so they were looking for some guitar players. This led to a meeting with Paul where I explained to him that I think I saw him a few days earlier and he remembered that night perfectly.  He lived in the building right around the corner from where I saw him and it all made sense.  But the whole thing was kinda spooky. I don't always go by feelings and coincidences but the whole thing was spooky and made me think that I should do this. It was really strange because the path I was on was going full-on jazz and music education, but this sounded fun.
Alex Skolnick with TSO 2007

DR:  Sounded fun? That partially answers my next question. You just explained that you didn't move forward with Paul and Jon in Savatage because you were not going to be part of the creative process.  This is a similar situation with the same guys, except now you are playing Al Pitrelli's guitar parts.  What made you say "yes" this time?

AS:  [Laughs] Well, a number of reasons. I looked at it and considered the reasons to say "yes" and the reasons to say "no" and the number of reasons to say "yes" outweighed "no".  For one thing, it was optional. I could do this tour, but that does not mean I was expected to do the next one. I could decide to do the next tour or not - it's not a big deal. The way it is run, different people can be plugged in, as has happened with almost every role over the years. That can be frustrating when you are in it as a performer, as you want to be more of the face of it.  But, I respect it as a business model, especially at that time.

I was actually in school when I agreed to do the first one. I talked to all of my professors and was given homework assignments to take on the road with me.  One of my hardest assignments was to work on a big band arrangement.  Luckily for me, Mee Eun Kim, who is now my good friend, was a keyboardist that had also been hired for TSO and is a Berklee graduate.  She specialized in notation, arrangement and all of the gaps that I needed to fill. She graciously and enthusiastically helped me with my homework while we were doing that first East tour.

Also, you have to remember that the tours back then were much shorter. This wasn't like saying "yes" to the TSO of 2017.  It was less than a month and I realized that it wouldn't interfere with my schooling. By the time the next tour came along, I had graduated and had released my first Trio record.

DR:  The album that was mostly jazz versions of rock standards?

AS:  Yes. Goodbye to Romance. We recorded it at the same studio that I did the Stratospheerius record with Joe. I didn't think much was going to happen with it, I just knew I wanted to make a real jazz guitar record.  I then got contacted by this radio programmer out of Nashville who was very influential in jazz radio programming at the time. This programmer told me that he loved the record and wanted to work it himself, which led to it getting on radio stations across the country.  It was really surreal. It was really blowing up and PR costs money.  I also took the band on the road with my own money. I only did that once before and that was with Savatage and I didn't put together the tour. The TSO tours helped support my PR campaign and my recording costs and it made sense from a business standpoint to still do the short TSO tours. The following year (2003) I did not do the TSO tour for all of the reasons you would think I would say "no" in the first place.

DR: After that year off, you were back out on the TSO stage in 2004 and right on through 2009.

AS:  Why did I come back to it? The paycheck was certainly part of it, but being away from it I realized that I missed it more than I thought I would.  I knew it was getting bigger, but I didn't realize how big. I was determined to balance it with everything else I was doing, even with how much energy I was putting into it and how beaten up I was feeling.

DR: Your own musical preferences were certainly counter to what you were playing in TSO - and you were not alone in that among TSO's cast. Was it difficult to keep up the energy and enthusiasm for their Shows playing music that was not created by you and played with such a level of direction?

AS:  You learn how to do it.  And also, the audience is so wonderful. They bought a ticket and made plans and you can feel the excitement that they bring. It's beyond your own musical preferences. If you add up all of the tours I did with them - I did nine tours!  That's a lot.  As much as I loved the audiences and the camaraderie, it wasn't going to sustain me anymore. The energy it was taking from me and who I was and what I wanted to do was becoming too much. I wanted to step away before I became bitter  - that's not fair to anyone.

DR:  Over the years, the TSO Show became a bit more choreographed for various reasons.  Many past performers have talked about the increased amount of direction as the Show changed.  Did you receive a lot of direction?

AS:  There was a lot of direction.  I remember rehearsing "Christmas Canon", the girls were singing, and Paul would walk on stage and start flipping his hair around from side to side. [Laughs] It was the funniest thing, but he was serious about this direction. Many of the moves would come about this way.

A guy who deserves a lot of the credit and someone that I miss greatly is bassist Dave Z.  A lot of the moves we did on stage came from him. He would egg me on all the time, "C'mon do this! It will look great!" and I would always resist until he wore me down. "Alright Dave, I will do it this one time just for you because we're friends."  And the next night I hear, "That move you guys did was fantastic!" and it suddenly became a nightly stage direction.  Dave was so committed to performing and you had to keep up with him. It really helped me as a performer no matter what musical project I was doing. I credit Dave for helping me with my performance.
Photo Courtesy of Erin Williams / RockPhotographer.blogspot.com

Some would paint me as an elitist because I am in it for the music and I believe art triumphs above entertainment. That's my mindset; I am all about the art. Doing the TSO Show - in particular working with Dave Z - helped me see that the entertainment is important too.  There are moves in the Show - even today - that originated with Dave.  There may be a few that I came up with, but not as much.  Like the end of "O Holy Night" where I was lifting the guitar away from me, trying to get some feedback.  That just came naturally; nobody told me to do that. But as I have seen clips of the Show, whether it's Joel Hoekstra or Bill Hudson, that's part of the Show now. [Laughs]

One more thought on direction before we move on, sometimes I thought there was too much direction. I remember one time where there was a note that I played, and I slid into the note. I was quickly told, "Don't slide into the note. Just play the note." That level of micromanaging is a little antithetical to where I come from.

DR:  I noticed that over the years as TSO brought in the scissor lifts and rear rising stage, you rarely were involved in those.

AS:  Yeah, well I was more of the "player", which was fine with me.  I don't need to do stuff like that. There was one tour, where we opened with "March of the Kings" and we descended on platforms. That was the only time where I was involved in that.  As the Show got bigger though, I got busier with my performance. If your stage partners are running around the arena, you still had to hold down that large stage.

DR: One of the many musicians that I have interviewed was a vocalist that you worked with, Peter Shaw.

AS:  Another character.  Great guy though and fantastic singer.

DR:  He talked a bit about the slowing of the tempos and the frustration the band had with that.

AS:  I remember the tempos were shockingly slow. Paul was convinced that everything sounded faster to the audience. He might be right, up to a point. All of us felt that it was too slow, and it presented challenges for certain singers. My good friend, Steve Broderick, loved the original recording of "Old City Bar" which is a reasonably mid-tempo waltz. We slowed it down to the point that it almost became a narration.

We would also have these celebrity special guests on the tours back then and we had a moment of vindication when Roger Daltrey performed with us.  We had been rehearsing this trio of The Who songs at a painfully slow tempo and Roger Daltrey stopped us mid-song and said, "Who came up with these tempos?" [Laughs]

DR:   I wanted to run a couple song titles past you that you performed live many times over your nine tours. You talked a bit about "O Holy Night" earlier.  You changed the ending quite a bit from what Al Pitrelli recorded on the original.

AS:   That was one of those interesting dynamics, because you're not supposed to change the song. I did and its part of the Show now. [Laughs] But it felt natural and was no disrespect to the original.  If I play it naturally and what feels right to me, this is what happens.  To this day, fans talk to me about that song and that video. I am grateful that I got to do that every night, that was sort of my moment in the Show.

DR:  "Tracers", where you got to play the double neck.

AS:  That was a fun one to play.  There is a break in the middle where it's only 12-string electric guitar, so that double neck was helpful for that. That's a very meaningful guitar. I was its caretaker and eventually Paul gave it to me.  It made its way onto the new Trio record that we just recorded, and it sounds amazing on there.

DR:  "Old City Bar". Was this a bit nerve wracking at all? To go from a stage full of musicians to just you playing completely exposed acoustic in a packed arena?

AS:  I loved playing that song, even when the tempo was directed to be so slow.  I am the only one playing in this giant arena and there is some power in that.  I loved the challenge of making the song more musical at that tempo.  There were a lot of funny things that happened when Steve and I did that song.  For a long time, it seemed cursed. One time, a section of the stage that we were on came loose while we were playing it and it felt like we were on the Titanic, rocking back and forth. [Laughs] That's the song where everyone - the singers, the band and the crew, take a break.  I'm looking over at a crew member trying to signal him with my eyes as the stage is rocking, and I am trying to look like I am moving to the song. Finally, he realized what had happened, grabbed some other crew guys and they came up and fixed it.  We never stopped playing the song.

Another time, there was a medical emergency a few rows back from the stage - which wasn't funny - but the paramedics are coming in, tending to that and everyone is watching that while we are carrying on with the song as if everything is normal. [Laughs] Another time a light caught on fire during this song. Everyone is looking straight up and pointing at this fire while we're playing and looking up there too.  Eventually a lighting tech climbed a ladder, put out the fire and everyone cheered.  The song never stopped the entire time. [Laughs]

DR:  That was the one TSO song where you got to sing a bit.

AS:  Yeah. I enjoyed that, and it helped me with my vocals.  It was the best training.  I tried to sing before with Exhibit A, but I hadn't found my vocal range and really wasn't ready. Doing that vocal part night after night with TSO really helped me.  When Testament was resurrected, I started taking on more backing vocals. Even today, I take on more vocal parts, like in the song "Electric Crown", there is that high part during the chorus - I got that! I even sing a bit of blues now with the Trio.

DR:  "Christmas Eve/Sarajevo 12/24"

AS:  That was fun to play, and the fans love it. It's an amazing charge of energy. And it's not that easy.  There are some good licks in there!  Al played some challenging stuff on the record.  When I first learned it, Al was at the very first rehearsals even though he wasn't doing the tour that year. He was telling me how I didn't have to do the runs exactly as he did on the record, but still you have to make it exciting.  It's a workout and fun to play.

DR:  We know that most of what we are hearing when listening to the TSO albums is Al Pitrelli's guitar work.  Did you ever get to record anything with them?

AS:  Yes.  I had a couple riffs that showed up on the Lost Christmas Eve album and then I played lead and the solo on the TSO version of "Believe".  I played some rhythm but not sure if it was used or not.

DR:  Your last tour with TSO was 2009.  You had left once before.  What made you leave for good that time?

AS: Part of the reason that I left wasn't from a guitar-related thing, but from the overall sound and presentation.  It was like being in a blender.  I think any large ensemble will be like that to a point.  Even playing in Testament, it's a smaller ensemble but still a blender.  If you hear me playing with Stu Hamm or with my Trio, it's a smaller group but my role is so much larger. It's not in a blender - you can hear everything I do. I'm somebody that likes to not be in a blender all of the time.

There would be parts of the show where I remember feeling lost. I would be playing a part that required a lot of technique, I'm putting my heart into it and I was trying to figure out why people didn't seem to be noticing. Then I look to my left and the girls are doing these dance moves and to my right there is an explosion and fire and then a platform coming down.  I started having enough moments like that along with the feeling of how much energy I was expending that I realized it was time to go.

DR:  Understandable.  Looking back at your time with the TSO, I understand it helped fund what you really wanted to play and was a bit of a learning experience. What did you take away from it?

AS: [Laughs] Well, I could go on and on.  It was a real life and profound learning experience. Doing TSO forced me to become a better performer.  It was a major course in the music business, in psychology, personal dynamics and drama.  I've seen some people that were unfazeable, Dave Z for example, that saw the bright side of everything and never focused on the negative.  On the flipside of that, I have also seen meltdowns that you wouldn't believe and unnecessary drama that would make reality television look tame.  It was fascinating. If I ever have time to do a book, I would love to write a fictional book about all of the stuff that went on.

DR:  Are there any particular moments during your nine tours that still stand out today as memorable?

AS:  Oh yeah.  The visit with Roger Daltrey was one. After everyone was told not to talk to him and leave him alone, I was pulled aside and told that Roger wants to play guitar with us and can I work with him on his parts!  All of a sudden, he and I are in this small room together going over guitar parts which I will never forget.

Another was playing the opening part of "Roundabout" when Jon Anderson guested with us. That was one of the hardest things I had ever done.  Not that the part was that difficult, but it had to be played exact with Jon standing there in front of 14,000 people.  That was a moment right out of a TV show.  Paul pulled me aside before the show and I think I am going to get a pep talk.  He explains that this is Philadelphia, this is where Yes had their biggest market, there are 14,000 fans out there, this performance needed to be right, don't screw it up. [Laughs] To play that opening, I had to use some meditation and yoga breathing techniques to just get disconnected from any nervousness. I was really playing from a different space. It was like I was on a meditation retreat and unaware of the gravity of the moment. Later, when everyone was going crazy I let myself enjoy the moment.

DR:  Nice.  I know you are busy with so many things, what is coming up next for you?

AS:  Well, the new Stratospheerius record just came out and I was so happy that Joe and I were able to reunite and work together on that.  He came by and we had a great time and I laid down a solo on one of the songs on there.

I also just finished tracking and mixing our new Alex Skolnick Trio album that will come out soon. I am really excited about it.  I think it's my best work.  There's acoustic and electric guitar on there, all original, one classical arrangement and no rock arrangements.

DR:  You played some of these new tunes on the short tour you did recently.  Does that help when you go to record them?

AS:  No comparison.  Especially for a project that is basically recorded live.  Playing these songs out first was basically our studio prep.

Metal Allegiance also has a follow-up record that is recorded and it's going to be great.  Mark Menghi and I wound up being the main production team on this one and I recently went in and did some edits.  It is very heavy but with some very cool creative stuff that I am excited about. We also have some touring in Europe planned.

And Testament just signed on to a North American tour that I can't talk about yet, but it will be one of the biggest tours of the year.

DR:  Alex, thanks so much for delving into this part of your history for a bit and look forward to hearing your upcoming albums.

AS:  Thank you!  Glad we were able to make this happen.
Alex Skolnick Trio
Photo courtesy of Evelyn Steinweg

For more information:

Alex Skolnick: http://alexskolnick.com/

Alex Skolnick Trio:  https://www.facebook.com/alexskolnick/

Testament: http://www.testamentlegions.com/
Metal Allegiance: http://www.metalallegiance.com/
Stratospheerius:  https://stratospheerius.com/
Trans-Siberian Orchestra:  http://www.trans-siberian.com

Friday, November 3, 2017

A Conversation with Robin Borneman

While millions of Trans-Siberian Orchestra fans know Dutch singer Robin Borneman from his naturally flowing curls and his gravelly voice on "Forget About the Blame" (from TSO's most recent album), there is another side to Robin where his creativity is bursting in the form of stories, songs, videos and more.  Since 2013, Borneman has spent two months of every year touring the eastern half of the USA with the Christmas spectacle that is TSO.  The rest of the year? Robin spends that writing, recording, and performing his own amazing solo releases.  In October of this year, Borneman released the stunning new album that constitutes the second in his Folklore trilogy: Folklore 2 - The Phantom Wail.  In between his Album Release Concert and his preparations for the 2017 TSO tour, I caught up with him to discuss the Folklore triumvirat, his work with Trans-Siberian Orchestra, his love of crows, and much more.

Dan Roth: · Robin, I want to start by asking about your musical background growing up in the Netherlands – or is it Holland?

Robin Borneman: Well, we say both here. They mean something different if you dive into the history but nowadays we use either.
Photo Courtesy of  Jos van den Broek

DR:  Got it. But you're Dutch.

RB:  I am very, very Dutch.  [Laughs] They call me the "Dutchie" on the TSO tour.  [Laughs]

DR:  Growing up, was there ever a significant moment or event that spurred you down the musical path? An album or artist perhaps?

RB:  There were a couple of influences but the one thing that stands out the most is Jesus Christ Superstar. That was probably my first encounter with music.  My mom used to play it a lot and I remember singing along with it even though I didn't know what it meant back then or what they were singing about. The theatrical aspect of it became a major influence on how I sing.  It also inspired the drama and the spiritual subjects that I sing about today.

DR:  The guitar is your instrument of choice.  What made you gravitate towards the guitar?

RB:  I got a guitar for Christmas one year when I was very young and never really used it.  When I was 15 years old or so, I discovered Nirvana, Metallica and other bands that were starting to appeal to me. From that point, I picked the guitar back up and started imitating my heroes.

DR:  Can you tell me some of the artists that have helped shape and influence your solo work?  I find it difficult to describe or easily categorize your music to others. There is some folk in there but so much more - blues, rock, country - but all identifiable as you.

RB:  Thanks, Dan. That is a compliment to me.  My booking agent often has the same problem and doesn't know what to do with me for that same reason.  I just do whatever it is I want to do. For example, if I end up creating a blues song, then it is a blues song. If I like it, it will be on the album.

Over the years, there have been artists like Genesis and Dire Straits - bands that my Dad was listening to that influenced me before I was really aware.  But once I became more aware and picked out my own artists, it was definitely Tom Waits who really became my idol. He is the one who taught me that it is OK to be crazy in music, do whatever I wanted to do and not be bound to a single genre. He really became a role model rebel to me. Even today, what he does can be so weird but at the same time, so poetic.

DR:  I have four of your studio albums and, while they are musically diverse, each one really tells such deep stories. Can you tell me about your songwriting process?

RB:  I like to write from my emotional side and it's always different.  Sometimes it will start with a single chord that I find on my guitar. Sometimes I find a melody and if it inspires me, then the lyrics just come out.  It is hard to explain. I wish I had a formula but it really comes from me just sitting on the couch, thinking about nothing and playing. If it is an interesting idea to me, I immediately know what the song is going to be like. If there is going to be a violin in it or a saxophone, all of those ideas just become obvious to me.  I know this sounds like some sort of magical process, but it is the only thing in life that I don't know how it works.

DR:  You recently posted the comment, “Songs just seem to come pouring out of me, it's actually quite ridiculous

RB:  [Laughs]  Yeah!  I know that may sound arrogant, but I did not mean it that way.  I just am able to write so easily. I often have a hundred songs in my head and there are times that I don't want to touch my guitar because I don't want to write another song.  [Laughs]  

DR:  Do you have a go-to guitar of choice?  Or do you play from a variety of them?

RB:  I play different ones, but there is my Gibson J-50 from 1959, which is my baby.  When I got off the first tour I did with Trans-Siberian Orchestra, I gave myself the one gift of buying the one guitar that I always wanted. I went to the store and played hundreds of guitars, but came home with this one.  I am twice the guitar player than I would have been if not for this Gibson Acoustic.

DR:  You have released several solo albums now, leading up to the Folklore trilogy.  When did you start writing and recording?

RB:  Right when I first started playing guitar. I had already been writing lyrics - they were just poems. I started writing songs right away.  I never learned to play covers or figure things out from other players, which is something that I should have done. I really just started to write. I had so many lyrics already so it was obvious to me that I would put them to music.  The very first songs that I wrote are very similar to what I write today, actually. They were really the same melancholic, heavy style with the same elements of loneliness that I still use in my music today.  Hopefully the newer songs are better. [Laughs] 

DR:  We've talked a lot so far about your solo work.  I wanted to briefly touch on the band that you were in - Dearworld.  That seems light years from where you are at musically.

RB: Dearworld was an electro-rock sort of thing that became more electronic along the way.  I was 22 and started this band with my best friends. We would go to parties and see DJs turning knobs and we would think, "We could do that but use real instruments".  That's how it started and the radio picked us up.  Within a year or two, we had a full schedule of shows. The live shows were the best time; I was dancing around and it was a great way to express all of this energy in a very beautiful way.  The audiences were insane! I love to jump around on stage and be crazy and that is something I miss when performing my own music.

Dearworld was a lot of fun and lasted about six years. All during that period I was also writing and releasing my own music. When I started writing Folklore it became obvious to me that I was going to have to give up Dearworld.  My own music has always been closer to me than anything else.

DR:  Let's talk about that Folklore trilogy.  Being that it’s a trilogy of albums, do you already have the entire story mapped out or written out?

RB:  I do. The reason I wanted to do a trilogy is because I have so many songs and they all fit together in this one storyline. This is also something that I always had wanted to do.  I remember when I was 16 years old telling my buddies that someday I wanted to make a movie without images, like a radio play. When I started to write down the story and the songs, I realized that this is going to be way too long for a single album. No one wants to hear a double album from an unknown artist! [Laughs] I was also influenced by the Lord of the Rings trilogy of movies.  I love those movies - they are like my Bible. So in the end I decided that it would be a trilogy.  When I first began working on this, I did not realize how much work it was going to be.  So far, it has been five years and when I finish with the last part, it will have been seven years of writing and recording.  It is fun, but a little ambitious. [Laughs]

DR:  The story itself seems to revolve around a man referred to only as "Ranger” and he is clearly on a lonely journey searching for something. What is he looking for? His reason for being? A spiritual path?

RB:  To me, it is a spiritual path - something that we all do in life. In the first part, he is losing his memory and his name, which is his identity really.  He then has to undergo all of these tests throughout the first two parts, but all done very metaphorically.  By the end of Part 2, he has regained or earned back his name.  In the end - and this is SPOILER ALERT [Laughs] - when we come to Part 3 the main realization will be that all that time he was looking for something but it really wasn't about that. It is really about "the road" itself, which is what we do. Part 3 will be more warm and about family and coming home.

DR:  Where are these stories coming from? Is any of it pulled from your own experiences? Are any of these songs autobiographical at all?

RB:  I got this question not long ago and it has been keeping me busy because my first answer was, "No, it's not autobiographical because it's a fantasy story". But, if I really think about it, it is really how I perceive life.  So, in a way it is autobiographical. I hardly ever use names of people that I know in my lyrics, so to me, the character Muriel is not a particular person that was in my life, but more a metaphor for love in general. That's how I usually write.  Everything I do in life finds its way into my songs, but in more of a helicopter-view kind of way.

DR: The listener first learns of Muriel in the title track "The Waving Days" where he is thinking of her and wishing he could love her more.  And then she gets her own song later in the album.

RB:  Around the time I started recording Folklore 1 The Waving Days, I had a girlfriend.  I broke up with her because I felt I needed to be alone to get into the story.  When I wrote and recorded Muriel, I was thinking about her.  She was the kind of girl that kept me grounded and when I lost her, Muriel became that person that would call for you when you are in dire need. She really became this sort of guiding angel kind of character.

DR:  There are a number of songs on these albums where he is questioning his faith – particularly on Folklore 2.  For example, in "The Crossroads", you write about the angels leading him astray and the Lord is not his God. In "O Faithful World", you seem to speak to the impact religion has on him, hopeless days and kneeling before "the Lord of None".  Where is this coming from?  Are you a religious person?

RB:  I am not a religious person but I am a very spiritual person. To me, spirituality and religion are two different things. The reason I write a lot about religion is because to me, religion to a lot of people is what spirituality is to me.  It's a way to translate my own experiences into something they are familiar with.  The reason religion is often criticized in my lyrics is because I look at religion as the hijacked version of spirituality. Spirituality does not require a person to kneel before anyone or get their morality from a book.  I'm not against religion but I feel like there is a missed opportunity for humanity here.

DR:  The first part of the trilogy is subtitled “The Waving Days” – I had never heard that phrase before. Can you describe what The Waving Days are?

RB:  When I think about The Waving Days in combination with the story and the Autumn-kind of vibe to the story, I see days waving by like leaves on a tree. Days are waving by as you live and grow older and those days are passing you by. It is a very sad and lonely kind of image.

DR:  Folklore 1 The Waving Days ends with Ranger journeying across the valley to find the giving Cradle Tree, whose branches will send you home. What does The Cradle Tree represent?

RB:  You are asking a really important question here.  The Cradle Tree is the end goal - it is a fantasy thing I came up with to be a tree in the shape of a hand. This is essentially the Tree of Life - it gives life and also takes it away.

DR:  In between The Waving Days and The Phantom Wail, you released an EP (Caught on Tape) of songs that you cut live in a studio that included songs from both of those albums as well as “Mercy” from your Home album. What led you to you record and release this?

RB: The way I recorded Folklore 1 and 2 was that I basically wrote all of these songs on my own and then recorded in the studio with some of my friends. I then did all of the editing and most of the mixing myself which results in a single person doing all of this work with his timing and his preferences.  I really started to miss the interaction of being in a band and playing together and mistakes that people make that turn out to be beautiful. I told the guys that we should go into the studio on a day and record a couple songs together. I never expected it to come out so, if I may say so, so great.  I am really proud of this. When I was mixing it, I just knew that I wanted to put this out and it became a lot bigger than I thought it was going to be.

DR:  The songs have a bit of a sparser feeling than on their studio albums, but a lot of the elements that made up the atmosphere of those songs were still there in a way.

RB:  I am really happy with how it came out.  It also proved to me that I could capture the soul of the album version with a four-piece band. It's not about the train in the distance or the sound of crows.  These songs have a certain texture or structure that stands.

DR:  You just released the second part of the trilogy, Folklore 2 The Phantom Wail. We first heard that phrase on “Sacred Curse of Change”, the opening song of The Waving Days. You wrote “Upon these lands they rove around the arid fields of corn, Sowing seeds of frozen tears, they’ll cry out once they’re grown, A false cry, A phantom wail dressed in rags and feathers of time”. Tell me about The Phantom Wail and why is it the name of the new album?

RB:  My meaning of The Phantom Wail is fear or evil.  It is the thing that holds us back from becoming who we really are. It can take on many shapes that represent this jealousy or evil.  In that particular poem, I look at it as some sort of a ghost. It's there and can be in the same room as you without you realizing that it's there. The reason why I chose the word "wail" is because it is like a cry that you don't want to hear because it is hurting you.  This was a very strong image that I had and felt that it was appropriate to make the title of the second part.

DR:  Folklore 2 feels more intense at times than the first part, particularly with songs like "O Faithful World", "The Crossroads" and "The Reckoning". Was this intentional to rock out a bit more or because the subject matter of this release is dealing more about such malevolent subjects?

RB:  It was intentional. The first part is more adventurous and I am trying out certain things. The second part was always going to be the loudest and the darkest, particularly as the themes on this album are more aggressive.

DR:  You created two music videos so far for this album.

RB:  Yes!  When I was editing the Caught on Tape videos, I just started to learn Adobe Premier, which I picked up pretty easily because of my graphic design background. Doing those live videos really inspired me to think about creating my own music videos. When I had an idea for "O Faithful World", I sat down with a photographer friend of mine, Ruud van de Wiel, and we just started shooting some shots and next thing I knew, music video number one was finished and that inspired me to make another.  The second one was much more ambitious.  I really like making these videos.  It helps unlock the same creative box that making music does.  I have the same sort of obsession when making these videos that I do when working on a song.  I really like doing it!

DR:  Was there a reason you picked those two particular songs to create videos for?

RB:  "O Faithful World" was a no-brainer because it's one of the few songs of mine that just takes off from the beginning.  Most of my songs start slow and build up and I liked the idea of doing something with this song.  I never thought I would make a video for "The Reckoning" just because it is so long. Once we sat down and started shooting though, we kept on having so many more ideas and we wound up shooting more than we needed.  It's funny, I am so proud of it but it came out so weird and there is so much of me in it; I can't look at it myself. [Laughs]  I had a good group of people that helped give me honest feedback when we were making it though because I couldn't keep looking at myself. [Laughs]  I don't even like to put myself on the album covers because I feel like it's more about the story and not about me so this was really scary but really fun at the same time.

DR: In "The Reckoning", there is a turning point and a voice asks him where he will go now

RB:  "The Reckoning", for me,  is a game changing moment for the Ranger. He learns that it is OK to let out your dark side.  He realizes that he is not that dark person and that it doesn't make you a devil because you have a dark side.  That voice he hears that asks him where he will go could be Muriel,; it could be a voice that is always with him and it calls him home in a way.

DR:  This album, like the previous, is really filled such such despair on his journey, but this album ends with two songs – “Dawn” and “Found”, which seem to be stories filled with hope – is the Ranger finding what he seeks?

RB:  That's the moment where he reclaims his name.  In this case, his name is a metaphor for his identity. "Found" is the last part where he is coming out of a really dark world that he was in.  Since Folklore 2 is so dark, I didn't want to end it with "The Reckoning" - I wanted there to be a bridge to the Part 3.

DR:  Musically, both of these albums are such a rich soundscape with the various ambient sounds that go along with the music, which really helps draw the listener in to the experience and the story. We didn't hear this on your previous albums - do you enjoy adding in that aspect of the piece?

RB:  I love doing that!  I might even love that more than adding actual instruments in.  [Laughs]  When I start off, I put my headphones on and it is just so silent!  I instantly want to add the sound of waves or wind or just experiment with the atmosphere.  I could listen to the sounds of rolling waves or the sound of crows for hours.  That's the way I like to dress up my songs.

DR:  There is a wide array of musicians on these albums.  Did you recruit them especially for this project?

RB:  I met my co-producer and drummer, Wouter Bude, when we were doing the Dearworld album.  I called on a lot of my friends who are musicians and can play much better than I do to play on the album also. For this album, the guitar player Roman Huijbreghs who is also in my band, really helped come up with a lot of the great guitar parts you hear.
Robin Borneman  Nijmegen, Netherlands  October 2017
Photo Courtesy of Rob Jansen/3voor12

DR:  You yourself are not listed in the liner notes other than writing and producing.  Do you also play guitar on the album?

RB:  Yeah.  I play acoustic and some of the electric parts, like the solo on "Talisman". And you know that third part in "The Reckoning", the solo with the feedback?  That's actually me and I am so proud of that!  But it felt so pointless to credit myself.  I don't mind not crediting myself.

DR:  I do see another Borneman listed in the credits - Mary?

RB:  She's my mom!  She plays accordion on both Folklore albums.  I asked her to come to my home studio and she recorded her parts and it was so much fun!  It is so great to have her on my albums.  I am really proud of her.

DR:  I understand Dustin Brayley helped with lyric translation on Folklore 2.

RB:  Yeah.  I am not a native speaker and often my lyrics are very poetic.  Sometimes I am not sure if they are correct so I always have someone check my lyrics and grammar before recording.  In this case, it was my good friend Dustin.

DR:  I wanted to ask about the cover art.  For both Folklore albums, the artwork is so striking and matches the mood of the albums.

RB:  Barbara Florczyk in Poland designed those.  For the first one, I was on my computer looking for pictures of trees and saw this picture, which became the cover of Folklore 1 and I immediately knew I wanted that to be on the cover of the album.  I reached out to her and we worked out a deal for the rights for me to use it as the cover.  Because I was so happy with the first one, I asked her to create the cover for the second one and I am so happy with how it came out. She will be creating the cover for the third one also.

DR:  What is the significance of the crow that is on in the trees on those covers?  There is also a crow on the back cover of your Home album and there is mention of crows in your lyrics.

RB:  Crows are my favorite bird.  They are so intelligent and are always around. They are just so dark and they really interest me.  In Folklore, the crow is what is leading you astray.

DR:  Let's shift gears a bit and talk about your involvement with Trans-Siberian Orchestra.  You have been singing with them since 2013.  I understand it was a Tom Waits cover performance that got you noticed?

Robin With TSO  Uncasville, CT  November 2014
Photo Courtesy of Ken Bowser
RB: Yeah, it was.  It was a very early morning after a full weekend of recording with Dearworld and my voice was just shattered.  I decided to do a Tom Waits cover since my voice was already there and I put it up on YouTube.  About a year later, I got an email from [Talent Coordinator] Danielle Sample saying that she was with TSO and that she wanted me to do an audition for them.  I didn't know anything about them at all but my manager at the time told me to do the audition because he knew who TSO were.

DR:  I understand that they usually ask you to make an audition video first before coming to their studios.  Similar process with you?

RB:  Yes.  My first video was "Christmas Dreams" which was a hard one for me because it is a pretty intense song. After that, I got "Believe" - they sent me the TSO version with Tim Hockenberry on vocals.  I remember just being mesmerized by it and I asked them if I could do a guitar version of the song.  I really got familiar with the song and came up with my own version of it.  This is apparently what Paul heard that got me to the audition in Florida.

DR:  Had you been in the USA before?

RB:  No! This was the scariest day of my life.  [Laughs] This was my first time in the United States.  My first time meeting Paul O'Neill, Al Pitrelli, Derek Wieland, and Dave Wittman.    I had made a decision leading up to my trip not to find out anything about whom I was going to meet.  I didn't want to know anything about who Al Pitrelli was or who Paul O'Neill was - I was nervous enough already.  So, I got to the studio ready to focus on the songs, ready to do my best and ready to focus on what they expected me to do.   The way Paul worked was very fast - he would go from left to right, then he tells you a story and wants you to do it again but from a completely different angle.  I thought I was doing it all wrong. As the day went by, my confidence was gone and I was certain that I would not be hired.  Finally, Paul pulled me aside and told me that he was completely blown away and that he wanted me to be part of the tour. It was such a weird day but great at the same time.

DR: Performing on the TSO stage can involve lots of stage movement – running around that gigantic stage, interacting with other performers, swinging the hair of course and engaging with the audience. None of which you do during your solo live performances.  [Laughs]

RB:  [Laughs]

DR:  Was all of that stage presence and energy difficult to learn? Did it come naturally?  Or did it harken back to your Dearworld days?

RB:  Oh yeah!  If not for Dearworld, I would not have been able to pull that off.  On the one hand, I feel like I am that "poetic ballad" type guy. But I do have a lot of energy and I enjoy running around and jumping and screaming.  When I was doing "Sparks", my Dearworld energy was running through my veins and I was just feeling it.  Doing that song was originally an experiment and after I did it, Paul was like, "OK, you're doing Sparks now" [Laughs]. It was a lot of fun.  I learned so much from singing that song, both as a singer and a performer.

DR:  Was it intimidating being there and performing with such seasoned performers from Broadway and the rock world?

RB:  Hell yeah! Intimidating is really the right word.  As a European kid being in America for the first time, everyone is just so damn confident compared to most Europeans I know. My first two years, I had many moments where I would think, "What am I doing here?!".  The musicians are just on another level.  I was thrown into this pool and was just trying to swim. Everything is so much bigger - the cars, the roads, the distances, the personalities I was dealing with - people like Rob Evan and Russell Allen who I love, don't get me wrong.  But I was just so green.  I wasn't scared and I was confident enough to go out there and sing my songs, but I was just in awe of everything.

DR:  You have sung five different songs on the TSO stage thus far.  We already talked about "Sparks" - I'd like you to comment on the others, starting with "Believe". you mentioned that did that on your audition.  On your first tour with TSO in 2013, you were singing "Sparks", but you were singing "Believe" on the Morning Drive radio appearances that you would do.

RB:  I am not sure why they had me doing that.  It's a great song to sing at those radio appearances though.  I have never sung it in the United States during a Show.  We toured Europe in 2014 and I sang it at those Shows.

DR:  That had to have gone over so well in Europe with Savatage being so appreciated there.

RB:  It was so great. It was so amazing when we played Amsterdam. That was the best day of the year for me. I remember rolling in to the Netherlands with all of the stage trucks and buses just being so damn proud. I was feeling like, "Here I am, this Dutch guy with this amazing band!" [Laughs]  My parents, my bandmates from Dearworld, my girlfriend at the time were all there - it was great.

DR:  Did you get a special introduction that night, being the hometown kid?

RB:  Actually, Al gave me the microphone! [Laughs] I was able to thank the audience in Dutch and the crowd just went crazy.  Just by talking about this now, I can feel the excitement again.

DR:  You sang "Believe" again at the 2015 performance at Wacken where you split the song with Jon Oliva.

RB:  That was one of the best days of my life. We had been rehearsing for two weeks in Florida before we flew to Germany.  The whole thing was such an adrenaline rush. I was so honored to be singing "Believe" with Jon, I was so focused; I did not have much room to fuck up. [Laughs]  When the song started, it was still dark on my side of the stage.  I walked towards the mic while Jon was singing and when I started singing right after the drum break, the lights went on.  I saw this ocean of people all of a sudden out there and I remember thinking "What the fuck!" but I had to really focus on singing the song. It was such a profound experience to do a massive performance like that.  I wish now, when I look at footage, that I would have said something like, "Give it up for Jon Oliva!" but I was just so focused and maybe shy to say anything.

DR:  "Find our Way Home" is a song you have sung the last two years, though you changed outfits - In 2015 you were wearing a standard stage jacket but in 2016 you were wearing a sort of a trenchcoat.
Robin Borneman with TSO   Greensboro, NC  December 2016
Photo Courtesy of Ben Miller

RB:  Well the coat has everything to do with how it feels like it is the closing song. Wearing a winter coat almost is showing like I am ready to leave.  Paul really liked that so we kept it in.  I remember singing it one time when the band was playing it in rehearsals and I just grabbed the mic and started singing it.  Paul came in and stood behind me without me seeing him and when we were done, Paul told me that I would be singing that song! It is such a beautiful song and I can really relate to it. I really connect with this "Ranger", "Storyteller", kind of rider that tells you it's OK to go home now and find your way.

DR:  For the 2014 tour, you sang "Dream Child".  When I interviewed vocalist Bart Shatto - who sang it for the West tour - he told me how you and he rehearsed together side by side in this small studio with Paul, Jon, Al and Danielle.  You and he each had a different interpretation as you alternated takes.

RB:  I really loved performing that.  I actually had that song to learn in my first year because they were thinking of adding it to the set but they wound up leaving it out.  And Bart is right - I would sing it and then he would perform it and back and forth.  I liked Bart's approach and it was really interesting to sort of spar with each other and take certain elements out of his performance and add them to mine.

DR:  The last song I want to ask you about is the one you also recorded for TSO - "Forget About the Blame"

RB:  You know, we never intended to record that song. It was a song that Paul didn't write, but he had it sitting there for a long time. We were just listening to music one day and talking and all of a sudden he pulls it out and he tells me to listen to it and do a take.  I told him to give me an hour and I did a take of it. After he heard it, he told me that he decided to go ahead and record it.  I love that song and am so glad it found its way onto the album.

DR:  Since you were at the studio already, were you there to record something else?

RB:  I was.  Paul had me trying out a few different songs. I remember doing a take of "Not the Same" and doing it an octave lower which gave it sort of a Leonard Cohen kind of vibe to it.

DR:  When you were recording your vocals to "Forget About the Blame", what were you singing to?

RB:  That was the amazing Al Pitrelli, who recorded the whole backing track.  I had told Paul to give me an hour to work on my vocals and Al said, "Give me two hours" and he had the entire thing ready. Al is one of those amazing magicians who can grab a guitar and turn anything into everything.  He has really inspired me over the years.  So in a few hours, they had the whole backing track done. Later on they added the gospels and changed the drums up. It came together really fast.

DR:  For the TSO Shows, the singers learn multiple songs so you can fill in for someone if needed. Have you had to do that yet?
Robin Borneman with TSO  Reading, PA  January 2015
Photo Courtesy of Ben Miller

RB:  I haven't.  But when I have to, I am ready.  My backup songs are mostly Russ' songs, like "Christmas Nights in Blue". I also do "Christmas Dreams".  That's such a fun thing to do - we always sing each other's songs in the dressing rooms; it keeps things really fresh.

DR:  I wanted to get your thoughts on two people that were lost this year - Paul O'Neill and bassist David Z.

RB:  I've just been really sad and I miss them terribly.  They were both such big personalities.  Paul was such a mastermind and a teacher.  And with the way Dave laughed and the way he spoke and the way he was excited about stuff - he was such a big personality.  For someone like them to pass away so suddenly, it leaves such a large hole because of who they were. Whenever I see a picture of David or Paul, it's still just so fresh.  Being over here on the other side of the ocean, it is hard to share my sorrow because not many over here knew them.  I really just miss my friends.

DR: A few weeks back, you held an album release concert for Folklore 2.  When you performed "The Crossroads", I understand you did that on a guitar that Paul had given you?

RB:  That is correct.  I never told anyone about this.  Paul gave me a guitar last year that was built just for me. I have it right here in my hands right now. It was such an amazing gift.  It has a silver plate on the back that says, "To Robin Borneman from Paul O'Neill". This is such a sacred guitar to me and I will always have it with me. That was the first time I had that guitar on stage with me. I wanted to share it with the audience and talk about how he isn't with us anymore. Me standing there that night with that guitar around my neck was such a spiritual moment.

DR:  I just have a couple questions to wrap this up. Because your lyrics are so deep and tell such vivid stories, have you ever considered writing a book?

RB:  I have considered writing a book.  In fact, I have already started writing it. It's something I always wanted to do but right now, I am not patient enough.  To be a writer, you have to be patient because it takes such dedication.  If I am recording music and come up with eight songs, I can release an album. To write a book, you have to commit to the whole thing from top to bottom. I have an idea - it will be a fictional story but it's not fully shaped yet.

DR: What's the most curious record in your collection?

RB:  Ooh, that's a good question.  I am actually now gazing at my record collection.  I think I would have to say The Black Rider by Tom Waits. It is such a weird album but over time, I became so familiar with it.  When I listen to it now, it is so comforting and nostalgic. It is such a strange, avant-garde collection of songs but I really like the craziness of it.

DR:  This year you got to open for Kiefer Sutherland and also follow Eddie Vedder on his bill.  Which was the cooler experience?

RB: The cooler experience was opening for Kiefer Sutherland.  We didn't get to meet Eddie Vedder - that was the same week that his buddy Chris Cornell died and he was pretty unhappy.  The Kiefer Sutherland shows were great because they were close to sold out and I was there on my own. The room was quiet - you could hear a pin drop - but my music was really projecting and I could feel that people really liked it and understood what I was about. And also, Kiefer Sutherland is a really nice guy!

DR:  Robin, thank you for taking the time today and best wishes on the upcoming TSO tour.

RB:  Thank you, Dan! I appreciate you taking your time as well!

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Tuesday, August 8, 2017

A Conversation with Dino Jelusić

Vocalist Dino Jelusić has been performing in front of audiences around the world for most of his life. Since hitting it big early as a pre-teen star in his native Croatia and around the world, Jelusić has been following a rock and metal trajectory, writing and releasing music inspired by his wide range of musical heroes and fueled by his own unique musical virtuosity. Over the last two years, Jelusić has solidified his own band, Animal Drive, and signed a worldwide record deal.  He was also introduced to North American audiences in a big way as he toured as a featured vocalist with Trans-Siberian Orchestra.  I caught up with Dino while he took a break from recording his band's new album to chat about all of this and more.

Dan Roth:  Dino, can you tell me about your musical background?  Did you always have musical aspirations?

Dino Jelusić:  Yes.  My father was a guitarist in a rock band and my mother was playing flute, so I was always surrounded by music.  I have been singing since I was three years old and had my first TV appearance when I was five. Things just developed from there. As I grew up, I started listening to Led Zeppelin, Kingdom Come, Whitesnake, Iron Maiden, and so on.

DR:  In 2003, you won the first-ever Junior Eurovision Song Contest from singing "Ti si moja prva ljubav" ("You are my one and only").  Did you compose that song as well as sing it?  Can you tell me a little about this contest?

DJ:  I was 11 years old and it was a real breakthrough for me to become popular in my country. I remember the day I wrote the song - I was ten years old and my father asked me if I wanted to sign up for this contest. First, I won Croatia with the song and then four months later I won the entire contest in Denmark. Next thing I know, I am performing around the world and had released my first album worldwide.  That era of my career wrapped up in 2007 when my voice changed.

DR:  Today you seem to sing equally well in English as well as your native language.  When were you comfortable enough to sing in English?

DJ:  My first English song was made in 1999, so 18 years ago. I was seven years old. Back then, I could already speak English - not as well as now of course - but I was travelling around the world and picking up English pretty quickly.  That first album actually had ten songs sung in Croatian and five of them sung in English. Since I was singing at many festivals in Europe and Africa, we decided to record and release some songs in English as well.

DR:  Moving on from there, you released your first rock album in 2011, Living My Own Life.

DJ:  I would put my career into three sections. The first being the Eurovision days, the next being Living My Own Life, and then my current era since 2012.  With the Living My Own Life album, I did not write any of the songs on there so I do not sing any of those songs anymore in my concerts.  In 2012, I performed in South Africa and did songs like "Walk on the Other Side" and "Bad to the Bone", songs that I still perform with Animal Drive today. From that point. I really got into the more rock/metal scene.

DR:  You mentioned earlier some of the bands you grew up listening to.  Is there any one band or album that really inspired you to move in this direction?

DJ:  I can't remember any one particular album but let me tell you the first five CDs on my shelf right now. The first one is King's X Dogman, which is such a great, fun hard rock album. Slash's Apocalyptic Love,  Whitesnake's Slip of the Tongue, Dream Theater's Scene from a Memory. Toto's Kingdom of Desire!  I am big Toto fan and this is probably my favorite album. I love Velvet Revolver, Jet, Aerosmith, Chris Cornell, Lenny Kravitz, Tool, Lamb of God, John Mayer, Phil Collins, Billy Joel.  I listen to so much and it's a big musical mess. [Laughs]

DR:  We certainly know you as a lead vocalist and songwriter - do you also play any instrument?  I believe I saw you on keyboards in one live video.

DJ:  I do!  I've been playing piano for seventeen years and this year I will finish up my studies at Zagreb Music Academy.  On the new Animal Drive album, I am playing all of the keyboards in addition to the vocals. I also play keyboards with the band Stone Leaders with drummer John Macaluso.

DR:  You mentioned that you divide your career up into three parts. Let's talk about your last couple of years where you won the New Wave Festival in Sochi, hired by the Trans-Siberian Orchestra and got your own band signed to a major recording contract.

DJ:  Trans-Siberian Orchestra has been amazing.  It's a whole new level for me and really inspiring. Getting to know all of these people and touring big arenas around America...I cannot wait to go out again in a few months.

Before the 2016 TSO tour, I recorded some songs with my band and was going to put out an EP. I thought that when the tour ends, some fans may want to hear what else I was doing. During the TSO rehearsals, Jeff Scott Soto asked to hear some of my songs.  I played him one ballad and two heavy songs - and even though at the time I wasn't believing in these yet - Jeff loved them and contacted Frontiers Records about my music. Frontiers also loved what they heard and told me that they wanted to release an entire album from us!

Dino Jelusic with Animal Drive, Cakovec Croatia, May 2017
Photo Courtesy Maja Music
When I got back to Croatia, we decided to change the name of the band from Dino and the Mad Dogs to Animal Drive. In May, we signed a contract and we are right now recording the album.

DR:  What made you change the name of the band?

DJ:  I wanted to remove the "Dino and...".  I wanted it to be a band. The guys in the band are such great guys and great musicians - I really wanted this to be a band, not "Dino and them". I also didn't like the Mad Dogs name; in my opinion it sounds like a 70s style band and we felt that Animal Drive was a better fit for what we do.

DR:  How long has the band been together?

DJ:  I have been playing with the bass player and one guitarist since 2012. Our drummer came into the band in 2014 and our newest guitarist joined us in 2015. So, this lineup came together from 2012 to 2015.

DR:  Who writes the music for this new album?

DJ:  I write all of the music and all of the lyrics.  I also create the arrangements until we start rehearsing and we change things as a band.

DR:  What sort of subjects do you touch on lyrically?

DJ:  Most of my songs are very deep lyrically.  We will have eleven songs on this album; three of them ballads and eight of them heavy.  The songs are about real life, fears, pain.  Many of them true life stories that I can connect with. There are two love songs that are very personal to me on the album also. There are also two songs that we recorded that did make it onto the album.  They are very progressive and possibly not right for this release so we are saving them for the next one.

DR:  Earlier you had mentioned songs like "Walk on the Other Side" and "Bad to the Bone" that you perform live and even released music videos for them.  Will those or any other songs that you have been playing be on the new album?

DJ:  No. Frontiers loved the music but they asked for an album of all new material. What you hear on the promotional video from Frontiers are demo versions of three of the new songs that will be on the album: "Had Enough", "Time Machine", and "Power of Life".

DR:  When Animal Drive performs live, you often throw in some cover songs.

DJ:  We play Deep Purple's "Burn" at every show we do.  But - we do the Whitesnake version of it. Whitesnake did a pretty impressive version on their 2004 Live...In the Still of the Night DVD.  We all love their version of it and since Whitesnake is our band's biggest influence, we wanted to include this in all of our concerts.

DR:  I know you are taking a break from the studio to do this interview.  How is the recording process going so far?

DJ:  It's going great. I finished up some keyboards today. Tomorrow I go back in and record some more vocals.  I then will be taking a bit of a break, as we have been on this for two months straight.  We are just about done the first version of the album, then back in to record new vocals and then mixing and mastering.

DR:  Does this album have a name yet? And any idea for a release date?

DJ:  I have an idea for a name, but we haven't discussed it yet with management or the record company, so can't say quite yet. As for when it comes out, right now I expect a single to come out in December while I am on tour with TSO and the album should be out by March 2018.

DR:  Animal Drive is the first rock band from Croatia to sign to a major record label. That has to be a pretty special feeling?

 Well previously there was Croation singer Michael Matijevic. He was the lead singer of Steelheart and also sang the songs along with Jeff Scott Soto in the movie Rock Star. Also, the bassist from Nirvana is natively Croatian.  So there have been a few.  We have a completely different mentality about music in Croatia and I am happy that what I do is making its way to America and other parts of the world. In my country, you can do nothing with music like this. I am so grateful to the opportunities from both Frontiers and TSO because these are my way out to get my music heard.

DR:  You mentioned TSO a couple of times. How did you first get on TSO's radar? I understand that they heard you singing Queen's "The Show Must Go On".  True?
Dino Jelusic with TSO, Kansas City, MO 2016
Photo Courtesy Carolyn Handy

DJ:  That is what I heard too.  They heard me singing "The Show Must Go On" which I have sung over the years. They sent me the Savatage song "Handful of Rain" to record and send back to them. After they heard that, they sent me one Savatage song and six TSO songs to work on and they flew me to Florida.  After three days of working on them with [Talent Coordinator] Danielle [Sample] in the studio, I met Paul O'Neill. I really enjoyed working with him in the studio. He sat and talked with me about the story behind "Handful of Rain" for like an hour. He wanted me to go back to 1994 when that song came out and picture the streets, the dark, the wine that is drying out on the floor. After that, he had me sing it again. When the song started, I started having chills because it had a completely different meaning to me. After I sang it and got the deep meaning out of it, Paul said, "That's it" because I understood the song now and sang it better.

DR:  Were you already familiar with Savatage or TSO before you got the call?

DJ:  Sure.  I knew both. I knew of how big TSO was and that Soto is in there, Al Pitrelli is in there, and Russell Allen of course.  Also, Kelly Keeling used to sing for them and Alex Sklolnick used to play guitar for them, so I knew how huge this was. Also, a good friend of mine who played guitars on "Walk on the Other Side" had auditioned for TSO.

DR:  How long did it take before you found out that you had passed the audition?  With two male vocalist slots open, I understand that they auditioned quite a few singers.

DJ:  I could tell that they liked what I did when I was at the audition, but I had to wait to find out. About two months before the start of the tour, I found out that it was me and Mats Levén that made it as the new guys.

DR:  For the 2016 tour, you sang "Christmas Dreams". Was that hashed out in the rehearsals?

DJ:  Yes. I did not know before that, but they try different singers on different songs and I was given "Christmas Dreams" because Paul thought I should be the storyteller of that song.

DR:  Did you get a lot of direction from Paul on how he wanted to sound and perform that song?

DJ:  He wanted the storytelling to come through.  There is no place for any vocal exhibitions or doing anything that broke from the character. All of the singers are characters in his story. TSO is Paul's vision and we are here to fulfill that story.

DR:  You came to TSO with so much experience of performing at big festivals and TV competitions and tours.  Were you nervous at all to tour with TSO?

DJ:  I was nervous in the beginning.  My first day at rehearsals, I am in the same room as many singers and musicians that I grew up listening to. After a few days, it all becomes normal. You go out to the bar with Soto and talk about his Malmsteen days, and then come back to the hotel to see Joel Hoekstra from Whitesnake there.  They are all just normal guys and good people and we really became close.  I love those guys. But to answer your question, Yes, I was nervous.  The first time I go out and sing for TSO being one of the new guys, with the audience watching and Paul watching - there is a some pressure there.  But by the end of the tour, I had found what I was searching for in those first few stage appearances.

DR:  Do you find the tour challenging, with so many days where two Shows are performed?

DJ:  It is a challenging tour.  Some people will say, "Oh you only sing one song", but I also sing backing vocals for many of the songs. I sang backings for "Who I Am", "Lost Christmas Eve", "This Christmas Day", "Music Box Blues, "What Child is This", and "Carmina Burana".  So it can be exhausting after two shows, we are happy to sleep in that tour bus.
Dino Jelusic with TSO, Kansas City, MO 2016
Photo Courtesy Carolyn Handy

I will tell you this, after coming back from the TSO tour and doing my band again, I found that some things became so much easier to me.  For example, I found some of the range that I couldn't hit before.

DR:   I understand that you were the singer on the Free and Bad Company songs that Paul Rodgers was planning on singing as you and the TSO band rehearsed them in the weeks leading up to his guest appearance.

DJ:  That was unreal.  They were hiding from us who would be the special guest on the tour.  At one point, Al Pitrelli told me that the guest is one of his five favorite vocalists.  So a few days later, I asked him to tell me his favorite vocalists. He named them and I started thinking and eliminating and I think I knew at that point it was Paul Rodgers. Finally, Al asked me if I knew the lyrics to "Can't Get Enough" and "All Right Now" and I said, "Of Course!" and I was Paul Rodgers for five or six rehearsals.

It was really something special having him there. He still looks great, moves great, and his voice is still clean like he is 25 years old. And meeting him I found out what a genuinely nice and generous man he is. Meeting him and Paul O'Neill really made me rethink what the goal is in being a rock star.  Paul O'Neill was very serious and always helped people. He did some things on tour, which will stay private, which made all of us singers happy and really inspired us.

DR:  This has been a tragic year within the TSO ranks with the deaths of Paul O'Neill and Dave Z. Can you talk about your relationship with both of them? I know you have only been with TSO for one season thus far, but any special memories that you could share?

DJ:  When Paul passed away, I was out of function for five days.  I started bringing back some memories - I was looking at this old American Silver Dollar that he gave me to carry for luck when I auditioned. He has done so much for TSO and for people like me, so now I appreciate him a thousand times more. During the auditions, he tried me out on a new track which was to be on a new TSO album. It was this country-blues song that he wrote in 1978 that he has tried with so many singers over the years and I got it! The irony is that I was in the airport, on my way to Tampa, to record that song when Paul O'Neill died.

With Dave Z, I got to know him in the rehearsals in Council Bluffs. We would have lunch together and I started training with him. He was so talented - he could sing, he could play, he could dance like Michael Jackson. And he was so funny - he was like a big child. After the TSO tour, I did a guest appearance with Jeff Scott Soto in Budapest; we did "Stand Up and Shout" together and Dave was Jeff's bass player.  I did some crazy harmonies on the chorus and when Jeff sang the verse, Dave came to me and told me how much I killed it on the harmonies.  He was so supportive all of the time. I remember our last conversation after that show - he was telling me how excited he was to start rehearsing with Adrenaline Mob and I told him that I have some connections with a big festival in Croatia and I wanted to see him and the band perform over here.  I really wish I could have been at his memorial - I just wasn't able to right now.

DR:  We have talked a lot about Animal Drive and TSO. Over the last couple of years, bands like Chaos Addict, The Ralph and Stone Leaders have all released albums with you on vocals or keys.  Are you still involved with any of these?

DJ:  I was involved in these bands but when I signed the contract with Frontiers, they wanted me to focus 100% on my band.  This is really good advice as you can't grow five bands at once and expect them all to be big. With Chaos Addict, I have worked with them for two years. I played live with them a lot and I sang a cover of Toto's "I Will Remember" for their debut album.

With The Ralph, I did the whole album, which came out in February 2017.  I wrote most of the lyrics for that album and sang lead.  With The Stone Leaders, I came into it that later as they needed vocals and keyboards.  Though I wasn't involved in the writing, I played all of the keyboard parts and solos and vocal melodies and I sing lead on "Box of Time". We recorded the album in 2015 and it is just now coming out. It features John Macaluso on drums, who is one of the greatest drummers in the world. We had a great time recording that album.

DR: We have talked so much about your music career. Lets wrap this up by having you tell me what you do for fun – what do you do when not performing?

DJ:  You know what I do?  Table Tennis! A lot.  I had to choose between singing and Table Tennis at one point. When I was touring last year with TSO, they have a table and the guys from the crew play Table Tennis. I started playing with them and started winning all of the time.  They asked me who I was because they had never seen me before - they thought I was a Table Tennis coach in disguise. [Laughs]  It definitely is one of my passions.

DR:  Dino, thanks so much and I will let you get back to the studio now.

DJ:  Thank You!  See you on the road!

For more information:

Dino Jelusić:

Animal Drive: