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: