Saturday, August 31, 2019

A Conversation with Tony Dickinson

Tony Dickinson, the multi-instrumentalist from the great state of Colorado, just may be in the running for "hardest working musician" in the business.  While this talented musician and production whiz can often be found recording and performing in his home state with his funk/rock band Sylva, fans around the world have also gotten to know Tony over the last few years from some of his other compositions, production and performances.  In this career-spanning interview, we chat about his involvement in the forefront of the video game music scene, both solo and with his current band, The Tiberian Sons. We also touch on his deep musical involvement with Jeff Scott Soto and his hard rock/metal outfit, SOTO, as well as his role with the yearly Trans-Siberian Orchestra touring production.



Photo courtesy of Brenda Bowman

Dan Roth: Considering the various bands that you are involved with, you seem to have wide-ranging musical interests. What first got you into music?

Tony Dickinson:  My mom is a piano teacher and I started taking piano lessons from her when I was six or seven years old. Then, my K-8 school put everyone in a music program, and you chose between orchestra, band or choir.  When I was in Fifth Grade, my older brother, Adam had a garage band and he could not keep a bass player in his band. With that as inspiration, I chose the bass and started playing upright bass in orchestra.  When I hit Sixth Grade, I chose Jazz Band and got one of those school bass guitars that you could take home.  I fell in love with it as soon as I started playing it.  I liked the upright but with this, I could start playing the music that I really enjoyed at the time.  My parents got me my own bass - a Squier bass - and I played that non-stop.

DR:  What bands were you in to as you were learning to play?

TD:  At the time, the bands that I liked were Smash Mouth, No Doubt, Weird Al [Laughs].  It was a funny smorgasbord of music that I was learning to play.  Eventually my older brothers started feeding me bands like Red Hot Chili Peppers, Metallica, Primus and Megadeth.  Megadeth was probably the first band that I really fell in love with. Around the same time, my mom was playing in a Gospel band and she invited me to play my bass with them. That was super fun and I got my taste for more of a soul, funk, r&b style in that church music.

When I was high school, I joined the Drumline and played bass with that.  That is where I was exposed to Dream Theater, Symphony X, and progressive bands of that caliber. I stayed in Jazz Band all through high school and had exposure to many different ensembles.  At my core, the progressive metal thing and Red Hot Chili Pepper's bass lines are probably where I can give credit to most of my development as a bass player. Flea's bass lines are pretty much how I learned how to play bass. From there I moved on to Les Claypool and learned a ton through listening to him.

DR:  Safe to say that Flea was your biggest inspiration?

TD:  He was the first one.  And then John Myung from Dream Theater too.  I was always amazed how he was keeping up with that insane guitar playing. Stu Hamm is another that I got exposed to in high school and I learned a lot of his solo stuff. His bass solos were pretty influential on my playing.  I played a lot of Symphony X in high school and it is crazy that I am now playing in a band with their singer.  It is still surreal to me that I started there and ended up here.  I did take some lessons, and my 7th grade bass teacher exposed me to Jamiroquai, who became a huge influence on me not just bass-wise, but also from a songwriting standpoint, especially with my band Sylva.

DR:  Were you in any bands throughout school?

TD:  My buddy Travis Moberg and I had a heavy metal band throughout high school but never really did anything with it. Most of the music that I wrote for it was really pretty terrible and most of it was plagiarism. [Laughs] When you start off, you often wind up mimicking the music that you know. I am never going to show the world anything that I wrote back then. [Laughs]  

Once in college, I got into more funk and r&b groups.  Earth, Wind and Fire easily became one of my favorite bands, along with other artists like Stevie Wonder, Prince, Michael Jackson, and Chaka Khan.  I also had been playing in a classic rock cover band for years and we played a lot of great funk stuff from the '60s and '70s.

DR:  Very nice. As a bass player who has such an appreciation for funk, how much love do you have for Larry Graham?

TD:  Oh yes! I love Larry Graham.  On one of my early YouTube covers, I did "Pow" from Graham Central Station.  It's kind of a goofy song but such a great bass line.

DR:  A big part of your musical story is the remaking and remixing of video game themes.  How did you enter that world?

TD:  I just have to rewind a bit for that.  I was a member of the Megadeth forum, circa 2006.  They had a music sub-forum where someone had posted an amazing cover of Super Metroid music.  They made it into this big, long progressive rock epic!  I found the guy that had made it, which led me to the remix websites, one of them being Dwelling of Duels and the other OC Remix. Both of these were monthly remix competitions and I was really surprised at the high production level and playing caliber that I was hearing on these remixes. I just started trying remixing and playing some of the video game music from games that I had played when I was a kid. A lot of that music is surprisingly well written.  I eventually started submitting my remixes to these sites and really having some fun with it.

DR:  Were you a one-man band on these?

TD:  Most of them were all me.  If they were credited to "PuD", then everything you heard was me.  I was playing guitar, playing bass, playing keys, and programming drums.  All of the songs were my arrangements. Sometimes I had guests on my tracks to add a solo or something. I still do these to this day, but my production skills have improved a lot, so I don't really direct anyone to listen to those older tracks.

The video game remixing thing for me was really important. People will look at it and say, "that's really nerdy", and it is.  I am a shameless nerd. Doing that stuff was really important for my development as I cut my teeth on that learning production skills.  I learned a lot how to do arrangements and write for different instruments. With every Dwelling of Duels track, I would try something a little different each time. The first track I did was a metal medley of MegaMan music.  By the time I did my fourth track, "Command and Conquer Red Alert", I was doing heavy metal with orchestra. I had an orchestra library that I wanted to learn, and I arranged this Command and Conquer music.  That track is the one that led me to the whole Tiberian Sons thing and working with Frank Klepacki later on down the road.  Frank is great with interacting with his fans and I had emailed him to talk about the tracks that I was doing.  After that, we just kept in touch.  I had originally made this one, "Hell March to the Apocalypse" in 2008.  And that was a such a great moment - "Heavy metal music and orchestra!" [Laughs], which is funny because of where I eventually would wind up. That heavy metal/orchestra thing became one of my wheelhouses and sparked the idea for The Tiberian Sons.


DR: Somewhere in there, you did release a solo album - PuD's DuDs.  Was that an extension of what you had been doing on the Dwelling of Duels competitions?

TD:  PuD's DuDs had everything that I had released on DoD up to that point. For the album, I decided to go back, re-record, remix, and redo a lot of it because my production skills had gotten better over the years that these were originally recorded. These were a big improvement over the DoD versions. I want to emphasize for anyone that is reading this, that this album came out in 2010 and really sounds like shit compared to today's standard. [Laughs]  I am always going back and playing with those songs; the arrangements are always the same, but it is the production level that is increasing. I will listen to them and think how they could be improved with my current guitar tone settings or the drum library or orchestra samples that I am working on.

DR:  "PuD" stands for "Prince uf Darkness"? 

TD:  [Laughs]  Yeah.  "Prince of Darkness" was a Megadeth song and was the name I used on the Megadeth forum.  It doesn't mean anything to me, but I carried it over and used it as my nickname.  I made it even more ridiculous by changing "of" to "uf", which makes the initialism "PuD", which you may know is a phallus nickname.  I just wanted to make people giggle with my 12-year old humor.  [Laughs]

DR: [Laughs] OK, got it.  At what point did you form your band, The Tiberian Sons?

TD:  I kept on going back to the tracks that were heavy metal with orchestra and re-working those.  By 2015, I had started The Tiberian Sons because I needed another excuse to re-do these songs. [Laughs] For this band, I decide that I would play guitar instead of bass. Travis Moberg, who sings in my band Sylva, plays drums in The Tiberian Sons. I got Connor Engstrom, who I met through Trans-Siberian Orchestra, to be the second guitar player and got my buddy Max Noel to play bass.  The first show that we played was MAGFest (short for "Music And Gaming Festival") in 2015.  

DR:  MAGFest seems to be the mecca for this scene.

TD:  Yes!  I started going to the MAGFests because a lot of the guys who I met online doing the video game remixing were going. I wanted to put a band together to play there.  We released a 4-song EP (Conquering MAGFest) that has some of those remixes.  A year and a half later, we recorded the full album, Collateral Jammage.  That has the heavy metal orchestral tracks that I had done for DoD, but versions 3 or 4 at this point.  It also had some new stuff, like the cover of  "Mighty Wings" from the Top Gun soundtrack. 


DR:  Collateral Jammage sounds like a real group effort.

TD:  Thanks! Travis is playing the drums throughout; I do most of the rhythm guitars, though Connor did all of the rhythms on the Mighty Wings cover. Connor and I split the guitar solos. Max did half the tracks on bass and I did the other half. I played the bass on the more complex tracks, like "A Coelo Usque Ad Centrum" and "Prancing Dad".

DR:  Where did the name come from?

TD:  When we first started the band, we didn't have a name for it.  That "Hell March" remix was our signature sound.  We had all played the Command and Conquer games and all loved them.  We were thinking of naming the band related to those games, because the games’ intense warfare themes matched the music. We went back and forth until Max came up with The Tiberian Sons.  "Tiberian Sun" was the third Command and Conquer game and this was just a play on words.

DR:  You have played MAGFest a few times now?

TD:  Yeah, we played MAGFest 2015 and 2017.  Last year we played there with the composer of the Command and Conquer music, Frank Klepacki. There is video posted of the entire concert (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=i-ArbE0bEQQ) that I edited together and Frank talks about how the whole thing came together after the second song.  Over the last few years, Frank had composer friends that have gone there and also urged him to go MAGFest.  Frank and I had stayed in touch ever since I had reached out to him when I was remixing "Hell March" and now he was asking me about MAGFest.  We exchanged a few emails and at one point he sent me an email saying that he wants to play MAGFest and wanted The Tiberian Sons to play with him!  I had been playing Command and Conquer games since I was nine years old, so now I get to play with one of my childhood heroes!  Frank and I talked about this for several months, but I couldn't confirm that I could do it until I heard from TSO management. MAGFest happens in early January and sometimes the TSO tour has gone into January.  It hasn't happened in a while, but you never know because tour scheduling takes a long time to finalize. Finally I got word from the management and I knew that I was free for that weekend!  Frank and I set it up and made a big production out of it.  I got my buddy Nate Horsfall who does a lot of the artwork and visuals for MAGFest and he helped make this the biggest production that MAGFest has ever had.  Our show with Frank has gotten a really great reaction.  We filled the room which holds upwards of 6,000 people!  And now Frank is looking at having us play at other gaming festivals around the world due to the huge response.


DR:  That's awesome. You mentioned having to check in with TSO management about scheduling.  I understand that you came on board with the TSO production a while ago?

TD:  Paul O'Neill really liked to work with young musicians.  One of the things that Paul believed was that because the music industry had changed so much and so quickly, he felt there was a vacuum in artist development now.  Because he had the resources that he had, he took it upon himself to give the chance to young musicians like me, like Connor and many other young musicians and singers.

DR:  He was basically grooming you guys and giving you some valuable real-world experience.

TD:  Exactly. There have been other young musicians working in their studio that were never part of the back-up band even.  So that is how myself and many others got involved.  Connor and I started the same year, in 2011.

DR:  Were you familiar with TSO before getting involved?

TD:  Oh yeah. I had the Christmas Eve and Other Stories album and I listened to it a lot. I also was always a fan of Al Pitrelli because he was in Megadeth. He played on The World Needs a Hero album and the Rude Awakening DVD and I really enjoyed those.  I was very familiar with him from listening and watching those.  It was a real trip to now be playing with Al.

DR:  How did TSO find you?

TD:  In my high school and early college days, I did a lot of YouTube covers. The first cover I did was "Domination" from Symphony X. That video was discovered by Adam Seidel, TSO's accountant. He sent that along to the rest of the office and recommended that they work with me.

DR:  Did you have an audition?

TD:  Yeah, when I did my audition for TSO, I had the entire 2010 setlist prepared. We only played "This Christmas Day" and "Mozart Figaro" and then I hung out with Paul, Al, Dave Wittman and Jon Oliva while they were also working with Kayla Reeves at the same time.

DR:  Did you get to spend much time with the bassists, Johnny Lee Middleton and Dave Z, over the years?
TSO L-R: Joel Hoekstra, Roddy Chong, Tony Dickinson, Chris Caffery
Photo Courtesy of Jeff Myszynski

TD:  I got to work with them at the rehearsals that I attended. I learned a lot from both John Lee and Dave.  They are both very different schools of bass.  Naturally, I think that I am more of a 'Dave Z' on bass but I learned a lot of stuff from John Lee.  John taught me a lot about playing more conservatively - tighter and shorter - and more appropriately in an arena. I definitely would not have been able to play this Show without spending the time that I did with them for the six years before I got the opportunity.

DR:  When I interviewed Dave back in 2013, I asked him about the backup role, and he said this: “The whole idea of them coming to the rehearsals is because sometimes we do things differently from coast to coast. The East Coast and West Coast might have a different ending or a different tempo on a particular song sometimes. The backup guys actually have a very difficult job because they have to learn both sides and both players and what they do and be ready to fill in for either one without a hitch. That's a tough task.” Can you speak to that?

TD:  I had to do that, and it is tough.  I had to learn each of their fills.  I really wanted to prove myself, so I studied very intently and made sure that I knew exactly how each of them played everything.  It was also very educational for me to see how each show varied a bit.  Over time, each show has gotten more similar because of the production, with the screens and more songs being synced to tempo. Now that I am the sole bass player on the East, I can do a little bit more of what I want to do, within reason.  Now I get to talk to the newer bass players, and I tell them that if they ever do get the opportunity, they need to play like the other musicians will be expecting them to play.

DR:  Besides being a great bass player, Dave Z was such an outgoing and lovable personality on stage and was a real fan favorite.

TD:  Dave and I were only ever in the same room together at the rehearsals, but he and I emailed back and forth a lot as we nerded out about bass stuff.  [Laughs]  Even though I had physically only been around him for a total of six weeks over the years, Dave always made you feel like you knew him really well.  He was so friendly and welcoming, so I felt like I knew him probably better than I realistically did. Dave was a music nerd too.  He and I would have music theory  and ear training contests.  Personality-wise, Dave and I are pretty different.  I am not nearly as outgoing as Dave was, but then again very few people are.  [Laughs]  Musically, Dave and I were really pretty similar.  We were both into Dream Theater, Dirty Loops, Michael Jackson, and the like.  Our playing styles ended up being pretty similar.  It was a natural fit for both TSO and SOTO because he played a lot of fills the same way that I would've approached them.  So, with both bands, I play Dave's fills and that is my way of keeping him going.

DR:  Any apprehension stepping into that role after what happened?

TD:  That is the really the hardest thing when I stepped into the role in 2017.  I knew the legacy that he had left and the affect that he had on people. Nobody wants to follow someone like that, but the show has to go on.  It really is about finding the balance of what came before you and trying to still remain your own person.  I was really worried about how the band and the fans would feel.  The band was really welcoming and were happy to have me, and the fans were amazing. I am so happy that the fans accepted me so warmly.

DR:  The TSO show calls for a lot of energy, movement, and interactions with your stage partners. Does that come naturally to you or did that take some time to develop?

TD:  I had to develop a little of it. It is a delicate balance.  For one thing, I am not dancer.  I know Dave was a dancer.  If I tried to do dance moves, it would come across really contrived; it is not who I am.  My movements are a little bit more "rockin' out".  I did develop a few certain things because I know the expectation is more of a visual involvement from the bass player position in the East band.  I just figured it out and do it in my own way.  As far as interacting with the other band members, there are a few things that are programmed in, but some of that ends up happening naturally.  If you watched last year during "Wish Liszt ", Dustin Brayley and I started doing this little fun bit of turning around faster and faster. If you're having fun on stage, and we are, that stuff just happens.

DR: You are often seen playing high above the crowd in cranes or lifts or catwalks, any trepidation about that?
Chris Caffery, Tony Dickinson
Photo courtesy of Pamela Lovell

TD: Surprisingly, I was really cool with it. [Laughs] They strap us in really good before going up.  It can be a little weird when the platform moves in a way that you're not expecting; that's when the jelly legs kick in. [Laughs] As long as the platform is moving with you, it is not that big of a deal.

DR:  Now that you have done two tours with them, have you had some time to reflect?  Anything stand out? Favorite crowd, city, tunes to play?

TD:  Grand Rapids, Michigan is always great!  Green Bay last year was incredible. TSO hadn't been there in a couple years and the response was so good, that TSO's manager Adam Lind booked the next year's show there on the spot. One unforgettable moment was when we played the matinee Show in Washington, DC - the show before Christmas Eve. Two dudes in the front row - one dressed as Santa and one dressed as an elf with inflatable guitars. They basically air-guitared and mimicked the lyrics to the entire show! We were eight shows in on that stretch, we're tired and loopy, it's almost Christmas and then the curtain comes up and you see these two guys in the front row.  [Laughs]  Oh my God!  For the entire first act, I could not look at them or I would burst out laughing. I know the singers had a much harder time with it; the first song of that show was "Night Enchanted" and these guys were right in front of them. [Laughs]  I know Russell and Dustin had a hard time keeping a straight face with these two ridiculous-looking guys right before Christmas Eve having the time of their lives. And you know what?  Bless them for that.  It was great having them there because it was something out of the ordinary and it was so much fun.  Those are the moments that you live for; it was awesome!

DR:  Have you had a chance to record anything with TSO in the studio yet?

TD:  Not yet, but when they are ready to have me, I will be ready!

DR:  For this year, TSO is bringing back their original storyline, Christmas Eve and Other Stories.  You mentioned earlier that you had prepared that entire 2010 set, so are you excited to finally play it?

TD:  Yeah!  My first year, 2011, was the last time that they had done this show.  So, I know the show already.  Plus, many of the songs were also in the show from the last four years. It is a great story and I am really happy that we are doing it again.  And I am really happy that the fans are excited about it.  I am really stoked for the fans to see this show with so many more of the bells and whistles that we didn't have back in 2011; I think they are going to be thrilled with how it comes out.

DR:  Let's talk a bit about SOTO.  I assume you met Jeff Scott Soto through working with TSO?

TD:  Yeah, I would interact with him at rehearsals and then see him when the tour would come through Denver.  In 2013, Jeff was working on what would become the Inside the Vertigo album. At the time, Connor had already worked with Jeff and gotten to write and record two of his tracks. At rehearsals, I really pushed Jeff, "Hey man, let me just write you a song". [Laughs]  At the time, he was already at 14 songs and he had to whittle it down.  He finally let me write him one and that ended up being "The Fall", which also ended up being the lead single!  I played all the guitars, bass, keys and did the drum programming on that one.  And then for their second album, Divak, I wrote "Freak Show".  For that one, Jeff had his drummer, Edu Cominato, play live drums on it.  I played bass, keys and rhythm guitar, but I brought in this friend of mine, Chris Feener, who is an amazing guitar player, to solo on it.

DR:  Do you and Jeff mesh musically pretty well?

TD:  Jeff really likes the early songs that I wrote for him.  He felt that musically I was hitting the spots that he wanted to sing. Jeff is great to work with.  For the most part, I let Jeff do his thing on the vocals.  He is great at it; he has great ideas and is really easy to work with.

DR:  On the new album, Origami, you are now an official member of the band.  You also co-produced the album.  Can you talk about that role?

TD:  I do the production work that needs to be done, like much of the keyboards.  I also reamped all of the guitars.  There are two "invisible" members of SOTO that deserve a shout out: Leo Mancini and Luiz Portinari are guitar players who collaborate with our drummer, Edu.  When Edu is working on songs, he often writes and record with them. So, on the album there are guitar parts from me, Jorge Salan, BJ, Leo and Luiz. With five guitar players on the album, they all needed to be reamped, so I did all the reamping. I did the horn arrangements and some additional guitars as well. I end up doing a lot of the nerdy, technical stuff because that is one of my specialties. I also wrote three songs for the album, including the title track.


There is one song that we included that was really special to us - "Detonate", a song that Dave Z had written with Edu. It was the last song that Dave recorded with SOTO, but it wasn't completed before he died.  Dave had recorded most of the bass for the song, except for the middle section.  He had recorded that middle section in demo quality while they were on the tour bus. We felt it was really important to preserve all of the basslines from Dave on this song, so it was my job to work some studio magic and try to get his bass to sound the same throughout the song.  It took a lot of EQing and reamping  and nerdy studio work, but we finally did get there and ensured that you could hear Dave playing bass on the whole song.

DR:  You mentioned Sylva earlier - this is your ongoing band that recently released its first album?

TD:  Yes.  The idea of my band Sylva kind of morphed a couple different ways. Even though the album just came out recently, a lot of that music was written as far back as 2008. We just never ended up doing anything with it over the years because of me going to college and Travis going through firefighting and paramedic school which ate up almost eight years of our lives.  It finally started moving forward recently because I finally found people who want to play the music and I don't have to pay for them to come to rehearsals. [Laughs]

DR:  The band’s music reminds me in places of Tower of Power, Umphrey's McGee and Jamiroquai Are these influences on the music that you write for Sylva?

TD:  Absolutely. All of those bands that you named and also early Maroon 5, Muse and Snarky Puppy.   Sylva is really a big conglomeration of all of my influences.  There is a little bit of prog rock, a little bit of jazz, a lot of dance, funk, soul...pretty much everything except for metal and classical, which is reserved for SOTO and Tiberian Sons.


DR:  Is Sylva your main gig when not touring with SOTO and TSO?

TD:  Yes.  I write and arrange most of the music.  With the rock thing, I have so many different avenues.  Sylva is the other stuff that I really want to do. It is music that I have a lot of creative involvement in and love playing. I'm hoping that it is a band that I will be in for a very long time.

DR:  Do you have a favorite brand of bass?  One that you gravitate to the most?

TD:  I have two favorite basses.  The 6-string that I play with Sylva and SOTO is a Muckelroy bass. Brady Muckelroy is a luthier from Texas and once I tried one of his instruments, I said, "I cannot believe that a bass can feel this good and be this playable!"  I had to have one and it is amazing. It is a 6-string and does everything I need it to.  The other bass that I really connected with is the Sunburst Music Man Sterling that I take on tour with TSO.  I am a big fan of the Music Man sound and I love having the double-humbucker set-up for flexibility.

DR:  Tell me about your gig with Warner/Chappell.  Is that commissioned work for media?
Photo courtesy of  Nikolai Puc Photography

TD:  I write library music and trailer music as one of my primary gigs. I started as a session guitar and bass player with them in 2013.  Later on, I started writing for them as well. Most recently they have had me doing the big orchestral trailer music, like anything you would see on a Marvel trailer.  I had started working with Lisle Moore, who had been doing the NBA and ESPN music for ten years. In 2016 ESPN contacted him to update the theme and he asked me to help out updating the music package.  I ended up arranging and creating some of the primary themes and title sequences, so the current NBA music you hear on ESPN are my arrangements and performances.

DR:  I know you are about to tour Europe with SOTO and then a couple months on the TSO tour.  What is 2020 looking like for you?  Any big plans yet?

TD:   Definitely some shows with Sylva and Tiberian Sons.  I will be producing an album for a  singer/songwriter from here in Colorado.  And some more Warner/Chappell stuff. I am also going to put more energy into my social media, hoping to get the YouTube thing going again.

DR:  Tony, thank you for taking the time.

TD:  No problem, my pleasure.


For more information:

Tony Dickinson:
http://www.tonydickinson.net
https://www.facebook.com/tonydickinsonmusic/
https://www.youtube.com/user/TonyDickinsonBG
https://twitter.com/TonyDickinsonBG

Sylva:
https://www.sylvamusic.com/

Tiberian Sons:
http://www.tiberiansons.com/
https://www.facebook.com/TheTiberianSons/

SOTO:
http://sotoworld.net/