Having interviewed musicians for nearly 20 years, one of the easiest questions I can ask is, ‘Who are your musical influences?’
It’s a softball question for sure, but it’s also an easy way to get inside the musical mind of the person your interviewing. Now, having done this for a long time, I often am flabbergasted at band’s responses. Here’s one one my favorites…
Singer: We’ve definitely got this Stooges meets The Velvet Underground Vibe going on.
Guitarist: Yeah, with a heavy dose of Van Halen, and Joe Satriani.
Drummer: With some Fuel, and Nickelback in there.
Bassist: And a lot of jazz influence, definitely Coltrane and Charlie Parker.
Yes, that conversation actually did happen. And band in question, who is no longer in existence, did not sound like any of these artists.
I bring this up because when speaking with Ron Scalzo, whose new album I Gotta Rock drops today, he hit me with a very odd answer to this tried and true question. He told me his influences were “Foo Fighters and Vince Guaraldi (the pianist most known for his work on the Peanuts Christmas album).”
I thought there was no way Scalzo, the man behind the Bald Freak Music label, the Independent Minded music podcast, and the production board of The Elvis Duran Morning Show, could actually combined these two disparate sounds.
But guess what — he nailed it. He deftly blends a big rock ‘n’ roll sound with a wonderfully cultivated piano sound. It’s not an everyday sound — and that’s what makes it so memorable.
Pop Break sat down with Scalzo to talk about his new album, the impact of his radio career on his music career, Superstorm Sandy, and The Great Pumpkin.
Who Are The Members of Your Band (Recording, and Live Performance): I recorded the new album in four different studios in three different cities, so my band has basically been a bunch of Boba Fett-like guns-for-hire. In Nashville, I worked with a cool rock band called Red Wine Hangover to get that alt-rock sound I was looking for. In Berlin, my engineer and co-producer Matthew Brown found me a rhythm section from Hamburg. Here at home, I worked with friends, mostly – Mario Gutierrez, a drummer who I met at my radio day job, was a mainstay.
Live, it’s a traditional four-piece, including Mario on drums, and my longtime friend John Philippidis on guitars. John plays in an awesome folk-rock band called Burlap To Cashmere, and he’s a beast.
Who Are Your Main Musical Influences: Trent Reznor, Mike Patton, Thom Yorke. It’s an endless list, really – but those are the big three. I grew up in Brooklyn, so The Beastie Boys are huge. Artists like Beck and Prince have always inspired me for their fearlessness both in and out of the studio.
Famous/Cool Performers You’ve Shared a Stage With: Once upon a time, my band played with Aimee Mann during an indoor tennis event at Madison Square Garden. It was a bit of a debacle. But I got to see Aimee Mann perform “Save Me” from about 10 feet away.
My Sound Has Been Compared To: ’70s and ’80s-era pop/rock – Hall & Oates, Steely Dan, Meat Loaf, Elvis Costello. Queen. Vocally, some say I sound like Mike Patton, which, to me, is the highest compliment.
You’ve released a number of records on your label Bald Freak Music including music from Bumblefoot. What has been your proudest achievement as a record label owner?
Starting the label on my own was an achievement in itself. I never had a real staff. It was 7 years of my life and I’ll always wonder what could have been if a few things had shook out differently. My intent early on was simply to release my own music on Bald Freak, but life circumstances – life choices – changed that. I gave Swashbuckle, a cool pirate metal band from Jersey, their first deal. An awesome rock band from NYC called The Head Set signed a deal with me, which, at the time, felt like the nerdy kid kissing the girl at the prom. That band was incredible. I’m mainly proud that other musicians put a little faith in me to do right by them, and I feel like I did that to the best of my ability.
You’ve performed under the name Q*Ball before — how does Q*Ball’s music differ from your music under your real name?
Q*Ball always had a more Saturday-morning-cartoon, choose-your-own-adventure feel to it. Bumblefoot was an integral part of that project (whether he liked it or not!) – he was such an amazingly talented guitarist and producer, and could do things in the studio that I could never do. Q*Ball was a thinly veiled, wackier version of myself – it was a persona, looking back, that I don’t think was very cool. But a lot of the music was cool, and I give Bumblefoot most of the credit for that – he elevated my ideas and made everything sound really polished. He was a great mentor. My solo music now is still very eclectic, but I think everything else about is much more pure and honest than Q*Ball ever was.
You’re known for being a part of Elvis Duran’s show — has being a part of such a high profile radio program helped or hindered your music career?
Both, I think. It has helped because it affords me the opportunity and financial ability to make these new songs. I’ve spent most of my vacation time away from the show traveling to record. I can get a little more ambitious with studios and locations because of my day job. I can throw my musician friends and independent artists some money. I can do a cool podcast to help artists promote their own new material.
I can pay it forward in those ways. But I think it has hurt my career because it provides this “real world” security blanket that has made it difficult to part from. That’s not really something to complain about – I’m lucky. Music and radio have always been passions, since I was a kid. But I often wonder what might have been if one passion had won out over the other. Maybe that will still happen….
Can you talk about how your latest record “I Gotta Rock” stands out from the rest of your albums?
I can associate every album I’ve ever made with a specific chapter in my life. Like everyone else’s life, some chapters are bad, some are good. My first solo album, which came out in 2014, kinda represented the death of the old “me” – it’s a patchwork of dark songs about dark times. “I Gotta Rock” feels like it was written and recorded by a different guy. Or maybe a better version of the old one, because some things about you never really change. They grow. They evolve. They become refined. Or they stay stagnant and you remain in the cocoon. “I Gotta Rock” feels like my ‘butterfly’ album.
What song has the most personal, and emotional resonance for you on the album?
Probably the title track. It’s about perseverance and fearlessness – about not giving up even when you have doubts. I think it’s easier than ever to give up on things that should matter more – love and relationships, following dreams and chasing magic. Not just because I’m older, but because of the times. We all have our phones and our Netflix. We all have our scars, and our doubts – about ourselves, about others, about the world. And I think that’s where all the best art comes from – getting knocked down and still feeling determined to continue, or to do even better. That’s what I Gotta Rock represents.
The music on your album has been describe as a piano rock magnum opus that combines influences of Foo Fighters and Vince Guaraldi. Those are pretty disparate sounds — can you talk about how you were able to blend them together?
A Charlie Brown Christmas holds a very special place in my musical heart, and I know I’m not alone there. I’m by no means a jazz pianist, but the whole idea of mixing those sort of Guaraldi-esque piano melodies with a more alternative rock aesthetic was intriguing to me. I write all my songs on the piano. I never intended to sound like Foo Fighters – or Elton John or Joe Jackson or whoever, but I think when you bring other musicians into the fray, those sort of meshed styles emerge organically. That’s the cool thing about collaborating – usually, the final product is much more flavorful because you had other talented people add their ingredients to your recipe.
Sunday marked the 5 Year Anniversary of Super Storm Sandy. You’ve got a pretty intense relationship with that storm (as I do and many in the area do) — can you talk about how this storm impacted your music, and your career?
Well I guess you could say Sandy killed my music career – my house on Staten Island was completely flooded out. I ran my record label out of the basement, I had a music studio down there, an office, enough space to hold all the merch. I had a pretty epic musical man cave that wound up in a dumpster. I never lived there again, struggled financially for a bit. I relocated six times.
My piano miraculously survived and I saw that as a sign that my relationship with music wasn’t altogether over, it was just going to turn into something different. And I dig that transformation. Bald Freak Music wasn’t exactly changing the game for me before Sandy. But the storm really altered my perspective, so it kinda revived my career too. I’ve been more grateful, more optimistic. It’s not easy to maintain those feelings, but it’s easier when you realize how well you’ve recovered from darker times. I’ve been more prolific as a songwriter over these past five years than I’ve probably ever been.
Halloween is also an important part of this record — can you talk about that?
I watch “The Great Pumpkin” every October. And every October, Charlie Brown gets a rock. Charlie Brown will always get a rock. But we all get rocks – sometimes we get little pebbles, sometimes we get great big boulders. There is something really romantic about Charlie Brown – about knowing you’re probably doomed but forging on anyway. He represents perpetual failure, but we only know Charlie Brown as a kid. We never get to know Chucky Brown, the pimp rap star who got the girl and the gold records. Linus, too, is fearless in his belief of The Great Pumpkin. There is also an inherent belief about Halloween when you’re a kid – that you will be rewarded if you are good, and that you will be damned if you’re not.
If someone had never heard your music before, but either reading this article or hearing you on Elvis Duran were interested in checking it out — what song would you recommend they check out in order to fully understand you as musician?
I don’t think there’s one song on this album – or any album – that will truly make you understand me as a musician. I recognize that this can be challenging in a short-attention-span age, but I think if you listen to all 35 minutes of this album, which is maybe your commute to work or a nice walk in the park, you’ll get it. I admire Radiohead because of their entire catalog – their ambitiousness, their live shows, their videos – not because of “Creep.” I don’t think 35 minutes is too much to absorb. At the end of the day, that’s all artists really want is your undivided attention for a short period of time, then you can go back to checking your Instagram feed.
You also host an indie music podcast — who are some bands on there that you’d recommend to other people to check out?
Oh man. All of them. If you’re on my podcast, chances are I already dig you – and then once I talk to these artists, I wind up adoring them even more. There’s an awesome 4-piece pop-punk band called The Rock N’ Roll Hi-Fives – they’re a legit family band. Joe, the Dad, wears a cape and wails like Eddie Van Halen, his daughter sings and plays the theremin, his wife plays bass and his son plays drums. They cover Blondie and Cheap Trick. That’s a band that, if I still ran a record label, I would sign in a heartbeat. I love their story and they’re such cool, chill people. Joe plays guitar on “Dullboy,” one of the tracks on my new album. The podcast, in a lot of ways, has acted as a great network for making my own music.
What do you have on the horizon beyond the release of the new record?
I’d like to go on a legit one-two week tour next Spring in a van with another band and my dog just to have that experience. And if I had to guess, I’d say I’ll be back at the piano writing silly love songs sooner or later. I want to keep traveling to make music, and I still have a few spots on my bucket list – Wyoming, Idaho and Montana all look like amazing spots to write and record in. New Orleans. Portland. Alaska. I wanna make a 4-song EP in Iceland with the guys in Sigur Ros, then go see The Northern Lights. Anything is possible.