Interview conducted 22nd June 2007
John Macaluso is a name that will be familiar to fans of Ark or Yngwie Malmsteen fans. He is one of the most in demand drummers currently on the scene with a catalogue of over 200 albums spread across numerous different genres. Yet its only now that John has stepped up and put together his own band called John Macaluso and Union Radio who have recently seen their debut album, the stunning “The Radio Waves Goodbye” released on Lion Music. We caught up with John during a busy touring schedule with Chris Caffery to discuss the new album in-depth.
Hi John, Many thanks for partaking in this interview with Virtuosity One.
Thank you. I read your review and it seems like you really understood the album. Thanks for listening and thanks for the support.
May I begin by congratulating you on your new solo album “The Radio Waves Goodbye” its a superb body of work with one of the most original sounds I have heard in the ‘progressive’ genre for some time. When did the initial seed for a solo album come to you and did you have any idea then how it would be accomplished and how the end product would sound?
I came up with the idea for a solo record when my band (MY BABY) ARK finally split up for good. Things got too crazy and we couldn’t continue, so I finally packed it up. I loved writing for ARK, lyrically and musically and needed this musical outlet. I needed to create, not just get another gig and go back on tour playing for another act. I will always play for people but I need to have my creations on record too. So I got the record deal and said ok now how to go about making my own record. I knew instantly who I wanted to be on the album and started calling up my old friends to see if they were all into it. The vibe was real positive and I had to now start writing. This is the first time I did a solo record so I knew it had to be something special and not a crazy fast double bass record with speed guitars and fusion arrangements. I wanted to steer clear of that, so I had the vision of making something I personally have never heard before. The vibe I wanted to achieve was Pink Floyd moods and atmospheres with the drumming way more intense and faster. I was shooting for this on the third ARK album but we were butting heads and the style was not working the way I envisioned.
So that was the sound plan, now I needed to get it done. I first assisted to help of my great friend from Corsica, Dimuti. Dimuti was the main collaborator for the music with me and co wrote a lot of the record with me. He had the perfect sound and feel to get what I was looking for. I first recorded drums only with song arrangements and song titles in mind. I went into the studio and just played the arrangements first. Next I sat with the tracks and decided who would play and sing on which song but now the real challenge was to make these drum parts SONGS.
I next started my, what I call National Geographic Adventure. I had to get the people I really wanted to record no matter what, so I would do anything to achieve this. I travelled all over the world to record the musicians on the record. To Italy to record Marco Sfogli, France to do keys, Pennsylvania to record piano with Vitalij Kuprij, Germany, California to do guitars with Alex Masi and many more places. I had to do it this way because I had to write the material and collaborate with these guys, not just send tracks around to places and hope that they were going to record something I loved. Sometimes I would send the tapes around though, for example I sang “Soul In Your Mind” on a cd and then sent it up to Canada with the lyrics to James LaBrie and he recorded that incredible performance and sent it back to me and I freaked. So that’s the way I did the album and that’s why it took a year and a half.
The result to me is magic and I love it. I think the reason it doesn’t really sound like another record or other band is because I really don’t know notes and traditional scales you use for writing. I would sing my ideas to the musicians I was collaborating with and they would decipher what I was trying to get at. In this way it couldn’t sound like anyone else. My theory, surround yourself with amazingly talented people and you can get anything done.
Obviously you have worked with many of rock and metal’s best over your career and you have called in a number of these musicians for various tracks. How did you go about selecting who played on what track?
I called my friends. Most of the players on my record are good friends and people I have toured around the world with or made records with in the past. I trusted these guys and knew they would all kick ass for me. I had something special here, the thing was I knew the way an audience has heard these guys but I heard them all sing or play something that might not have been heard before. I might of heard them do something on the tour bus or back stage just screwing around or for example Marco Sfogli I had play bazuki on the song ‘T-34’. I pulled people out of their element a little and it made some original stuff. Another example is having the great blues tone singer Mike Dimeo sing on a Radiohead-ish metal drum and bass track called ‘Mother Illusion’. Doing this with these talents get unique magic.
Dream Theater’s James LaBrie sings vocals on the opening cut “Soul In Your Mind”, a great track but with a very original composite of parts. When did it become clear this track should open the album?
This track I knew had to open the album from when I first finished the drum track. To me it was the perfect mix of groove with a unique style, chops without wanking and arrangement. After the drums Dimuti helped set the tone by laying down a very dark distorted key line. We then used the witchlike vocal sample line to give that occult vibe in 7/8 with almost a Ministry or Bahaus mood. James laid down the great vocal track and Vitalij Kuprij did the amazing keyboard solo in the middle of the tune. The two other players on the track are, my buddy from Russia, Alex Rastopchin on guitar, who is very tasty and contributed a lot of the Gilmour (Dave Gilmour of Pink Floyd – ed) style stuff I needed for my record. On bass is Za Gray, who I met when playing for Delmar Brown (Sting). He has such a fat sound and lays it down like nobody else. Check out the bass playing on the second song Mother Illusion, it’s perfect.
The next 2 tracks take on almost ambient dance music meets rock vibe; when creating the drum rhythms that many tracks are built around are you thinking in terms of genre or is just letting that beat in your head flow?
Yea “Mother Illusion” has that rock drum and bass dance feel. The next track is my favourite “Prayer Pill”. This track I had Phil Collins and Peter Gabriele in mind. I wanted to do a real mid tempo repetitive groove on the intro such like Phil Collins’s “I Don’t Care Anymore”. I had an idea lyrically to do this track about a guy that was plagued by his religion and his work, he was a slave to both. The song is about a decision. He sees an ad in the back of a magaine that advertises a pill in which by taking one, your prayers will be done for you and all guilt will be taken away and salvation will run through you for about a week and this can lift the weight off your shoulders to do the fun things and so called bad things in life that he has been missing. The whole moral pf the story in the end he must answer for this easy way out and the lyrics say, “In the end I’ll burn or fly like a dove”. I used my three nieces on this track, Donna, Laura and Kristen, to sing the creepy nursery rhyme song at the end, that goes, Prayer in a pill if you will, dose all your sin to the wind, now you feel peaceful and still, you might just fall down. Decisions!!! This also one of favorite sounding tracks sonically, the over all mix and the drum sound I really love.
How crucial was the drum track/rhythm in dictating where the music should go?
The drum tracks were extremely important in the creation and over all feel of these songs. The drums on this record set the tone. Drums are deciding factor if your track is metal, jazz etc. The cool thing about working with everybody on this record was they all pretty much said the drum tracks were musical and helped with there ideas and playing. I didn’t want to just make a crazy drum record only. I wanted to play my real style like you heard on the ARK albums and here. A mixture of heavy groove playing with musical textures on the cymbals and tasty double bass playing, then I mix it with madness to concoct my style. I am most proud of my drumming on this record and after 200 records behind me, The Radio Waves Goodbye is also the best drum sound I ever got.
What is a typical way John Macaluso would work on these songs?
I worked on the songs with the drum track first. Next I put down the keys for texture and vibe and notes. Sometimes guitar would come second but mostly keys because I wanted to stay away from guitar riffs. Next I would do bass guitar then guitar and keyboard solos. After all this I would walk around or drive around and get inspiration for lyrics. I wrote the lyrics pretty quickly, they came easily because the song moods were great and the arrangements were good. After all this I recorded the singers. Then last over dubs and mix. I know it was kind of a strange way to make an album but it worked and I will do the next one the same way.
I absolutely loved “Dissolved” and the way it seemed to take ‘Animals’ era Pink Floyd and make that into this new sound which is both modern and retro at the same time. How did this song come together?
Thanks man and have to say I love when someone who interviews, actually listens to a record and also gets the vibe. “Dissolved” is one of my favourites and the mood and idea is inspired from Floyd, Animals. I love this record Animals and my whole album was inspired by this record. I again did the Floydish tune with the more intense drumming, “Dissolved” is the perfect example. On this track I used Adrian Holtz on vocals who totally captured the feel I was going for. The song is about abuse, chemical and substance. It’s a story of someone who is on a major downhill ride and has been in there apartment with no contact and hears the neighbour and friends trying to contact him and he just wants them to go away. The verses are about the demon in the substance and how it is talking to him and explaining the destruction it does. Then the chorus comes and it’s a vision of hope and he get a handle on it and quits the demons. “Dissolved”, is the guy telling the bad side, he is done with it and he is free now. He’s gone like creatures fly away. Free like a bird. I am very proud of this tune and it came out better than I ever expected.
Obv the aforementioned James LaBrie’s name is going to initially stand out in the vocalists list, but I was really impressed by the vocals of Mike DeMeo, Adrian Holtz and Don Chaffin. I must admit I had not heard of these 3 guys before so can you tell a little more about them?
Mike DiMeo I met when I was playing drums for Riot. Mike is a great friend and an amazing singer. Mike now oddly enough sings for Masterplan, the band Jorn Lande from ARK sang for. It’s great to have Mike on my record. Adrian Holtz is a singer born in Switzerland he lives in New York city now and is an amazing talent. Adrian is the singer we were going to work with on the third ARK album. Adrian is very versatile and ads a bit of pop to my anti-pop sound. Don Chaffin is a friend of mine that owns the studio where I have recorded most of my drum tracks in the last three years. Don is a chameleon and can sing anything. He did all the back up vocals on the tune with James LaBrie “Soul In Your Mind”.
I think one of the most refreshing things about the album is that although there are plenty of guitars on the album, they are used more for texture as opposed to riffing or soloing you into submission. Is this how you wanted the guitars to feature on “The Radio Waves Goodbye”?
That is exactly what I wanted. I am guitar’ed out, I have played with so many guitar players in my career its crazy. The big problem writing with guitar players is, they always write riffs and also don’t usually feel comfortable dropping out and playing the 13th note………SILENCE. I didn’t want that, I wanted textures and real tasteful guitar playing, David Gilmour like or Jeff Beck-ish. I got the perfect guys Marco Sfogli, who I met on the James LaBrie tour, Alex Rastopchin, Larry Meyer and Dimuti. They really understood what I wanted here and colored the songs perfectly.
Where does the album’s title come from and did you choose not to release the album under just the “John Macaluso” banner?
The title UNION RADIO is a band name, I am going to take this thing on the road, so I wanted to push it as a band and not just a drummers solo record because the music doesn’t sound like a drummers solo record. I got the name from a book I found in a market in Southern France, when I was working on the third ARK album. I was looking for some cool titles and terms and found a book, the only one in English. The book was on the Spanish Civil War and in it was a phrase UNION RADIO. It meant the rebel radio station which was for the underground. I thought this was really cool because beside the whole rebel rock and roll thing, it was modern sounding at the same time.
Tell us about the background to T-34.
“T-34” was written with Prokoviov in mind, sorry for my spelling. He is my favorite composer. I went in the studio with the title in mind which is the T-34 Russian tank in Word War 2. I knew it was going to be a rock classical piece with Vitalij Kuprij and I and I wanted it to sound very dark and very Russian. When recording the drums I had the title and mood in mind and you can hear the rolling tank vibe on the heavy tom and piano quarter note stomp. I brought the drum track up to Pennsylvania, where Vitalij lives. We drank vodka listened to the track and started to put the ideas together. I charted the whole arrangement out rhythmically, note for note. Vitalij read the rhythm and brilliantly wrote the track. I would just say bro. Here I want it to sound very dismal and hopeless. He is so great, in one night it was done. We went into the studio in the morning and he layed it down. It’s something to see, I have him on film recording it, he is the best and to watch him record is incredible. Next Marco Sfogli put down the guitars. I wanted something away from Malmsteen on this; I knew any scales and sweeps would put this track right into that category. So I had Marco play acoustic guitar, bazuki and electric guitar in a minimalist way, he is so tasty, it worked. Then Vitalij played bass synth instead of bass guitar, I thought this would make it a little more hi tech. Lastly my friend Dave Eggar, who is a brilliant musician and plays cello for Evanescence. Dave came into the studio when we were mixing and layed down multiple cello parts. It was another sight to see. And there you have it “T-34”.
You show of your drum skills with “Pretzel” which also has some nice humour to it. How does a drummer feel when he sees people going to the bar during his solo spot?
“Pretzel” came when I was touring with Powermad in 1989 and we had high exposure on tour with big acts and just had a scene and soundtrack in David Lynch’s Wild At Heart. Remember going crazy one night on stage and thinking wow that must of fuckin’ killed em. I went out into the audience and I was talking to someone in the audience and they said, “So, what did you think of the band?” I thought wow I was in the band. I realized then I had to be relentless as a drummer on stage and make people never forget what they saw. “Pretzel” is a Zappa like joke dialog and he inspired a lot of my record. Yea it feels weird when they walk away during solos but I just don’t let them anymore. It’s all entertainment up there and no matter how good you play; nobody wants to see a boring show. I play every note on stage and in studio like I was the drummer for The Wallace Hartly Band, that was the legendary band on the Titanic. Play every note like it’s you last, to the end.
How would John Macaluso sum up “The Radio Waves Goodbye” now a few months on from completion?
I sum the record up in this way. After over 200 studio albums recorded, the best one I ever did, is my own. I am finally satisfied. It’s a relaxed feeling because it’s what I always dreamed about and now it’s mine. I am very proud of everyone involved in the making of the album too. My saying is, “You know who your friends are when it’s time to move to a new apartment and need help doing it, and when you are making a solo record and need them to play on it.” Everyone came through and I have to thank them all.
Can we expect a follow up at some juncture down the road?
A follow UNION RADIO, OH YEA. The same line up and the same way of recording. I have new song ideas and lyrics already. I am psyched.
What else is keeping you busy this year?
New projects this year is to first do a drum clinic tour in the summer and fall in the U.S. and Europe. Then I want to take out the full band on tour, Dimuti, Vitalij Kuprij, Adrian Holtz, Marco Sfogli, Za Gray and me. I am also releasing my drum book “Repercussions”, which I have been writing for years.
Anything else you would like to add?
I just want to thank people out there and yourself for listening! Thank you. Johnny Mac.