interview with Shadow Circus - Part 1 - Dec/08
Joined: September 13 2006
Topic: interview with Shadow Circus - Part 1 - Dec/08
Posted: December 31 2008 at 13:58
Shadow Circus impressed the prog community with their debut album, "Welcome To The Freakroom," and are in the middle of production of their second album, "Whispers and Screams" due out next year. John Fontana sat down with me to talk about both albums and David Bobick joins via e-mail to fill in with some of the questions.
ProgArchives: Can you just give us a quick history of the band – how you got together and where you are now?
John Fontana: Sure! The long history starts back about 15 years ago when I played in a band called Persona Gratta with Corey Folta who is the drummer for Shadow Circus now. That band broke up in the early 90s, we were kind of more of like a Jane’s Addiction, kind of heavy, alternative style band and we played around New York City. Then many, many years later after I had been out of the whole music scene I discovered this whole resurgence of prog and found bands like Spock’s Beard and Transatlantic and The Flower Kings and I thought, “wow, there’s actually people who listen to this now!” and so I decided to do my own thing and set out and write some songs. And it really just came together by itself, I wrote the music and my old drummer Corey wanted to be on board right away, he really liked it. A great friend of mine, David Bobick, a great singer – and he fell I love with the stuff and it just took off from there.
PA: How did you meet David originally?
JF: It was through a mutual friend, we ran into each other and we had just moved to Astoria, Queens, he had also been a guitar player and I’m always looking for a good vocalist. And I was kind of fed up with the kind of rock vocalist that I was kind of fed up with the kind of rock vocalists that I had been working with who really couldn’t carry a tune. So it was just nice to run into somebody who really knew how to sing, so it just took off from there!
PA: You’ve played with a lot of bands up to this point, what made you want to get out and make your own project?
JF: In my previous bands the writing process was always based on improvisation, and it was always completely collaborative. So the good thing about that was that I really enjoyed the improvisation, which has kind of a jazz feel to it and you can get some really interesting and complex things, but always by accident. And when those accidents happen they’re stupendous, and they’re great – a lot of jazz players refer to it as “speaking in tongues,” you know – when you just really feel like there’s something coming through you. But I could just never get the complexity or the drama that I wanted to get from that stuff that was just totally ‘off the cuff’ like that. So my goal with this was to just sit down and say, “if I really focus for months on just this one composition, where could it take the music?”
PA: On the album credits both you and Dave are credited for writing and composing, so who does what, exactly?
JF: So I always start off instrumentally, and I always compose the music to begin with and then Dave comes in and will put his lyrics over it and takes the role of… almost an art-director, he’ll have me move some things around, make things longer or shorter, take some things out if it sound like filler to him, and that sort of a thing.
PA: You came up with the cover art to “Welcome To The Freakroom”? That’s some freaky stuff!
JF: That’s the work of a graphic artist named Marilyn Kneaves, we actually found her online, somewhat by accident. A photographer friend of mine who was going to take a photo shoot for the band just before we put out the cd showed us this as kind of an example of what we were going for. We were thinking this sort of Tim Burton, Nightmare Before Christmas – creepy, but also friendly. So when I found this particular piece, she had submitted it in this online competition, so I contacted her and I said, “well, you don’t have to do anything else, I just love this – will you let us use this piece of artwork? So she was happy to oblige, and so she just made some changes and we were all very happy with it.
PA: So where does this circus thing come from? You guys are “Shadow Circus,” and you’ve got the Freakroom thing going on, so where does that come from?
JF: At the time that I wrote the eponymous track from that album, “Shadow Circus”, I had been reading Wayne Bradbury’s “Something Wicked This Way Comes,” which, if you know the story, is about this evil circus that comes into a midwestern town and raises hell there. The singer, Dave, was also familiar with the story and he really loved it, so we got this whole image – and we’re all big fans of, like, Danny Elfman when he did his Tim Burton stuff, so we wanted to just try and get something with that kind of fantasy, kind of creepy/fun vibe to it.
PA: Do you think that in the future you’ll stick with the circus thing, or do you see yourself moving away from it?
JF: It’s funny that… I never expected to read some reviews and some people have labeled the band like, “Circus Prog” or “Carnival Prog”, and that sort of amused me because I thought it was more of a… how should I say… more of a superficial kind of element to it, kind of like when ELP did Karn Evil 9 and it was like, “welcome back my friends”. I had never pictured it becoming more of the band’s identity than just that kind of that superficial element of the visuals and so on. I would have to say that the upcoming album is a lot more shadow and a lot less circus.
PA: Could you tell us about the lyrics to some of the songs? The first one I was interested in was “Radio People”
JF: Radio People is about something that Dave and I talked about a lot, and that’s – especially being out here in the New Jersey suburbs and just seeing the whole phenomenon of handheld devices that’s happened over the past couple of years. Out here it’s almost impossible to cross the street without being hit by somebody driving their car while on their cell phone or while texting or… something. It would even get to the point where you’d go to an expensive broadway show and you’d see people texting during the show. I just kind of… it’s just this frustration with people who just get immersed in their little worlds with their devices and they’re missing out on life. You go to the Grand Canyon and I wonder how many people look at it or how many people just see it through their cell phone cameras. It’s just… it’s a trend that Im hoping will come to an end soon.
PA: The other song I was wondering about was “In The Wake Of A Dancing Flame” which is… pretty interesting – do you know anything about that song?
JF: Yeah, because that one we talked about a lot and that one is very personal to him (Dave), that one is an oath to his grandmother who passed away when he was a young kid, and those lyrics he actually sang a version of at the service when he was little. So those lyrics actually date back quite a ways, he made some little adjustments to them, but it’s otherwise just as he had wrote it when he was a kid, in honor of his grandmother.
PA: So you have your second album in the works at the moment which is titled “Whispers and Screams,” what do you think that we can expect with this release?
JF: This is a really, really interesting and fun album – and the reason that we came up with that title is because the dynamics are certainly much more than the debut. We have some things here that are going to border on metal. We’ve got some really heavy, fast, charging guitars going on in some points, and there are other spots where it’s just as sweet and innocent as a string quartet. So we’ve really played with dynamics on this one.
PA: And can you give us a little bit of insight into “Project Blue,” which is the big epic that you’ve been working on.
JF: Sure! Project Blue, the lyrical content behind that is based on the Steven King novel, The Stand. It’s about 7 or 8 parts, and I know that a lot of prog fans are interested with if epics are a collection of songs strung together or if it’s one cohesive piece, and I would say this is somewhere in between. There are certainly spots that would do well on their own, but there are certainly themes that run consistently throughout it. So I would say it’s almost like a mini-rock-operetta.
PA: You’ve just had a new addition to the band, Jason Croft, do you think there’s going to be any changes to the sound with him around?
JF: He is a bit more of an energetic player than Matt was, but it’s hard to say. He locks in with Corey just as well, I think he might have a little bit more of a taste of the heavier stuff than Matt did, but they’re both similar players in that they were both raised on a steady diet of early Genesis, Kansas and Yes. So it won’t be a huge difference, so much as the difference you’ll hear that we’re taking compositionally.
PA: Do you think it will change anything in the live shows?
JF: Well, what we’re hoping is going to happen with this lineup is that we’re going to be able to play live quite a bit in support of the new cd. So we’re looking forward to that – we’re hoping to be able to play nice an steadily once the album comes out.
PA: So do you have any kind of tour in the works, or any kind of shows or festivals that you’re planning?
JF: It’s all tentative now. We were hoping to get this album done sooner so that we could submit it to the festivals for this year, but it may be late for that. So we’re going to see. Hopefully when we get it out we’ll see if there’s any last minute line up changes that festivals will need to do and hopefully we can get in.
PA: So where are you exactly in terms of production on the new album?
JF: We’re almost ready to record! We’ve got it all written and rehearsed and we’re scheduled to go into the studio on the 2nd and 3rd week of January, and at that point we’ll probably need another month or so to mix and master and then a little while longer to get it out through the proper distribution channels and labels. So we’re probably realistically looking at something like a March or even April release.
PA: So when did you discover prog rock, what got you into this scene?
JF: Oh easy! When I was 14 or so my oldest brother told me that I now had permission to use his hi-fi setup – which for me was like getting the keys to a Porsche – he had just this massive stereo and record collection. I remember just hunting through his albums and seeing what I would be interested in, and I was always drawn to the artwork that was on all the old Yes and ELP albums, all these nice gatefold things and you could just sit back and read the lyrics and it was just this whole experience with all the artwork. So I just kind of stumbled on it and I wasn’t even aware that there was a genre called “Progressive rock,” I wasn’t aware that anyone else saw any similarity between Yes and Jethro Tull and ELP, I just kind of came across those bands and put it together myself.
PA: You guys have your influences listed on your website, but what would you say was the biggest influence on you?
JF: I would say… certainly out of the prog bands definitely Yes and ELP, but as a guitarist I definitely got a lot of influence out of Jimmy Page, Jeff Beck and Joe Walsh.
PA: So you started on guitar and then learned keyboard and piano – now that you know both what would you say is your favorite when it comes to composing or playing live?
JF: I much prefer to compose on piano, I think it’s much easier to visualize all the chord structures that way. The guitar makes you want to play it safe and use certain positions or chords that you’re comfortable with while on the piano it’s all just laid out for you, so you’re not biased as to what you’re writing based on what’s comfortable on the instrument. For instance, most guitar players will write in E or A or B because those are the open strings to work with. On piano it’s just as easy to play any key. But in live situations I just want to be out there on the front of the stage, playing guitar.
PA: David has this huge theater background, so for live shows does that transfer over? Did he teach you all a bunch of stuff?
JF: Oh absolutely! He just took control of that whole situation, and he just visualizes the stage as one entity with the band members and everything on it included. So whenever we’re picking out props or whatever for the stage and stuff to wear Dave is in charge of all of that.
PA: So what do you think of the modern progressive scene in America right now?
JF: I think that the music is there, and I think that the fans are there. I think that there’s a lack of connecting the two. I think that for whatever assorted reasons I think that a lot of the prog fans out there really aren’t that connected with the internet in the way that you and I are – we both go to forums and its very easy to find stuff online, but I know so many prog fans that have no idea that there’s new stuff being made. When we first came out with this cd my two older brothers who were both big prog fans in the 70s, they were like, “oh my god! You’re the first guys doing this since 1978!” And I was like, “no! No, there’s lots of bands out there,” so I made them a mix cd of bands like Spock’s Beard and Transatlantic and now they’re all huge fans. So I don’t see the connection being made with the older prog fans who would still pay $200 to go and see Yes or Genesis and the newer generation of prog that leans more towards metal like Dream Theater and Opeth and Porcupine Tree, I think they have a somewhat of an easier path to take because they connect more with the youth. So it’s an interesting dilemma being more of a non-metal oriented prog band right now.
PA: That must be frustrating because I know that all the labels shoot towards the youth because they’ve got the most money while the guys who would dig the more symphonic stuff don’t know that it exists.
JF: Exactly, and the ironic thing is that the older prog fans are more likely to actually buy the music… the problem with having a very internet savvy crowd is that you have the dilemma of downloading which has taken a huge, huge hit on sales.
PA: Okay, we’re down to the obligatory questions, how about your 5 desert island discs?
JF: Probably… Relayer, Brain Salad Surgery – actually, you know what I’ll get more bang for my buck and I’ll go with the live “Welcome Back My Friends”, at least I’ll get, like 4 good album sides out of that, or 6 I think. Pink Floyd, The Wall, Dark Side Of The Moon and then I’ll throw in some Miles Davis because it would take a very long time to get too familiar with that.
PA: And so my last question is going to be – what was the last cd you listened to?
JF: Transatlantic – Bridge Across Forever.
How did you meet Jon and what made you want to join the band?
John and I met through mutual friends in other bands. We started to
hang out and one thing led to another. I guess the “one thing that led to
another” for me joining this band was the song “Find Your Way.”
It wasn’t called that when I heard it. I just heard this incredible
melody that John played for me and I was completely blown away. It occurred to
me that this was not a “garage band” type thing. This music
actually had a lot of real potential to go places. He was originally going to
use that piece for someone else’s band project and our Drummer Corey and
I quickly put the kibosh on that one and said…”NO…you have to
use this for yourself”…low and behold, he did.
Well, to be honest, the way I look at this type of music, it IS theater. I mean, look at bands like Genesis (With Peter Gabriel of course) Even Peter Gabriel NOW…they/he…were theater. The music screamed for theatrics and they took full advantage of that. Some Prog bands use it more than others but most of the music still screams for it no matter if you are Rush, Yes or ELP. I also come from the School of KISS. I’m a huge Kiss fan and have been since 1977 so theatrics are basically ingrained in my head and I believe that this music is a perfect vehicle to express that. Plus the music is a lot of fun to sing.
You and John are both credited for the writing and composition of the songs, who does what, exactly? Give us some insight into a typical Shadow Circus song.
John is definitely the mastermind of the music. I couldn’t write
the stuff he does. He’s brilliant and I don’t know where he gets it
from…but brilliant none the less. SO…he pretty much writes all the
music…all the guitar parts and most of the keyboard parts. Once he has a
demo done, he gives it to me and I try and get the feel for the song. After which
I will come up with the lyrics. On the 2nd cd things changed
slightly as I had a song that I had written completely many years ago called “Angel
with the Dirty Wings.” I had written it for a band I was in when I lived
in San Diego.
So, John actually took the song and “Shadow Circusized” it a bit
musically. Once he did that I just tweaked the lyrics a tad and it is now
called “Angel” and will be on the 2nd cd. I’m
really excited about that one. It’s a bit bluesy but definitely Prog.
John also wrote the lyrics for one of the songs on the next cd as well. It’s
the part of the epic (Project Blue) called The Horsemen Ride. He wrote those a
couple of weeks ago and again, I was blown away by the talent J
I think this album is going to have lots of things on it that were NOT
on the last cd. This is definitely a “sophomore” cd. I think this will
be a lot heavier in places and even a lot softer in places than the first CD. I
think the music is more complex and there will be more instrumental pieces as
well which I think is great cuz it definitely gives me a break and gives the
band more of a chance to shine.
Two words…STEPHEN KING
He’s the best in my opinion and his stories are just prime fodder
for lyrics and the new CD will definitely show that.
Well, to be honest, like I said earlier it’s all about theatrics.
I love theatrics. Hands down. My Theater background was more focused on Musical
Theater and when you hear some of the stuff on the new CD as well as “Freakroom”
the music itself has a Musical Theater style to it. So I go back to my bag of
tricks from doing so many musical theater production as well as the probably 30
times I have seen Kiss live and I can pick a myriad of different things to do
in a live show. I believe that spectacle is just as equal as the music. I want
anyone who comes to see us to leave and just go…WOW!!! All around. I want
them to have a feast for the eyes as well as for the ears and I think having
the background I do can definitely achieve that.
Sure…Well, Radio People is my way of mocking the “digital age.” The age where people are walking down the street with at least 2 different pieces of technology attached to their person. The age where people are driving in their cars WHILE TEXTING…WHILE CHATTING ON THEIR PHONES. To me it’s a bit ludicrous and Radio People is just my silly little way of expressing that.
Dancing Flame…well…that was written on the night my Grandmother passed away. Gosh that was back in 1990-91 I think. In my world my grandmother (My Mom’s Mom) was a really special person…to me and my brother. This happened while I was home from California on vacation. So I wrote the song that night. I sang it at the funeral and I never did anything with it again until we started writing for the “Freakroom” CD. The lyrics fit so perfectly that I did not have to change one thing about them. It was as if John KNEW I had those lyrics and he wrote the music to fit them. Great stuff…great stuff.
Find Your Way…like I said earlier, this was basically the song
that got this whole train a rollin’ I knew this was going to be
part of the Epic and once I heard the other parts I immediately went to another
Stephen King story called The Talisman. This happens to be my favorite story of
his to date. So in this one the lyrics are loosely based on the main character named
Jack. With The Talisman…Jack is a 12 year old kid basically on a Journey
to save his mother and he is almost portrayed as a Jesus figure in the story.
Hence the title of the epic and that is where the title of the song was derived
To be honest, it’s out there but I wish it were better. I think Prog has been taken over by more of a metal scene like Dream Theater and such. But even they are not huge in the US. By huge I mean like U2 or Madonna…things like that. Rush is pretty big these days but even they have left a lot of their Prog roots behind for a more commercial sound. I love them don’t get me wrong. Their latest album Snakes & Arrows is a phenomenal album…but the days of 2112, Cygnus X-1 are definitely gone…to my sadness. I think that is why I try and bring a bit of the “pop” side to Shadow Circus…so we can hit some more mainstream people out there. I think Prog should be accessible. I think if it were, it might be a bit more popular in the US.
Man, RUSH…all the way. 2112…Hemispheres. A friend of mine
turned me on to them way back when I was in high school and I was hooked. After
that I got into YES and ELP…but of course I was hit by the KISS bomb way
before any of them.
Hmmmm…I guess off the top of my head it would definitely have to be:
Kiss: Rock & Roll Over
Kiss: Dressed to Kill
Metallica: Death Magnetic
The last couple of CD’s I have been listening to have been the new Guns & Roses CD, the new Queen & Paul Rodgers CD, the new one from Metallica as well as the latest by AC/DC. All great CD’s by the way.
Nice chatting with you Mike.
Welcome to The Freakroom availible now:
Shadow Circus Myspace
Shadow Circus Official Webstie
Shadow Circus PA Page
Edited by King By-Tor - December 31 2008 at 15:17
The Quiet One
Joined: January 16 2008
|Posted: December 31 2008 at 15:14|
You keep on pulling some very interesting Interviews Mike!!!
Joined: September 13 2006
|Posted: December 31 2008 at 15:16|
Hey, it's my job
Pablo, have you checked these guys out yet? I think they'd be right up your ally
The Quiet One
Joined: January 16 2008
|Posted: December 31 2008 at 15:23|
^Not yet, Alex has also recomended it to me, it seems they will appeal, though not much into Retro Prog lately, I'm into Zappa lately unfortunately, whenever I go again with Retro, I would be happy to have it.
Forum Senior Member
Joined: February 13 2004
|Posted: January 05 2009 at 06:47|
Great interview. Great band. I was very suprised when I first heard them last summer. I usually shun new bands but this one really hits the mark if you're into the seventies scene. Can't wait for the next one. "More shadow and less circus".
Joined: September 13 2006
|Posted: January 05 2009 at 09:33|
^^^ That got me excited too! If there's one thing that I would have liked to hear in their debut it would have been "more shadow", so when he said that I started to get anxious for the new release
Joined: April 27 2005
|Posted: January 15 2009 at 06:55|
John is a great guy! Before the first album came out he posted his Myspace (or another of those sites) in the forum. I heard it and told him I thought it was great but lamented that I would probably not get to buy his album ´cause of how expensive imported album here in Argentina normally are, and, aparently I was so enthusiastic about my response he offered to deliver the album (no charge!) when it came out... two months later a CD called Welcome to the freakshow was in my mail!!! I wanted to be the first person to review the album but bhikkhu beat me to it. I wish these guys all the success they rightfully deserve!
Keep on proggin John
"You want me to play what, Robert?"
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