05 October 2010

(More than) 10 questions with...Pinnacle (part the first)

I’ve known the guys in Pinnacle for a while…differing amounts for most of them but still, we go a ways back.  If you’ve been lucky enough to spend time at NEARfest or the NJ Proghouse shows, you know them too, even if you’ve not spoken with them personally.  Drummer Greg Jones is the master of coffee (a beverage that sadly I have to refrain from these days…damn you, heart!), a wonderfully warm and funny guy, and a fantastic timekeeper to boot.  Karl Eisenhart is always quick with a quip, but has always found time to discuss some minutiae with me whenever necessary.  And bassist/keyboardist Bill Fox, DJ for several Lehigh Valley radio programs, has always struck me as the normal one of the bunch.

Apparently I was wrong.

But more about that soon.

Greg was kind and generous enough several years back to front me a copy of the band’s debut release, A Man’s Reach.  I enjoyed it…it was limited in a lot of ways, but there was a spark there that I knew could be nurtured into something more impressive given time.  Their sophomore album, Meld, saw that spark turn into a steady flame.  With much improved production values and an amazing cover, it showed me a band growing by leaps and bounds faster than I even imagined.  And with the news that they added a fourth member in keyboardist/vocalist Matt Francisco, the thought that these two albums are just the beginning of something even greater still brings a smile to my face.

Yes, these guys are friends (well, 3 of them are…I’ve not met Matt yet), but I also happen to think that they are fine musicians working very hard at crafting some interesting and very enjoyable melodic progressive rock.  It’s a pleasure for me to return the favour they’d granted me in sharing their music with me by spending the next two days (cos this is a hella long interview!) offering you some insight into the workings of a band that more of you should be checking out!

I usually spend this final paragraph thanking the band for their time, and it goes doubly…or trebly here.  Not only have all of the band members taken time out of their busy lives to answer these questions, but they’ve shared their music with me long before this blog/site was a gleam in my eye.  I hope this comes across in the questions and answers that follow.  So, major thanks and bouquets of Martian Fireflowers to the members of Pinnacle!

And…we’re off!

1. Let’s start at the very beginning…how did you first discover a love of music?

Bill Fox:
As a preschooler, my mother would play records over the intercom system we had in the house.  I would hum along.  One of my mother's favorite Bill stories to tell was that, not only would I hum the melodies, but the harmonies and counterpoints, too.  My love of music was innate and always there, as far as I can tell.  By the first grade, I was asking for a piano.  Sadly, that wish was never fulfilled.  It wasn't until the fourth grade (I was nine years old) that my father bought a guitar.  I started teaching myself from his books and with his help.  The following summer, I took ten private lessons in folk guitar.  The fourth grade was also when I was old enough to be in choirs in school and at temple.  So I joined.  I started saxophone in the sixth grade.

Greg Jones: At a very young age it just had a tremendous emotional and physical effect on me. I read Steve Hackett describing being so overwhelmed emotionally that he felt naked and didn't want people to see his face when he was hearing something that powerful and I thought "I know what he means".

Karl Eisenhart: I come from a very musical family. My mom is an amazing flute player. My uncle has been a full time musician as long as I can remember. My Grandmother was a MONSTER pianist, who used to play background music in movie theaters during silent films.

Matt Francisco: I wish I had an interesting answer for that question, I can only say music has always been part of my life.

2. What were your earliest influences?

My earliest influences were the records my parents owned; Roger Williams, Alan Sherman, Gershwin, Peter, Paul, and Mary, and some classical music.  Radio and TV of the late '50s and early '60s also had an impact.  Then the Beatles played on the Ed Sullivan Show.

GJ: Let me just say that everything changed with the arrival of The Beatles. And as rock turned more and more experimental and less formulaic and simplistic, I was along for the ride with Hendrix, Cream, The Jeff Beck Group, The Who, Mott The Hoople, Free, Mountain, The James Gang, Deep Purple, ELP, Jethro Tull, Yes, Joni Mitchell, CSN & Y, PFM and the Mahavishnu Orchestra. Then I heard the Starless And Bible Black album by King Crimson and my head exploded.

KE: Well, certainly my uncle, John Eisenhart. He got me started down the dark path of guitardom when I was really young. He also got me started on the dark path of progdom by making me listen to YesSongs. Soon after came Styx, Rush and Steve Morse in very rapid succession.

MF: Elton John-I just always liked his songs, and because of their fairly predictable chord progressions, they were easy to pick out on piano. The Who-there was a time when I could sing every lyric to every movement from “Tommy”. Peter Gabriel-for sheer determination. He doesn’t have the best voice ever but he owns every note he can hit. “Moribund the Bergermeister” remains one of my all-time favorite tunes just because I find the melody so interesting. Emerson Lake and Palmer-I love the incorporation of the orchestral sound. Alan Parsons-for the same reason as ELP. Also on my “List of Influences” for various reasons...Meatloaf, Yes, Freddie Mercury and Jim Steinman. My list is much longer but I’d feel the need to explain each one and no one has time for that.

3. How did Pinnacle first come together?

I was contacted by Greg and Karl because they were looking for a bass player.  They knew that I was into Classic Rock having some decidedly progressive tendencies, having seen me in my old cover band, ShadowPlay at Musikfest.  We played Tull, Yes, Pink Floyd, Moody Blues, Renaissance, ELP, and other, less progressive songs.  (See http://soundscapes.us/ShadowPlay for archive information.)  Greg came over to my house and we had a nice, long conversation.  Since I had plenty of time on my hands and the project sounded like it would appeal to my musical interests, I decided to give it a go.  This was about the same time that I started hosting two radio shows where I play prog.

GJ: Met Karl at a coffee shop he was playing at with his duo, loved their selection of material - deep album cuts - and guitar synth, violin, mandolin, etc. (Red was electric then) - and he saw my Steve Morse shirt so we talked after the show for a long time and decided to get together and play. After working with a few different bassists, we thought of Bill and the three of us clicked at the first rehearsal.

KE: Greg and I had been playing together for a bit, but hadn’t found a bass player with the same enthusiasm for what we wanted to do. I knew Bill as a customer at the music store I was working at back then. We got together with the idea of being a sort of prog-leaning classic rock cover band, but soon shifted into doing originals. There is a Sonar file somewhere of what was to be our demo: “The Grand Illusion,” “Teacher,” “You Can’t Get What You Want,” (Joe Jackson) and…something else. That might be an interesting thing to release someday…or not.

4. How does the band go about writing their music?

Many songs are "complete" before being shared with the band.  Other bits are snippets looking for a home.  All of these are fodder for Pinnacle songs.  Everything then gets "Pinnacle-ized" which may include additional composing as well as the expected arranging and orchestration.  There is a lot of give and take and songs often change over time.  An advantage of not working to a record label's release schedule is that songs have the opportunity to be analyzed for how well they fit our concept of good song writing.  We have time to kick the tires on our home stereos, in the car, and even in concert.

GJ: How does the band go about writing their music?  We make mistakes and always have a recorder running. Nah, most of the songs come from Karl and he lets Bill and I tear them apart and reassemble them without mercy. Occasionally one of mine makes it in, or one of Bill's. Plus, now we have Matt writing. Thankfully everyone's really good about letting their "babies" be vivisected in the interest of stronger writing.

KE: SLOWLY. One of us…most often me, I guess…comes to rehearsal with the outline of a song. We then tear it apart as a band and start adding and subtracting ideas. Our influences are widely varied, so we all have different ideas for where things should go.

MF: I’m just getting my first taste of the song writing process with the rest of the band. I can’t say there’s a set formula that we use to create a new piece, each one kind of comes into the world in it’s own way. It’s an ongoing process, meaning the songs that appear on albums aren’t ‘done’. They’re never ‘done’, and never will be. What you hear on the album is just a snapshot of how it sounded at the time of production. They will continue to grow and change as the band continues to play them.

5. Pinnacle recently added a fourth musician…Matt Francisco.  How did you hook up with the band?

Through Karl. Karl and I went to school together in New York State, both ended up living in Pennsylvania for different reasons. We were in a band 15 (15?? Really??) years ago or so, a mostly cover band called Twist of Fate. Since then, Karl has asked me to join him in different musical endeavors but it was only this time around that my personal life allowed me to get into something this involved.

I’m glad to be a part of Pinnacle and I hope I can keep up.

BF: Matt and Karl grew up together in upstate New York and have played in bands together before Pinnacle.  Greg, Karl, and I often discussed what Pinnacle should be and what directions to take.  We have good communication habits.  Often, the desire for additional singers and players would pop up.  We took the power trio about as far as we could by using synthesizers and pedals.  Karl would play synths from his guitar and with pedals.  I would play synth by hand and with pedals.  Not being a big Rush fan like Karl, I had no idea that I was following in the footsteps of Geddy Lee.  His shoes are far too big for the likes of me to fill anyway.  I even brought in pads for Greg to trigger samples on the laptop.  So we took the trio thing about as far as we could.  We still wanted additional vocals most of all and perhaps a real keyboard player.  Matt fills the bill by being a fantastic singer and piano player.  His transition into a synth player has been amazing.  As it turns out, he writes music like a demon, too!  What an unexpected plus.

KE: Matt is one of my oldest friends (meaning that I’ve known him for a long time. Not meaning that he’s old.) We grew up and both moved far away from home. By sheer coincidence, we only live a couple miles father apart now than we did when we were kids. From the beginning of this band, I always thought he’d be the perfect fourth member, but his plate was always way too full. When we first approached him about joining, all we were hoping was that he would sing on the recordings and live gigs. I didn’t anticipate that he’d have time or desire for more of a commitment than that, but it just naturally evolved into having him play keys on the new stuff, then playing keys on the old stuff, then writing great song after great song. Now he’s learning guitar. Plus, as Greg would say, he’s the good-looking one…not that we’ve set the bar too high. Pretty soon it’s going to be HIS band.

6. Also for Matt…can you tell us what it’s like being the new guy?

Not really, because I didn’t feel like the new guy for long. I think Greg and Bill gave me a shot mainly because Karl said I could do it. That was the first rehearsal. Second rehearsal, I was getting positive feedback and helpful suggestions and constructive criticism and it felt like everyone was comfortable with the change.

7. This one is for each of you.  What do you think you bring to the table for Pinnacle that differs from what the others contribute?

While I tend not to write complete songs, I do have a compositional style that is different from the others.  When I bring something in that makes Greg and Karl look at each other and smile like fools, I know that I've triggered their "we don't write like that" button.  They like it when a piece of music surprises them, as opposed to being predictable.  Something good that is different from what they would write floats their boat.  I wasn't happy with the keyboard sounds we had in our live show.  As a result, I brought in my laptop with a load of software synthesizers.  Even with the addition of Matt, it's still the only source of keyboard sounds in Pinnacle's live show,.  My experience with saxophone and Classical music is unique in the band.  It doesn't usually resonate with the other band members but that doesn't matter since it always spurs discussion and stimulates the creative process.  While Karl is the virtuoso guitarist, I started my instrumental life as a guitarist.  Having my own set of influences, my style of playing is quite different from Karl's which gives Pinnacle a little more depth than if we only had one guitarist.  Now Matt is teaching himself how to play guitar and we're all having wicked thoughts on how to capitalize on having three guitars playing at once.  Although we let Karl do the heavy lifting in the recording department, that's partially due to the fact that we're in his basement using his studio.  I've recorded albums in my own studio so I could just as well "push the red button."  Instead, I add in ideas and direction when I feel the need.  Having more than one technical person makes for a stronger, deeper final result.

GJ: I think I'm the one who believes that the bass and drums should not always phrase together. I want to hear 3 and 4 instruments playing 3 and 4 different parts independent of each other and then, when they DO come together, it will be more powerful. I also seem to be the one pushing for the combination of themes, i.e., strong intro lick played again later against chorus chords, vocal melody restated in bassline, etc. Doesn't always work but when it does....  Lastly, more so than Karl and Bill (don't know how Matt feels about this yet), I feel obligated, driven and compelled to play something, either in my own part or as a band, that I haven't heard before. Not easy to do. And I may be kidding myself - but if I can hear on a recording of ours some half-minute or less of music that I CAN'T find anything like anywhere else in my collection, I feel a tremendous pleasure and sense of satisfaction from that. "Love In Our Hands" from MELD has one short section like that and its my favorite moment on the whole record.

KE: Ruthless promptness and boundless bitterness. I know it drives Greg and Bill crazy, but they’re tolerant of it. Matt has been dealing with it forever, so I doubt he even notices anymore. Actually, he was in a cover band with me at the dawn of my bitterness, so he probably understands my negativity toward the music industry as well as anyone.

MF: Vocals and keys. I think I have a style that adds a dimension to the overall sound of the band.

8. How is work proceeding on the new album?

Slowly.  We only get the opportunity to get together about once per week.  All too often, progress made in one session needs to be rehashed in succeeding sessions in order to make things stick.  But we record at least a little of most sessions, which helps.  We're finally about to press the record button for real.  Most of the writing is done.  We even have more material than we need which is a nice place to be.

GJ: We were, for all intensive purposes, done writing and arranging - and then we got Matt. Thank God we hadn't made this record yet! Now, between working on a few new songs that came from him and rearranging things to include him in the existing material, we plan to finally hit the record button early this fall.

KE: It’s going really well right now. We were originally planning to do a slightly shorter album this time, but then Matt came along and started sending us song after song. We’ve got a little arranging to do on one of his, then I think we’re going to actually start recording. Does that give us a timeline? Not hardly. I think the recording process will go much faster than it did with MELD because we’ve learned a lot about how to do it, but we’re also going into the process expecting to have to backtrack here and there if new ideas arise.

MF: I think we’re just about ready to hit the record button for real. We’ve certainly got enough material, in fact too much, but that’s good news for the next, next album.

9. How does the new music you are working on differ from the material on Meld or A Man’s Reach…?

I think that with Matt's material and my additions to "The Epic," you'll hear a greater variety but still in the same Pinnacle mold.  We try to concentrate on writing songs that happen to be progressive.  The implementation must serve the song rather than being progressive just for the sake of being progressive.  As a result, you'll still hear time changes and instrumental flights of fancy just as we've always done.  But they support the basic, underlying songs.  We love hooks unapologetically.

GJ: Some of it sounds like the natural progression from that and I'm happy to say that some of it sounds nothing like that. There's a huge epic that began with this great piece Bill wrote that sounds nothing like us and got welded into something Karl wrote with me playing the most screwed up version of 4/4 I've ever come up with. And this one song of Matt's we're doing called "Music Man' gives me chills. Since MELD I've taken a bunch of drum lessons, Karl's learned a few new tricks about note choices, Bill's stretching himself in a zillion directions and Matt's pulling new stuff out of all of us.

KE: The new stuff is more “keyboard-laden” for sure. It forces me to re-examine how I approach the guitar parts because I no longer have to take up such a huge chunk of sonic space. Also, because of the amount of time we’ve taken, many of the new songs have been played live a few times already. It gives us an opportunity to see what’s working and what’s not and also to let the various parts evolve a little more naturally.

MF: Let me say that the guys had a terrific quiver full of new tunes all ready to go before I started hanging around. The new album will be different for two obvious reasons, my vocals and more keyboard influence. Overall I believe the group has grown musically and you’re going to hear a more mature, refined sound, both in technique and production.

Join us on Friday as we continue/complete this epic interview!

No comments: