21 January 2011

(More than) 10 Questions with...John and Dave of Shadow Circus

I’m not sure how to introduce this interview.

And for me, that’s saying something.  Because I am rarely at a loss for words.

Shadow Circus is a band out of NJ.  I got their self-released debut album Welcome to the Freakshow a few years back, and thought it enjoyable, but it kinda fell out of my rotation not long after picking it up.  There was promise there, but…it didn’t seem quite all gelled for me.

How times have changed. 

Whispers and Screams, the band’s second album, blows that debut out of the water so much that not even dental records will help identify it.  From the 30-plus minute ‘Project Blue’ suite, based off Stephen King’s mammoth novel The Stand, through individual tracks like ‘Willoughby’ or ‘…Then in July, the Thunder Came,’ the new Shadow Circus release was proof positive that this was a band that had grown a massive amount in an incredibly short period of time.  Hell, even I was blown away by how far the band had grown from their first release…it was like listening to two different bands entirely.

John Fontana and David Bobick were amazingly kind enough to answer a few questions for me (and by proxy, you).  Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, please turn your attention to the centre ring…Dave Bobick and John Fontana!

1 When did you first discover an interest in/a love of music?

Dave Bobick:
Well, my Mom says that I used to be able to just walk up to a piano and just start plucking out melodies to songs and that was when I was 5 years old or so but to be honest, what really fueled it was simply one date and one record…1977: KISS: Alive II. That was pretty much it for me. That band and that album has influenced pretty much every facet of my life. To playing guitar. To singing and even eventually Musical theater. What a major deal that was for a 12 year old kid.

John Fontana: I think that I started taking music seriously when I was about 10 years old, and decided that my favorite album was The Steve Miller Band's Book of Dreams. Which, come to think of it, had many of the elements that drew me to prog - the harmony vocals, Moogs and Hammonds - I guess those were the first sounds that really grabbed me. I remember that Led Zeppelin's "The Rain Song" sounded very profound to me at an early age. I was listening to classical for my studies in school, so I was quick to pick up on classical influences in rock. And it must have been Heart's "Magic Man" where I first had my face melted by that incredible Moog solo, so that was an important moment.

2 What bands or artists were your biggest early influences?

Early on it was Zeppelin, Yes, ELP, Rush, Pink Floyd.

Dave: KISS…hands down. To this very day.

3 How did Shadow Circus come together?

After I had taken a hiatus from music for a few years, I got back into it, and I really wanted to play prog. So, I created some demos of songs to use on the audition circuit. When I played the songs for Dave and our original drummer, Corey, they expressed an interest in recording the material as a band. So, instead of auditioning, I finished writing the first album's worth of music, and Shadow Circus was formed.

Dave: With blood, sweat and many, many, MANY tears!!! LOL…LOL…Ok, kidding aside…for me it was one thing…”Find Your Way.” To use a quote from the great Dennis DeYoung of Styx…”This was the song that got this whole train a rollin’.” I heard John play the main theme from Find Your Way and I was just absolutely blown away. First by the fact that I couldn’t get over that he actually had this in him, second by just how haunting and beautiful the theme was. I couldn’t let that get away or into the hands of another band.

4 What is the Shadow Circus creative process like?
John: I usually start by taking some time to revisit the piano and guitar on somewhat of an academic level, sitting down to learn pieces of music, exercises, and listen to different genres to challenge myself. As I wrote this last album I listened to a lot of Celtic music, and let that influence shine through on things like Horsemen Ride, and more subliminally in other places. I'll improvise until I find some melodies and changes that interest me, and keep going until I feel like the components of a bigger piece are in place. Then I'll demo a whole song, usually fairly complete, and Dave comes in to get vocal ideas, and it takes further shape with the band at that point in the studio. From the first album to the second, it became a much more collaborative process, where many things changed dramatically as the whole band had input, and I think it will keep going in that direction.

5 Your first album, Welcome to the Freak Room, featured tracks influenced by Ray Bradbury and Stephen King.  How did you decide to use their works as the basis for songs?

The Ray Bradbury reference comes from Something Wicked This Way Comes, of which Dave and I are both big fans. The carnival that comes to a small midwestern town to wreak havoc seemed like such a cool kind of identity for the band, so that inspired our name, and consequently the song "Shadow Circus" itself. Then, for "Journey of Everyman", Dave was able to connect the musical peaks and valleys of what I had already written to the storyline of The Talisman, and so that inspired the lyrics.

Dave: Well, I am a huge Stephen King fan. John is a huge Ray Bradbury fan and it just seems to be that everything they write is perfect fodder for lyrics for a band like ours. I always love the dark and macabre. Again…huge KISS fan…Huge Alice Cooper fan.  It’s Shadow Circus. On our newest CD, Whispers and Screams, an entire “side” of the album is dedicated to Stephen King’s The Stand. Referring to the Epic "Project Blue". We also draw inspiration from The Twilight Zone on the song "Willoughby". And we have some other interesting literary references planned for the future!

6 Whispers and Screams is the band's second album, and it had a pretty long gestation.  How would you say it differs from your first release?

I would say this one is a bit more diverse. Eclectic if you will. It also leans towards being a bit heavier as well which I happen to like. The heavier aspects of the music is something I would like to see more of on the next CD…while still keeping the melodic side of things in the forefront.

John: Welcome to the Freakroom was written very much before the entire band was in place, so the band formed around the music that was already there. A lot of what you hear on that album are actual tracks from the demos. It was recorded relatively quickly. Whispers and Screams was produced over a challenging time in our lives. Dave was going through his kidney transplant - which was wonderfully successful, by the way - but I think that scenario gave us a sense of importance to making the effort worthwhile. It was much more collaborative, and everyone involved really challenged themselves creatively, technically, and emotionally. We allowed more time for the production to take shape, which let us absorb the effects of repeated listens. This led to some of the most important developments, as it can take a while to disassociate yourself from something you created enough to hear it objectively.

The question as to whether what we were doing would be accepted by a prog audience was raised many times - we took some risks by bringing in elements of blues and gospel. We knew that not everyone would embrace it as readily as they might otherwise, but we connected with the music on such an emotional level that we ultimately decided it was more important to make an honest album that reflected us, rather than attempt to guess what people would like. And now we're very happy we did that, as the response to it has been very positive.

7 How hard was it to 'adapt' Stephen King's novel The Stand for the epic 'Project Blue'?

Well, it started with some musical themes that I had been developing for some time. When Dave heard the melodies that are now in "The Big Fire", he said, "Oh! That's a song for Trashcan Man!". I told him that the melody was part of a much longer piece, and together we listened to it and connected the various moods with the characters and events of the story. It probably took almost a year to get everything in "Project Blue" to its final state.

Dave: To be honest, it was a very weird time for me. I was gearing up for a major Kidney transplant the week after Labor Day 2008. September 11th 2008 to be exact and we had wanted to finish vocals before the surgery because it might have had to be months before I could use stomach muscles to sing again. BUT…that did not work out for various reasons. So we didn’t even have lyrics to any of Project Blue at the time of my surgery. So like a week and a half into my recovery, I started writing down ideas which grew into Captain Trips. I had Deep Purple running through my head and all of a sudden, 10 minutes later I was at John’s office with the lyrics and melody pretty much done for Captain Trips. I then…veeeeery gently mind you….sang him the idea and he flipped!! After that, everything just flowed like water and it was all but done. I knew the story so well, that putting all the pieces in the correct order was easy. Deciding which songs would go with which lyrics was a bit tough but John adapted pretty quickly and within a couple of days the whole thing was done.

8 What is it about King's fiction that you find such a fruitful field to harvest for inspiration?

We have these elements in our music, such as the dark, atmospheric things, then there are the heavier parts and a certain whimsical ingredient that is a fun part of Shadow Circus. And Stephen King seems to work with a similar array of moods. There's also that certain "funny but dark" vibe that connects so well with our sound. Also note that the two pieces we have been inspired by - namely The Talisman and The Stand, are more like fantasy epics for King compared to his other works, so I think those particular pieces work well for an American Prog band, as with those stories, he was approaching it like an American version of Tolkien. Symphonic prog has so many parallels to fantasy fiction.

Dave: Well, like I said before, his stories are such fantastic fodder for lyrics for a band like ours. His stories are so descriptive and colorful with such great characters.

9 How would you say the band has changed or evolved since forming?

It started as just a studio project. We never imagined it would ever be music that would be performed on stage. We always had the desire to grow into a live band, but not the means. That quickly changed in recent months, with the band becoming very active. I think the natural evolution now will be to have the advantage of playing songs live before recording, which, I think, will help tremendously.

Dave: I’d have to say it’s evolved in many ways. It’s certainly evolved personnel-wise. After 4 years of running with this, we have finally hit upon the magic combination with Gino, Felipe and Andy. It’s also evolved musically too. I’d say John has explored and gone down many new roads musically…more melodic roads…heavier roads…with so many unexplored roads ahead. I’d say it’s very exciting!!!

10 How much opportunity does Shadow Circus have to perform in concert? (NB: this interview was done prior to their tour in October 2010...sadly, real life issues kept me from posting it in a timely manner...forgive, forgive...)

LOL…LOL…if you would have asked me that a year ago, I’d have said none. Today with this band and this CD, the opportunities are endless in my opinion. We’ve already done one festival and we have our own show we are doing at The Triad Theater in NYC on October 16th. Then after that we have 3 shows lined up opening for The Watch in Philly, Boston and Baltimore followed by some very exciting possibilities for the Winter and early spring which I won’t go into detail with until they are finalized. But again, I’d say the possibilities are now endless!!!

John: As of recently, quite a lot! It was really a matter of getting the right lineup that could be available to play live, and now that we have that, the biggest challenge is finding ways to travel to everywhere we want to play.

11 Do you find your material easy to translate to stage, or are there challenges?

I am very guilty of using a lot of overdubs on the albums, so of course you have to pick and choose what layers to cut and what to keep. For the most part, I think very little is missed in the translation - especially thanks to our keyboard player, Felipe, who has a laptop rig that can handle almost anything. And whatever might be missing from the layers of overdubs is made up for by the intensity of the performance. It's also a big plus that both Felipe, and our drummer, Gino, are great singers, and can handle the background vocals, which were all done by Dave on the recordings.

Dave: Vocally, it’s not hard to translate into a live atmosphere. They are very colorful and emotional lyrics and I can express those colors and emotions very well on stage. Musically, I’d say it’s very challenging which is why it took us a while to be able to play out. You need the right caliber of musician to be able to pull this stuff off live and I really think we may have found it in Felipe, Gino and Andy. Felipe especially. He has the arduous task of recreating the myriad of keyboard parts and sound live. Hence the reason he is the right dude for the job. We dig Felipe a lot!!! He’s extremely talented and he rocks!!!

12 What was it like for you to play Progday, the longest running US progressive music festival?

Well I tell ya. We did a dress rehearsal the Wednesday before and I was a bit nervous but once we got up on stage in NC, It was a piece of cake. Loved every minute of it. I think we pulled it off with flying colors. That was THEE first gig this band has played!!!

John: It was fantastic! It was our first live experience with this lineup, so I was a bit nervous, but we really couldn't have expected it to have turned out better than it did. What a great crowd, we felt such a warm welcome. I think now we may be spoiled, and will probably now wish that every gig we play would be like Progday.

13 Would you say that performance was a high point for the band?  Are there any other moments that stand out for you?

I would definitely say that ProgDay was a highlight for me. It was a good show. In terms of other quality, stand out moments in Shadow Circus history, I would say when we went into the studio to record the Bass and Drums for Whispers & Screams. I love the studio environment. It’s just a LOT of fun. That really stands out for me.

John: It certainly is a high-point. The first high-point had to be when Dave reacted to hearing the music I was writing for the first time - he is a sharp critic of music - and his positive response erased any doubt I might have had about pursuing this. As a band that is only beginning to surface in the live scene, our other high points are low-key compared to Progday - creating each album was certainly a wonderful experience. But the biggest moments for me are always when our music has a positive effect - whether on a crowd or an individual - the feeling I get when someone gets really excited by the music is priceless.

14 What's next for the band?  Shows, new album, et cetera?

Well, again, we have some shows coming up in October. One at The Triad in NYC and then we are opening for a band called The Watch out of Italy. We are playing 3 dates with them and needless to say, we are very excited about that. Those are in Baltimore, Philly and Boston ON Halloween. I think that show will be the stand out for us. Beyond that, we are starting to gear up for the next Shadow Circus CD and some possible shows in the winter that are not yet finalized.

15 How has the shift to a more connected, digital world changed how you look at the art of creating an album?

I think that I will always want to create an album as I would have in the absence of the internet, but the real difference is in the marketing and distribution. The most important thing now that any artist can do is have a one-on-one relationship with their audience. We have an extremely active Facebook group, which is a blast! Our fans there rock, it's become a really cool community!

16 How much as downloading impacted the band, either positively or negatively?

The internet giveth, and the internet taketh away! Without it, there's no way a band like us would ever stand a chance with major labels being the gatekeepers of what people will listen to. It's only because of the internet that a genre like prog can find a community. The challenge is, of course, how to monetize what we do, and the only way to do that is to keep doing more, and work hard at doing it even better. If it's good enough, people will pick up on it and spread the word. The mistake that most bands make now is, they think that because they publish an album, people should just buy it. But anyone can put out an album today and have worldwide distribution in a few mouse clicks. The trick isn't making a CD, it's getting noticed. You have to look at putting out an album now the way you looked at a first gig twenty years ago. You didn't expect any pay, you struggled to get noticed, because there were a thousand other people doing the same thing. So, it's easier to get out there, harder to get noticed, but at least everyone has a fair chance. But, you have to look at a CD more like a promo item than your main source of income.

Dave: Aaaaah, well…for a band like us at the stage that we are at, getting the music into the hands of the fans is the most important thing. If no one knows about you, you will never be able to sell CD’s or play out live. SO…for Shadow Circus, if 5000 people download our CD for free, then that means that 5000 people know we exist. I think people make too much over downloading. People are going to do it. You cannot stop it anymore so if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em. You have to find a way to use downloading as a friend not as a foe. A publicity tool if you will. I want to sell CD’s but I really, really want people to know we exist. You can’t have one without the other. Try to find a way to use it to your advantage.

17 Are there any bands you listen to today that excite you the same way the music you grew up with did?

Spock's Beard, Transatlantic, and surprisingly enough, Green Day. Those guys make me feel like I'm experiencing The Who for the first time!

Dave: GREEN DAY!!!! Green Day just rules. They are a band for the people. They are audience interactive. They put on a phenomenal show and bring the house down every time they play. There are some other solid bands out there like Slipknot, Avenged Sevenfold…they have great stage presence and there music is good but nothing like that of Queen, Kiss, Deep Purple, Iron Maiden, Styx, etc…

18 As we wrap things up, are there any final words you'd like to share with our readers today?

Yeah, keep an eye out for Shadow Circus…we will be on your radar soon!!!!

John:  With so much music out there coming from so many artists, it seems many people breeze through listening to a hundred CDs every year. The abundance of music may be cheapening the experience a bit. Try to take the time to listen to music, spend some time with it, savor it, let it become a part of your routine for a little while. Especially with a genre like prog, there's a lot of great stuff out there, but if you overdose on too many things, you never get to enjoy the finer points of any of them. And for the artists, especially in regards to the resentment towards downloading - you have to accept it and move on. Creating music and making a living on it is no harder than it ever was. It still means you have to bust your ass, be dedicated, and do more than simply publish music. There are a thousand new ways of interacting with your fans. Be imaginative, there is more at a musician's disposal now to become known than there ever has been.

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Anonymous said...

Fantastic interview with two equally fantastic guys! Looking forward to Shadow Circus' new album!

Anonymous said...

Shadow Circus put the heart in every song, and this touch my soul every time when i hear yours Cd's....
Best wishes from Spain.

Anonymous said...

Quite an encouraging and informative read as I am trying to get noticed for my music, too!