Tuesday, August 8, 2017

A Conversation with Dino Jelusić

Vocalist Dino Jelusić has been performing in front of audiences around the world for most of his life. Since hitting it big early as a pre-teen star in his native Croatia and around the world, Jelusić has been following a rock and metal trajectory, writing and releasing music inspired by his wide range of musical heroes and fueled by his own unique musical virtuosity. Over the last two years, Jelusić has solidified his own band, Animal Drive, and signed a worldwide record deal.  He was also introduced to North American audiences in a big way as he toured as a featured vocalist with Trans-Siberian Orchestra.  I caught up with Dino while he took a break from recording his band's new album to chat about all of this and more.

Dan Roth:  Dino, can you tell me about your musical background?  Did you always have musical aspirations?

Dino Jelusić:  Yes.  My father was a guitarist in a rock band and my mother was playing flute, so I was always surrounded by music.  I have been singing since I was three years old and had my first TV appearance when I was five. Things just developed from there. As I grew up, I started listening to Led Zeppelin, Kingdom Come, Whitesnake, Iron Maiden, and so on.

DR:  In 2003, you won the first-ever Junior Eurovision Song Contest from singing "Ti si moja prva ljubav" ("You are my one and only").  Did you compose that song as well as sing it?  Can you tell me a little about this contest?

DJ:  I was 11 years old and it was a real breakthrough for me to become popular in my country. I remember the day I wrote the song - I was ten years old and my father asked me if I wanted to sign up for this contest. First, I won Croatia with the song and then four months later I won the entire contest in Denmark. Next thing I know, I am performing around the world and had released my first album worldwide.  That era of my career wrapped up in 2007 when my voice changed.

DR:  Today you seem to sing equally well in English as well as your native language.  When were you comfortable enough to sing in English?

DJ:  My first English song was made in 1999, so 18 years ago. I was seven years old. Back then, I could already speak English - not as well as now of course - but I was travelling around the world and picking up English pretty quickly.  That first album actually had ten songs sung in Croatian and five of them sung in English. Since I was singing at many festivals in Europe and Africa, we decided to record and release some songs in English as well.

DR:  Moving on from there, you released your first rock album in 2011, Living My Own Life.

DJ:  I would put my career into three sections. The first being the Eurovision days, the next being Living My Own Life, and then my current era since 2012.  With the Living My Own Life album, I did not write any of the songs on there so I do not sing any of those songs anymore in my concerts.  In 2012, I performed in South Africa and did songs like "Walk on the Other Side" and "Bad to the Bone", songs that I still perform with Animal Drive today. From that point. I really got into the more rock/metal scene.

DR:  You mentioned earlier some of the bands you grew up listening to.  Is there any one band or album that really inspired you to move in this direction?

DJ:  I can't remember any one particular album but let me tell you the first five CDs on my shelf right now. The first one is King's X Dogman, which is such a great, fun hard rock album. Slash's Apocalyptic Love,  Whitesnake's Slip of the Tongue, Dream Theater's Scene from a Memory. Toto's Kingdom of Desire!  I am big Toto fan and this is probably my favorite album. I love Velvet Revolver, Jet, Aerosmith, Chris Cornell, Lenny Kravitz, Tool, Lamb of God, John Mayer, Phil Collins, Billy Joel.  I listen to so much and it's a big musical mess. [Laughs]

DR:  We certainly know you as a lead vocalist and songwriter - do you also play any instrument?  I believe I saw you on keyboards in one live video.

DJ:  I do!  I've been playing piano for seventeen years and this year I will finish up my studies at Zagreb Music Academy.  On the new Animal Drive album, I am playing all of the keyboards in addition to the vocals. I also play keyboards with the band Stone Leaders with drummer John Macaluso.

DR:  You mentioned that you divide your career up into three parts. Let's talk about your last couple of years where you won the New Wave Festival in Sochi, hired by the Trans-Siberian Orchestra and got your own band signed to a major recording contract.

DJ:  Trans-Siberian Orchestra has been amazing.  It's a whole new level for me and really inspiring. Getting to know all of these people and touring big arenas around America...I cannot wait to go out again in a few months.

Before the 2016 TSO tour, I recorded some songs with my band and was going to put out an EP. I thought that when the tour ends, some fans may want to hear what else I was doing. During the TSO rehearsals, Jeff Scott Soto asked to hear some of my songs.  I played him one ballad and two heavy songs - and even though at the time I wasn't believing in these yet - Jeff loved them and contacted Frontiers Records about my music. Frontiers also loved what they heard and told me that they wanted to release an entire album from us!

Dino Jelusic with Animal Drive, Cakovec Croatia, May 2017
Photo Courtesy Maja Music
When I got back to Croatia, we decided to change the name of the band from Dino and the Mad Dogs to Animal Drive. In May, we signed a contract and we are right now recording the album.

DR:  What made you change the name of the band?

DJ:  I wanted to remove the "Dino and...".  I wanted it to be a band. The guys in the band are such great guys and great musicians - I really wanted this to be a band, not "Dino and them". I also didn't like the Mad Dogs name; in my opinion it sounds like a 70s style band and we felt that Animal Drive was a better fit for what we do.

DR:  How long has the band been together?

DJ:  I have been playing with the bass player and one guitarist since 2012. Our drummer came into the band in 2014 and our newest guitarist joined us in 2015. So, this lineup came together from 2012 to 2015.

DR:  Who writes the music for this new album?

DJ:  I write all of the music and all of the lyrics.  I also create the arrangements until we start rehearsing and we change things as a band.

DR:  What sort of subjects do you touch on lyrically?

DJ:  Most of my songs are very deep lyrically.  We will have eleven songs on this album; three of them ballads and eight of them heavy.  The songs are about real life, fears, pain.  Many of them true life stories that I can connect with. There are two love songs that are very personal to me on the album also. There are also two songs that we recorded that did make it onto the album.  They are very progressive and possibly not right for this release so we are saving them for the next one.

DR:  Earlier you had mentioned songs like "Walk on the Other Side" and "Bad to the Bone" that you perform live and even released music videos for them.  Will those or any other songs that you have been playing be on the new album?

DJ:  No. Frontiers loved the music but they asked for an album of all new material. What you hear on the promotional video from Frontiers are demo versions of three of the new songs that will be on the album: "Had Enough", "Time Machine", and "Power of Life".

DR:  When Animal Drive performs live, you often throw in some cover songs.

DJ:  We play Deep Purple's "Burn" at every show we do.  But - we do the Whitesnake version of it. Whitesnake did a pretty impressive version on their 2004 Live...In the Still of the Night DVD.  We all love their version of it and since Whitesnake is our band's biggest influence, we wanted to include this in all of our concerts.

DR:  I know you are taking a break from the studio to do this interview.  How is the recording process going so far?

DJ:  It's going great. I finished up some keyboards today. Tomorrow I go back in and record some more vocals.  I then will be taking a bit of a break, as we have been on this for two months straight.  We are just about done the first version of the album, then back in to record new vocals and then mixing and mastering.

DR:  Does this album have a name yet? And any idea for a release date?

DJ:  I have an idea for a name, but we haven't discussed it yet with management or the record company, so can't say quite yet. As for when it comes out, right now I expect a single to come out in December while I am on tour with TSO and the album should be out by March 2018.

DR:  Animal Drive is the first rock band from Croatia to sign to a major record label. That has to be a pretty special feeling?

 Well previously there was Croation singer Michael Matijevic. He was the lead singer of Steelheart and also sang the songs along with Jeff Scott Soto in the movie Rock Star. Also, the bassist from Nirvana is natively Croatian.  So there have been a few.  We have a completely different mentality about music in Croatia and I am happy that what I do is making its way to America and other parts of the world. In my country, you can do nothing with music like this. I am so grateful to the opportunities from both Frontiers and TSO because these are my way out to get my music heard.

DR:  You mentioned TSO a couple of times. How did you first get on TSO's radar? I understand that they heard you singing Queen's "The Show Must Go On".  True?
Dino Jelusic with TSO, Kansas City, MO 2016
Photo Courtesy Carolyn Handy

DJ:  That is what I heard too.  They heard me singing "The Show Must Go On" which I have sung over the years. They sent me the Savatage song "Handful of Rain" to record and send back to them. After they heard that, they sent me one Savatage song and six TSO songs to work on and they flew me to Florida.  After three days of working on them with [Talent Coordinator] Danielle [Sample] in the studio, I met Paul O'Neill. I really enjoyed working with him in the studio. He sat and talked with me about the story behind "Handful of Rain" for like an hour. He wanted me to go back to 1994 when that song came out and picture the streets, the dark, the wine that is drying out on the floor. After that, he had me sing it again. When the song started, I started having chills because it had a completely different meaning to me. After I sang it and got the deep meaning out of it, Paul said, "That's it" because I understood the song now and sang it better.

DR:  Were you already familiar with Savatage or TSO before you got the call?

DJ:  Sure.  I knew both. I knew of how big TSO was and that Soto is in there, Al Pitrelli is in there, and Russell Allen of course.  Also, Kelly Keeling used to sing for them and Alex Sklolnick used to play guitar for them, so I knew how huge this was. Also, a good friend of mine who played guitars on "Walk on the Other Side" had auditioned for TSO.

DR:  How long did it take before you found out that you had passed the audition?  With two male vocalist slots open, I understand that they auditioned quite a few singers.

DJ:  I could tell that they liked what I did when I was at the audition, but I had to wait to find out. About two months before the start of the tour, I found out that it was me and Mats Levén that made it as the new guys.

DR:  For the 2016 tour, you sang "Christmas Dreams". Was that hashed out in the rehearsals?

DJ:  Yes. I did not know before that, but they try different singers on different songs and I was given "Christmas Dreams" because Paul thought I should be the storyteller of that song.

DR:  Did you get a lot of direction from Paul on how he wanted to sound and perform that song?

DJ:  He wanted the storytelling to come through.  There is no place for any vocal exhibitions or doing anything that broke from the character. All of the singers are characters in his story. TSO is Paul's vision and we are here to fulfill that story.

DR:  You came to TSO with so much experience of performing at big festivals and TV competitions and tours.  Were you nervous at all to tour with TSO?

DJ:  I was nervous in the beginning.  My first day at rehearsals, I am in the same room as many singers and musicians that I grew up listening to. After a few days, it all becomes normal. You go out to the bar with Soto and talk about his Malmsteen days, and then come back to the hotel to see Joel Hoekstra from Whitesnake there.  They are all just normal guys and good people and we really became close.  I love those guys. But to answer your question, Yes, I was nervous.  The first time I go out and sing for TSO being one of the new guys, with the audience watching and Paul watching - there is a some pressure there.  But by the end of the tour, I had found what I was searching for in those first few stage appearances.

DR:  Do you find the tour challenging, with so many days where two Shows are performed?

DJ:  It is a challenging tour.  Some people will say, "Oh you only sing one song", but I also sing backing vocals for many of the songs. I sang backings for "Who I Am", "Lost Christmas Eve", "This Christmas Day", "Music Box Blues, "What Child is This", and "Carmina Burana".  So it can be exhausting after two shows, we are happy to sleep in that tour bus.
Dino Jelusic with TSO, Kansas City, MO 2016
Photo Courtesy Carolyn Handy

I will tell you this, after coming back from the TSO tour and doing my band again, I found that some things became so much easier to me.  For example, I found some of the range that I couldn't hit before.

DR:   I understand that you were the singer on the Free and Bad Company songs that Paul Rodgers was planning on singing as you and the TSO band rehearsed them in the weeks leading up to his guest appearance.

DJ:  That was unreal.  They were hiding from us who would be the special guest on the tour.  At one point, Al Pitrelli told me that the guest is one of his five favorite vocalists.  So a few days later, I asked him to tell me his favorite vocalists. He named them and I started thinking and eliminating and I think I knew at that point it was Paul Rodgers. Finally, Al asked me if I knew the lyrics to "Can't Get Enough" and "All Right Now" and I said, "Of Course!" and I was Paul Rodgers for five or six rehearsals.

It was really something special having him there. He still looks great, moves great, and his voice is still clean like he is 25 years old. And meeting him I found out what a genuinely nice and generous man he is. Meeting him and Paul O'Neill really made me rethink what the goal is in being a rock star.  Paul O'Neill was very serious and always helped people. He did some things on tour, which will stay private, which made all of us singers happy and really inspired us.

DR:  This has been a tragic year within the TSO ranks with the deaths of Paul O'Neill and Dave Z. Can you talk about your relationship with both of them? I know you have only been with TSO for one season thus far, but any special memories that you could share?

DJ:  When Paul passed away, I was out of function for five days.  I started bringing back some memories - I was looking at this old American Silver Dollar that he gave me to carry for luck when I auditioned. He has done so much for TSO and for people like me, so now I appreciate him a thousand times more. During the auditions, he tried me out on a new track which was to be on a new TSO album. It was this country-blues song that he wrote in 1978 that he has tried with so many singers over the years and I got it! The irony is that I was in the airport, on my way to Tampa, to record that song when Paul O'Neill died.

With Dave Z, I got to know him in the rehearsals in Council Bluffs. We would have lunch together and I started training with him. He was so talented - he could sing, he could play, he could dance like Michael Jackson. And he was so funny - he was like a big child. After the TSO tour, I did a guest appearance with Jeff Scott Soto in Budapest; we did "Stand Up and Shout" together and Dave was Jeff's bass player.  I did some crazy harmonies on the chorus and when Jeff sang the verse, Dave came to me and told me how much I killed it on the harmonies.  He was so supportive all of the time. I remember our last conversation after that show - he was telling me how excited he was to start rehearsing with Adrenaline Mob and I told him that I have some connections with a big festival in Croatia and I wanted to see him and the band perform over here.  I really wish I could have been at his memorial - I just wasn't able to right now.

DR:  We have talked a lot about Animal Drive and TSO. Over the last couple of years, bands like Chaos Addict, The Ralph and Stone Leaders have all released albums with you on vocals or keys.  Are you still involved with any of these?

DJ:  I was involved in these bands but when I signed the contract with Frontiers, they wanted me to focus 100% on my band.  This is really good advice as you can't grow five bands at once and expect them all to be big. With Chaos Addict, I have worked with them for two years. I played live with them a lot and I sang a cover of Toto's "I Will Remember" for their debut album.

With The Ralph, I did the whole album, which came out in February 2017.  I wrote most of the lyrics for that album and sang lead.  With The Stone Leaders, I came into it that later as they needed vocals and keyboards.  Though I wasn't involved in the writing, I played all of the keyboard parts and solos and vocal melodies and I sing lead on "Box of Time". We recorded the album in 2015 and it is just now coming out. It features John Macaluso on drums, who is one of the greatest drummers in the world. We had a great time recording that album.

DR: We have talked so much about your music career. Lets wrap this up by having you tell me what you do for fun – what do you do when not performing?

DJ:  You know what I do?  Table Tennis! A lot.  I had to choose between singing and Table Tennis at one point. When I was touring last year with TSO, they have a table and the guys from the crew play Table Tennis. I started playing with them and started winning all of the time.  They asked me who I was because they had never seen me before - they thought I was a Table Tennis coach in disguise. [Laughs]  It definitely is one of my passions.

DR:  Dino, thanks so much and I will let you get back to the studio now.

DJ:  Thank You!  See you on the road!

For more information:

Dino Jelusić:

Animal Drive:

Saturday, May 6, 2017

A Conversation with Val Vigoda

Val Vigoda, the star of the current off-Broadway smash musical Ernest Shackleton Loves Me, has carved out quite a remarkable, uncommon musical career. This pioneering singer/songwriter, armed with her 6-string Viper violin, spent close to two decades with her band mates in the theatrical pop/rock trio GrooveLily, creating album after album of smart pop music and theater productions. Along the way, Val also scored arena-touring gigs with Cyndi Lauper and Joe Jackson. When “rock theater” juggernaut Trans-Siberian Orchestra first split into two touring casts, Vigoda secured the role of Concertmaster of the West Coast troupe. After a recent split with her longtime husband and musical partner, along with GrooveLily going on hiatus, Val has come out swinging. She recently released her empowering new live-looping solo album, joined up with the innovative Electrify Your Strings music education program and has landed in New York with her long-in-development epic musical adventure about Antarctic explorer Ernest Shackleton. While Val points out how inspirational Shackleton was on his voyage, we learn here how inspiring Val herself is. In this in-depth chat, we touch on all of that and more.

Dan Roth: How did you come to choose the violin as your instrument of choice?

Val Vigoda: I have music in my family going back many generations. My grandfather was a cantor and my Dad was a wonderful jazz pianist. From the time I could walk, I was sitting on the piano bench with my Dad and starting to read music. By the time I got to elementary school, I wanted to play an instrument and I really wanted to learn the trumpet. I had just lost my baby teeth so they wanted me to wait a year for the trumpet, but they needed violinists in the orchestra. Instead of waiting a year, I decided to go with the violin and I fell in love with it. I am so glad that I did not go with my original instinct to play the trumpet because I would never be able to do what I do today.

DR: Who has inspired you musically along the way?

VV:  From the classical side of the instrument - Nathan Milstein, Jascha Heifetz, Itzhak Perlman, Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg, Joshua Bell, my teachers Ed Johonnott and Danny Heifetz. As far as violinists from outside the classical realm, musicians like Mark Wood, Joe Deninzon, Julie Lyonne Lieberman, Christian Howes, and so many others...all really joyful players using the instrument in such diverse and creative ways.

DR: I had read that it took you a decade or so to rid yourself of the "violin face". What did you mean by that?

VV: Ah, the "violin face"! We are taught as classical string players in such a fear-based way. (And to be clear, I’m not referring here to my specific teachers, but the overall gestalt of classical learning.) It is all about precision and hitting that right note and God forbid you tap your foot. As students, we are taught to practice putting our fingers in the correct place on this weird instrument that is very unnatural and counter-intuitive -- and then, if you get really good, you get to go play for the “jury.” (!) I remember playing for the jury and I couldn't stop my knees from shaking, being so concerned with how they would grade me. It was really the opposite of what music should be about.

I found that I could not smile and concentrate on playing at the same time. I looked like I was stern, almost angry when I played. It was not until I started getting into bands and playing music that wasn't classical that people started to notice and would tell me that I looked like I was not having fun. It was a physical reflex - I was so used to concentrating on playing correctly, with a certain grimness associated with that, that it took me a long time to relax, enjoy and re-engage with the simple joy of playing music.

DR: You are also that rare violinist that sings lead as well. Since you do both beautifully, tell me about that journey - did that come naturally? What are the challenges?

VV: Well thank you for those kind words. For most of my early life, singing and playing the violin were two very separate activities for me. I have always been a singer; I think it probably came from my grandfather (a renowned cantor with a gorgeous tenor voice). I was always in choirs, and in college I was in an a cappella group. When I was eight years old, I started playing the violin and got serious about it pretty fast. I got involved in chamber groups and orchestras. It wasn't until I was a teenager and started writing songs that I even thought about combining these two skills. 

When I first tried to do it, it felt like my brain was being split apart in this incredibly uncomfortable way. Just singing one note and playing that same note at the same time was so difficult and very unnatural. One night at The Bitter End, I saw Allison Cornell sing backups and play the violin with Rachael Sage. It was my first time seeing someone multi-task like that and it really inspired me. I spent a couple of years making my brain hurt, trying to sing and play at the same time. After a while, I could sing while playing a simple part on the violin, Over the years, it's just gotten easier and easier to the point where it now feels natural to me and I can do different counter-meters and odd rhythms and different kinds of harmonies with myself.

The biggest breakthrough for me on this journey was finding the Viper, which is designed and built by Mark Wood.  Playing a violin that has a chin rest means having your neck area squashed a bit. That meant to me that either the singing suffered or the playing suffered. As soon as I discovered that I could have this different design with the harness and the freeing nature of the way that the Viper is designed, it really changed my world. I could sing better, I could play better.

DR: It really seems like the perfect instrument for what you do. I have seen it noted that you were the first female Viper player. Do you like that pioneering moniker?

VV: Absolutely! I was Mark's first female client and I am honored to hold that distinction. That instrument really has defined what I do going forward.

DR: How many strings does your Viper have? And do you enjoy the extended range?

VV: It has six strings and Yes! I love having those fifth and sixth strings. For so long, as a member of GrooveLily, it was mostly just the three of us - keyboard, drums, and electric violin. So when performing we had to fill up as much musical space as we could, and having that low C and low F string for power chords and rhythm-guitar-esque sounds while I am singing is just perfect. It really helped fill out our sound and I love being able to roll full arpeggios.

DR: When you compose songs, do you write them on a piano or on the violin?

VV: Both; it depends on the song. I do more and more on the violin - I have had it for so long and I can think more chordally and harmonically on the instrument than I used to be able to. I used to always write on a keyboard first and then try and translate it to the violin, which was a bit of an unwieldy process.

DR: When you write, are you more lyric-minded or music-driven?

VV:  I am such a verbal person. I almost always will start with the meaning, the content, the lyrics and then the music. For many years, I was collaborating with my "wasband" [Laughs] and we used to say that our skill sets were almost like a graph. I think in terms of melody and words (linear, X-axis) and he is a "chord" person, thinking harmonically (vertical, Y-axis). Together we worked very well that way. For a time, we were incredibly prolific; we were churning out writing assignments as quickly as possible and we found that my verbal facility and his harmonic facility made for a fast, efficient way of composing. I would be being more of a lyricist for a time, while he stuck to the music. It is only lately that I am finding my way back to writing more music again.

DR: In May of 1994, you released your first album, Inhabit My Heart, with the single "Raindance". This was before you had formed GrooveLily and before your Viper even?

Raindance - Music Video

VV: Yes, though we did eventually re-brand it as a GrooveLily album and we as a group would perform some songs from it in concert.

DR: From there you formed the trio, GrooveLily, with whom you released ten or so albums. Where did the name come from?

VV: When I was thinking of band names, I knew I wanted one word and I wanted that word to represent what we were about, which was the combination of rhythm and beauty. This image of a dancing flower came into my head which is a GrooveLily! I had a friend who is an artist and I asked him to draw that and he came up with our logo. It was this flower with a blossoming top and then petals and stem akimbo, which I loved.

If anyone is looking to name their band, don't name it something that is hard to say or hard to pronounce or hard to spell. [Laughs] That was a big issue.

DR: Most artists aren't crazy about having their music labeled or put into a defining category, but it does become necessary to help sell and promote the band. GrooveLily, at least in the first few albums, was difficult to categorize. You were playing both the college circuit and folk festivals with this unique instrument lineup playing a jazzy, pop, smart blend of pop music with an occasional theatrical feel as well. How did you see the band? What was GrooveLily about?

Breathe-In Breathe-Out (2002)

VV: That's a really good question. We always had a lot of trouble with this. We were always a theatrical pop/rock trio. We always had a branding and marketing problem. We would try to explain our sound by saying ridiculous things like: if Steely Dan, Paula Cole and Bruce Hornsby got stuck in an elevator together and they had a baby that played the violin... [Laughs] I always thought of us a combination of head and heart; smart, well-crafted songs that are real. We always got the same reaction from the industry, which was "This is interesting, this is original, this is refreshing, I would love to have this music in my library, I don't know how to describe it, I can't sell this." [Laughs]

DR: The band was unique in being a violin/keyboard/drums trio. Did you ever think about expanding the sound with other instruments?

VV: We did. For a while, we became a 5-piece band with guitar and bass. It was great but it was also expensive, quixotic and great fun. [Laughs] The violin can be a rock instrument but there is something about a guitar that cannot be replaced. I loved adding the sound of a guitar and bass to fill it out but I also really liked us as a trio.

DR: There definitely was a noticeable shift in what GrooveLily was doing in their first five or six releases and the release of Striking 12: The New GrooveLily Musical in 2004.

VV:  We tried being a square peg in a round hole for years when we were trying to make it in the "music industry". We kept trying to do things that were radio-friendly and come up with that elusive hit song. We tried to smooth out our rough edges. We were quirky as hell. We had three lead singers from three different backgrounds. I came from a classical background and listening to singer-songwriters, Brendan came from the world of ‘80s pop and musical theater, and Gene was a jazz drummer. There was no other band for us to follow or say, "We want to be just like them" [Laughs] It wasn't until we did what seemed like a thousand unsuccessful showcases for record labels that we took what they said to heart. We would always hear, "You are a little too theatrical. You sound like Broadway." so we finally decide to treat that as a feature instead of a bug. To make that turn into the world of theater was what made our career take off. When we wrote Striking 12, we knew we had found our niche. 

The timing was such that the trend to have musician-actors hadn't happened yet. We were really pioneers in that way. The John Doyle production of Sweeney Todd hadn't happened yet, for instance. When we showcased our Striking 12 show in 2004 at the National Alliance for Musical Theatre, it was a bit of a shock for everyone. We came out on stage to our violin and keyboard and drum set in front of this audience filled with all of these New York and regional theater movers and shakers and they were waiting for the actors to come out. We proceeded to do the whole thing ourselves. We were literally swamped with offers and that changed our lives. We were not only gaining notoriety in the theater world but also as writers for others.

Caution to the Wind (2005)

DR: The band continued in that musical theater world, creating A Little Midsummer Night's Music, Sleeping Beauty Wakes, and Wheelhouse. Looking back, do you have a favorite album that really still resonates with you?

VV: Tough question. I feel like Striking 12 is when we let go of all of the anxiety and said, "This is who we are." For that reason, I love that record. I love looking back at the early stuff and finding the seeds of what we were able to do later. As far as quality of songs and recording, I would have to pick the Sleeping Beauty Wakes album.

DR: Is GrooveLily on hiatus? What is its status?

VV: We are definitely on a hiatus right now and I do not know if there will ever be a reunion. Brendan has said he is not interested in performing anymore.Gene and I have been talking about doing something together. Here is my dream: Striking 12. 2018. The 12th anniversary of being on Off-Broadway. Me, Gene, Ben Folds.

DR: Does Ben Folds know about this dream?

VV: No. [Laughs] That's why I'm putting it out there.

DR: In the late '90s, in addition to GrooveLily, you were touring arenas with Cyndi Lauper and Joe Jackson.

VV:  Playing with both of them were such fantastic and different experiences. With Cyndi, it was really trial by fire. My first performance with her was live on a big-time morning drive radio show here in New York City and I was playing mandolin for the first time. I didn't even have my Viper. I was there with this strange instrument playing live [Laughs]

Cyndi is so great about having female musicians in her band and really championing them. I got that gig after someone that worked for her saw me at a GrooveLily showcase and they called me because they were looking for a violinist/vocalist. It was my first time playing arenas; we opened for Tina Turner on one tour and then a couple years later we were opening for Cher.

Cyndi Lauper performance with Val Vigoda (1997)

I toured with Joe Jackson in 1998 and 1999, in between the two Cyndi Lauper tours. He was touring his Heaven and Hell album that Sony Classical released. That same violinist that I mentioned earlier that I had seen at the Bitter End playing with Rachael Sage all those years ago was now Joe's violinist but she couldn't do this tour. Joe flew to New Orleans to see the Cyndi Lauper concert and auditioned me afterwards. It was a real departure from what he had done before. For the tour it was him, Elise Morris on keys and me on violin and vocals. So in addition to all of great rock and roll songs that he is known for, we were also doing this classical song cycle.

DR: On each of those tours with Lauper and Jackson, many of their classic songs were presented in a different way. Did you have some input in to how you would be playing them at all?

VV: Somewhat, yes. Both of them were interested in re-imagining the songs that they had played thousands of times.

DR: Let's chat a bit about your time with Trans-Siberian Orchestra. After an initial tour in 1999, they split into two touring groups in 2000. Mark Wood was the original and founding String Master and went to the East touring group after they split into two. You took on that role with the West touring group for the 2000 and 2001 tours. Tell me how you became part of this.

VV:  Mark Wood told them that he had just the right person for the West Coast cast and here she is. There was no audition. I was hired, given the music to learn and told where to show up for rehearsals. Boom.

DR: Were you familiar with TSO before this?

VV: I had actually played in the "local strings" section when they played the Beacon Theater in 1999.

DR: Did you work with Mark at all during the rehearsals?

VV: A little bit. I was mostly on my own. I had the music and I really concentrated on that so I would be ready by the time we got the first string section that I would have to lead. I remember the tours were a really grueling routine though for the concertmaster. I was given two hours to rehearse each string section, for the two-hour-and-twenty-minute Show! And then part of the gig with TSO is the autograph line and that is like a whole other gig. [Laughs] It was 90 minutes or so of signing and talking with fans. After that we would finally get back on the bus, drive overnight and then be at our next gig in the morning. I would always make a point of hitting a gym first thing - even if it was just for six minutes so I could work out a bit and move. Then it would be on to the two hours with the string section, then the show, then the autograph line. Rinse and repeat. [Laughs]

DR: With TSO having been around for so long now, I think most string players that are interested in playing at their Shows have a good idea what they are getting into.

VV: These people did not. [Laughs]

DR: 2000 was the first "West Coast" TSO tour so they were hitting areas outside of the East for the very first time. Were you getting a lot of classically-trained musicians?

VV:  All classically trained. And they varied widely in their ability to pick up music quickly. My favorite group of all were technically possibly the least-skilled players that we had hired for the tours but they were so wonderful - I don't want to say anything bad about them. I am talking about the El Paso string players who were almost all family and they were so happy to be there. They had the best attitude and were joyful; they did not have "violin face"[Laughs] They were so excited to be part of the Show and they were an absolute pleasure to work with. They did not hit their high D's, I didn't even care because they were so joyful. Then you go to big cities like Chicago or Minneapolis-St. Paul where you are drawing on musicians from major orchestras and some of those players who were technically amazing were such a drag.

I spent a lot of time in the rehearsals getting the players used to working in this new environment. I worked with them on getting them not to put their violin on their knees. Classical violinists aren't used to working with amps and mics and feedback. Often they would play and then at a rest, place their violin right in front of the speaker causing terrible feedback. Also, the mic attached to the instrument would pick up their breathing, which we would have to work on.

I am so glad that I had the opportunity to have that gig. It was great for practicing, flexibility and leadership skills. It was also a great help in developing my stage presence; jumping on things, waving my bow around and feeding off of all that rock energy. The whole job as their concertmaster is never-ending, just constant motion.

DR: Did you get much direction during your time on how they wanted you to look or perform?

VV: Oh no. I just played, ran around the stage, jumped on things, waved my bow around and riled people up. [Laughs] It was a great time, especially on songs like "Mozart". I basically followed Mark's lead on what he was doing with the East group.

DR: I’ve interviewed other performers from those early TSO casts and many of them – particularly on the West – have mentioned that those early tours had more of an emphasis on their performance and personality and chemistry with the audience rather than the effects and spectacle that is there today. I have heard fun stories of rubber chickens, silly string and much more on stage. Can you speak to that?

VV: Oh yeah. It was so much fun touring with those guys. I remember vocalist Kay Story was singing that heartfelt Stevie Nicks song "Landslide" and they would torment her trying to get her to break character, One night, I think it was a little toy mouse on a string that was creeping along the stage and Kay kneels down and starts petting it, completely unfazed; it was awesome. [Laughs] There were so many pranks being played. They were such a wonderful group of people but I was somewhat apart from them because I was always running off to do rehearsals with the strings.

I had such a great time. I had never before really had the experience of almost commanding the audience to applaud, gesturing in that almost-pompous way to the audience while performing. [Laughs] It was a lot of fun.  Mark was great at that because he naturally does it without being pompous.

DR: The cast was really a melting pot – metal rockers, Broadway performers, journeyman rockers. Anyone you really connected with?

VV: Oh sure. Malcolm Gold who was the bassist on the 2001 tour later toured with GrooveLily when we went to a 5-piece. John Margolis wound up being my neighbor in NYC and we did a gig together. So many great people - I loved Sophia Ramos - she is just an amazing, fierce vocalist. And of course Michael Lanning, Paul Morris, Kay Story, Damon LaScot, Rebecca Simon, and I loved touring with Al Pitrelli and Jane Mangini. Everyone on the bus was just so much fun.

DR: So after the 2001 tour, you were gone from the TSO stage.

VV: Yes, though they did ask me back to tour the next year. I will always be grateful to TSO though - because it was around this time, as I mentioned earlier, that we, as GrooveLily, decided as a band to move into more of a theatrical mode and TSO was the inspiration for us to write our own holiday concert with a story, Striking 12!

DR: Over the last few years, there has been a bit of a "Val Vigoda Renaissance" – The Ernest Shackleton Loves Me musical, your new solo album Just Getting Good, and your recent work with Mark Wood's Electrify Your Strings! music program. What prompted this flurry of activity?

VV: It's so interesting. Both Ernest Shackleton Loves Me and Just Getting Good were precipitated by the fact that I love performing so much and I get such energy and exhilaration from it. Brendan, who was my collaborator for so long, couldn't care less if he ever steps on to a stage again. He much prefers now to be behind the scenes, writing and arranging. Musicals can take a long time to ripen; we have been working on Shackleton since 2009. This all came about with us trying to write something together where I would perform and he wouldn't have to.

We had just seen this incredible museum exhibit about British Antarctic explorer Ernest Shackleton that really inspired us. Shackleton has to be one of the most inspiring, optimistic heroes ever. That exhibit just blew me away and really stuck with me. We then got the opportunity to write something for me with the amazing playwright Joe DiPietro. Joe asked, "What do you want to write about?" . I told him that we had seen several one-person shows that were autobiographical and I really didn't want to do that. I remember telling him, "I want to do something big, something epic and adventurous, I don’t know, like, Ernest Shackleton!" [Laughs] We told Joe the saga of Shackleton's trip to Antarctica as well as the story of how he insisted that this 14-pound banjo be carried along their trek and be used to keep up the spirits of his men. Joe came back to us with an outline of a one-person show called Ernest Shackleton Loves Me.

DR: Was it similar to where you are at with it today?

VV: In a way. We brought a director in and we did a read-through. The director liked it but said, "You are singing about Ernest Shackleton. You're telling us the story of Shackleton. Where is he?"  We realized that this really needed to be a two-person show and that's when things really took off. One of the big aspects of the show was that my character is a modern composer that plays electric violin, very much like me [Laughs], and this character was using live looping. Again, musicals take a really long time. We started this in 2009 and here we are in 2017 finally hitting New York. While we were waiting for this to get produced, we decided to use this looping technology that we were learning to create something that we could be in charge of, so Just Getting Good was something that we created together as well. The themes of both projects are all about spreading your wings as a self-reliant, empowered, courageous human being. Ernest Shackleton Loves Me is really a feminist manifesto of hope, optimism and not relying on others. So these themes were all there as we created them together, but now that both are seeing the light of day and Brendan and I are no longer together, it sort of all makes sense in hindsight.

DR: I find it interesting that you had this theme, particularly on Just Getting Good. It is such an empowering album lyrically. The title track speaks of “just getting good” and standing your ground. “If You Believe” talks about doing what you love and believing in who you are. “Level Up” talks about overcoming feeling alone and afraid. “Larger Than Life” talks about helping yourself and leaving the past behind.

VV:  All of the songs on this album are in alignment with that theme.

DR: Was it challenging to start working without a band?

VV: Hugely challenging. It was the same "My brain is coming apart" feeling that I had long ago when I first tried to sing and play the violin at the same time. [Laughs] For such a long time, I was one who did not embrace technology, but for performing with live looping I dived in. It was a steep learning curve but eventually it got easier and I became more comfortable with it all. I keep a picture hanging up for inspiration; it is a woman embracing a man who is entirely made up of images from the Ableton Live music production software. It reminds me of falling in love with technology and that's what I have been doing for the past few years. It's really all about planning and multi-tasking and is another approach to creating music.

DR: Do you rely on a lot of foot pedals when performing this way?

VV: Yes, mostly as navigational pedals. The patch changes are in the computer so it does involve some pre-planning.

DR: This album contains some of your songs from your career but here in fresh new arrangements. For instance, I noticed that you re-did "If You Believe" which is a song that you wrote for one of the Tinkerbell movies and "Thaw" which was on an older GrooveLily album. How did you pick which to tackle?

VV: I looked at many of the songs that had become favorites in their new arrangements over the past five years. I had done a version of Peter Gabriel's "In Your Eyes" early on and that didn't quite make the cut because the arrangement was not that interesting. I did go with "Thaw" which you mentioned but it was a new arrangement that I put together in memory of my mom. I mashed it up with "Irish Lullaby" which she used to sing to me. Thaw is such a meaningful song to me and I feel like adding in the "Irish Lullaby" portion has made it even better.

But we chose songs that thematically were in alignment. We wrote "Just Getting Good" and that was the name of this concept so they had to fit. This was recorded in concert and the concert was actually longer but we discarded a couple songs before we arrived at the eleven on the album.

DR:  Another interesting song choice is a song that dates back to the 1850’s: “Hard Times Come No More”.

VV:  That is just a beautiful song that was on our radar for a while. Eastmountainsouth does a great version of it as does James Taylor.  My version has Brendan's arrangement and has some beautiful reharmonizations in it that I love.

DR:  Let's talk a bit more about your musical, Ernest Shackleton Loves Me which you are now starring in at the Tony Kiser Theatre here in New York. You mentioned earlier that it has been in the works since 2009?

VV:  It was first commissioned by TheatreWorks in Palo Alto and La Jolla Playhouse came on board as well. It has gone through readings, several workshops, three developmental productions and here we are finally in New York!

DR:  Do you enjoy acting along with playing, singing and composing?

VV:  I love it!! I used to have a fear of it because I am not necessarily a trained actor. But really acting is really just an extension of communicating with your audience, and it’s all about presence. I have been taking some Meisner classes in Seattle which have been super fun.

DR:  Has the show's story changed at all for this New York run?

VV:  There have been some tweaks along the way, and yes, for those that have seen any of the prior productions, there are some changes that you will pick up on. I’d say it’s 30% different from our last production. We’ve been doing a lot of work over the past month!!

DR:  I don't want to spoil it for anyone that has not yet seen it, but does Shackleton still make his entrance to the stage in the same fashion as the 2015 New Jersey production?

VV:  He does! [Laughs] I think it is one of the great musical theater entrances!

DR:  You are playing a Viper on stage. There is a second Viper on stage during the show. Is that a backup?

VV:  I do play both of them in the show, mainly for logistical reasons. One is upstage and one is downstage. I use one for the opening number and the other for the rest of the show. Superstitiously, I always have two with me though. When Striking 12 opened Off-Broadway, during opening night with all of the press there, I was using one but I had a second one on the stage purely as set dressing because my director liked the look of it.  In the middle of the show, in the midst of the most exposed moment as I was soloing, the violin stopped working. There was complete silence on stage as I was mentally running through what could have happened - volume, battery - and I was trying not to show in my face what was happening. I very calmly walked over, grabbed the other violin and started playing. It had turned out that a piece of solder had come loose and there was no way that I would have been able to continue on. That was a life-changing, career-defining evening. We ended up with rave reviews from the New York Times and it all worked out well, but now having two just makes me feel better.[Laughs]

DR:  Similarly to your past work, Ernest Shackleton Loves Me is uniquely tailored to you and your talents. Striking 12 certainly has continued on with various casts performing it. Can you see Shackleton without you?

VV:  We totally want to license the show and we will. There are definitely ways to do that which we are going to explore. We have already seen that the show can go on without me as we had the wonderful Angel Desai step into the role for some shows during the New Jersey run. We have also discussed making the lead character of Kat not necessarily be an electric violinist. She would still be a musician but maybe she plays a different instrument. At the moment, there are some very specific gestures and dialogue moments that are about the spark that comes from the electric violin but those could be adapted if need be. But at the moment, we are just making the show as good as it can be with me on the Viper.

DR:  Tell me about your co-star Wade McCollum. He has been in this musical with you for some time? Do you enjoy working together?  Was he been the only person to play Shackleton so far?

VV:  I love Wade! He is not the first to play that role though. The first actor to play Shackleton was Will Swenson who is a fantastic Broadway star (he did an early reading with us). I had met Wade through our work with Disney. We had written Toy Story The Musical and Wade was our first Woody. When the opportunity came up for Shackleton, we connected again. He is such an inspirational, buoyant person and perfect for this role.

DR:  The story of the real-life Shackleton was so resilient and inspirational and I feel like in the musical, Kat is inspired by him as much as he is inspired by her music and it ultimately is a love story. How would you describe this to someone who has not yet seen it?

VV:  It's an adventure love story across a century of time. She finds self-reliance and hope and optimism from him and realizes that she can be "Shackleton" for her son. She doesn't have to settle and she doesn't have to be beholden to someone who doesn't respect her and that she can do this on her own.

DR:  What kind of audiences have you been seeing? Besides fans of musicals, have you captured the interest of history fans as well?

VV:  We started the show in Seattle and we found that not only were we getting fans of tech and games, but also Coast Guard members and people on ice-breaking ships! We are even doing an event at The Explorers Club where they have Shackleton's original sextant and some of his family are going to Skype in for it. So we have been seeing the Shackleton people, the gaming people, the electric violin fans, fans of musicals.

DR:  You had quite an active fan base from your GrooveLily days called the Petal Pushers.

VV:  Yes! And I have seen many of them at these shows as it has developed. It is very heartening to find that what I am doing now is still resonating with them as much as GrooveLily did. Many of them continue to be in my world, not only as fans but also as friends.

DR:  A couple of years ago you started working with Mark Wood at his Mark Wood Rock Orchestra Camp and in his Electrify Your Strings! program. What led you to reconnecting with Mark?

VV:  I did stay in touch with Mark over the years but not very actively until two years ago. I had some upheaval going on in my life and I finally was looking up and out again,. It is very easy when you are married to your collaborator to be sort of hermetically sealed while working and not be as connected to the other people in your professional sphere as much. I realized that I was not part of the electric violin community and I reached out to Mark and Laura [Kaye] and asked if I could just come visit their Rock Orchestra Camp and immerse myself in that community. I went there just as a 'camper' and met all of these wonderful musicians there to learn and the talented faculty that they have.  Afterwards, Mark brought me on board for his Electrify Your Strings! music programs and as a faculty member for the camp.
Val Vigoda at the Mark Wood Rock Orchestra Camp Music Festival 2016
Photo Courtesy of Heather Cobb Isbell

DR:  At his camp, each of the faculty members focuses on different aspects while teaching. What is in your "curriculum"?

VV:   I love working with students, particularly there where they are so eager. I work with them a lot on presence, improv and full engagement. I play some theater games with them and we break out of that fearful stance - that "violin face". We reconnect with the joy of doing what we do. Simultaneous singing and playing, lyric writing...we get to do a lot over a short period of time!

DR:  You have so much going in your life right now, is there anything that you still have your sights set on?

VV:  Even though it has been eight years in the making, Ernest Shackleton Loves Me is such a huge passion project for me and is just hitting New York now. That is my focus for the moment. and who knows what its future may be? Once it is open and off the ground, I am adding on a project in the world of motivational speaking. It will include some of my work with Just Getting Good, some of what I present in Electrify Your Strings. It’s all about peak aliveness. I hope to incorporate stories from Shackleton, stories from my Army training, working with Cyndi Lauper - all things that have brought me to where I am today.

DR:  Sounds wonderful! Thanks so much for taking the time today.

VV:  My pleasure!

For more information:

Val Vigodahttps://www.valvigoda.com

Val Vigoda Twitter:  https://twitter.com/valvigoda

Val Vigoda YouTube Channel: https://www.youtube.com/user/ValerieVigoda

Ernest Shackleton Loves Me: http://ernestshackletonlovesme.com

GrooveLily: https://groovelily.bandcamp.com/music

Mark Wood Rock Orchestra Camp: https://www.mwroc.com

Electrify Your Strings: http://www.electrifyyourstrings.com

Saturday, November 19, 2016

A Conversation with Fred Gorhau

Hailing from the fertile musical ground of New Jersey, guitarist Fred Gorhau has been a constant fixture on the New Jersey/New York metal scene for over twenty years.  Though steeped in the long tradition of '80s Power Metal, for the last six years Gorhau has been spreading his wings musically and geographically as part of the Yuletide rock ensemble The Wizards of Winter. I caught up with Fred as he and the band are rehearsing for their upcoming 2016 holiday tour.  Fred talks about his history with The Wizards and what it's been like working with many of the former members of Trans-Siberian Orchestra as well as being managed by metal legend Jon Zazula.  We also discuss his long association with the Power Metal band Exxplorer, his current work with Dark Sky Choir and Living Colour's Corey Glover.  

Dan Roth: When did you start playing guitar?

Fred Gorhau: I was about 13 years old. My father lent me the money - $45 at the time - and I paid him back $5 a week out of money from my paper route.  I would say it was well worth it.

DR:  Any particular bands or albums that inspired you early on?

FG:  KISS was probably my favorite band growing up. They were just so influential. As I got older I started getting into Rainbow, AC/DC and bands like that.

DR:  Do you recall what the first song was that you learned to play on your guitar?

FG:  "Day Tripper" by the Beatles.  My neighbor at the time had a nephew that had already been playing.  He came over to her house, was playing and I said, "I have one of those!" [Laughs]  He taught me how to tune it and how to play "Day Tripper" and I never looked back.

DR:  From a technical standpoint, is there one guitarist that influenced your playing?

FG:  Although I was a KISS fan for the longest time, I quickly gravitated towards Ritchie Blackmore. His classically influenced sound, alternate picking and his use of modes really sounded different to anything I had heard. As a teen, I got into Rainbow with Ronnie James Dio. Blackmore wrote a lot in harmonic minor and Dio's writing really complimented that.  After Blackmore, I gravitated towards Eddie Van Halen which was a game changer and then of course Yngwie Malmsteen.

DR:  Do you still practice and work on your scales?

FG:  Yeah, I do.  I think it's important.  When Randy Rhodes was touring with Ozzy, he would still stop and take lessons when he had a day off.  I still take lessons when I can.  There is always room to learn new things and make yourself better.  As recently as 2015, I was taking skype lessons from this monster guitar player in California named Dave Nassie. He really helped me out a lot.  But yeah, I still practice my scales because you can lose some of the control and attack if you don't practice them often.
Fred Gorhau with The Wizards of Winter
Count Basie Theater, Red Bank, NJ  Nov 2015
Photo Courtesy Sean Tobin

DR:  Starting in the 1980's, New Jersey had a large presence on the metal scene, with Jon Zazula's legendary Rock N Roll Heaven record store, his label Megaforce Records, Metallica recording and living there, and the incredible support that the area gave to metal bands.  Were you involved in that at all?

FG:  I wasn't part of the original Old Bridge Metal Militia, but that scene definitely was huge in my life.  I would go to Jonny Z's record store and pick up all of the import metal records that were coming out at the time. I remember picking up the new Angelwitch record, the new Accept record, the new Motorhead record.  That scene with Jonny's record store and then his label being at the middle of it all was what we knew growing up here.

DR:  Were you involved in a lot of different bands as you were spreading your wings with your playing?

FG:  I was in a few different cover bands.  I was in a band called Push in the '80s and we had a pretty big following.  We did the whole [legendary Brooklyn rock venue] L'Amour scene and opened for many of the national acts that came through L'Amour. We opened for Kix, Extreme, Dangerous Toys, Kings X.  We must have opened for Blue Oyster Cult a dozen or so times.  Push was pretty much my first venture to playing outside of the basement.

DR:  For many metal fans outside of the NJ/NY area, their first taste of hearing you play was when you joined Exxplorer. They had an interesting but sporadic history. You joined them for their third album?

FG:  Exxplorer were local heroes when I was growing up. They were the first band that I knew the members of that got a record deal. By the time I joined the band, they had already released records on Black Dragon and MetalBlade Records. They were quite a big deal in Europe and have a nice following.  I joined the band in 1993.  They had just released their second album and were booked for some shows in Europe when they found themselves in need of a guitarist.  At the time, I was teaching at the drummer's music store and he asked me if I was interested.  Of course I said, "Yes" and he says, "Great, Your audition is tonight.".  So I pulled out their classic Symphonies of Steel album; I had eight or nine students that night and each one of them got to learn an Exxplorer song. [Laughs]

I auditioned that night and got the gig.  We then went into the studio to record the band's third album, Coldblackugly. That album featured a new lead vocalist and the songs on it were not classic-style Exxplorer.  I like the music on it and I like the vocals, but looking back on it, it probably should not have been an Exxplorer album. It was a lot closer to a Tool or Marilyn Manson record than it was Exxplorer.  The album was well received to those who like that style, but it did not go over well to Exxplorer and Power Metal fans.

They were a great band though.  I was with them for twenty years and played in Europe three different times with them.

DR:  It often seems to be the case that metal bands have larger followings in Europe than here in the U.S.  Was that true of Exxplorer as well?

FG:  Oh yeah.  When we played here, we would play for 200-300 fans. In Europe, we were playing small and medium-sized festivals with thousands of metal fans.  In Europe, music is part of their lifestyle. They book their vacations around the festivals - the small ones and the big ones.

DR:  You mentioned that  Coldblackugly got away from the Exxplorer sound, but it seemed to be back with a vengeance with the 2011 album, Vengeance Rides an Angry Horse.

FG:  We had taken a bit of a hiatus - 10 or 12 years and getting back together was all because of some renewed interest in the band over in Europe.

DR:  The reviews for that album were great. Comparisons were being made to Omen, Jag Panzer, Accept. Possibly most importantly, it was being favorably compared to the band's original sound.

FG:  Musically it definitely was in the right direction for the band and even the production resembled the earlier albums.  It's honest, it's raw - all in all I think it's a very good record.  Songs are really strong and it's complete old school '80s metal.

DR:  Is Exxplorer still active today?

FG:  I'm not sure.  They did a festival a year or two ago.  I'm no longer with them; they are back with their original lineup and I think that's the way Exxplorer should be.  I think they are a better band without me in it.

DR:  That's a surprising and honest thing to hear.

FG:  Well, I ran into some over-playing things with them. I don't think they always agreed with how I played or do things that I thought belonged in the songs.  It's a little different with the Wizards where I can work on a song or a riff, send it to Scott to see what he thinks and often I will get a message back that says, "Sounds great!  Can you do it in harmony?" [Laughs].  I can spread my wings with The Wizards where I felt a little stifled with Exxplorer.

DR:  Speaking of The Wizards of Winter, tell me how you came to be a lead guitarist with them.

FG:  I was looking for a side project and stumbled upon their ad.  The first time I contacted them, it didn't quite work out because they were just rehearsing and I was looking for a paying gig.  As luck would have it, about a year later after their first tour, they put another ad out.  At that time, I was a little better financially and could afford to do a side gig and not get paid.  Of course, they started out as a charity and there was no money.

DR:  This is when they were still strictly a Trans-Siberian Orchestra tribute band?

FG:  Yes, mainly a tribute band and we were playing churches to raise money for food pantries and the like.  It was a great gig because I always loved TSO's music and this was a cool opportunity to play some of it for a good cause.  Plus, available gigs tend to dry up a bit around the holidays.

DR:  Is there any TSO song that you particular enjoyed playing?

FG:  Nothing stands out.  I enjoy playing most of them really.  They are fun songs to play and well-written.

DR:  The Wizards of Winter are now a full-fledged original act.  Talk about that transition.

FG:  We were getting so many requests from fans at our shows asking where they could purchase our album.  Of course there wasn't one.  Scott Kelly, our keyboardist and musical director, had already been working on some original demos to mix in to the show so we started working on those.  It was really a natural progression. We released our self-titled album in 2014 and everyone seemed to like it.  We went right back into the studio and started work on the second record, The Magic of Winter.  That record took us seven months to write, record and release it.  We felt that was pretty good because there are some bands that take years to release albums.  I am really proud of it.

DR:  Your original music is a mixture of metal, progressive rock, and even some ballads.  As a long-time metal guitarist, do you enjoy playing such a diverse set of genres?

FG:  I actually do. That diversity helps keep me interested and enthused about playing this music. For example, there is a beautiful ballad on the The Magic of Winter that Mary McIntyre sings ("I Am Here") that is primarily piano and flute and then the bass and drums kick in. I had to write a solo for it and it was a great opportunity for me to write just a nice melodic solo that fit the song. It wound up being one of my favorite solos on the record.

DR:  The band has certainly grown over the years to the point now where you are on the calendar for many concert-going fans during the holiday season. Have there been many growing pains?

FG:  Well there is always the comparison to TSO and that's fine.  I know from talking to some of the original TSO members that they went through a similar thing with Mannheim Steamroller when they were first coming out.  They had people telling them that they were crazy for trying because Mannheim Steamroller had the Christmas live scene locked up.  Plus, trying to expand geographically gets expensive. Even though we don't have the huge production that TSO has, we still travel with a crew of twenty and you can't just easily throw the guys and equipment in the back of a van and head out.  We are still self-financed and pay our own way. We don't have an investor that dropped six zeroes on us.

DR:  You have mentioned how much you like TSO and enjoyed playing their music. Even though you got a great response from the audience doing that, is it more satisfying playing your own guitar parts rather than Al Pitrelli’s?

FG:  Absolutely. It's always better playing your own stuff.

DR:  Starting with the 2013 tour, you caught the attention of many of the legendary fan-favorite performers who were part of TSO for many years. So far, five former TSO members (Tommy Farese, Tony Gaynor, Michael Lanning, Guy LeMonnier and Joe Cerisano) have toured with you. What have they brought to the table? Have you enjoyed working with them?

FG:  I have enjoyed working with them, for sure.  One of the main things they brought to us besides their talent was their experience.  Not all of the Wizards members had a touring background.  The former TSO guys were all there on those early TSO tours and they had gone through it with them, so they helped us navigate what to expect a bit.  They also helped us with some of our live sound expectations. Most bands tend to speed up a lot of their songs when playing live.  Tommy Farese in particular helped us realize that we need to slow down the TSO songs a bit because of how the sound comes back at the audience in the larger theaters we were have been playing. If you play it too fast, the audience winds up hearing a mish-mosh, especially with two keyboards, two guitars, flute, violin, and the rhythm section, not to mention the multi-part vocals - there is a lot that can get lost and by slowing it down just a bit, it helps it to be a bit more audible to the audience.

DR:  TSO certainly has the reputation for slowing the tempo of their songs down a great deal when done live.

Photo Courtesy Vicki Bender
FG:  When playing their songs, we try not to slow them down too much. But we consciously like to play them at the original tempo that you would hear on the record, and not let the song take off.

DR:  Guy and Tony eventually became very integral to the band, with Guy taking some lead vocals on the albums and Tony getting very involved with his narration of the concerts.

FG:  They have meshed so well with the rest of the band.  Almost instantaneously, they were excited to be playing with us and playing our music. The funny thing is when they first joined the band, we looked at them as the "rock stars" amongst us, so we almost felt that we had something to prove.  Now we are all friends and bandmates and have such a great camaraderie; it's a great place to be. And we are reminded at every rehearsal and concert why they got the gigs that they got - they are supremely talented guys.

DR:  I understand that there is a core of the band that creates your original songs – Scott Kelly, Sharon Kelly, Steve Ratchen and yourself. How does the songwriting and arranging process usually go for you guys?

FG:  More often than not, Scott will bring an idea to the table and describe what he was hearing and what direction the song could go in. We get together and hash out the various parts, making suggestions, reworking or adding parts.  Scott and I have a unique musical relationship that I haven't had with anyone else.  When he starts playing something, I immediately know what the pulse of the song should be. We have a real symbiotic relationship that way and I immediately can get an idea of where we are going with the song and what it needs.

I've also come down with ideas for songs and the process works the same way. Often we will wind up with various musical parts and phrases and we collaborate on tying them together.

DR:  I would like to get your thoughts on a few particular songs from each Wizards of Winter album.  First up, let's talk about "March of the Metal Soldiers", which has that huge majestic, regal feel to it. I recall this song was released on Memorial Day 2014, before the rest of the album.

FG:  Everyone in the band has a real affinity for the U.S. Military.  If they don't do what they do and make the sacrifices that they have, we couldn't have the lives that we have. This song is dedicated to them.  It's based on the old classic "March of the Toys" and we wanted to rock it up a bit. When Scott started playing it, it felt natural to throw the guitar harmonies on to the beat.  The vocal break in the middle is actually the mottos of the four branches of the military sung in harmony in Latin.  Towards the end of the song, I came up with the idea to add in some fast guitar runs.  Like I mentioned earlier, I recorded these runs and the engineer sent them to Scott to see what he thought about adding them in.  Scott loved it and asked to have them done in harmony.  It gave me chance to show some of my versatility and it came out great.

DR:  "Just Believe" is a real fan favorite and sung beautifully as a duet by Mary McIntyre and Guy LeMonnier.  This one is such a great power ballad that is really telling a story between the two vocalists and then all of a sudden there is this somewhat unexpected two-minute guitar break that winds up fitting really well within the song.

FG:  I grew up on so much of '80s rock and you couldn't escape hearing those power ballads that had a killer solo.  Here we are doing something reminiscent of that and I wanted to do a solo that followed the chords instead of running scales in one key. There is a lot of string-skipping and tapping that follows the song's chords and once again recorded them in harmony.  When playing live, we are lucky to have TW Durfy also on guitar to help bring these harmonies to life.  He is such an awesome player that there is nothing where I would have to worry about having written something and wonder if he could play it, because he definitely can.

DR:  There is a bonus track on that first album entitled "Ode to Eisenach" which is a solo classical guitar piece.

FG:  That is Bach's "Chaconne", which was originally written for violin but transcribed for guitar by Andres Segovia.  There are actually two parts to that piece and when played in its entirety is about fifteen minutes in length, so that wasn't something that would have fit on the album. I edited it down to about three minutes and I made sure to use the cadence at the end of the first movement because it is so brilliant.  To me, that piece is the sound of a guitar crying. It is such a perfectly written piece of music and it fit in well with what we are doing.  It doesn't necessarily sound Christmassy but I thought it fit in with the mood and I am grateful that it is on the record.  As for the name, Eisenach is a town in Germany where Bach was born, which is why I called it "Ode to Eisenach".

DR:  One of the instrumental highlights of the second album is "Seasons Lament", which has elements of "Coventry Carol" with a little Paganini thrown in. Walk me through that song; I feel like there is lot of you on this song in particular.

FG:  Yeah, this one does have a lot of me.  When we were creating The Magic of Winter album, I had this idea of wanting to combine two darker pieces, with one being Christmas and one Classical.  "Coventry Carol" is this 16th century piece that was based on the time when Herod was ticked off about the birth of Christ.  He ordered all male children under the age of two killed.  "Coventry Carol" is the lament of the mother's sorrow over the death of their children. If you listen to the words - Bye bye, lully, lullay - it is heart wrenching to hear when played really slow.  Annie Lennox actually does a rendition that is amazing.

I looked at this piece and realize that if you put some heavy guitars behind it and sped it up just a bit, it sounds very, very metal. Of course, I love Paganini and his wonderful Caprice Number 24, so I looked for a way to tie that in. Scott, Steve and I collaborated on tying those two pieces together and I think it came out great. It's short and to the point and it gave me a chance to lay some good guitar parts down.

DR:  "Flight of the Snow Angels" is song that Guitar World seized upon and highlighted when the album came out and I find makes a superb opener to your shows with the elements of Beethoven's "Ode to Joy" incorporated in.

FG:  That song was Scott's idea, as well as bringing that "Ode to Joy" bit in there. There is a lot of bouncing, back and forth between the guitar and keyboard parts. This one winds up being a good guitar/keyboard duel, if you will, especially with the climbing arpeggios towards the end. Even though it is an instrumental original, it sounds Christmas. When it first starts with Scott's keyboard playing, it just brings to mind some of those old Christmas kids' specials that we used to watch on TV.

DR:  "The Spirit of Christmas" is one of the more melodic, poppier Styx-like songs that features a lot of keyboards out front and of course Guy's vocals.  Though you get your guitar licks in, it is not one of the heavier pieces that you are used to.  Do you enjoy a song like this where your metal style isn't called for?

FG:  I do! It is such a well-written pop song and so much fun to play. Initially we weren’t discussing having a guitar solo in it. Scott was working with such a cool keyboard sound - that reminds me of the sound that was used in the old Rockford Files TV theme. I loved that sound in the context of this song so much that I wanted him to have that solo instead of a guitar riff. Eventually we decided on both guitar and keys during the solo. Scott takes the first solo on his keys and then we play together for the next one in harmony. Then the solo gets handed over to the guitar. I initially had some shredding ideas that ultimately did not fit the song, so I borrowed a musical idea from .38 Special. If you listen to the end of the solo just before it goes back to the chorus, you will hear me holding a note out and that is completely borrowed from .38 Special. I don't even know of a particular .38 Special song that I am thinking of there, but it is more their feel instead of an Yngwie Malmsteen feel.

DR:  Earlier you mentioned some of your overplaying issues with Exxplorer and here is an example where you pulled back from that and certainly gave a more restrained, complimentary solo.

FG:  Yeah. and ultimately shredding guitar would not have fit that song and I think what we all came up with there worked out really well. Sometimes you can challenge the listener too much by saying, "Watch how many notes I can play!" You know what? I can play three and that's all it took because four would have been too many.

DR:  You filmed a music video for that one, directed by Tommy Jones.  Jones regularly works with Testament, Slayer, Lamb of God and so many others with their video work.  Did you enjoy working with Jones?

FG:  I had a blast making that video.  Tommy Jones is a complete pro and his staff was fantastic. It was 100 degrees out the day we filmed that and probably 108 on the stage with the lights and everything. [Laughs]

DR:  A couple years back, the band got noticed by and subsequently signed with Jon Zazula (Jonny Z) for management. Zazula has such a rich history in the music business, with discovering and signing Metallica and so many other legendary bands.   Tell me about that experience thus far. Does it change things for the band working with someone that legendary in the music world?

FG:  Yeah, it was a little bit of a full circle for me - I used to ride my bike to his record store! But no one is more respected in the business than Jonny. It is actually he, Chuck Billy of Testament and Maria Ferrero from Adrenaline PR that make up “Breaking Bands”, and they are a great management company to work with. They have done a great job in increasing our footprint and our name recognition. We used to be primarily a Northeast US band. We haven't gone completely national yet but with their help and guidance, we are establishing ourselves from Florida to the Midwest.

Being involved with them and getting our name out there certainly has helped forge the sponsorship that I have with ESP Guitars.  I recently spent some time with Chris Cannella of ESP at the NAMM conference and he has treated me fantastic. I really have to thank him and all of ESP for the amazing level of support.  Chris actually told me that he is honored to have me on their roster and I am having a blast playing their incredible guitars.  And beginning with this year's tour, Blackstar Amps is now sponsoring me as well.

DR:  How many guitars do you bring on tour?

FG:  This year I will have five with me.  Fortunately, we do not have a lot of alternate tuning stuff, but certain guitars have their own very distinct sound. Depending on the mood and sometimes even the room that we are playing in will dictate which one I use.  Sometimes I might want one with a meatier sound and sometimes I go for a smoother sound.

I've got two guitars with EMG pick-ups, one has Duncans and one has DiMarzios. I also have an older ESP that I have had for 25 years that has Seymour Duncan super distortions in it so if I want a good, solid flat-out metal sound, I will grab that one.  I usually switch between two or three a night and then have a couple for back-ups.

I will be bringing out a brand new ESP USA model that they just built for me.  It's got a quilted maple top - it is just beautiful.

DR:  This will be your sixth year touring with the Wizards.  Any favorite venue or crowd over the years?

FG:  I love the Count Basie Theatre in Red Bank, NJ because it's a hometown gig for me and it is always exciting to play there.  As for crowds? I have to mention the audience we had in Maine a couple years ago.  They were insane!  They were so excited and loud - it was bedlam.  After such a long drive up there - and that time the band was still helping with setting up the lights and stage - we were exhausted.  That audience at the State Theater in Maine definitely fueled us that night.

DR:  Any fun memory stand out from your concert experiences so far?

FG:  Oh yeah! A few years back,  as I was playing I spotted a woman in the second row talking on her cell phone. I kneeled down at the edge of the stage and pointed to her, while I am still playing with my left hand. The woman's friend took her phone away and handed it to me and though I couldn't hear the person on the other end, I said to them, "Do you realize that your friend is at a concert and trying to enjoy herself?" [Laughs] That was pretty funny.  The audience got a kick out of it because they all saw what was going on. And luckily the woman was great about it and we all had a big laugh in the signing line afterwards.

DR:  How far in advance do you start getting in the Christmas spirit and working on Wizards music.

FG:  All year round.  It never goes away completely for us.  Once the tour ends, we usually take January off and then we wind up back together working on new song ideas, set list changes, and ideas for the next tour.

DR:  As the theaters and venues continue to fill and your audience has grown so much, do you feel the band has solidified its own identity?

(L-R) Greg Smith, Fred Gorhau, TW Durfy  -  The Wizards of Winter 2015
Photo Courtesy Linda Suz

FG:  There will always be that comparison with TSO because we started out playing their music and that's fine. We are thrilled that we now have our own identity and such a nice, growing base of fans that like what we do and enjoy or music and concerts.  Unfortunately, there are some TSO fans that are dead set against any other band other than TSO doing Christmas music. The only thing I would ask them would be "If you liked the Rolling Stones, did you automatically dislike Aerosmith and Guns 'N Roses?"

DR:  Any changes or something new for the 2016 tour?

 We are once again performing a complete Christmas set of our original music and we will have a couple TSO songs thrown in.  

DR:  In 2015, the bass duties were split between Steve Ratchen and Ted Nugent's bassist Greg Smith.  What can we expect this year?

FG:  Greg is now our full time bass player and will be playing at all but one show, which Steve will be playing.  Greg is such a consummate pro; he is solid and always has the material down. He has played with so many - Ted Nugent, Rainbow, Alice Cooper and so many others - we are thrilled that he wanted to be part of our band.

DR:  The band is supporting high school marching bands this year?

FG:  Yeah, we never got away from the charity aspect and we always want to keep giving back.  With a lot of schools, they don't always have the money in their budget for instruments and uniforms so we are doing some benefit concerts at some schools to help them raise money to keep their music programs going.

DR:  Let's talk about what else you are doing outside of the Wizards world. Tell me about Dark Sky Choir.

FG:  Dark Sky Choir is a band I co-founded whose original plan was to play out and perform some classic old school metal covers; we try and focus more on deeper cuts and some classics.  The response from the fans has been overwhelming.  We have even started writing our original stuff and we'll see where things go.  We will continue booking gigs and playing out but we may also be in studio in 2017 if everything falls right.

What has also been great and a bit humbling has been the great response from the metal community.  Derek Tailer of Overkill joined us at one show and we did an Overkill song with him and Chris Caffery joined us at another show and we performed Savatage's "Sirens" with him.

DR:  You also have been playing guitar for Corey Glover of Living Colour.  How did you get involved with him and his band?

FG:  I met Corey at NAMM and we hit it off pretty well.  He is pretty busy with Living Colour right now - they just kicked off a European tour with Alter Bridge.  But when he does his solo stuff, I get the call. His solo concerts are a blast. Typically we will do "Cult of Personality", "Middle Man", a bunch of songs from his solo repertoire and usually throw in a couple covers. He is such an incredible singer.

DR:  What guitarists on today's music scene do you admire?

FG:  I love Alex Skolnick.  I also love Michael Romeo - I grew up with him actually. I have to throw in Jeff Loomis, Steve Vai and of course Yngwie.

DR:  What is one thing about Fred Gorhau that most people wouldn't know?

FG:  I'm the class clown. I am the guy who the teacher always told, "Sit down and shut up!.  [Laughs]

DR:  Thanks for taking the time today, Fred!

FG:  No problem.  Happy to do it!

L-R: Joe Stabile, Hollywood How, Fred Gorhau (Dark Sky Choir)
Stone Pony, Asbury Park, NJ
Photo Courtesy Diana L. Zavaleta

For More Information:

Fred Gorhau Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/FredGorhauGuitarist/

The Wizards of Winter: http://thewizardsofwinter.com/

Dark Sky Choir: https://www.facebook.com/darkskychoir