- Mon, 2006-06-12 12:26
In 2004 a collection of superb musicians hailing from Canada and the US met in Barcelona. Within a month the band Sunstation was formed and they were packing out local venues like La Boite, Harlem Jazz Club and the exclusive Luz De Gas promoting their self titled debut album. Two years later and their new album is out and they’ve played some London dates, and they have an interesting story to tell.
First of all, Joe Lewis (Bass and Backing Vocals) was born in Nashville, and he’s been building up quite a reputation throughout the Barcelona music scene playing Jazz, Punk and Ethnic fusion styles as well as jamming with Grammy Award winning artist Michelle Shocked. What’s more, Cece Giannotti (Vocals and Lead Guitar) is a Berklee College of Music graduate who has worked with Iggy Pop, John Cale and the LSO (London Symphony Orchestra). The Sunstation track, Mitakuyeh, reflects his experiences whilst living with the North American Red Indians. Now that IS interesting.
So we caught up with Joe to find out all about Sunstation, the music industry and what living with Sioux Indians can do for a person.
“I Like Music because… it’s my life, and it does me good." Joe, Sunstation
ILM: Your new album Sunstation is out now, can you give us your own description of the albums whole vibe?
Joe: I think the vibe is really eclectic, the album I don’t think has a typical stream line of songs. I think there's different moods to the album through the songs, it a nice collection of different moods.
ILM: So you guys have just finished a few dates in London, how did they all go?
Joe: Increasingly well, we started out okay, and they just got better and better and last night we played The Bedford in Balham and that was a great show. It was full house and despite the fact that it's a format of showcases that we're not that used to a full house and nice bands was really fun. I think it was two songs per set with two sets so it’s quite short but it was definitely intense.
ILM: You guys are a great live band, what do you look forward to the most about playing live?
Joe: The feedback of energy with the audience, if you have an audience that are getting into it and giving you some energy back, that makes all the difference.
ILM: Is there a track you like to play live the most?
Joe: That’s a hard question [laughs] We are quite a dynamic band, we can get pumpy and fairly energetic, I want to be careful about saying rocky because if I say that people might think we are harder than we actually are. We're very dynamic because we can go from a very theory-driven, mellow and atmospheric sort of acoustic vibe and we can jump to a more pumpy, energetic tune and if we mix those well, it comes up for a nice show. I'd say that Black And Blue is an interesting tune, quite melodic, and Isabel is a good example of the energetic ones, and Red Horse is an example of atmospheric, so I think Black And Blue would fit right between those two.
ILM: So Joe, how did you get into playing the bass?
Joe: Well ... [laughs] I was in high school and there was a band forming of guys a couple of years younger and I was bit jealous because his dad had just bought him a bass guitar and an amp, and he wasn’t such a popular guy in the school, so I was a bit jealous and went out and bought myself a Fender copy and thought, "I’m gonna be better than this guy." So I did. [ilm & Joe laugh].
ILM: Are there any bassists that you look to for inspiration, bassists that you really admire?
Joe: Yeah! There’s a collection of them. I have kinda grown out of just admiring bassists and now I admire different artists and different bands but I still have a whole lot of respect for great bassists, I have been playing a number of years and after all those years you have top three or top five list of guys who you just keep on coming back to for one reason or another you know, and a couple of those are British, one of them is John Paul Jones from Zepplin, I think he’s one of the most underrated bass players and musicians overall in history.
ILM: I read in your biog that you jammed with Grammy winner Michelle Shocked. I guess everyone asks you this question, but what was that like?
Joe: [laughs] It was strange. I thought it was a joke to include that piece of data. [ilm & Joe laugh] It was in Barcelona, and Michelle had a big show coming up, and as a warm up she did a very adlib gig at a small club in Barcelona where we’ve played as a band and we’ve hung out. It was quite mundane, she just asked for audience participation and I went up without any plans, she asked me "what do you do?" "well, I play bass" I said, so her manager - which was her husband at the time - managed to get an instrument and we just took it from there.
ILM: So, it's going to be pretty hard for me to do an interview and not talk about CeCe ...
Joe: Oh, I can go on about him for hours believe me! [laughs]
ILM: Excellent! Well, he lived with Sioux Indians for a bit, how did that all come about?
Joe: Well CeCe is originally from Canada, he has Italian heritage, his parents are Italian but he was born in Montreal and there’s of course the whole North American Indian connection in Canada, but if you're thinking about the song Red Horse for instance, this is a good friend of his he met in Denver, Colorado when he was 14 working there on some theatre projects and this guy was quite intense, he had some issues, I guess the story is the connection they had was very strong and it really had impact on CeCe, there were things about that friendship that stuck and he’s a very spiritual guy too and that comes out in his lyrics and his style of song writing ...
ILM: It's obviously a good influence ...
Joe: Yeah, I think an intense human influence, I think intense can be negative as well in the sense that people might have issues or problems to deal with and maybe they seek the help of other people in terms of the energy they think they need from someone and what that other person can give them so they can try and help out.
ILM: Can you describe the Sunstation process of writing and recording such good music?
Joe: Sure, for this album it's really CeCe's collection of songs, he's been writing for many years, and these are songs that are actually not that new, they are songs that he had actually done in the past either as a solo artist or with another project, and they are songs that really stood the test of time and I think it's that and songs that are really meaningful to him, so it's kinda like a collection of the best of CeCe he wanted to transfuse to the band. I guess have the band processed them in terms of energy and actually re-arranging them. Some of them are quite different from the way they were done in the past, so what we did was took those songs as a band and we played them, we took them in, and thought them out and as far as the recording process it was extremely quick; when you think of production you might say well one or two months. This record was recorded, mixed and mastered in two weeks...
ILM: Wow! That’s cool...
Joe: Yeah, we wanted to keep it fresh and keep it snappy, so we went in and we forked it out, we had a good time. There are always strange things that happen in the studio in the sense that there are tunes that just wont work live, so you have to over dub them. I think was only the case with one track, the rest of them we did live, which means that bass, drums and rhythm guitar were all played and recorded at the same time in the studio, the intention of that was to capture our live vibe and I think we did that quite okay even though there is definitely a difference between our live shows and the studio album.
ILM: Nice, its often a bit of a shame if you listen to an album and then go to see that band live and the songs are somewhat different. Sometimes can be very good, but perhaps if you listen to a lot of music you can sort of tell it was the studio that made it sound a lot better, if you know what I mean...
Joe: Yeah absolutely, we’re all about that, about live. What I like to say is the album is a nice studio rendition of what we do live. A lot of people, a lot of listeners, a lot of consumers of music have totally the opposite idea, so like you said, the downer basically consists of long expectations because they don’t understand the margin that is being taken advantage of by, like you say, studio engineering or production to polish or correct or stir a recording in a certain direction and then you go see the band live and your like "oh, they didn’t play it in that way that I like so much" or "it doesn’t actually seem like it sounds that good." We're pretty proud of the fact that we take the best things out of the recording and give it balls [Joe laughs]...
ILM: Like that, that works for sure...
Joe: Yeah, I think were quite a sensitive band to sound and to vibe, we gotta have fun, after all these months we still put the album on now and then and we're like ... [Joe pauses] ... Wow, not bad [laughs] and when we play a show we really get off on how people get into it.
ILM: As a collective or perhaps just yourself, are you perfectionists?
Joe: Oh god definitely. I'd say that I've learned to be as finicky as the worst guy in the band, but I take it with a pinch of salt. I'd like to think I've learned when to be finicky and when not. It's a real drag to be too perfectionist sometimes. It's fine in the studio if you have the time and therefore the money, to invest, which is another reason why we wanted to keep things fresh and fairly quick because to sustain your ego you need a certain amount of mistakes stuck in there somewhere. But then for live it's actually the other way around, if you get too finicky it can actually bring you down and kill the vibe, kill the live energy that you may have, if you get too pissy about the quality of the sound or whatever. I think if you can get the elements to get a B+ grade or an 80-85% rate then you gotta be content with that, just do your bit and enjoy it as much as you can otherwise it's a nightmare, you are perminently sour because you're never reaching perfection. We're currently in the process of really trying to let go of that when it's important. Our lead guitarist and our drummer have more of a Jazz fusion background so they are used to working on perfection but curiously enough CeCe is the one who usually has the highest demands, so we are all constantly learning...
ILM: Definitely, sure, isn’t every artist, every band always learning you know, there’s always going to be room for improvement and I think that’s what keeps the original energy about the band together...
Joe: Yeh, I don’t want to sound like I'm ragging on them, if I speak for myself I'm probably the more punk / rock orientated guy so I'm naturally going to be a bit more gritty [laughs]
ILM: OK, slight change in direction. Loads of people these days are using the internet to get their music heard perhaps even before getting a recording deal. How has the internet effected you guys?
Joe: Well, I think it’s an incredible communication tool, I think it's as stable now as much as cell phones are. I’m quite the connected freak because I was using it way back in the early 90's, I’ve always seen the importance and potential for it. We've wanted to get a half decent website up immediately, but typically we are constantly working on it, it never ends. As far as things like myspace, I can tell you that our gig last night, turns out we bought most of the people in, and the only way I can attribute that (knowing that we don’t have a huge list of contacts and friends in London that would come down and see us) is to myspace. Our myspace presence is slow as we work on it manually, but it's up and coming.
Yesterday we had 500 listens of one of our songs, which in the day is fantastic. The whole concept of myspace is incredible, I think that people are completely wrong in thinking because it has like 70 million+ pages that’s its a stock thing, it's old hat and everyone is using it. I think quite on the contrary to that. The critical mass that it has, the increasing user numbers is the power. It's the ultimate network because of how they connect it with other peoples pages, and the way you can interact, if it's someones birthday you can wish them happy birthday, or people will write to you and make comments, you can customise it, you can put your tunes on there. It's really great, were happy to be using that...
ILM: A very powerful tool indeed...
Joe: Another thing is digital. Something that shocked us a lot in the smaller markets like Spain where we live, people actually work more than I thought in writing and releasing their own albums, whereas here (UK) you have a lot of bands that are gigging on the same stages and venues as we are, and they are like "oh well, the company is releasing a single" or "we have this EP." A lot of people without full blown albums, which was quite striking to us and I think myspace is something that can expedite that.
Another thing I wanted to say about internet and digital is that you have these sites like iTunes etc When you get an e-mail through your myspace or your website saying "I really really like this tune and I'd like to download it." We're like, "just transfer 99p or 1€ to our bank account and we'll send you an mp3 at 128kbps." We're not even there yet on the big platforms and we can still do that.
ILM: You guys are still fairly early in your careers but you must have learned a lot already. Do you have any advice for younger guys looking to break into the music industry?
Joe: Yeah sure, well this line up is just under two years old and what’s happened in that time is quite exhilarating for us. As a band actually, CeCe and I started about 4 years ago with a different line up, but he was finishing his solo album which I played on as well, and things just geared up in Barcelona among our network of friends and musicians and we just finalised this current line up, but we have all that individual experience to add to the collective. This is definitely not our first or second or even third band for any of us [laughs], there’s a little bit of an age difference between us, we've all done quite a bit on our own and as far as talking to young aspiring musicians trying ot get into the music business, I'd say there is a famous quote by Gene Simmons from Kiss, he said something like [queue Gene Simmons low voice impression] "if you're thinking about starting a band and getting into the music business, then don’t" [laughs].
I think its a correction to NOT think that way, do not think about music business or music industry if and when you're starting out. The most joyous, pure, innocent years are your beginning years when you are just floating with your instrument, getting around it, getting into tunes, using other people's music to find your way on your instrument. It's all about language right, it's all about what you can say and how you can say it, maybe to yourself initially and then to other people collectively, and how you can strike up a harmonious conversation, a musical conversation when someone else is playing with someone else. The more you play collectively and individually, the more you get around jamming with people, fool around with your instrument, focus on your instrument but you also think outside of the box and connect with other instruments, the better and quicker you will connect with other people playing stuff. There are a number of bands that get up halfway through a show and switch instruments, I think that tops, I think that’s amazing, the epitome of total musicianship.
When you get the incredible connection with a band you will just feel it, it's like meeting a new girlfriend, you just know it, like, "man! we actually have something here! We gotta stick to this." Hopefully you'll develop it and stick together and learn stuff, you gotta keep nurturing the music and not get down if things go wrong, or if the bands break up. If you're serious about music, you're gonna go through multiple bands. It sounds a bit stereotypical, but persistence and determination is really what’s gonna get you somewhere, it's not virtuosity, although there is something to be said about that, there is something to be said about how much you can focus and do great things on the instrument. I think someone said to me yesterday "if you're paying in the music industry, you're doing something wrong" [laughs]. You gotta read between the lines a bit in that statement, but if you keep at it things kinda take care of themselves, you eventually get calls, into projects, you eventually do many things with music. It's important to keep a romantic attitude, but a romantic attitude about the music, not the industry.
ILM: What are the future plans for Sunstation?
Joe: This is our second leg of shows this year in London, we were back here in March (06) and right before we came here we recorded a live show in Barcelona at a pretty cool club, we recorded it on video and we recorded the audio with pro-tools, and our intention is to bring out a DVD of that show so were going to be working very hard on that when we get back. We also have a whole other set of live show footage from here in London, Barcelona and Minorca and we're going to use that extra footage as a video clip for one of the tunes, meaning that we'll use the original audio from the album. We also working on the website also, as I said earlier, we constantly improving that. We definitely feel a great connection with London, I feel that London is like the New York of Europe, so the London-Barcelona connection is a really cool thing happening for us and if everything goes well we might be playing a big festival in Barcelona in September. Its called the BAM, and its on a long weekend in the second half of September, its a whole cultural thing spread over 4 days. Fingers crossed.
ILM: Can you describe your favorite place on earth?
Joe: WOW! erhhm ... Its a real hard question for me as I think I’m a bit of a global nomad. I’m probably the worse person to be asking that as I’m totally undecided. I’ve been to many places in the world, and my personal history is one of going back and forth from the States to Spain for the most of my life. I can tell you that there’s one place that kinda mesmerised me, because of the mix of race and its position geographically, the climate, everything about it ... Cape Town. Cape Town is a pretty amazing place ... [long pause] ... [laughing] I don’t know what to say!
I think Barcelona is an amazing place, I've been there for 10 years and I've never been in one place for that long and I think I’m getting restless, I’m kinda drawn to London right now. I get really excited when I’m here in London; its an amazing town for the arts, so I'd say artistically London is a favourite.
ILM: What’s in your CD player right now? What are you listening to for pleasure?
Joe: I tend to have an old album by Casandra Wilson - New Moon Daughter, it's a really eclectic album. She's known as a jazz singer but to me it goes far beyond that. Another is Joe Bonnamassa, not too commercial stuff.