You have to admire a band prepared to be masters
of their own destiny. That's the direction taken by
Shadow Circus with the release of their second CD Whispers and Screams. I really liked their first disc and the second even more, so I wanted to find out more about the band. Here's my discussion with John Fontana.
Jerry Lucky: Right off the top…I know that you have a lot of the band’s background on the website…but lets go back to the beginning…tell us how Shadow Circus came into being?
John Fontana: I started playing guitar in NYC bands as soon as I was out of high school. At the time, I was doing the hard alternative funk-rock thing, along the lines of Jane's Addiction and Red Hot Chilli Peppers. Even though I grew up on Yes, ELP, Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin, there was no way to find a local audience for that sort of thing at that time, although I did get to solo and improvise quite a bit, so I did get some opportunities to add some proggy elements here and there.
It wasn't until 2004 that it all started to come together for me...Technology was finally within reach that allowed me to compose and record at home. I found communities online dedicated to prog. I dusted off my prog albums and started to return to where my heart had been all along. I figured I would audition as a guitarist/keyboardist for an already-established prog band, so I threw together a quick demo to show what I could do in the context of that genre, since none of my previous bands showcased that side of my playing. I sent an mp3 of that demo to Corey, who I had played with years before in a band called Persona Grata, and Dave, who was a good friend at the time but had no idea that I composed music. They were both really excited about the demo, and Dave encouraged me to form a band around this music. The demo song was later appropriately named "So it Begins", and became the first part of the Journey of Everyman trilogy on the first CD.
JL: Your first CD was entitled Welcome to the Freakroom (released on ProgRock Records)…how was the response to the disc? Better than the band hoped for or less?
JF: Some of the reactions were utterly fantastic, which, of course, was very nice! And we gained some very devoted fans. I had asked a lot of musicians already on the scene what to expect, so I had a realistic expectation - but, of course, every musician hopes for some quantum event to move things along quicker in a positive direction. So, we didn't hit the lottery, but we did get a nice response and an enthusiastic little following. It feels like the response was in line with what we put into it, which was a lot, but with plenty of room for improvement.
JL: Give us an idea of your musical inspiration. Is there a ‘typical’ creation process for your music?
JF: For both albums, I spent a period of time focusing on nothing else but furthering my skill on keyboard and guitar. I spent hours every day practicing rudiments, classical pieces, transcribing solos, etc. Then I would spend some time, usually late at night, with nothing but a lava lamp on and I would just improvise, exploring melodies and changes, this time not paying attention to technique, but focusing on emotion. If an idea struck me as very worthwhile, I hit the record button. I did this until I accumulated many ideas, then I would begin putting them together into songs.
That's the stage where Dave would listen to the ideas as well, and we would start to think about the lyrical concepts and overall structure. Then I would record a fairly complete demo with keys, guitars, vocals, and very quick scratch drums and bass tracks. Once we had two songs demo'd, we started going into the studio with the full band, where we modified some things and got input from everyone. By the time we had those two songs ready, I would be ready with a few more.
JL: Was there a significant “prog” moment in your early days when you said to yourselves let’s make music like that?
JF: Well, it hit me in two stages. The first time was as a young
teenager, when I would put on ELP and Yes albums, and found myself playing air keyboards using various surfaces in my bedroom! The
top of my dresser was the
The second wave was when I heard Spock's Beard's "Snow". That was the first time I realized that prog was not only still being done, but that it was being done incredibly well, and I felt at that moment that I had to pursue this. If I had known there was an audience for it, I would have been doing it for years before that. By that time I had many years of writing, performing and recording under my belt, so I had a good starting point to accomplish it.
JL: The new disc Whispers and Screams…you’ve decided to release it independently…Was that a decision you made…or decision made for you? There are pros and cons to the independent route, right?
JF: We made that decision, but not until we debated the advantages and disadvantages for a long time. We knew it would require a lot more legwork to get distribution of the physical CD. But what it came down to is having the freedom and ability to promote much more, being able to immediately reinvest CD sales into promotion, and having a more direct relationship with the fans. By selling the CD ourselves, we can clearly see who likes the music, and then engage them via email and social networking. The more fans deal with distributors instead of us, the less we can communicate with the people who are interested in what we do.
JL: I’m interested in the epic seven-part song Project Blue…it’s what about twenty-minutes long…I’d like to know how that all came together? And maybe walk us through the various themes and transitions.
JF: Project Blue is based on The Stand by Stephen King. Many of the musical themes had come together already before we decided to go with that concept, which was really Dave's idea. He loved the story and it made sense with the parts we already had, so it was just a matter of putting it together. To explain a bit about how the music relates to the story:
Captain Trips - the opening bit with wind and Ebow guitar playing the theme, I actually consider a separate piece called "Abagail's Vision". For those who know the book, Mother Abagail is a sort of prophet who sees the coming plague, and this intro represents that. The main body of the song is sung from the point of view of the deadly flu virus that wipes out most of humanity, hence the heavy guitar-oriented sound and taunting tone to the vocal.
The Long Road - this tells the story of the survivors who come together. They all have the same dreams about Mother Abagail, who summons them to meet. The happy rocking jam at the end represents the optimism of the survivors as they set out to find Mother Abagail.
Big Fire - the eerie intro takes us to the deserted Midwestern plains, where a pyromaniac psychopath called Trashcan Man meets The Walking Man, who is the antithesis of Mother Abagail - he's the evil villain who sets out to destroy the survivors who would take the side of Mother Abagail. He finds Trashcan Man useful, and "sets him to burn"! This song has a very manic feel with a deliberately nonsensical contrast between verse and chorus to express the dialogue between the diabolical and the insane.
The Seduction of Harold Lauder - Harold was a nerdy guy who harboured a lot of jealousy and resentment towards the other survivors. Our villain sends a seductress to persuade him to wreak havoc on the survivors from the inside. The music represents his confusion with disjointed time signatures and violent, frantic feel, which ultimately culminates in an explosion.
The Horsemen Ride - There is an acoustic reprise of Abagail's Vision from the beginning of the album. In this vision, Abagail is told to send four survivors to take a stand against The Walking Man. They set out to the desert alone, and this part ends with an acoustic reprise of the end of Harold Lauder, so this piece and the one before it basically set up the two sides of the battle - good and evil. This part of the story involves a lot of soul-searching for the characters involved, so I sought to do something with a Celtic/Indian influence with droning open-tuned acoustics and udu/djembe, almost like a tantric meditation or prayer.
The Hand of God - The intro to this is whisper quiet - its night time in the desert, the four survivors have no food or water, and there is a sense of dread about the evil they will have to face. The calm before the storm. The musical challenge here was to create a steady crescendo that begins with barely a whisper, and culminates in the climax which is a reprise of the Captain Trips and Big Fire themes. Much of the album experiments with such diverse dynamics (hence the title Whispers and Screams).
Coming Back Home to You - As I consider Hand of God to really be the climax, this song is more like an epilogue - it wraps up the feeling of the survivors after the battle is won, but it's bittersweet as many loved ones were lost. It is really a gospel song - it shows both the joy and sorrow.
JL: At this time, is the band a full-time money paying gig? Or are day-jobs still required?
JF: Would this be an appropriate point in the interview to ask if I could borrow $5?
JL: What’s the band’s live experience been to date?
JF: We played a few shows locally after the release of Freakroom, but we felt that we wanted to go back in the studio and get another album out, and acquire more of a following before pursuing the live experience more. There were logistical reasons for that, too -- Dave was going to need a kidney transplant (which, by the way, was completely successful!), and our keyboard player went off to Berklee, so it made much more sense to set out to record rather than play live at that time.
JL: Is this something you want to do more of? I ask only because these days we see many bands who are quite content to create music on disc without going through the rigors of touring.
We have such a strong desire to play live! Back in the 90's with Persona Grata, we played 20 gigs every year in NYC alone. This band
was formed with the idea that the live experience we could offer would set us apart from the myriad studio projects out there. We
are now in the process of rehearsing, and will announce live shows soon. But there is also a serious shortage of venues here in the
JL: What kind of reaction are you getting when you perform live?
JF: As I mentioned,
we did very little of it so far, but what we did was very well-received. We do put on a show when we play - we want people to walk
away remembering the experience. All of the bands we grew up with, who inspired us, did it with rotating stages, lasers, and
JL: You have the new CD available to listen to on-line; perhaps you could explain your thinking behind that move.
JF: We did see results of research recently that shows people respond to that, and I believe it's true. The traffic to our audio samples page is tremendous, and this CD has already outsold the first CD in its first month. Besides, anyone who wants to listen to it for free can find it illegally elsewhere, so at least with this option we can get them to come to the site, learn more about us, sign up to our mailing list. It's the whole idea of inviting interaction with the fans. Otherwise they'll find it somewhere else where we can't interact with them.
JL: How big a factor has the web played in exposing the band to new fans?
JF: Of course, it's essential, that's where the playing
field is now. You can reach thousands of people in a minute. There are drawbacks, of course. Most importantly, and I think this is
key in understanding how technology is changing the face of the music business - is that everyone has this reach now, and it's hard
to tell exactly who you've really reached. Everyone is two clicks away from downloading any album no matter how obscure, so people
are bombarded with choices. You have to work hard to get noticed, just like we used to go around NYC hanging up flyers in the middle
of the night just to get name recognition. You can't do it by spamming or just advertising, you have to create a buzz. And the biggest
prog audience is still only tuned into the older bands from the 70's as fewer people in that market are web-savvy. Yes played their
35th anniversary at
JL: I would imagine a lot of your work is currently about promoting the band and the new CD…what’s in the band’s future?
JF: Right now we are working on some video treatments for one or two of the songs from the new album, and we plan on spending this Spring and Summer playing as many shows as we possibly can.
JL: Lastly then…if you were stuck on a dessert island tell me what five CD’s you’d like to have with you and why those particular ones?
Led Zeppelin I - It is simply the most spectacular hard rock album ever.
Yes - Relayer - Such a beautiful album - the range of emotion is so varied, so many melodies and complex arrangements, it's the kind of album you can still discover new things from after decades of listening.
Pink Floyd - Dark Side of the Moon - for all the same reasons I like Relayer, although more like a comfort because of its familiarity.
Miles Davis - Kind of Blue - This album is like a slice of heaven! I can't express in words the joy the album brings to me.