New York might be a lot of things when it comes to music, but a hotbed of progressive rock bands...not so much. One band though has been making some seriously prog in recent years, and that band is Shadow Circus, whose latest CD On a Dark and Stormy Night is a full blown concept album based on the acclaimed childrens science fiction book A Wrinkle in Time. Guitarist John Fontana recently chatted with Sea of Tranquility's Steven Reid, Jeff B, and Pete Pardo to talk in depth about the new album as well as the bands history and prog rock in general.
SoT: For those only discovering Shadow Circus through your excellent new album On A dark And Stormy Night, can you tell us how Shadow Circus first came together?
John Fontana: Back in 2005, I set out to audition for an existing progressive rock group. I had demos of other bands I'd been in, but none that served as good examples of what I would do in the context of the genre, so I started recording some pieces to use as demos. I sent the songs to David Bobick and Corey Folta, who I had already worked with in the past - they got got very excited about it, and encouraged me to form a band to play what I had composed, rather than join an existing project where it might or might not make it into that project's repertoire. Then Matt auditioned on bass, already knowing the material better than I did, and so the core of the initial lineup was formed. Those initial demos are what eventually became the song "Journey of Everyman" on our first album.
SoT: Since then you have released two full albums before your new release - Welcome To The Freakroom and Whispers And Screams, looking back, how would you describe these two releases?
John Fontana: On Welcome to the Freakroom, there was quite a deliberate effort to embrace a retro sound throughout, and focus initially on the feeling of escapism and accessibility. The songs were simpler, though I had somewhat more ambitious visions initially -- learn how to walk before learning to run, so to speak. I knew right away that I would be gaining a great deal of hindsight in the process. The idea of using literary references began to bloom on "Shadow Circus", inspired by Ray Bradbury's Something Wicked This Way Comes, and "Journey of Everyman", where we used King/Straub's The Talisman as a lyrical template. But the music to those songs was already written before the concept was decided.
Whispers and Screams was definitely more modern and ambitious. "Project Blue", "...Then in July, the Thunder Came", and "Willoughby" were certainly more representative of my initial aspirations as far as complexity and scope. There are many Celtic influences throughout, in the acoustic pieces and some of the predominant themes. I enjoyed experimenting with more drastic dynamics - it gets quite soft, "When the Morning Comes", for example, and much heavier on songs like "Seduction of Harold Lauder", "Captain Trips", and "Willoughby" - hence the title of the album. Unlike the literary pieces on the first album, the idea of basing an epic on The Stand was settled during the writing of "Project Blue", so I had the opportunity to compose as if writing a score for an imaginary film, which I found a very inspirational way to write. The characters, emotion, and story provided a much more determined purpose for the mood and action of the music.
SoT: Do you feel the band's sound has evolved a lot between Whispers And Screams and On A Dark And Stormy Night?
John Fontana: Certainly, in terms of overall quality of writing, performance, production. Everyone involved raised the bar in some way, we all held ourselves up to a much higher standard, and had so much hindsight from what we'd done before.
SoT: In 2011 drummer Jason Brower and keyboard player David Silver joined Shadow Circus, and your previous bassist/cellist Matt Masek returned to the fold as well. What has having these three musicians on board brought to the Shadow Circus sound?
John Fontana: This lineup really gelled musically, I think - everyone just seemed to really develop and grow with the material, and the material grew with them. Having only moderate keyboard skills myself, David Silver has brought the keys up to a whole new level, giving me the opportunity to focus so much more on guitar. Jason and Matt helped define the structures of the songs beautifully - they are just such fast learners, so it was very exciting to be able to hear the music materialize so quickly. And of course, Jason, being a very talented pianist and composer himself, brought in the music for the song "Make Way for the Big Show". Dave Bobick really kicked the vocals up a notch in a big way on this, really increasing his range, and coming up with outstanding melodies.
SoT: Your new album is a conceptual piece, based on the classic novel A Wrinkle In Time by Madeleine L'Engle. What was it about that book that inspired you to want to base a whole album around it?
John Fontana: Initially, I had planned on a half-album length suite similar to "Project Blue", but it just grew on its own and there was no more room for anything else. It also struck me as oddly relevant given current issues in the world, especially in the U.S.. The book was originally very controversial, Madeleine L'Engle openly embraced science and magic alongside religion, so of course there are culturally relevant themes right there. It also addresses the trauma of being bullied, and there seems to be a new awareness of that now. Then there are aspects which are quite directly musical, such as the songs sung by the creatures on Uriel, the uniform rhythm of IT on Camazotz, the contradicting rhythm of the non-conformist. Tesseract is a song within a song, just as a real tesseract is geometrically represented as a cube within a cube. Even the destruction of the story's main villain is told in disjointed timing - IT can no longer repeat its rhythm and is defeated...these ideas were fun and challenging to convey musically.
SoT: Is it a book you've loved over the years?
John Fontana: I read it non-stop when I was a kid - I remember going directly from the last page right page to the beginning many times! So, of course, I never forgot it.
SoT: You've received an informal 'blessing' from the L'Engle Estate to you releasing On A Dark And Stormy Night. Did you approach them with the idea? Were you nervous about what they'd think about the music you'd created and how you'd interpreted the book?
John Fontana: I assumed that because it was a rock album geared towards an older crowd, and the book is largely for children and young teens, that it would not be something they would feel a need to oversee very much. I approached them, and they were very friendly and supportive, but did not interfere or judge it in any way. It was more like, "sure, go ahead and have fun".
SoT: You've based some of your songs on previous albums on books - The Stand by Stephen King and also, I believe, an episode of The Twilight Zone. What is it about this style of lyric and music writing that inspires you?
John Fontana: Having the template of an existing story is like scoring a film, as I mentioned before. So, you have this sort of an outline of the key characters and events. You can't just write any part that sounds good and stick it here or there - you have to say, ok, first we need to introduce this character or plot, now we have to set the mood for what develops next. As in a movie, you identify certain themes or sounds with specific characters or plot elements, and modify the mood depending on what those characters' roles are in a given part of the story. It also gives you a chance to explore emotions that are even outside of yourself.
For example, it was very hard for me to write "Seduction of Harold Lauder". The music naturally happening in my head at the time was very melodic and legato, but I had the task to compose something that brought to mind violence and insanity. It grated on me to hear it as I worked on it, but now it's one of my favorites.
Another very good side effect of this is that everything on the album is relevant - there were at least four other songs written, but that had absolutely nothing to do with the story, lyrically or musically. So, their exclusion helped make it a much more cohesive album.
SoT: The album contains many wide and varied musical styles and approaches. Do you guys write as a team, or is it more a case of bringing in finished songs and letting the band interpret them in the studio?
John Fontana: Much more of the latter, I usually come up with the instrumental music, then collaborate with Dave Bobick on the vocals before presenting them to the whole band. So, the songs structures and a good part of the arrangements are pretty much done by the time anyone hears them. Exceptions are "Make Way for the Big Show", which is Jason's composition, and "Angel" from Whispers and Screams, which Dave Bobick brought in.
SoT: I believe that On A Dark And Stormy Night took around two years to complete. What were the main challenges in piecing together such a complex album both musically and lyrically?
John Fontana: Honestly, the biggest obstacle is trying to make an album while everyone is working day jobs - there's just only so much time. Musically, the biggest challenge I presented for myself was to not let the musical ideas get altered as they made the trip from what I imagined in my head to the guitar or piano as I wrote them. It's too easy to get distracted - but I loved what I was imagining, and didn't want to compromise it.
Certainly, there are plenty of things that were spontaneous, but the really key parts of the album as a whole composition took a lot of self-discipline to accomplish. I had re-recorded the beginnings of the Overture at least 6 times before I finally arrived at what it is now, which is what I always pictured - it just took a lot of work for me to learn how to do it. So, on previous albums, I might have stopped at "good enough" on the 2nd or 3rd try, but I think I've lost my tolerance for selling something short - and I'm better at recognizing when something is not all that it could have been in the moment, whereas before it took me a while to identify when that was happening.
SoT: Shadow Circus are as renowned for putting on an impressive visual displays when the band plays live. Do you have anything special planned to promote the new album?
John Fontana: Absolutely, though it would be premature to describe any details. It will depend on what's feasible for the particular venues, of course.
SoT: Do you intend to stay true to the album's concept and play the whole of On A Dark And Stormy Night from start to finish when you next play live?
John Fontana: Yes, we definitely intend to stage the entire album live, we're really looking forward to making that a very special event.
SoT: Your sound is often described as a mix between classic progressive music and more modern stylistic overtones. Can you explain what groups or musicians have inspired your music the most?
John Fontana: There is that classic prog basis of Yes, ELP, Rush, Jethro Tull, Pink Floyd, King Crimson. On more of the rock side of it, there is The Who, Led Zeppelin, Styx, Beatles, Black Sabbath, Iron Maiden, and more recent bands like Jane's Addiction, Nine Inch Nails, Radiohead, Green Day, Soundgarden. But there are lots of things well outside the rock and prog genre...I have always loved orchestral movie soundtracks, John Williams, Danny Elfman, Thomas Newman, Hans Zimmer, Howard Shore. That extends to some classical influences such as Eric Satie, Beethoven, Holst, Mussorgsky. I also enjoy some traditional Celtic and Indian music - then there's Gospel and acoustic jazz - I love Coltrane, Miles Davis, Ray Charles - some of that surfaced on "Coming Back Home to You" off of Whisper and Screams. All of these have influenced something somewhere, and that's only speaking for myself!
I know that Dave Bobick brings his musical theater experience, which is an important facet of our sound, and he's also a big KISS fan, which partially explains our devotion to putting on exciting live shows.
SoT: What are your opinions on some of the other bands out there on the current progressive rock scene? Any you follow or admire?
John Fontana: Spock's Beard and Neal Morse were the first to bring me back to the genre in 2004 or so - at the time, I didn't even have any idea that anyone was recording progressive rock any more. "Snow" was the first album to grab me, followed by Porcupine Tree's "In Absentia". From there I explored Flower Kings, and all of their related side projects, Liquid Tension Experiment, Ayreon. There's a lot of great stuff out there, but I try to be careful and listen to a lot from outside of the genre as well so that I can bring new things into it when I write, but, yeah, lots of great stuff that I enjoy a lot. And I still have a long way to go with discovering what I missed from my younger days - I am only just now beginning to hear Gentle Giant and Magma. I even recently realized that I could count on one hand how many songs I know from Kansas, which is funny because they are always mentioned by reviewers talking about my own writing, so I'd better catch up!
SoT: It seems that prog rock fans in Europe these days are more receptive to new music from new bands than they are here in America. Have you found it difficult getting exposure here at home in the US, and if so, how do you plan to combat that?
John Fontana: I think that the disparity between Europe and America is not only with prog, it seems to be with new music in general. Local radio is giving way to satellite radio, so there is little or no attention to giving attention to local artists, a s they don't cater to local interests, it's all the least-common-denominator. The arts have been cut from school curricula, so musical tastes have been very dumbed-down. But, thankfully, there is the internet, so location seems less important now as far as exposure in those respects. As for playing live, we are fortunate to have already played the Prog Day Festival, and very lucky to have a friendship with Italian band The Watch, who have had us open for them at great venues such as B.B. King's in New York City. We have also had the honor of playing Orion in Baltimore twice, which is a rare privilege. But, of course, if we want to do more, we will ultimately have to get to Europe, which I hope will happen in the near future.
SoT: Prog rock fans in general seem tied to the sounds & ideas of the '70s, so in some ways On a Dark and Stormy Night is tailor made for them, but how do you feel that the new CD, and the band in general, can appeal to those potential listeners who don't necessarily worship the classic prog era?
John Fontana: It seems that more listeners who are not beholden to retro prog are finding modern aspects to this album, and even much of Whispers and Screams. "Tesseract", in particular, seems to appeal to a very broad group of listeners. "Ixchel" comes from a place entirely outside of prog or even rock of any kind. There are the orchestral sections on "Overture" and "Battle for Charles Wallace" that seek new ways to bring classical into a rock context. Though bringing classical into rock is nothing new in prog, I think it's an area that has many new paths worthy of exploration, and we try to do that. Sometimes we push the boundaries a little, sometimes a lot - if anyone only hears that retro aspect on the first listen, I'd suggest giving it a few more spins, but ultimately, not everyone will like it, and that's ok, too.
SoT: Lastly, here in the US we don't often see too many exciting live bills, tours, or even many festivals other than a few main ones. If you could do a short tour of some major markets here in the US with 2 other notable existing prog bands, who would they be?
John Fontana: Well, when you say "notable", from a music business point of view, touring with a big name act like Yes, Styx, Dream Theater or Porcupine Tree would be a dream come true! But, that can also backfire, as prog is a difficult thing to push on an audience that has no idea who you are, and they may not be receptive to something new while they are waiting for their favorite band to play, even though a tour like that would look very good on one's resume. But I could even cite some examples of bands at our level who have opened for some huge acts at one-off shows, and I didn't see it pan out in a big career-changing way for any of them. I think it has to be at multiple shows for that to pay off.
It would be very nice to play with some of the bands from the NY area, who I am very proud to know as friends and contemporaries. That would have to be 3rDegree and Edensong. We have a lot in common, and along with us, all three bands have developed and matured over several years, so it would be nice to show the world what a renaissance of quality prog is coming from this area.
Steven Reid, Jeff B, and Pete Pardo
Photos courtesy of the bands Facebook Page
(Click here to read our reviews of On a Dark and Stormy Night)