Nov 1, 2010

Ron Scalzo's "15 Albums That Changed My Life"

This week we introduce the pivotal musical moments of Ron Scalzo (Return To Earth / Q*Ball)

1. "Pretty Hate Machine" - Nine Inch Nails

Upon first listen, in the back of my friend Joe Sigona’s junker (affectionately called The Boogermobile due to its dark green color) on the way to the legendary Limelight nightclub in NYC, this album’s dark qualities, both musically and lyrically, became the benchmark for my musical aspirations. I soon picked up the mighty Korg 01/WFD sequencing keyboard – a heavy-as-hell dinosaur that I wound up writing about 100 songs on in my best attempt to become Trent Reznor.

2. "The Joshua Tree" - U2

I was too young to get into U2 during their ‘Unforgettable Fire’ heyday, so my first exposure to the band was watching Bobcat Goldthwait impersonate Bono in the ‘With Or Without You’ video during his HBO Comedy Special. Then I saw the trailer for Rattle & Hum in theaters. Curious, I went out and bought ‘Joshua Tree’ and became transformed by the sincerity, the soul, and my first real experience with topics that would become prevalent in a lot of my songwriting – the search for answers, addiction, hope, and especially women.

3. "Abbey Road" - The Beatles

My Dad used to make Beatles mixes on his reel-to-reel machine, so I was enamored with The Fab Four from a very early age. When I first picked up an instrument, all my guitarist friend Scott knew how to play were Beatles songs. The whole Beatles mystique became fascinating to me – ‘Paul Is Dead’, the iconic album cover, the ‘Golden Slumbers’ suite, the fact that this album was made while the band started falling apart. And oh yeah, the music….

4. Led Zeppelin IV

My parents’ music was extremely influential on me, and I eventually raided their extended vinyl collection, unearthing many gems from acts like Cat Stevens, Fleetwood Mac, Kansas. But Zep IV, with its folklore fairy tales, John Bonham’s epic backbeat, and of course, the masterful ‘Stairway To Heaven’ opened my ears. As a teenage drummer, ‘Stairway’ was one of the first songs I learned how to play on the drums. The first 6 minutes were real easy….

5. "...And Justice For All" - Metallica

My Whitesnake, Def Leppard & Warrant albums were pushed aside instantly when I first saw the ‘One’ video on MTV. The next day, you’d find me at the record store purchasing the entire Metallica back-catalog, plus every Anthrax album. Thrash metal became my new passion, much to my parents’ chagrin, as bands like Pantera, Sacred Reich, Wrathchild America, and Prong rarely left my CD player. I could relate a hell of a lot more to the alcoholic nerds singing about war, horror movies, and bloody knuckles than the teased-hair morons singing about their cocks and the bitches they lusted after.

6. Mr. Bungle

I spent most of college sitting on the steps of the quad with my friend Scott, singing this entire album acappella. Bungle’s first album was a revelation of circus music, filth rap, death metal, and Mike Patton’s affirmation that you can be completely out of your mind, totally eclectic, and mesmerizing all at the same time.

7. "Paul's Boutique" - The Beastie Boys

You simply can’t make an album like this anymore (without getting your pants sued off, at least). The Dust Brothers’ musical contributions to the Beasties’ clever raps, a complete right turn after the ‘cock rap’ of ‘Licensed To Ill’, were awe-inspiring, and made me want to go out and buy a sampler right after I picked this one up on vinyl. And I did.

8. "OK Computer" - Radiohead

I was a huge fan of ‘The Bends” in college and then attended Radiohead’s infamous post-Tibetan Freedom Concert show at Irving Plaza in NYC, where they played a bunch of tunes from this album, and I fell in love. A sonic boom for the alternative scene, ‘OK Computer’ literally blew my mind from beginning to end.

9. "Appetite For Destruction" - Guns N' Roses

There’s something iconic about seeing that skulls-on-a-cross logo for the first time, seeing Axl’s ridiculously teased ‘do as he walks off the bus from Hicktown USA into “The Jungle”. GnR was my first taste of ‘gutter rock’, the best album they would ever make – by far – before all the drama and the megalomania, it was just dirt and spit and a big ol’ ‘Fuck You’ to authority. Everyone I knew who was playing an instrument in high school wanted to be in Guns N Roses, myself included.

10. "Dark Side Of The Moon" - Pink Floyd

Musical theater in its finest psychedelic form, one of the coolest albums to listen to thru headphones, and I totally buy The Wizard of Oz thing. My first real introduction to a concept album – songs didn’t have to start or end, this was a journey of a different sort and it was hypnotic.

11. "Nevermind" - Nirvana

RIP Magazine’s Lonn Friend debuted the ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ video on a new segment on Headbanger’s Ball called ‘The Frantic Fringe’ (lame). Hair metal had already gotten cancer and once I saw this video, I knew it was terminal. Good. I didn’t have long hair, wear spandex and eyeliner, or learn how to play my instrument adequately so I could bang half naked girls. I was a shy skinny high school kid who loved music. So was Kurt Cobain. It was cool to wear a sweater again and let the world know that you had a tortured soul. This album opened the floodgates for Alice In Chains, Pearl Jam, Soundgarden and my sizable sleeveless flannel collection.

12. "The Real Thing" - Faith No More

I was only familiar with FNM by name when I saw Vince Neil & Tommy Lee tell Riki Rachtman how much they loved this band on some lame-ass Headbangers Ball special, which was followed by the fish-floppin, piano-bursting video for ‘Epic’. I bought the album the next day and never looked back. They would outdo themselves with ‘Angel Dust’, but their keyboard-infused rock/metal style would open my mind to new styles and new ideas as an artist.

13. "Violator" - Depeche Mode
14. "Songs From The Big Chair" - Tears For Fears

My first real taste of electronic music during my early teenage years came predominantly from these two acts, and their best and most commercially successful releases. Both albums are perfection, not a stinker tune in the bunch. TFF were more introspective and experimental, DM more dark and sultry. And yes, I would go to house parties in Brooklyn and Long Island with my blazer over my t-shirt and my Cons on and dance to this shit. And I was sober. Fuck you, the 80s ruled.

15. "The Fat Of The Land" - The Prodigy

Late ‘90s electronica was all the hype at a time when I had already been making this music for 4-5 years. The fact that a band like The Prodigy could actually be commercialized gave a guy like me hope. Of course, the fad didn’t last (or maybe it never left, it just somehow morphed into Timbaland & The Black Eyed Peas). But for fans of the genre, this was ‘The Golden Age’ – Chemical Brothers, Underworld, Fatboy Slim, Moby, Orbital – I was a fan of all and more, but this particular album blew me away – a vile groove unapologetic in its lyrical nastiness. This was The Sex Pistols discovering MIDI. Danceable electro-punk became possible.

Jul 30, 2010

All Cows Eat Grass

In 2006, I wrote a song called 'Goodbye Piano' - it's a metaphor for
letting go. When my grandmother died many years ago & her house was
sold, the prospect of throwing away her piano - the piano my Mom, my
aunt & uncle, and even I had learned to play on - proved a bit
heartbreaking. It was as if getting rid of the piano was like getting
rid of all the memories & good times involved with this instrument,
even tho it was dilapidated & horribly out of tune. I wanted to
capture the idea of loss, and love/hate between a man & his instrument
rather than a man & a woman, and I found the two to be pretty
interchangeable - enjoying good times & memories that become marred by
twists of fate & karma, having to let go of something you once loved,
& once made you who you are, and dealing with the pain of knowing it
must go.

My parents still have the piano that *I* grew up playing in their home
in Pennsylvania. 7 years of lessons on that light brown upright and
then I gave up because I guess that's what most 12 year olds do (or at
least what they did in the late 1980s). They get bored, they get into
sports, into girls, into video games (y'know, like the Commodore 64),
into their friends. I often regretted stopping, knowing that I never
realized my full potential at the instrument I knew & loved the most,
but 20+ years later, I'm determined to start up again. It's never too
late. I still try to make some time for the old piano during my rare
sojourns out to my parents' house (the riffs that would become 'John
Hughes' were born while sitting at that piano), but it's not the same
as having one in my own house. When Return To Earth signed with Metal
Blade earlier this year, I was determined to take my share of the
advance money and buy a piano of my own. I had even reserved space
for it in my living room from Day One, anticipating its eventual
arrival into both home & life. I am an analog keyboard junkie - I
still own a Korg 01/WFD, a Nord Lead 2, a Korg N5, and a Microkorg.
While the rest of the world has moved to virtual synths, I remain
steadfast in my love for the analog synth. I still feel like I've
barely scratched the surface with a lot of these boards.

Playing the piano on these boards is just not the same, tho. The
weight of the keys, the pedals, the sound - the *feel* - are unmatched
compared to the real thing. A little over a month ago, the piano
arrived - a Yamaha P22 upright, ebony finish. Modest, but gorgeous.
I whipped out the old sheet music and went to work. Sheet music for
'The Muppet Show' Theme, John Williams' 'Star Wars' Theme, Henry
Mancini's 'Pink Panther' Theme (I used to play this during my
elementary school assembly as kids in red clip-on ties carried the
American flag down the aisle), We Are The World, and David Lee Roth's
version of 'Just A Gigolo/I Ain't Got Nobody' (I kid you not)
currently reside atop the keys. I remember my grandmother buying me
the latter two pieces during a Sam Ash detour on a trip into the city
to go see 'The Flying Karamazov Brothers' on Broadway.

Piano = Memories. Memories = Inspiration. Inspiration = Music.

I'm learning to play again. Gotta start slow, it's been awhile. I'm dedicating time every
week to scales, chords, practice practice practice. I bought staff
paper. The only song I can play perfectly from memory is 'Frosty The
Snowman'. I'm hoping to expand my catalog, to be able to call myself
a 'musician' with a clear conscience, to write write write.

I've already written a new song on the new piano - it's got a real
sweet gospel vibe with a nice swing to it and I hope to release it in
the coming months as part of my Q*Ball Collaboration Project. So
thanks Metal Blade. And 'Hello Piano' - hopefully we'll be friends
for a long time and start up a whole new lifetime of memories & music
together. First, let me see if I can remember how to draw a treble

May 14, 2010

The Q*Ball Collaboration Project begins

The compact disc is dead. Maybe not for Linkin Park or Lady Gaga or Green Day. But for Q*Ball - and other artists like me - Rest In Peace, o wondrous shiny orb. It was a great run.

I remember the first CD I ever purchased. Bon Jovi's "Slippery When Wet." That was followed by the soundtracks for 'Weird' Al Yankovic's 'UHF', the immortal 'Cocktail', and the oldies compilation CD 'Spuds MacKenzie's Party Faves'. But that's a different blog for a different day. Incidentally, if you don't know who Spuds MacKenzie is, I won't hold it against you.

Back then, CDs came in a useless rectangular cardboard box, with the physical jewel case stored somewhere in the middle. It was a design choice that was essentially a complete waste of space. After removing the jewel case from the box, I used to cut out the covers and hang them on the wall of my room in my parents' house. Today, rather than the box it used to come in, the CD itself - as "compact" as advertised - has become the waste of space. When you're an independent artist who doesn't tour and you manufacture 2000 CDs right around the time when music fans have discovered free downloads and digital file sharing, you better have some serious storage space available (fortunately I do).

So I give in. You win, technology. I'm all in.

The next Q*Ball album will be digital-only. Hell, it won't even be an 'album', at least at first. What with CD Baby & iTunes (and others soon to follow, I'm sure) recently offering up single-download opportunities to independent artists, and the attention spans of music fans everywhere decreasing day-by-day in a vast Internet age, the single's the thing. For an artist like me, songs are ammo - an opportunity for a remix, a licensing opportunity, the offer of an exclusive free track for the diehard fans out there. So rather than stock up all my bullets and then finally firing the gun, say, a year from now, I'm taking one well-aimed shot at a time.

My last album, "This Is Serious Business" was released 3 years ago to little fanfare. Bumblefoot & I were in the process of writing a slew of new tunes together when Guns N Roses came a-calling, so I decided to collaborate with some old friends to help "complete" the album while BBF was taking his maiden GnR voyage. It was a pleasurable experience and resulted in some of the better songs on the album including 'Baby You Drive Me Crazy' & the title track. Fast forward 3 years, I'm now in another band (Return To Earth), and I'm also engaged in various other projects including a publishing company, a comedy CD, a puppet project, and, of course, I'm still running the label. So the prospect of completing another full album seems dim, regardless.

Looking for a foolproof plan to fix all of the above quandaries, the solution I came up with started with an e-mail to a bunch of people I'd been hoping to contribute to the Q*Ball project for a long time. The email text is below:
Fellow Music Nerds.

If you're reading this email, then I have (a) collaborated with you in the past or (b) have wanted to collaborate with you for awhile now. At age 35, I now own a home recording studio, I run a record label, I am in a signed metal band on Metal Blade Records, I own a dog, and spend most of my week playing slave to my commercial radio masters, an Ensign on the proverbial sinking ship of mass media. I do not plan to be Ryan Seacrest's towel boy for much longer.

This year, I am starting a print publishing company and I'm currently learning how to become a puppeteer. I am buying an upright piano and plan to put out an album comprised of ethereal moody material with apathetic lyrics (Sigur Ros, Portishead, Hammock are amongst the influences there). I am signing a band out of NYC that I really dig called The Head Set and will be releasing their album later this year.

Despite - and in spite of - all this, I am moving forward with a new Q*Ball album and hope to start tracking this summer. Most, if not all of you in this email list, have 'real life' obligations - wives, babies, day jobs, drug addictions, obligations to behemoth rock bands, etc. I know how hard it has become to get into a room together to make music, and I hope that my proposal below sounds appealing not only in musical nature but also in terms of time management.

I had always hoped that whatever I did next with Q*Ball would be extremely collaborative - I had the pleasure of not only working with Bumblefoot on the last Q*Ball album, but also with my old buddies from The Substance, and I want to expand upon that circle even further this time around. Keeping 100% ownership of a very small electro-rock pie has become much less important than the process of writing, recording, bouncing ideas, and making magic with friends and whose musical abilities I've always admired. I also just want to have fun making music again, and running your own label is unfortunately more 'work' than 'play' more often than not.

I have already spoken with some of you about doing this together and I plan to elaborate on the full details once I get my official roster of collaborators together. For now, all I need is your official "I'm in" and I'll send a follow-up email with details on the proposed process. Hopefully we can make use of friends' studios and recording setups in Jersey, Brooklyn, and in Staten Island. And hopefully I can grab 2-3 of you at a time to put together some song sessions.

So - let me know if you're in and we'll go from there. Looking forward to hearing from all of you :)

Everyone I sent this e-mail to was all-in, including fellow band mates Bumblefoot, Chris Pennie, & Brett Aveni. I sequestered Black Pig's Joe Milazzo, as well, plus some other ex-collaborators, choosing to take a long-awaited trip down memory lane. I'm a sucker for nostalgia.

So the plan is to put out a Q*Ball song out every month or two starting in June. One bullet at a time, no pressure, no manufacturing costs, and more space in the basement for all those Bumblefoot guitar tab books. I conducted my first session in Brooklyn with my buddy Bodega Brad about 2 weeks ago and, after a slow start, it went quite well, and I've begun filling my calendar with future sessions

Getting yourself into gear is not an easy thing, even when it's something you love to do. Sometimes we need each other to light those respective fires. Moving forward, that's what Q*Ball is going to represent, hopefully resulting in some of the best music I've ever released. If you're like me, frustrated that the process can be too slow and incomplete, those people are out there - you've just gotta find em and start pouring a whole lot of gasoline. Songs are ammo. So are people.

Apr 27, 2010

Help ME Help YOU

In 1992, I wrote a 3 page letter to Tommy Victor of Prong. Turns out
my mother knew his sister through her work, and when I find this out,
being a kid in a band, and also a big Prong fan, this was an in to get
my stuff noticed. I had just started an electronic band called Secret
Army and I included our first demo (on cassette…remember those?) with
the letter, which, as I recall, was heartfelt, gushing, and polite.
As most of my letters to metal acts from the early 1990s were back then.

Footnote for those who don't know Prong: they were a working-class NY
based metal band on Epic Records (remember them??) who were regularly
featured on MTV's Headbangers Ball and whose most popular song was
called 'Snap Your Fingers, Snap Your Neck'. Thus, they were cool.

As I remember it, my Mom passed the letter and the demo onto to
Tommy's sister and I was told that it would be passed on to him. And
- not *that* surprisingly - I never heard a peep from Tommy Victor nor
anyone else about it ever again.

Did he listen?
Did he even get it???
Did I offend him in the letter somehow?
Tommy Victor, why have you forsaken me????
I have all your goddamn albums! Even the Whose Fist Is It Anyway? EP!

In retrospect, it's very possible that he *did* listen, and hated
it. This is also understandable - the demo wasn't very good. Secret
Army sounded *nothing* like Prong, it wasn't even metal, and the first
song on the demo a little ditty entitled 'I Miss Roger Grimsby'. So I
hold no ill will - in fact, I still own all of Prong's records, and
tho they are scoffed at by many metal fans from my generation, and are
generally unknown to younger metal fans, I still enjoy their music.

And this got me thinking - Tommy Victor and I aren't that different.
I'm also in a signed band on Metal Blade that has been subject to the
same mix of respect and scoffing that all metal bands have grown
accustomed to. Scoffing is the thing most metal fans do best besides

So now I'm the guy getting the demos and the handwritten letters (or
the mp3 files and the Word documents). And I'm posing the question to
all you unsigned bands that have been soliciting to us:

How can I help you, even if I can't sign you?
With honest critique?
Tommy Victor probably made the smart choice of ignoring my letter
rather than writing me back and telling me what a piece of shite he
thought my demo was. But he was in a metal band on Epic and I was
some punk from Brooklyn who was playing weekday nights at The Pyramid
Club. Some demos I receive are from friends of the label, people who
have helped my own bands achieve a moderate level of success. Do I
risk losing their support if I don't share the same enthusiasm for
their music as they do mine? It's a conundrum.

When we started out, I'd receive 3-4 demos a month and knew almost
immediately, that even if the bands were good (most weren't), there
would be little I could do for them besides say, "Nice job." Now that
the label has grown in size & staff, I receive about 3-4 demos a week,
never mind the countless invites and requests on Facebook and
elsewhere. And every time I give one a listen - and I listen
(eventually) to every one I receive - I always think, "This was me."

I've been in bands, good and bad, since high school. I've gotten
rejection letters, 'we're not interested' e-mails, bad press, and my
share of non-responses. Once, I was just about booed offstage opening
up for R&B act Mya . And of course, there was Mr. Victor's non-
response. Rejection sucks, you can't soft-soap that. But I think that
ignorance sucks even more.

I read all the same DIY newsletters all of you read – I'm well versed
in The Indie Bible, CD Baby, Sonicbids, Broadjam, Disc Makers, you
name it. I work in commercial radio, I worked in college radio and in
indie promo – I am an expert on "How To Submit Music To A Label
Without Embarrassing Yourself." And I know how the 'get their
attention' game is played.

So I get it. Music is like any other piece of art - no matter how
professional a package you put together or how many fans on your
MySpace page, one man's garbage is another man's gold. That said, I
receive my fair share of garbage. And, being on both sides of the
artist vs. label fence even now, I've pledged a policy of honest and
eventual feedback for every demo I get. Even if the worst band on the
planet takes the time to send me a CD, a one-sheet, and a dream,
they've earned the right to be heard. Tommy Victor be damned.

So the question I'm posing to all of you who have submitted to music
us – or want to submit music to us is – why us? And if you have a
good reason why you'd rather be on Bald Freak Music rather than Ipecac
or Barsuk or Interscope, then how do you think we can help you? We
can only sign so many pirate metal bands, after all.

There have been a decent amount of artists who have sent me stuff that
I really like, but geographical, financial concerns, etc. have gotten
in the way of pulling the trigger on them. So my question isn't
hypothetical – how CAN I help you?

Or better yet – how can we help each other?