Friday, June 10, 2016

Interview with musician STEVE BELLO by Dave Wolff

Photo by Rosario Panzarella
Interview with musician STEVE BELLO

Your current full length Layers Of Time combines elements of progressive rock, thrash metal and funk with lengthy guitar solos. How would you say your songwriting stands out from other musicians with varying influences?
I just write what I feel. I am glad that I have a vast repertoire of influences to pick from. I've been in bands where someone would say "we have to sound like this particular band" and I would say "why not just write and see what happens?" Plus I don't write in that "fuzak" style that a lot of guitar players eventually lean towards, that really watery style that sounds like I am in a dentist chair. I don't know if my writing stands out per se but enough people have told me that what I am doing is different and unique, so either I am onto something, or people finally decided to break away from what's being spoon-fed to them. People want to hear something different but they wind up gravitating towards new bands with a throwback sound. My music lends itself to some degree of familiarity from past artists, but I do my best to have one foot in the present.

When did you first get the idea that you wanted to pursue being a musician as a full time career?
My first real show was back in 1986 with the first band I played in. We played a festival in the high school gym, and for some reason, this idea of "making it" hit me. Up until that point, I was just happy playing in a band, even though we weren't very good. I liked the applause that I was hearing, and something in my head just clicked and said "you want to do this for life."

Is there anything you want to tell about this band you were in while attending high school? After high school, how did you go about pursuing music professionally?
Well we sucked (laughs). But that was the first tentative steps for me to really go after a music career. I was not going to let anyone or anything slow me down. After high school, I attended community college, worked towards getting an Associate degree in music, while playing in various bands, thinking "this is the one!"

What music classes were you taking in community college? Did you transfer from there to a college or a music school?
I took music theory for two years, played in jazz bands and was in music appreciation classes. I transferred to another college after graduating from community college in 1991 but didn't continue with music. I went for English and it was a bad mistake. I wound up leaving and that was that.

Do you remember your instructors from community college who you took music theory with? Are there any music schools in your area worth mentioning? Do you feel that your time in community college helped you grow on your own as a musician?
I always mention Professor Marshall whenever I am giving a guitar lesson because while he was definitely "old school", I learned a lot from him. There's a School Of Rock near me, and a couple more scattered about. I learned how to grow as a musician by sweating it out in the clubs over the years.

Were there guitarists you admired before you began your recording career? In the 80s and 90s there were many who had solo projects you didn’t hear much about on MTV in spite of their talent and originality.
Definitely Jimi Hendrix and Ritchie Blackmore, they were my first true guitar idols in the early 80s. As far as guitar players who did the instrumental route, obviously Joe Satriani and Steve Vai, without question. I also loved the Mahavishnu Orchestra records with John McLaughlin. Other players would include Vernon Reid, Uli Jon Roth, Yngwie Malmsteen. But I also admired non-metal players such as Andy Summers for his chordal work and chorus tone, and Prince because he was just so bad-ass on guitar. Hard to believe I have to mention Prince in the past tense now.

Which recordings by the artists you mention above have you listened to most often? What about those albums were inspirational to you and what about them contributed to music in general?
Wow, that's a tough question. I think almost everyone I mentioned got equal billing, so to speak. But I definitely went through a heavy Blackmore phase early on, then Yngwie was it for a while. Vai definitely a ton of attention as well. I would have to say from each artist, it would be RISING by Rainbow, ARE YOU EXPERIENCED? by Hendrix, RISING FORCE by Yngwie, SURFING WITH THE ALIEN by Satriani, PASSION AND WARFARE by Vai. They each helped make me break out of ruts and patterns that most guitar players fall prey to. I am no exception, as I sometimes fall back on tried and true licks. Yet I still want to find something new and challenging.

In what ways did Malmsteen, Vai, Blackmore, Satriani and Hendrix as well as the other guitarists you cited help you refine your playing style? Were you also inspired by any thrash guitarists while you listened to them?
I took bit and pieces, sometimes large chunks, from these players and tried to mimic their styles. Ultimately, I had a hard time nailing their solos so I guess I accidentally came up with my own style of sorts. I would play for people and they would say things like "you have your own thing happening" or "I can hear Vai and Satriani but it's still you." In the thrash world, I liked guys like Gary Holt of Exodus, but I liked bands more than actual guitar players. I was deep into Slayer, Metallica, Megadeth, Anthrax, and then later bands like Testament, Possessed, etc. I liked the overall energy and attitude the bands had. I never really zeroed in on the guitar solos in thrash metal, truth be told. I wanted to capture that in-your-face element that was present in that genre.

I liked Purple Rain when it was out and I liked Prince’s early material. I lost touch with him but liked his recent work as it was much more guitar heavy as opposed to what he was doing from the 80s to the 90s.
I didn't like Prince early on, as I was your typical elitist metal head. But I heard his guitar work on PURPLE RAIN and kept saying "That's not him!" Then I saw footage of him on MTV in 1984 or so, and he was tearing that guitar up. That's when I opened up to his music. His early work was very spotty, started crystalizing around the time of 1999, and obviously PURPLE RAIN was his crowning achievement. I still love SIGNS O’ THE TIMES, as well as bits and pieces of his later albums. But I will always say Prince was an amazing guitar player, period.

From what I remember of the early 80s it was more elitist not to listen to metal, as metal and thrash was cutting edge and not as popular as other genres. Until Headbangers’ Ball aired you didn’t see as many metal videos on MTV.
Every genre has its share of snobbiness, whether it's blues, jazz, metal, punk, etc. I was definitely a dyed-in-the-wool metal head, your typical "metal or nothing" teenager. Then when I started discovering bands like The Police, Squeeze, and the like, my love of metal never waned but if anything, I found it liberating to be able to straddle a few fences. I could listen to Metallica and then turn around and listen to The Police without fear of losing my "metal cred."

I heard The Clash was one of the bands Prince listened to and influenced his early material. The documentary that states this was The Man Behind The Music, released this year. Were you listening to punk bands back then? Where else do you see the genre’s lasting impression?
Right around the time of the DIRTY MIND album, Prince was kinda catering to the new wave market. His songs reflected his appreciation for bands like The Cars and a lot of synth-driven music. I never listened to the Clash, they did nothing for me, so I wouldn't know if I would be able to hear them in Prince's music. I liked some punk, namely Sex Pistols, Black Flag, Discharge, Bad Brains. I liked a little bit of Dead Kennedys, a bit of Descendents and the Misfits. I saw the doc when you sent it to me, so I learned something new. I think "punk" is a loose term, much like when someone says a certain band is "metal". It can be a cheap tag. You can say that punk could apply to early Who, where they were into destroying things on stage. Or you can even say Elvis was kind of a punk in his early years. In my opinion, people look at punk as a fashion thing. I always looked at it as having a certain attitude.

What is your definition of a genuine punk attitude, with Elvis and The Who in mind? When the Beatles started as the Quarrymen could they have been considered early punk?
My personal opinion is that a "punk" attitude is one where you genuinely don't give a rat's tail, you just go about your day and eschew what's considered the norm. The Beatles were never going to be punk by any means, not by a long shot. But John Lennon was known to be a bit of a wise-ass, especially with his "we're bigger than Jesus" and "and for the rest of you, rattle your jewelry." Elvis was in-your-face, he scared parents who grew up on Frank Sinatra, was raw and exuded this sexuality that you didn't see at that time. The Who were hell-bent on destruction, as evidence by Keith Moon blowing up his drums on live TV, and Pete Townsend smashing his guitars. Granted, other bands were smashing guitars but something about the Who (not that I was ever a big fan really) were very UP YOURS in some ways.

In what ways has thrash enhanced your music? I’ve studied the different types of blast beats, the complex chord progressions and the discipline of the vocals in death and black metal, and found a lot of innovation. Do you see anything there? And do you make conscious efforts to recapture the energy of thrash metal in your recordings?
Thrash was a style of music that I could never write, not sure why. I would try to come up with a Slayer-type riff and it felt weird, like it wasn't mine. I never got into too much death metal, and black metal was never my cup of tea. I just go with the flow. I may not write a brutally fast riff but the energy of thrash may be there in spots.

I heard some Rush influence when I checked out Layers Of Time, particularly the Farewell To Kings/Hemispheres era. Would you credit this band has having helped shape your approach to playing guitar?
Rush were and still are a huge influence on me in so many ways. Alex Lifeson has a very unique approach to rhythm work, solos, and getting good guitar textures. If you picked up on any Rush influence in my music, that's wonderful but it was never intentional. I just write what feels good, and if something sounds like Rush, it's purely by chance.

Rush likewise went against convention on their own terms. What would you say about their contribution to music?
Rush were a band that did what they wanted, regardless of what you or I thought. They lost me in the mid-80s after the SIGNALS album and while I still don't like what they did on albums like POWER WINDOWS and HOLD YOUR FIRE, those albums were necessary for the evolution of Rush. They couldn't be a progressive band forever, and Geddy Lee either got tired of singing really high, or just lost some range, I don't know. But they aren't pretentious. They did what they felt was right for the moment. I will always be a fan of Rush but some albums I avoid like the plague.

How long have you been recording material and what made you decide to record independently?
Recording my own material started back in August 2003, when Ibanez approached me to do clinics and be an endorser. They asked me “do you have CDs to sell?" and I said "I guess I will now!" I knew that I was past the age of "getting signed" (I was 32 at that point) so I kind of fell into the whole independent route. Not worrying about being signed freed me up to do my music on my terms.

How much more freedom does working independently give you as opposed to compromising for a label or producer?
I don't feel I've ever compromised myself with any producer I worked with. Each brought something to the table, yet I still sounded like me. It was never "that's a so-and-so-production", it was "still sounds like Bello." I wanted to be signed for years but looking back, it would have been the worst thing for me. I am too free-spirited to be told by a record label what would be "expected" of me. I don't respond well to anyone telling me what I should be doing. The music has to breathe, be natural and honest.

Many bands have built their own home studios as opposed to renting professional studios to record albums. Are you working in your own space or is there a studio you visit regularly?
Each album I recorded was in a different studio, except for two. First album TWISTED METAL was done at a studio in Franklin Lakes, New Jersey, didn't really have a name, was the guy's house basically. Second album ALL WIRED UP and third album JUPITER RETURN were both recorded at Crystal Studios in Park Ridge, NJ. Sadly, it is no more because the producer Mike Koenig passed away in 2011. Fourth album ABOUT TO EXPLODE! was recorded at the bass player Ko's studio in Glen Rock, NJ. He called it Yes I Know Studio (you'd have to ask him what that means, I have no clue). Fifth album GO BERZERK! was recorded at Bennett Studios in Englewood, NJ and that studio is gone too because Dae Bennett decided to close up shop. My newest album LAYERS OF TIME was partly recorded in my living room on the laptop, and the majority of it was finished at Rosario Sound Labs in Metuchen, NJ. I would love to have my own studio but I also enjoy traveling and visiting studios. I love the energy and vibe I get in a studio. If I had one at home, it wouldn't have the same impact.

Of all the studios you have visited to record full lengths, where did you get the best results? Who are the producers who most helped you translate your ideas to record?
Another tough question, because I don't want to slight anyone. But to be fair, Rosario Panzarella really pushed me to my creative max. He would zig when I wanted to zag. He would tell me if I sucked (laughs) but he would also jump out of his chair if I played something magical. There were definitely some moments when I wanted to throw my guitar on the ground but I kept at it, because I would not allow myself to get in the way of the music. With past producers, there were a lot of fun moments, but I was never really challenged per se. Again, I hope that doesn't sound like I am throwing someone under the bus.

How much space do producers usually give you to develop on your own terms?
Producers know that it's my vision and that I am "the boss" in some ways but in the past, I think the producers I worked with just wanted me in and out of the studio. Rosario really pushed me and made sure that anything I played had merit and wasn't just a toss-off like "who cares?" If he saw me lag behind on something, he would stop recording and talk me through things. Or tell me "again!" 14 times until I got it right.

What aspects of your musicianship was Rosario trying to bring out in the studio? What recording equipment did you and he have to work with?
He really worked with me and worked me on my rhythms and making sure everything lined up nicely. If a note was off, or I did vibrato on a note, he would stop the recording and make me work on the riff over and over until I was sick of it. And then we would record it. When it came time for my solos, I told him to please let me do my thing and he did. Every solo but the one on "Too Far Below Zero" was knocked out in one take. "Too Far" was the last solo I recorded and I made the mistake of saying "I want to do a jazz solo and screw everyone up." So Rosario would say things like "no Yngwie for this" or "think more George Benson, don't play fast." And after the 11th take or so, the solo was finally piece together and I banged it out. Was rough but we did it.

With all the takes that went into recording your solos, are you generally satisfied with the results? Is challenging yourself the most important thing to you as a full time musician?
I am pleased with the results, as I felt the most free with recording the new album. I was in that zone, and Rosario knew it. He saw that my mind was elsewhere and just let me go. It definitely is, but I have to have fun with what I am doing. I have been guilty of having my head up my ass about things, and I am a perfectionist. But I love pushing myself to see what I can and can't do.

How many lineups have worked with you to date? Has it been a process to find musicians to work with who are on the same page as you? What is the current lineup?
Since 2004, I've had five different line-ups for recordings. And I've had line-up changes after albums came out, so I may have had six to seven changes. I honestly stopped counting. It will always be an arduous task. Not everyone has been on the same page as myself. But I am not into soapy gossip or drama, so I will just say that I have had the privilege of working with very talented drummers and bass players over the years. But if the Jackson 5, who were brothers, couldn't stay together, what chance do I have of keeping a stable line-up? Right now I have Tommy Irwin on drums, and Jimmy Donegan on bass. Jimmy and I went to the same community college, and we were in the same music classes and played in jazz band. Tommy, Jimmy and I also play in a local cover band called Mary's Basement; they've been in that band for 10 years, whereas for me it's been three years. Tommy and Jimmy actually helped me with a Hendrix tribute concert last summer when the guys I had in my previous line-up wouldn't do it. So when my new album came out and I was booked to open for Joe Lynn Turner this past February, I asked them would they be into helping me? They've been playing in my band ever since.

Who are your personal favorites of all the musicians you have worked with?
I will say that each musician that was in my band brought something unique to the table yet tried to change my vision. And in the end they either left on their own accord or were shown the door. I am happy with Tommy and Jimmy because they care about the music, are good listeners, and know not to get in the way of my vision. They are hard workers, they ask questions, and yet don't question my integrity or ask "can you write a song like Motley Crue?"

Describe how Tommy and Jimmy enhance your playing when you practice and perform with them.
They have played together for 10 years, so they are in tune with each other. That always helps. And I can show them songs without fear of "That's not good" or "Maybe make it sound more djent" or whatever. Chemistry is a rarity in this world, and if there's no rapport with band members, the music suffers. As far as playing live with them, they've only done two shows with me with more happening soon. But they are solid, they work hard and they really get into the music. They don't turn into astronomers and stare into space, and act like they'd rather play checkers.

Tell the readers of this cover band Mary’s Basement you are a member of with Tommy and Jimmy.
They've been together for ten years and I originally would sit in and jam on "War Pigs" with them. The crowd seemed to like that I added this edge to the band, so they asked me to do a full show with them back in 2013. At first I was a bit hesitant because I was against cover bands. I'm still not a fan of cover bands per se but this was a nice challenge for me, playing songs I would have never pictured myself covering artists such as Bruce Springsteen, The Doors and Lady Gaga. I got to inject my own tastes, so we cover "Purple Rain" by Prince, "Sultans Of Swing" by Dire Straits, and yes we do "War Pigs" because people like having their eardrums blown out.

Discuss the writing process of your current full length release and the work that went into arranging the songs.
The first song that I wrote was actually an early version of "Too Far" but the bassist I had at the time wouldn't play it, said it wasn't good. I wrote "Slippery Gypsy" and the previous line-up I had liked that song, so we did it live a bunch of times. Every time I would try to present more songs, the guys would clam up. So when they left, Rosario helped me with the software to get my songs going. I banged out nine songs on my laptop in demo form in three to four days, and then over the course of two months, the album was fully finished. I always map out the order of the songs on a piece of paper and then ask myself "does this look right?" I was always weird like that, always envisioning what order the songs should look like. I wrote the whole album pretty much over a two to three year time span. As a matter of fact, "Too Far" was the first song I wrote after I finished my 2011 CD, GO BERZERK! The CD wasn't even pressed yet and I was already onto the next album.

What programs did you have on your laptop that enabled you to record and then bring your work into a studio to complete the album?
Rosario helped me set up Nuendo and EZ Drummer so I could get to work at home. After some nail-biting and cursing at the screen, I learned how to work everything decently. Once I got on a roll, there was no stopping me. I was sending Rosario two-three songs at a time, was waiting for him to say "STOP!" But once I got the songs together as far as demo ideas, he took them and fixed up the drum programs a lot better. Very few guitar parts I did at home made it to the final stages, as we really worked on getting these massive guitar tones, lots of stacking and layering tracks. It was fun, sometimes tedious, sometimes hair-raising, but in the end, Rosario helped me make a killer album.

What traditional/analog equipment are you usually recording with these days? How much trial and error did you undergo before you found equipment you could work with?
Right now I have no recording gear per se except for my laptop. When I recorded at Rosario Sound Labs, he had a lot of gear that I could cherry-pick from and utilize. We both agreed that it had to be warm-sounding and we achieved that. Rosario would play with programs on the computer, various compressors, limiters, and of course cool noises.

How often did you and Rosario get to work on new programs? What equipment of his did you most like to work with?
Every time I went to his studio, he would have a new plug-in for me to check out. He had cool amps and pedals that I got to toy with, added some nice tones to the gear that I already own. I was a kid in a candy store...well, Rosario was too. It was the most fun and intense recording I was ever a part of.

In what ways would you say Layers Of Time is an improvement from your previous outing Go Berzerk?
For starters, the writing improved. Each album I always viewed as a snapshot of where my head was at that point in my life. GO BERZERK! is still a wonderful record with great musicianship yet it sounds old to me now. I get bored easily and so I had started writing music for what became LAYERS OF TIME. The production on LAYERS is miles above the last record, everything has such a clarity to it.

What songs recorded for Layers Of Time most closely represent where you are now as a guitarist?
Definitely "Nuclear Paradise", as I am proud of the arrangement and the melodies. "Jigsaw Mind" was a challenge because I didn't want to play any fast licks, was going for more of Robin Trower vibe. I had to totally forget any daredevil licks and hopefully play the right notes at the right time.

How did you arrange your lengthy guitar solos for each track on the album? How much solo material did you have to remember?
I've been doing this for a long time so I sometimes feel like I am on auto-pilot. I work hard to construct good melodies, and solos for me are icing on the cake. I would think of which parts would be great to put guitar solos over, and just got from there.

Are you releasing your albums independently or have you found any label interest? Does social media help you reach a greater number of listeners? If so, which sites do you use?
All of my albums are released independently. There has never been any label interest. Social media is a necessary evil but I will say this: When I released GO BERZERK! in 2011 and mentioned it on Facebook, the response was overwhelming. When LAYERS OF TIME came out this past December, Facebook algorithms were an altogether different beast. Hearing that bands have to pay for "likes" to get attention did not sit well with me at all. It wasn't until a month after LAYERS came out that people asked "So where's this new album?" And I would say "Haven't you seen my posts?" The answer was usually "no". Fortunately, the album is selling nicely, between gigs and people ordering online. I have various sites: Facebook, ReverbNation, MySpace, TuneGo, PureVolume, Twitter, Soundcloud...

On which social media sites have you received the highest number of orders for Layers Of Time?
Definitely my website because anyone who orders a hard copy through there gets it personally signed by me. I've had people order downloads through CD Baby and iTunes as well.

Are you writing and arranging material for another full length at the time of this writing? How many songs do you expect to release on it? Do you have any ideas in mind for titles?
As a matter of fact, I have four songs already near-finished with Jimmy and Tommy. They are so into doing songs with me, so I have no problem saying "Check this out." I would like to do 8-9 songs on the next album. If I can get something out by mid-2017, then great. But I am not rushing things. Things are moving at a nice pace though. I have titles but I refuse to divulge anything until it's all recorded and air-tight.

-Dave Wolff

1 comment:

  1. This was vert insightful and interesting. Congrats Steve and Dave!! Couldnt stop reading