Interview with guitarist JOHN HOLFFMAN
How early did you decide to become a musician? Did any specific experience inspire you?
I feel I came into the material world with the purpose of being a creative soul, to express my messages. It almost feels as if I’ve been here before. As far as inspiration, my Aunt Virginia was a world famous violinist in The Philadelphia Orchestra. She also played on some of the biggest Motown records of all time (for Barry Gordy) in Detroit. She is on Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Goin’ On” and Diana Ross’ “Amongst Many”. The big Motown sound was derived from hiring classical musicians to supply string section accompaniment. My father John Sr. steered me from my first choice (drums) to guitar, figuring it wouldn’t be as loud. Thank God he did that; I feel I’m much better suited to guitar. Lou Ubrianco my guitar teacher was the best guitarist I ever heard. He is the former Mighty Joe Young guitarist and taught at Ossining Music in New York.
Do you consider yourself lucky to be from a family deeply entrenched in music?
I was blessed to be in a musical family. Some people believe you choose the people you’re with in this existence before you’re even born in this world. My Aunt Virginia was a childhood prodigy. She went to Julliard as a kid and from there to the Eastman School of Music. She was at a freakishly high level. Being around that has a profound effect. I went on tour with her for a year all over Europe with the Philadelphia Orchestra. She passed away in 2016; I flew back from Hollywood to be at her side when she passed. She was not alone. Her favorite Stravinsky played as she said goodbye. My pop was not in good enough shape to make the trip to Philly, so I was there for all of us. Although I grew up in a classical environment, Rock N Roll was always my favorite. I loved the English Wave of musicians: Jeff Beck, Black Sabbath, Cream, LED Zeppelin, Trapeze, Emerson, Lake and Palmer, Judas Priest, etc. Then I learned their inspiration came from the original Blues players: Robert Johnson, Johnny Lee Hooker, Muddy Waters and Willie Dixon. I will add Luther Allison from Chicago (I studied these guys) and newer artists like Walter Trout and Joe Bonnamassa. Also the Jazz Fusion that Jeff Beck brought into music. That is beautiful.
How long did you study under Lou Ubrianco? As a guitarist, how helpful were the principles he instructed you with?
I love Lou. I studied with him three years off and on. I was a very high energy kid and hard to deal with. He said if I could just direct my energy I could be a great guitarist. Still working at that. I wanted him to show me what I viewed as cutting edge techniques. Sweep picking, fast picking style like Al DiMeola. We studied Iron Maiden and Black Sabbath. He was very helpful. Just seeing someone play with his vibrato, his bends.
In the mid-1980s you founded a local Bronx, New York band called Sovereignty. Was this the first band you were involved with? How much material did they release and at what venues did you appear?
Sovereignty was my second band. I met the other guitar player in Westchester Community College, Victor Leontis music theory class. We played in New York and New Jersey and released a demo. Some of the places where we played were CBGB, The Bank, Marty and Lenny’s. The original members of Sovereignty were Eddie Moore on bass, Chris Peloso on drums, Derek Torres and John Holfmann on guitar. Vocals were split between the two guitarists. After that Imminent Destruction was my third band. The lineup was Pat Dannenhoffer on bass, Steve Olinski on drums and I. This was my first power trio setup which was a blueprint for my future sound. We released a demo as well and played The Bank, CBGB, Marty and Lenny’s and The Briar Patch.
How many copies of Sovereignty’s demo were made? Where was it recorded and who helped produce it with you? Were copes mostly distributed to local zines for review? What were the reviews like if you remember?
I think we may have released about 1000 copies of the demo. It was recorded and engineered by Gene Zoomer, produced by Gene Zoomer and Sovereignty. There may have been some reviews out there. I don’t know if I have any. It was sold at Bleeker Bob’s record store in the village and some other stores in the city. This information was provided by Derek.
How were the turnouts for Imminent Destruction when they played around NYC? Was their demo recorded at the same location as Sovereignty’s demo? How much promotion went into this release?
Imminent Destruction were developing a following opening for other local bands. We were a musician’s band and the bands we opened for were impressed by us. The demo was self-produced in Ossining, in Westchester County. We started to get a biker following which I thought was cool though some riots broke out at our shows, haha. Promotion was done from the back of my car handing out demo tapes. We were struggling.
What bands did Imminent Destruction open for during the time they were building a following? How many demos did you manage to sell firsthand at shows and elsewhere? Are any copies still available?
I think we had six hundred copies all on cassette. I would be hard pressed to find one now. I’d have to dig my tape deck out. We did an odd show opening up for the B-52s. We were doing heavy thrash and did the thrash style circuit. I remember meeting Ace Frehley from Kiss at one show.
What was it like to meet Ace Frehley? Were you a fan of Kiss beforehand?
I was a fan of Kiss when I was a kid. Even did a show in makeup as a child in summer camp. I was Paul in our kid Kiss band. More recently had the chance to meet and hang out with Uli Jon Roth. He is one of my main influences. We talked music, horror movies, special effects makeup, etc. He told me he’s heard our album and is digging it!! Hell of a nice guy. When I met him I was nervous and forgot how to speak momentarily.
Who else besides Ace Frehley and Uli Jon Roth have you had the opportunity to meet?
I did have the chance to meet the original members of Black Sabbath. I have all their autographs on a photo. I met Richie Kotzen who I’m a big fan of. I hung out and drank Jack Daniel’s with Lemmy from Motörhead at The Rainbow. He drank Jack and Coke. I met Glenn Hughes there too.
Do you remain in touch with the members of your old bands every now and then?
I stay in touch with Derek Torres who was the other guitar player in Sovereignty. I stay in touch with the drummer Chris Peloso. He was a nice jazz/rock style drummer. I just texted the bass player from Imminent Destruction, Pat Dannenhoffer. Great bass player and another Lou disciple.
How did you meet Brandon Whynaucht with whom you formed Black Sun Trine?
Brandon Whynaucht worked with me in the film industry; we do special effects. I didn’t even know he played the drums. My friend AJ Venuto also a special effects artist. Heard him rapping on the table and they got to talking. He found out Brandon has played drums since childhood. AJ suggested us getting together for a jam in the garage. I was skeptical about whether it would amount to anything; I thought he would suck. But in the first two minutes I realized this guy was a serious drummer. I was sold. I said right there and then we would make an album. That’s the truth. Four weeks later I went into Brandon’s Paradise Studios and started recording Black Sun Trine. We initially had a bass player we started working with: John Avila who was producing and engineering took over on bass. It was meant to be; destiny. Anyhow, we play beautifully together. The original idea was to do a demo, but it turned into an album. There was something special there. Guitars in the right hands are a very deadly weapon. It demanded to be released to the world.
What were some of the projects you and Brandon Whynaucht worked on together?
Brandon and I worked on Alien Vs Predator and a bunch of the Spider Man movies. I think Narnia? The Stephen King movie The Mist.
How long has Black Sun Trine been active, and how much material has been released to date?
Black Sun Trine was born in February of 2018. Before our album was released, I didn’t consider even being alive. It was collecting dust on the shelf but there was something special about it. We released only that one original self-titled album. We are currently working on a new album of ten new songs. We are currently in the process of mixing it. It’s exciting because we have the legendary Vinny Appice from Black Sabbath and Dio playing drums.
Was BST’s debut released independently, or did you go to a label to release and distribute it?
Black Sun Trine is independently released by us on CD Baby. But we are seeking a two record deal.
How many copies of your debut have you sold through CD Baby? How is the search for labels to distribute the album going so far? Is your search mostly for US labels or are you also seeking overseas distribution?
I think I have sold about 450 CDs. I can’t remember how many I had made but I still have two boxes of them. I was gonna go to Amoeba record store in Hollywood and supply some there for local support. I’ve gotten nothing but positive feedback so far. I can’t remember a single bad review yet. Is that odd? I don’t know. But it feels good to have people happy with what you’ve created and given. I was contacted by a bunch of promoters about helping with that end of things. And we will decide with John Avila how to pull the trigger on a promoter. I am open to an overseas record label. I was contacted from one in London and another in Italy. I wouldn’t rule anything out. We are available overseas now already and have been getting radio play all over Europe and South America. They seem to be digging the heavy grooves a lot more all over the world than the United States. Although it’s my belief that we are in a resurgence of Rock n Roll right now. I’m hearing a lot more heavy style stuff on radio again.
Are those labels from London and Italy well known? How much overseas exposure do you think they would help you achieve?
They are well known; I don’t want to screw anything up so that’s all I’m gonna say on that matter. I am very interested in overseas help with promotion in Europe, South America and the Far East. I think we have wide appeal. As B.S.T. has been getting airplay from radio all over the world. Our goal is to get heard all points of the Earth.
What European and South American stations have been supporting BST since you sent them your material?
I’ve kinda lost track of them but I can remember some: Metal Devastation Radio, Rock Rage Radio, Alloy Radio, Metal Groove Radio, 89.5 FM Australia, Metal Nation Radio, College Underground Radio, Total Metal Radio, Metal Public Radio, Insane Realm Radio, ITNS Radio, Tattoo Metal Radio, Indie Radio Network, Metal Is The Law, Dark Zero Radio and Gimme Radio. We also hit some stations in Brazil and Argentina. I would suggest people listen into those stations; they are a lot of fun. There’s a lot of creative stuff going on.
Amazingly, Black Sun has not been rejected by any programming directors, DJs or administrators yet. Everyone seems to get it. And we seem to be liked. We are going to stay on track. We are not gonna sell out. We are staying heavy.
Where on the radio are you hearing a resurgence of rock music? Is this mostly on traditional radio or internet radio?
I don’t know if it’s my imagination or desire, but I honestly believe there is a grassroots groundswell movement towards hard rock and heavy style music again. I’m hearing it a lot on internet radio which I view as a good and free. That’s the American way. I’m also noticing a trend towards that on terrestrial radio. I think it’s a great movement. As hard rock and heavy metal is a great style to express yourself artistically. You can interject jazz, blues, funk, classical, almost anything. No limit to your creativity.
Discuss where your new album is being recorded and what songs will appear on it.
The new album is tentatively entitled “Ascension”. It is from a demo I created in my home studio (the soul bunker). I sent the demo with twenty or so songs to Vinny Appice to see if he wanted to do the drums. He called and it was on! Next I contacted John Avila, my bass player and our producer. His studio is Brando’s Paradise Studio. The first song we recorded for the new album was “Can’t Live In The Past”. It’s a heavy anthem. I don’t know how I came up with the song. It was almost like I channeled it from the unknown. I was in a great deal of pain while recording it from my near fatal car accident in September 2016. The road to recovery has been daunting and needed an ungodly amount of painkillers. You can’t play the blues until you live the blues. It was the near death experience that made me reflect on things I needed to do before I go. One was record the songs I had in my head. On February 10, 2018 we recorded “New York City”. It’s a heavy groove laden love song to New York (Vinny is from Brooklyn and I’m originally from Queens).
“Upsidedown” came to me while driving on the way home from taking my son to school. I laid down a scratch track of it and it came out good. We just left it as a one take deal, just an improvisational solo. “Another Way” was a track I was saving for the next album. But I thought we needed an up tempo song so I included it. “So Cold” was a meditation exercise I made up to help me get through my pain from the accident. It developed into that song. “Hollywood” came to me in a dream. I woke up and recorded the harmony in the middle of the night so I wouldn’t forget it. It has a haunted vibe and it’s about a deal with the devil. Scary. “Blinded” is about the struggles of addiction. The last song “It’s Hard To Say Goodbye” is one I haven’t recorded yet. I wrote it after my favorite Aunt Virginia died, along with my Dad. It’s got soul and it’s dedicated to them. I have it arranged several ways in my head. I’m gonna bring it to the table with John and see how he would best like to see it arranged. That’s the Art. Heavy issues, heavy lyrics and heavy soul. I’m trying to put more emotion into the music from my heart and soul.
From the twenty songs you demoed, how long did you take to choose tracks for the album?
I sent the twenty new tracks to Vinny first to see if he was interested. He called me at my studio, we talked and I asked him which songs he liked and would be interested in doing. He said he liked them all. To which I said great let me get with my people (by which I meant John Avila) and we’ll be in touch. I went over to John’s that night and gave him the demo to listen to and we began arranging the new songs. Avila knows all styles. He is a natural born musician and a genius. I really have to bring my A game to be working with these legends. I feel I bring something to the table too. I was born to be an artist.
The songs to be included on the album sound deeply personal. What sort of experience was it to record them?
Creativity is something I feel compelled to do. I write songs in the night, while driving or wherever. You never know when the inspiration will hit. How we chose the first ten tracks: I thought which songs would paint the picture of what I’ve been going through. The pain from my car accident, the recovery and the pain meds. The dark stuff your soul goes through. It’s good for emotion in the music and something I felt I needed more of in my writing. I lost my family when I lost my Aunt Virginia. Then I lost my Dad. Then the near fatal life changing car accident. I had a lot of heavy, heavy stuff going. During my two and a half year disability I began to write the Ascension album. It helped me get better and to play again. I would say it saved my life and my soul. The songs on the album are intensely personal and I was hugely emotional when I wrote them. I wanted to capture that intensity when I recorded them; the mood, atmosphere and feeling. I had to try to capture all of that. Avila is also quintessential in that process. He knows what feel we are going for. I communicate it as best I can, from the heart and soul. That’s what you gotta try to do, touch someone’s heart and soul. What more can you do than that?
Describe the car accident you were in, if you want the readers to know.
The car accident was a life changing experience. I was coming home from the studio on the freeway and got hit from behind in a multi car accident. The Jeep got hit rear left at 75 mph, skidded sideways across all lanes and hit the center wall. It became airborne upside down hit and flipped five more times. When I regained consciousness I was upside down in the Jeep and smelled leaking gasoline. I unhooked my seatbelt and crawled out the side window which were all smashed out. I was in shock from neck back and dislocated thumbs from holding the steering wheel when I hit the wall. I bit the left side of my tongue off and knocked out two teeth. The pain has lasted to this day. The immense pain is something I think you can hear in not only the writing but the performance.
Is it cathartic to sing your lyrics? Do you present them in a way for people to relate to?
It is greatly cathartic to write music, perform music, even to listen to music. I developed some of the riffs on our new album in that energy. The music is almost channeled. When you reach a higher state, I think you can extract from a higher consciousness. I don’t know, but it’s a theory. Where does creativity come from? I do present lyrics in a form hopefully people can relate to. I experiment with different tempos until I find its perfect timing. That is just a gut feeling. Where does it feel right? I read about John Lennon experimenting with solfeggio frequencies. He used it on “Imagine”. This is the science of different geometric frequencies that may be linked with healing, developed in the fifteenth century. This ancient 432 hrz “A” tuning was actually standard tuning until I believe the 1950s. These frequencies have been found tuned into ancient Neolithic chambers, temples in the Far East and many more surprising places. Some people theorize that maybe switching away from that more natural tuning to 440A is the reason the world is so disjointed now. Long story short, I am using this ancient tuning to hopefully help heal, and if it helps others that is intended too.
The struggles I sing about are universal. Everyone goes through pain in one way or another. Why are we even here? It’s to feel these heavy things. That’s why heavy music is popular fifty years after Black Sabbath invented it. Because it’s a heavy world.
How much research have you done concerning solfeggio frequencies? Any books published on the subject that you’d recommend?
I don’t know of specific books written on Solfeggio frequencies. But there is plenty of scientific research into its effects on water and biology as well as plant life experiments. It’s interesting. Look on Youtube. A picture is worth a thousand words.
Will any songs that didn’t make it onto the new album be considered for future releases?
There are songs left over of another albums’ worth. My original plan was to release a double album but I’m gonna just save them for the next album.
Do you imagine that lyrics you write in the future will be of the same personal nature?
They say write what you know. So I will be interjecting into the music my heart and soul. I do want to get more into some different story telling in the future. It’s my desire to steer clear of politics in our music because that’s only going to divide. There’s enough of that going around now, without me adding more negative vibrations. I wish to convey universal truths that everyone can agree on.
There is a lot of media spin when it comes to politics and racism, usually meant to divide the public. How do you want to provide an alternative, and what do you mean by universal truths?
The media is a propaganda machine used for control. A lot of news gets distributed across all the networks in almost the same wording. Issues like racism are intended to divide so they can conquer. Classic Marxist or Nazi mind control propaganda. Schools are indoctrinating young impressionable minds. It’s all about control. I don’t speak for everyone but I’d like to remain a free thinker. As far as universal truths, what is truth? What’s true for you may not be true for half the country. Maybe we can concentrate on things that we all can agree on. Small steps.
Do you think people will be able to find common ground with each other? These days we seem pretty far from doing so, especially if you look on social media. Do you still hope that things will somehow change for the better?
I do think people will come back together again. I don’t want to appear polyannaish. Although it seems so far away right now I think it’s right around the corner. It’s time. We need to do that in America, because the rest of the world looks to us as an example. Music is a great way to bring people together and find common ground. Thank God for music; I believe it saved my life.