Wednesday, October 6, 2021

Interview With Paul LaPlaca of Stentor Productions and Critical Consciousness by Dave Wolff

Interview With Paul LaPlaca of Stentor Productions and Critical Consciousness

You are currently running Stentor Productions, a company with several bands for clients including Testament, Metal Church, THOR and Doro. How long have you been running it and what sort of work do you do for your bands?
I founded Stentor Productions about 25 years ago when I first moved to NYC. It is an umbrella company that covers all aspects of what I do in the music industry including my work as a live and studio audio engineer, touring guitar/bass tech, video editor, multi-instrumentalist, promoter, and radio host. I mixed Metal Church and Doro live on tour. For Testament I was a sub for one of their techs for a festival and I’ve mixed the Alex Skolnick Trio several times. I played guitar for THOR for the Rock Odyssey show in New York. I've also worked with Chris Caffery from TSO and Savatage, Ted Poley from Danger Danger, Living Colour, ZO2 on the 2004 KISS/Poison Tour, VON LMO, and I was the house engineer at The Rainbow Room and L'Amour in Brooklyn. Currently I am playing bass with Drift Into Black, working on a remix for my old band October Thorns, and recording my solo project Critical Consciousness.

Where were you living before you relocated to Manhattan? Why the move and what were the resources you had to start Stentor Productions?
I was living in Buffalo, NY, and had just gotten married. I made a promise to myself to not turn 30 in Buffalo and insisted on moving out here for better opportunities. I had absolutely no resources, just a book on how to write a business plan.

Did you have contacts in the city when you first moved out here, people who were willing to help you get started?
Luckily, I had some good friends who let me couch surf for three months before I found my own apartment. If you look at the cover of Led Zeppelin's, 'Physical Graffiti", we were in the "G" window apartment.

Are you self-educated as a musician and instrument tech etc or did you attend a school to learn about those trades?
As a musician, it's a mixture between formal training and teaching myself. I took music classes from high school through college, everything from theory to recording classes. I had a handful of really good private teachers but only took one or two lessons because of the cost. Norm Paduano was a well-known jazz player in Jamestown, Tony from Elmwood Music in Buffalo gave me my first introduction to modes, Dave Constantino from Talas, and the Tweeds gave weekly lessons onstage, haha. I learned a LOT from talking to players and just going to shows and watching them.

How valuable would you say your formal education has been as opposed to being self-educated?
I think there is immense value in both formal and self-directed education. Everyone should have a balance of both. Formal studies in music theory, recording techniques, electronic music, radio, and television production- all of these things were foundational to my work in the real world. There is no substitute for being in a classroom with your peers getting instruction from a professional in those areas. But that's only one half of the same coin. You have to have the drive and ambition to learn on your own as well, to be a good reader, to have the capability to network and get along with other people in your field. It takes a lot of work.

How long were you working at The Rainbow Room and L'Amour (the first location or the location it moved to)? In what ways did it help your career?
I was at both of those iconic places for a little over a year each. Very different music and clientele. Any time you are in high-pressure situations like that, it elevates your confidence, and the more you believe in yourself, the better job you do in the future.
I worked at the last L'Amour before they finally closed. It was half a dance club and half a music venue. I did mostly local acts and was brought in to do monitors for Overkill, Destruction, and Cephalic Carnage. At the Rainbow Room, I mixed for Tony Benet, Glenn Close, Chita Rivera, Patti Lupone, and others in that orbit. Much different vibe, haha. I would love to work at a smaller club that does a wide variety of music, something a little quieter than my metal days. I'm getting OLD.

Explain how different the vibe was working at The Rainbow Room next to the last L’Amour.
The Rainbow Room is an iconic restaurant and event space in Rockefeller Center in NYC. It has a 360-degree view of the city and has a rich history of really high-end events with celebrities and dignitaries. L'Amour is equally famous but is worlds apart. The laundry list of legendary bands that passed through those doors, on their way up the ladder is just astounding. I was well aware of my place in that lineage and deeply appreciated that whether I was mixing Tony Bennet up in the clouds or doing monitors for Overkill in the gutter- it was really important to me. Obviously, the vibe was COMPLETELY different at each place but again, equally important to me.

Explain the process by which you built the website and the company when you started. By what means did you get word around and generate a response?
The website has gone through a couple of different forms, I started with HTML and iWorks then moved over to WIXX a couple of years ago. It's really tough to stay on top of current trends and how to use SEO to generate business. I'm always learning something new. It's still really hard and takes a lot of work too. Not only do I have to be a competent multi-instrumentalist, producer, and engineer- I also need to be an IT guy, a computer tech, and a marketing guy.

Who are the bands you promote and feature as a radio host? Does the official site for Stentor Productions have a net radio program you’re hosting?
My radio show, 6 Degrees With Paul LaPlaca is based on the concept of 6 Degrees Of Separation. Anyone I can connect to through my work as a musician or technician I will feature on my show. First-degree connections are the most fun, I've had Vernon Reid, Alex Skolnick, and Chris Caffery on as guests and if I dig deep I can play music from Guns 'N Roses, Pink Floyd, David Bowie, and much more. I simulcast on Bulldogs Radio and Canada's Extreme Metal Radio right now but I don't host anything from my business website. Who are some of the most intriguing interviews you’ve hosted on 6 Degrees With Paul LaPlaca? What is usually discussed with your interviewees, or does the subject matter vary?
My favorite interviews are with Joey Cassata, the drummer from ZO2. We have a "frenemy" relationship on Facebook where we bust each other's chops mercilessly. He's a very, very funny guy and I love talking to him. I'm really proud of my work with bigger-name folks though, I have gotten really good feedback from just about everyone, they always say how much fun they've had. That's what I really focus on, I pay close attention to where the conversation is going, I interject humor when I can, and most importantly I guide the conversation to what's important to THEM even when they don't seem to know what that is. I keep my talking to a minimum and keep them on track for their latest release, whatever they need to promote. I've been on both sides of an interview and I try to facilitate whatever they need to get across.

Describe some of the things you and interviewees talked about, particularly Joey Cassata. Describe in more detail the feedback you’ve gotten from your listeners?
For the most part, I try to give anyone I interview a chance to promote and give updates on any current project they are working on to help them continue to make a living. The only one I can think of that was more self-serving for me was Larry Fast from Peter Gabriel's band. I was a total fanboy and gear geek for that interview and really did a deep dive on some formative albums for me, Gabriel's 3rd and 4th albums. Larry's keyboard programming and playing, to this day are some of the most important contributions to a collective work that I have ever heard and a big part of my musical background. In other interviews with musicians like Alex Skolnick, Vernon Reid, and Ritchie Kotzen we focused on the guitar and current work. Chris Caffery we told touring stories from playing together and it was more jokes and a looser vibe. Cassata is in a class all by himself, his sense of humor and wit is so damn quick and you have to keep up with him and go toe-to-toe. He has a lot of irons in the fire, he has written a best-selling book, 2 comics, has a TV show, tours with Eric Martin- we go over all of that stuff. Feedback from listeners has been extremely positive, everyone really enjoys the format of the show and breaking it up with an hour of music at the top followed by the interview with 2 songs in the middle of that.

Are you familiar with any thrash, death or black metal bands that have existed from the nineties to the present day? As there’s still a lot going on, which of them would you like to work with?
I can't remember decades anymore, lol. For established bands that have been around for a while, I always enjoyed Cradle Of Filth, Dimmu Borgir, Hypocrisy, Lamb Of God, Gojira, Pestilence, Overkill, Heathen, Anthrax, and so many more. I would love to do more with Testament. These are bands that are just outstanding live.

Do you prefer working with bands inside the studio or traveling on the road with them?
Definitely prefer to do live audio. You get immediate feedback from the crowd and you can feel the emotion in the room move as you ride the band's dynamics. It's short-lived and you don't have to over-think anything, there's no time. The studio is much tenser and I don't like all the psychology involved in trying to keep everyone's attitudes and egos in line with the end goal.

Tell the readers a little more about your current band and the older bands you worked with?
Currently, I am working on the re-mix for October Thorns my first NYC band where I finally became a frontman and lead singer at 32 or so. It took a long time to get into that position. We only lasted a few years and only had a six song, self-produced demo CD. For the last twenty years we've been trying to get the original songs with other unreleased demos put together in a real, professional package. We've had some label interest but were never able to deliver anything on time. Now, we've passed off the mix to Alex Argento from Icefish and it finally looks like it's going to happen. We will have a single out in October and the rest of the album released in early 2022. It's a really difficult, emotional process. We lost bassist David Z when he was killed while out on the road with Adrenaline Mob, so it's bittersweet doing it without him.
At the same time, I was just made an official member of Drift Into Black, a recording project that I have been doing bass for over the past three years or so, the most recent is "Patterns Of Light." Tracking bass parts now for the fourth album. Bandleader Craig Rossi was in Grey Skies Fallen, another NYC band that I had the privilege of working with.
And finally, I am working on a solo project called, Critical Consciousness- an ambitious, epic, prog-metal based album that incorporates all my different influences from Rush to Pantera and beyond.
I've done a lot of different bands from working with Elvis Presley Jr. in Buffalo to VON LMO, THOR, Chris Caffery, and Ted Poley in NYC. I've learned a lot about being a good sideman and supportive player for other people's music and it makes me a better bandleader now.

What was it like to play out with Thor at the Rock Odyssey, along with the other musicians you mentioned playing with earlier?
THOR was a trip. I had never heard of him before. I was hired to recreate the music from his debut album, "Keep The Dogs Away" to do a one-off show where we played the whole album in its entirety. I watched the documentary, "I Am Thor" and a horror film he did in the '80s before we started rehearsing to get a feel for everything. The material was really cool, very early glam-rock. Felt like Bowie, The Dolls, or Iggy Pop. We had people fly in from all over to see that gig. The first NYC audition that I passed was for VON LMO, a legendary fixture in the downtown No Wave scene and a regular at Max's Kansas City and CBGB. It was my first time headlining at some of these clubs that I had grown up reading about. I was able to record four or five songs that ended up on the "Future Language" re-release. VON also had a great documentary done about him.
The next band I joined was October Thorns and we did really well at festivals, in the press, on message boards, and college radio.
I was backline for ZO2 on the KISS/Poison tour but was able to weasel onstage for one song doing keyboards. It was really tough on a number of fronts, I was extremely happy and proud of my friends but it was hard not to be jealous and envious. Plus, as much of a dream-come-true situation being on the road with KISS- without Ace and Peter it felt a little hollow.
Following that, I went out with Chris Caffery and that was just the best. We had an amazing time and saw some really cool places. Caffery is a really cool boss, nothing fazes him and we had some real Spinal Tap moments.

Share some of the more interesting "Spinal Tap" moments you had with Chris Caffery.
The second time we went to Europe we were supposed to play Milan, Paris, and a few other really cool places. We were so excited we didn't even sleep on the plane. We were supposed to be picked up at the airport at 8am and taken to our tour bus. Unfortunately, that bus was still being used by Symphony X. Our tour manager was also working for W.A.S.P. at the time and had dropped the ball on this situation and didn't follow up on half the bookings. We didn't get picked up until 6pm that night. The next morning we were faced with the decision to cancel the tour or carry on with half the dates (AND half the money) gone. Caffery took the hit and didn't blink an eye. We had a really great time despite this but it was demoralizing. Our last few days before heading home were in Cologne and our drummer disappeared. We couldn't find him for a day or two and feared the worse. We were about to go to the Police when the front desk clerk at our hotel pulled us aside and whispered, "You must do somsing about your friend!" We were happily shocked. "You've SEEN him?" we asked. "YES," he said. "He ist loud, und he ist BELIGERENT, und he SHMELLS."
When I was playing with VON LMO, he was about to pass out onstage. He leaned forward, then slowly fell backward and I had to catch him on my right hip while I continued to play. "VON!" I yelled. "Wake up! Wake UP!!!" He snapped out of it and went into the most insane guitar solo I have ever heard.
The weirdest thing I ever had happen to me was when I first moved to NYC and lived in the East Village. Our super's kid planned a huge block party and asked me to sit in with one of the bands he had booked, some hippie jam-band. Problem was that he didn't tell THEM. As I was setting up, I introduced myself to the confused guys who quickly went into a huddle with the booker and then approached me. "OK, so we are going to have you sit in." I nodded. "We don't really know you and you haven't heard us play, so just lay back. Keep an eye on me and I'll let you know whether or not to play more or less, ok?" I nod again and smile. "Just make sure you support the song and don't play over the vocals too much." uh-huh. I waited for him to give me instructions on how to walk, or breathe next but he left me alone for a few minutes. As I finished settling up, he approached me two more times to reiterate his points. By the third time, I thought to myself, "Dude, either you are talking to a PROFESSIONAL who already knows this stuff already and it's insulting, or you are talking to an AMATEUR who is not going to listen to what you are saying anyway!" So, I did the gig with them and slowly won them over, by the third song, they were really digging what I was doing and kept gesturing for me to play more! So, for the last song, I was riding high and pretty proud of myself when they started this bizarre, dreamy, song with poetry. The lead singer donned a bark mask with tree branches sticking out of it and started doing this interpretive dance. I just shook my head and thought, "And you were worried that I was going to embarrass YOU?"

What was the difference between the stage personas of the musicians you toured with and their real personas?
Paul Stanley was the biggest surprise, he is painfully shy offstage. Very nice but he really hangs back whereas Simmons never seems to take the "mask" off. He's always ON. All the guys in Poison were extremely cool, they were the same onstage and off but with each other, there was a lot of brotherly competition and tension. Caffery was the best, we did a gig at the Queens library and I went out to see the attendees and they were all geriatric Asians. Apparently, it was a monthly event and they came no matter who was playing. I nervously told him about it, he went and took a look and said, "No problem. Everyone turn down to 1, drums play with light practice sticks and someone get me a chair." Nothing phases him, seriously. We had a great show and he told stories like he was in your living room. Onstage, Ted Poley is the nicest, friendliest guy in the world. He gives EVERYTHING onstage and is a tremendous frontman. Offstage is different.

How did you first hook up with October Thorns and what made you decide to remix their work and rework unreleased songs two decades later?
When I first moved to NYC, I was filled with dreams and stories of legendary bands like KISS getting their members by posting ads in the Village Voice. I had some success with that approach, I got to play with VON LMO by answering an ad but honestly, there were many, many more nightmare auditions and phone calls that came from those ads. I was about to give up when I got a call from Dave Pando at Catalyst Promotions. This company had Tommy Vext who went on to Divine Heresy, Snot, and Bad Wolves. Ray Mazzola from Full Blown Chaos, Legend featuring Dave and Paulie Z. We talked for a bit, I think I had sent him a demo tape a few weeks before but I was in a deep depression and just wasn't interested in anything he had to say. I told him to forget about it but he wouldn't get off the phone until I gave him my address, he was very persistent. I got a cassette with their demo of "Circle Game" and within 15 seconds I was on the phone with him, it was just that good. I showed up at rehearsal a week or two later and quickly joined the band.
We've been trying to remix this stuff for the last 20 years. There were just things that we wanted to fix. Drummer Jofu and original bassist Rob Carpenter are both outstanding recording engineers, I also mix and produce. Every year, your skills progress and evolve and you look back and want to improve what you did in the past, especially something as personal as this.

How long were you working with Grey Skies Fallen before moving on to other bands?
I was with Grey Skies Fallen for about a year but I had started dating a woman in DC and was splitting my time between there and NYC and it just wasn't possible to gig and rehearse when I was in two different places.

These days is it easier or harder to find like-minded musicians to form a band with? What’s the best way to seek partners to write and perform with?
That's difficult to answer because the hardest part is actually the age group your peers are in. I'm in my 50's so the biggest issues tend to be the same that you would find in dating. If someone is really awesome, they are already in a committed, long-term relationship and everyone else left over has so much issues and baggage, there's a reason they never had any success in the business. And if you want a pro, most guys aren't interested in joining a band this late in the game. They want to be paid for their time and have no interest in putting any time or effort into building something new or putting any sweat equity in a project. It's polarizing. It forces you to make business decisions that are more self-serving rather than trying to build a team. The best way to find players is word of mouth through your network of contacts. If you are young, you have to build awareness for your playing, YouTube, Tiktok, Omegle are all great ways to get yourself out there but playing ability is just a part of it. You have to be someone that can handle difficult situations, difficult people- you can't bring additional stress to a situation. There's already enough built-in. My worst luck has been with Craigslist. There's something cursed about it.

Is that polarizing situation you described the reason more people are starting solo projects as opposed to bands?
I can't speak for everyone but in general, there are pros and cons to both approaches. I think Frank Zappa said, "What's the best part about a drum machine? You only have to pay him ONCE." So, anytime you take on the full responsibilities in a project, you don't have to compromise with anyone about anything and that can be a good thing but I've found that the best music comes about through the compromise between really different styles and viewpoints. Problem with that is, most of the time NO ONE is happy. Bands are tough. It's like being married to 4-5 other people and you have all the stress of those relationships without any of the benefits. Your "make-up sex" is usually analogous to performing on stage and they still get whiskey-dick. I once had a kid decide to drop acid for the first time the night before a major festival gig.

How bad has your luck on Craigslist been next to the other outlets you are active on?
Craigslist is no worse than pre-internet newspaper ads in the Voice or Aquarian. It all boils down to- "If this band was really at a pro level, they wouldn't have to place an ad." Networking and word of mouth is best. The two times I actually had a high-profile situation were answering ads for October Thorns, VON LMO, and Carnivore AD. For every good outcome, there were hundreds of nightmare calls. The worst was for a drummer who placed an ad looking for a band and when I called him at his work number, he confessed that he was living in his car and didn't have a drum set.

How well has “Patterns Of Light” done since it was released? Did you release it through any labels or did it come out independently? How much work remains to be done for the next album?
"Patterns of Light" has done really well since its release. The majority of the reviews are outstanding and Black Doomba did an exceptional job on promoting and releasing the vinyl. For the new album, I just need to finish my bass tracks.

Why did you decide to release “Patterns of Light” on vinyl? Is it also available on digital and CD format? How often do you see bands releasing on vinyl?
Until a month ago, I was just the studio bassist for the band. Craig made all of those decisions. I believe he was offered a deal with Black Doomba to do the vinyl and there's definitely a niche market for it because it is large format, it's tangible, and the artwork is so much more impressive. Not to mention, it's analog and the sound, for many, is superior to anything else. "Patterns" is available on CD and for downloads.

How much does Critical Consciousness differ from your other bands due to your influences?
Critical Consciousness isn't so much "different" from any of my past projects, it's a melting pot of all those different experiences and musical styles. Prog, death, pop, techno- there's a little bit of everything kind of blended together. There are a lot of dynamics, orchestral parts, loops, and experimental stuff but it all comes back to writing a solid song with a great hook.

What has Critical Consciousness released to date, if anything yet? Is this band working on something planned for release soon?
This is a new project for me, I am playing everything but the drums which have been recorded. It's on the list to be finished up by Christmas, then I have to figure out a release date in the spring. I'm planning on putting a live band together to play this stuff as well as one or two October Thorns tracks.

How many of the planned songs for Critical Consciousness’ debut been completed? Is there an idea for a working title of this release? And how has the search for live musicians been going?
Drums are complete for about nine songs and all the rest of the parts are written, I just need to track them. Looking to have this done by early 2022. The title is, "Reborn". I have a drummer picked out and a handful of bass/guitar players on a short list.

Are you seeking a label to release for the debut of Critical Consciousness, or planning to release it independently and promote it through Stentor Productions?
Once the October Thorns single is released, I'm going to start looking for a label home for Critical Consciousness. I want to make sure I have exhausted all my resources and abilities before handing it off to someone else.

Would Stentor Productions like to promote more bands? If people are interested in working with you, how can they contact you?
We are running a Facebook group called, "M! Musicians Collective". Anyone interested please join and we can work together there.

What contributions do you want to see Stentor Productions make to music in general? Do you see this happening in your lifetime?
For me, the most important aspect of music has always been the ability to connect with people and express something beyond just the lyrics. Having the ability to stir an emotion in someone with just music is a profound privilege. Being able to create a finished work, with lyrics and a story makes it even more impactful. It's a symbiotic relationship with the listener, to be honest. A lot has to do with gratifying your ego and the need to perform but without actually connecting with someone on a more elevated level, it's just masturbation and you can see that in the quality of the music with some performers. You KNOW when it's only about them and it's not the same experience.
This is the prime motivating factor for me and my company, to present work that has the ability to connect to people in important ways, to express emotions without words, to say things a listener might not be able to, to give someone a release from whatever pain they might be in. This was so important to me growing up and remains so to this day and I want to give that back. It's definitely happening right now.

-Dave Wolff

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