Interview with band leader Matthew Bonazzoli
Matthew Bonazzoli launched his career in an alternative art rock band called ‘Innocent Victim’ where he wrote songs with his brother Damian. This led to another band named ‘Gearhead’ which won numerous awards through their duration. In 2004, Matthew met pianist Patrick Thompson which led to The Bonazzoli Band, now an eclectic seven piece unit that plays a blend of styles, including, but not limited to, country, rock and blues. The album “American Ghost Stories” by The Bonazzoli Band, which pays musical tribute to the old time radio shows of the 1930’s, 40’s and 50’s, has received a fair deal of critical acclaim. In an exclusive interview, Matthew Bonazzoli gave us some insight into his musical world.
- How long have you been in the music business and how did you get started in the first place?
Since the mid 80’s. It was always a creative outlet for us. We were never particularly interested in being a cover band and always focused on writing and recording. I can only imagine what we would have done if a software like Garageband had been available to us then.
- Who were your first musical influences that you can remember?
Even as a 10 year old kid I liked a lot of the old crooners, especially Dean Martin. I also became enthralled by ELO in my teens along with Pink Floyd and Alice Cooper. It’s a strange mix but I think a lot of our sound can be attributed to a mix of these influences.
- Which was the first record you bought with your own money and which artists are you currently listening to?
My first album purchase may have been “Time” by ELO. Honestly, I’m not sure. I still listen to a lot of the same music I did when I was a kid. I picked up his Chris Isaak’s “Mr. Lucky” CD a few years ago and thought it was amazing. I also listen to some modern swing like The Brian Setzer Orchestra but I think that a hazard of the iTunes generations is that we don’t explore a lot of new music. We’ve got hundreds of hours of our favorites always available so we don’t bother to see what’s new out there. Of course, maybe it’s just because I’m older now and I know what I like. Still, every now and then I hear something new and I buy a copy and add it to my main playlist. Good music is still being made, it’s just more difficult to find.
- Your Lyrics sometimes read like poetry. Emotional and deep. Do you consider the lyrics of equal importance to the music when crafting a song?
Very much so. The lyrics are sometimes the first thing that comes to mind when I write a song. Other times Damian or Patrick will compose the music and I simply add lyrics and arrangements but a lot of care is taken into the words no matter how the song is crafted. I think everyone in the band agrees that lyrics are equally important to us and our songs do standup as poetry. We’ve joked that we could go to poetry events and perform dramatic readings of some of them and none would be the wiser.
- You apparently scored music for 2 independent films. How different was scoring film music as opposed to your normal songwriting duties?
Well, first off there’s usually not a lot of lyric writing so that makes it different right away. For me it’s a process of following the action and then adjusting the mood to fit but not distract. The biggest difference is that in a film you don’t want the music to be a focal point but on a Bonazzoli Band album we do hope that the listener is focused on what we’re doing. Of course now, a lot of indie filmmakers rely on a library of stock tracks and loops and build from there but when I first did it we recorded the old fashioned way of composing directly while watching the screen. I once saw a band in Massachusetts called Reflecting Skin play an amazing live concert to the 1922 silent vampire film Nosferatu and it greatly impressed upon my how well you can create an original score.
- Which do you ultimately prefer? Entertaining a live audience or creating and performing music in a studio setting?
For me personally, I enjoy the creative process of writing and recording. I think the band is split on this one. Damian, Patrick and I are all more into recording while Howard and Reggie are more into live.
- Why did you choose to personally record and produce The Bonazzoli Band’s second album, “American Ghost Stories?
What did it for me was our recording of the Quiet Little Towns album. I had had difficulty using professional studios in the past but nothing compared to that album. When it was finished it was almost twice the projected budget and the audio quality was very poor. The whole project sounded like you were listening to it through a pillow. I even attempted to remaster it years later and improved it somewhat but the way it was recorded was so wrong that I could only bring it back so much. It’s a great disappointment for me because I think the songs on that are some of our best and in fact still make up a good portion of our live set even today. The recording does not do it justice. After this experience I figured I’d be better off doing it all myself.
- You are currently working on the band’s third album. Will you be sticking to a similar sound and style found on the previous album, or are there any surprises in store for fans?
A little of both. While certainly we won’t be alienating any of our fans, there are quite a few new ideas brought to this record. Damian took a more prominent role in the writing and he has an edgier sound than I do and that comes through on a lot of the tracks. There was also a lot more jam time in putting these songs together as a performing unit so a lot of the live energy was brought in for the studio work. That all being said, this record by no means rests on our reputation. It’s got some of our best work ever on it and it’s going to be another highlight for us. .
- Which ingredient do you think makes The Bonazzoli Band special and unique in a business drowned in an almost infinite plethora of musical genres and sub-genres?
We do our own thing. We’re an indie so we don’t have a label trying to manipulate our sound so we’re free to go our own direction. I think it’s also important that we have a great mix of styles. We’ve got Patrick’s swing and ragtime, Damian’s edgy rock and classical sound, my own smooth, retro sound and Reggie’s and Howie’s blues and classic rock influence.
- If you were forced to choose only one, which emotion, more than any other drives you to be a part of this tough business year after year?
That’s a good question but a tough one. What drives any musician? We do this because it’s who we are. It’s innate. Artists need a creative outlet or else we feel empty. So that may be it. We do it to feed an emptiness in our lives that nothing else can satisfy.
- Which aspect of being an independent artist and the music making process excites you most and which aspect discourages you most?
As I’ve said, we love the creative process. Pulling something from our minds and crafting it into a new song is really an amazing thing. The most discouraging aspect is the difficulties involved in getting the music out there. It’s your craft and you want to show it off and let people enjoy it but the market is so dominated by a few major entertainment companies that there is little room for indies. So, you take what you can get. We are fortunate for the fans who have discovered us. They’re the best and it’s great that they get what we’re doing and love our music.
- How do you market and manage your music career? Do you have a management team or do you control everything by yourself?
We do it all ourselves. The internet is both a powerful tool to market as well as a vast sea of clutter to navigate through to potential fans. Fortunately there is still a market for quality music and we have been lucky to tap into this.
- How do you achieve your great sound? Do you work from a private home recording environment or do you use commercial sound studios?
As I said earlier, we have not had great luck with studios. Every band has it’s tricks of the trade and we have ours. We use Logic on a Mac to record most of our tracks. Sometimes we go outside to record the drum tracks such as on Concord Road on the Ghost Stories album but primarily we know enough about recording to get a great sound. If I hear a recording that I want to emulate I pay close attention to how it sounds and try to reverse engineer how it was recorded. For example, I’d said that one of my influences is ELO. Jeff Lynne is a great producer and one thing that caught my attention was his great acoustic strumming guitar sounds. Eventually I realized that he’s usually got a string track following the acoustic guitar chord for chord way behind it in the mix. Now I do the same thing. There’s also a set of sounds we feel comfortable with. Patrick likes the Korg Triton for piano and I use it for a lot of our keyboard sounds. The unit has thousands of different patches but we stick with a dozen or so to give us a trademark sound. Damian has his set of a few guitar setting which he sticks to. Ultimately, our great sound comes from talent first and then patience. After the tracks are recorded I spend months listening and massaging it off and on until I can finally be satisfied. We could never get this level of dedication from a typical indie-level studio.
- What is the best piece of advice in this business you actually followed so far, and one you didn’t follow, but now know for sure that you should have?
I guess the best was just to do what comes natural. For years I was in a hard rock band and we did well but it just wasn’t my style. It wasn’t until I started taking full control of our music that I was able to break away from the rock sound that everyone else was doing and create my own sound. Once we had this foundation adding influence like Damian and Patrick into the writing mix only improved the band. One piece of advice I wish I had followed in the 80’s was to get a haircut. All the musicians had long hair but it didn’t add to anything and now I have to hide all of those old photos.
- In an age where pop bands with a computer and a pair of headphones, don’t make it from one weekend to the next, just how does The Bonazzoli Band manage keep 7 real live musicians together for so long?
Well, in truth we have a somewhat rotating lineup. We don’t play out enough to satisfy everyone in the band and it’s not a full time gig so some people come and go and come back again. Some of us are more dedicated to studio so those players are always involved. It depends on the track but we’re all friends so whenever we need help with a piece it’s just a phone call away.
- Do you consider Internet and all the social media websites, as fundamental to indie music in general, or do you think it has only produced a mass of mediocre “copy-and-paste” artists, who flood the web?
Matthew Bonazzoli: Yes, a little of both. There was always a lot of static. We were doing this before email was even prevalent in the 80’s so it’s always been a battle. I welcome what the internet has done for independent music but at the same time, cutting through the clutter is just as difficult now. One of the best things about the web is that when we do connect with new fans there is so much immediately available for them to explore. They can quickly listen to tracks, watch videos and read up about us and even send us a fan letter all from a single connection.
- If someone has never heard your music, which keywords would you personally use to describe your overall sound and style?
Smooth, romantic, emotional… Accessible and intelligent as well. I think what we most like to say is that we take the best of 20th Century music and roll it into a 21st Century sound. With a little rock, country, swing, blues, gospel and even Americana in the mix there’s a little something for everyone.
- Looking back on your career thus far, if you had the chance to retrace your steps, is there anything you would change or do differently today?
Oh yes. I’d start right in with the type of music we’re doing now. I spent a long time trying to please the market rather than doing what really felt right to me. Now that we’re doing our own thing the market is noticing us.
- As you continue to work your way through your career, which more than any other fires-up your imagination – A Grammy award, Platinum music sales or some other tangible milestone?
I just want more people to discover our music. I think the real benefit of a Grammy award is exposure so people will discover you. Unfortunately it’s a trait of human nature to like the music you’re told to like. That’s why there is so little innovation in music today. The general public has become more closed minded about what’s good. The market is all about what’s “hot” right now. Not what’s great, or what is timeless.
Platinum sales would be a sign that we’ve broken through and people are getting it. As long as we don’t need to sell our souls to achieve that we would be content. I don’t think we need platinum sales though to feel good about what we’re doing. When we play a festival and people come up to us and say how glad they are that we’re there and that we’re the reason they came, that’s a great feeling.
- What is the ONE thing you are NOT willing or prepared to do EVER, in your quest to achieve a successful musical career?
There’s always compromise in a band or even an industry but I won’t perform or record music that I don’t personally enjoy at least on some level. If I find a song offensive, degrading, or vapid I can’t see myself giving it 100% and therefore I wouldn’t bother with it. Music is a passion for people and to ignore that drive or pursue it for money depletes your initiative and your end product suffers. I’m immensely proud of the work we did with our American Ghost Stories album. I think it’s creative, fun and has an honest connection with listeners. I want to build on that with our next release. That’s what we strive to create and I don’t ever want to lose that.