Click here to visit the official website of Stratospheerius.
June 2012 (live interview, World of Trans-Siberian Orchestra Podcast episode 88)
The NYC quartet Stratospheerius defies labels has it fuses funk, jazz, rock, classical, country & classical seemlessly & unpretentiously. So many bands put a classical riff against a Led Zeppelin melody & consider it unique (even if the drummer of Led Zeppelin was a major classical music fan & already did the mix), but Stratospheerius takes the soup a step further nearly creating their own musical fusion genre that needs to be listened to, if not watched, to truly understand. Part of the magic comes from the frontman in violinist-singer-composer Joe Deninzon, who has been labeled the Hendrix of violin, though references to Steve Vai are probably better placed. He's a teacher, including with the Mark Wood Orchestra Camp, Mark O'Connor's String Camp & co-founder of the Grand Canyon School of Rock. He authored the Mel Bay instructional violin book Plugging In. Outside of Stratospheerius he also plays in his own jazz trio, the Sweet Plantain String Quartet fusing latin jazz/classical/hip-hop & the Robert Bonfiglio Group, for starters. Elsewhere his violin has been heard alongside Sheryl Crow, Blackmore's Night, Bruce Springsteen & others.
I had the opportunity to see Stratospheerius live in a small Harlem club, invited by a friend whose daughter was one of Denizon's violin students. The show was the CD release party of their new album The Next World..., but it was rumored the band would be joined by a former member who was invited to impromptu jam with them. Even after the group took the stage nothing was confirmed ... until Alex Skolnick showed up guitar in hand. Skolnick is known for his work with thrash titans Testament, Savatage, Trans-Siberian Orchestra & an extensive solo career including funk & jazz-rock. Skolnick's unique chordal approach against Stratospheerius's punch made for a mind-blowing night. Not so long after Denizon joined me on a live broadcast of my World Of Trans-Siberian Orchestra podcast for a nearly 30 minute interview. Obviously, he qualified for my show via Skolnick who had played with TSO, but I knew going in that I only wanted his work with Skolnick but a mention of a far bigger & far more interesting musical life that needs no qualifiers.
Special thanks to Dan Roth, whose daughter learned violin under Joe & invited me to the show & to booking manager Ann Leighton who arranged the interview & put a CD in my hand literally fresh out of the box.
AJ: We met briefly at your concert at The Shrine a few weeks ago. I was blown away by STRATOPHEERIUS.
JOE: Thank you so much.
AJ: You guys absolutely rock.
JOE: Thanks so much. Really appreciate that. It was a really special night for us.
AJ: The bonus was that I got to see your former member Alex Skolnick jam with you, too.
JOE: That was a last minute thing & we hadn't played together in 8 years. So, it was really cool. A really beautiful moment.
AJ: Joe, I want to ask you about the band & your new album, The Next World, & also about the other things that you do, as you've got a diverse resume. But, first, how would you describe STRATOPHEERIUS?
JOE: Descriptions are really a hard thing for us.
AJ: I've heard that this is one of the hurdles you run into, because reviewers & promoters don't know how to describe the band.
JOE: It's not like I set out to create a band that defies description. It was just a culmination of my musical influences. I guess you could call us a rock'n'roll band, but its so much more than that. So many different things melted into one.
AJ: How do you describe the band to somebody who maybe has not heard you? Or, do you not try?
JOE: I have to try, because when we're trying to book the bank or convince people to let us play in their festival or in their gig or whatever we have to explain what it is, but ultimately they just have to listen to us. I used to call it psycho jazz electric fiddle trip funk. But, that didn't totally fit.
AJ: That's a mouthful.
JOE: It is. So, I say now, its a mixture of progressive rock, funk, jazz, blues, metal, gypsy music, you know, a little bit of jam band thrown in, all played on an electric violin.
AJ: That's still a mouthful. I know when I was listening to you guys I heard everything. You introduced one song as having some LED ZEPPELIN & then there's another song that's right out of the bluegrass world. So, you guys really are all over the place. But, that's not a detriment. Your new album, The Next World... is really strong even though it's a range of musical styles.
JOE: Thank you. My biggest challenge over the years has been to really focus & I've developed this sound over many years. My earlier albums I've been criticized for being all over the musical map. There would be a jazzy type tune, a fusion-esque song, a straight up hard rock song. My favorite bands of the 70's, like QUEEN & LED ZEPPELIN, used to have albums that spanned the stylistic gamut. My issue with a lot of stuff that comes out these days is you hear a song on the radio you like & you buy the album, but all the songs sound exactly like that. You want to yawn. I guess its just the nature of the business right now, but I've always admired artists that were maybe under the umbrella of rock or hard rock or whatever, but within that had so many different variations in different areas, acoustic, more ambient kind of stuff, you know. MUSE is a band that comes to mind. I think they embody that spirit more than a lot of other bands today. Anyways, that's what I've been striving for, but still within a signature STRATOPHEERIUS sound.
AJ: It's a tightrope walk, really.
JOE: It really is. You've got to learn to edit yourself & stand back & see the big picture. When you're making an album you're so deep in it's hard to really ... in hindsight you're like, 'So, that's what that was.'
AJ: 'I didn't know I had that in me.'
AJ: Moving to the songs, when I listened to your album there was one song that stood out for me. Actually, there were many, but one stood out so much both musically & lyrically so much that I actually found a youtube video of it that I sent to some to some friends encouraging them to listen to your music. I guess you could call this my favorite.
JOE: I'm dying to know which one.
AJ: It's simply called "Gods." I love the lyrics. They are really simple, but really cool. Catchy, singable & memorable.
AJ: The band started back in 2001. You've gone through numerous members & lots of changes, both musically & in your own life. Some folks who know you might say your membership is one of your more memorable traits, not just the lyrics. One particular past member has quite a reputation. Former SAVATAGE, TRANS-SIBERIAN ORCHESTRA & TESTAMENT thrash guitarist Alex Skolnick. Would you mind giving some history of the time when you had Alex in the band?
JOE: It was a very funny turn of events. It was kinda random. I used to teach at NYC's New School University, the extended studies program at night. They had this music program & I taught violin. I was walking out of there one day - this was just a few years after I'd moved to NYC - & I saw an ad for a student recital listing a bunch of people in a Miles Davis ensemble. It said Alex Skolnick. I wondered if it was the same Alex Skolnick from TESTAMENT & what in the world would he being doing here at the New School in a student recital? I grew up listening to heavy metal. I had posters of Alex & all those guys in my room. Zakk Wylde & Kirk Hammett & all these guys. I used to be a guitarist. I used to subscribe to Guitar Player magazine where Alex had an educational column. He was a celebrity in my eyes & a lot of other peoples, of course. So, I went to the recital & there he was. It was the Alex Skolnick. I went up to him. At the time I was finishing my Master's degree at the Manhattan School of Music. I introduced myself & asked how he came to be there. He said he was doing his Bachelor's degree in jazz guitar, because he loved jazz. I vaguely remember reading an early interview with him a few years back where he was talking about how he loved Michael Brecker & Pat Metheny. He just had this interest in jazz. He was like the only metal guy I knew who also loved jazz, which I thought was very unique. I could also relate to that, because I was a huge jazz fan, as well. I mean, I was majoring in jazz. He said he got bored playing metal. He quit the scene & moved to NY & wanted to sorta start fresh & decided to finally do his undergrad. It's really bizarre. A few weeks later I mustered up the nerve ... I had this gig & I was trying to put a band together to play my music. I had a CD I had recorded in Cleveland where I grew up. So, I sort of hesitantly asked if he'd like to play & he was like "Yeah, sure, let's do it." I was really surprised. Anyway, we ended up playing together a lot. We became best friends & he ended up playing with what became STRATOPHEERIUS, for about 3 years. He recorded on 2 albums of ours. It was a period in his life when he was he going back to school & sorta starting over. When his trio got really busy & he started playing with TRAN-SIBERIAN ORCHESTRA again & with TESTAMENT again, he got too busy to play with us after awhile. But, it was a fun period to have him in the band.
JOE: It was definitely an era I'll remember as long as I live. He's a great guy. Great player. It was fun to get to know somebody personally who I grew up with listening to as a kid.
AJ: Then here you are, 8 or so years later, you bring him on stage to celebrate the new CD release.
JOE: We stayed in touch. We've both been very busy, but we've been trying to come up with situations to play together again.
AJ: It's hard to do when one's on the road & you both stay pretty active.
JOE: You do what you can. We've been talking about organizing more of a duo gig in the city, more of a jazz thing. Like an acoustic jazz kinda situation.
AJ: That's cool.
JOE: We'll get around to it hopefully soon.
AJ: You just said you started on guitar. How did you go from that from that to the violin, which is surrounded by this classical aura, the complete opposite.
JOE: The truth is I actually started on violin. I come from a family of classical musicians. My father is a member of the CLEVELAND ORCHESTRA. Classical violinist, pure 100% classical violinist. He's been playing in that orchestra for 33 years & that's a world re-known orchestra. My mother is a classical pianist. I grew up with music in the house, but it was all classical. When we immigrated from Russia when I was 4 years old all I knew was classical music. My father stuck a violin in my hand when I was 6 & I went through the Suzuki method. That's like the most common method taught in the U.S. My dad taught me for awhile. I just did the typical book 1, book 2, book 3, the typical repertoire of the classical violin. At some point when I was 10 I just turned on the radio & heard this really cool music that fascinated me. It was rock'n'roll, pop music. I started watching MTV. I was adjusting to life in the States. There was a language barrier, a culture barrier. I wanted to fit in. Everyone knew I played music, but I felt like this was just a great way of communicating with people. It really just tugged at my heart strings. Around age 13 I took up the electric bass, because no one else was playing bass. I figured violin has 4 strings, bass has 4 strings. That was actually the first instrument I learned to improvise on. I formed some bands in high school & I taught myself guitar when I was 15. I got really into guitar. I used to worship folks like Alex & Steve Vai, of course Hendrix. I was totally into hard rock/metal guitar. Later I got into jazz with Pat Metheny, John Scofield, John McLaughlin. So, bass & guitar were the instruments I learned to improvise on. But, at the same time I was leading a parallel life just playing classical violin, going to youth orchestras, going to lessons. At one point when I was 17 I heard a recording of Jean-Luc Ponty & Stephane Grappelli something clicked in my mind. 'Wow, these guys are doing something on the violin that I didn't even know that was possible.' Around the same time I got an opportunity to play with Michael Stanley. He's a pretty well-known singer-songwriter in Cleveland. He saw me play & he asked me to play violin with his band. It was just some cool bluesy kinda rock'n'roll. I just fell into it. I already knew the musical language. I just had to transfer it to the violin. So, that's sorta how my path was set. Then I listened to Jerry Goodman with MAHAVISHNU ORCHESTRA & Sugar Kane Harris with Zappa & I was like 'That's it, this is what I'm meant to do. It combines the instrument that I've played all my life with the music I love so dearly.' That's sorta how it came about.
AJ: You mentioned John McLaughlin, a guitarist who I also really like. He really created a fusion of rock, jazz & ethnic music. His violinists pushed what the violin could do & they it did it without drugs, no less. This is exactly what you've done. Do you see any change these days in how kids, since you're a teacher, or people in general approach the violin? Is it still the instrument good only for classical music or country fiddle & just gimmicky in the rock world or is it now seen as an instrument much more diverse than it has traditionally appeared? That's a big question, I know.
JOE: It's a great question. It's really amazing to me that an instrument that's been around for literally hundreds of years that the bar has been set so high in the classical world. When you play the Tchaikovksy "Violin Concerto" you think of all the incredible players that have played it. You can't help but ask yourself, 'What am I going to say with this "Concerto" that hasn't already been said, you know?' The instrument has been around so long, but yet I still see so much uncharted territory for it, even after all this time. I think we're just scrapping the tip of the iceberg. I also think in the last 15-20 years there's been a surge of young players that not only have a great classical foundation, but also are hip to playing blues or jazz or rock or thinking outside the traditional box of what the instrument can do. I think part of that is you see a lot more string players in bands, like the DAVE MATTHEWS BAND or TANTRIC. Also, the Mark O'Conner fiddle camp that's been around for decades. Mark Wood has been travelling around schools doing his Electrify Your Strings program for a long time. For the second year in a row I'm teaching at his Mark Wood Rock Orchestra Camp. All these educational things really come into play. We're seeing the results of that. Also, in NY I book string players for different occasions as a contractor. I also have a rock string quartet I play with. So, I get to know a lot of string players & I see more & more people that can really just rock out. 10 years I might have had a much smaller pool of people to choose from. So, you know, there's so much you can do with the violin. I play a traditional 4 string violin, but I also play an electric 7 string fretted violin that can play power chords & walk bass lines & do all kinds of stuff like that.
AJ: I noticed when I saw you live you had the Viper 7 string. I'm curious, with the frets on it does that actually make a difference or is that just more of a visual thing that you can't feel, more like a fretless guitar?
JOE: For me, as a singer who sings & plays violins simultaneously, it just helps. It helps me get oriented. Also, in live situations the monitoring might not always be ideal, so it also helps knowing that you're really on when you can't hear. It's the same reasons you might want to play a fretted guitar versus a fretless guitar. But, that being said, I'm not going to say that everyone should buy a fretless violin. I play both. I want to see the age when ... most guitarists I know have an acoustic they bring on certain gigs. They have an electric they bring on certain gigs. I want to see that with string players. The other thing, in order to survive as a musician, to make a living, you have to be able to do it all. You have to be able to play in an orchestra. You have to be able to improvise. You have to be able to understand how to play electric violin & work with effects & perform, not just sit in a pit reading music. There's a lot of skills serious musicians have to have. That's what I've been advocating.
AJ: You just mentioned a rock string quartet. Is that the SWEET PLANTAIN QUARTET?
JOE: No, that's my other quartet. I'm in a lot of different bands. SWEET PLANTAIN is an acoustic group that I joined 2 years ago. This is a really cool band. It's basically mixes classical, Latin, jazz & hip-hop music in a traditional string quartet format. The cellist raps & the other violinist doubles on trombone. I sing & play violin & mandolin. We do originals & arrangements of Jobim & different jazz & Latin tunes. We do a reworking of A TRIBE CALLED QUEST. It's a very interesting group.
AJ: Joe, you're mentioning diversity. I think of the funky little ska influenced "Tech Support" from the new album that comes out of nowhere.
JOE: I thought it would be a good song to tick off prog fans. It's the last kind of style you would expect to hear with a band known as a progressive rock band.
AJ: But, for you guys it's funky. It's not straight ska. It opens traditional but goes funky.
JOE: It goes into a heavy rock thing at one point.
AJ: You mentioned earlier in passing someone you work with & before we parted I wanted to mention him again. I consider him a real renaissance guy when it comes to music due to his work not just as a musician but also as an educator, while he's also a violin maker. I really admire his work. He's really tried to change how people view the violin. I'm talking about Mark Wood, who with his wife, vocalist Laura Kaye & folks like yourself, is really inspiring a new generation of young musicians. Would you mind sharing a little bit about the experience of working with Mark?
JOE: He's a very inspiring guy. He built my Viper 7 string. I take my cue from him. I've also been going into the schools & doing a lot of clinics & residencies & improvisation workshops. I do this both on my own & with STRATOSPHEERIUS or SWEET PLANTAIN. Mark has been doing that since the late 90's. He's one of reasons we're witnessing a change in the string world. I think in a few years you'll see even more of us in rock bands & doing all this kind of crazy stuff. The camp is a really special experience. I was there for the first time teaching last summer. It's in Kansas in mid-July. It's mostly high school kids & they're just like I was when I was their age. They have this intense love for music that's maybe outside the classical realm, but they all grew up playing classical. They're so passionate & really want to do something or be creative with their instruments. It's really fun to feel like you are inspiring them. It's a really great community. All the other people on the faculty are also really great, in their own right. I have the deepest respect for Mark, everything he's done for the violin & for music education.
AJ: In your playing, do you ever have a situation where there's maybe a parent of a student or maybe they've just seen you perform & they come up to you & say something like 'Joe, you're really good, but how dare you do this on the violin? You're hurting the legacy of this instrument.'
JOE: Not that I recall. I've actually been able to turn people around. I went to a pretty conservative music school for my undergrad. All the faculty were these old school classical legends. But, all these teachers sorta accepted me on my own terms. They knew I was a jazz guy & a rock guy & I was there to work on my classical technique, but they never tried to push me into being something I wasn't. I sorta forced them to respect me & appreciate what I did. I think everyone's on a mission to expand people's minds, that is everyone who plays what could be called alternative styles on a string instrument. The whole conservative classical mentality is dying out. I think people are a lot more hip to what's going on, even the older generation. My parents, who very much came up in the traditional classical environment, whatever they were thinking they never said it to me. They were always supportive. The further I went along the more they totally just kept cheering me on. That really helped me out. I can't really think of a time I had to fight the power. I try to avoid people like that. I knew what I wanted, or I knew what I didn't want.
AJ: Joe, we're down to the last few minutes. I want to say a big thank you for talking with me tonight. It was a bit of a struggle finding a night where you were free, so it means a lot that you would take some more time away from your family to talk with me.
JOE: Thanks, it was a pleasure.