There have been few musicians in recent years that have impressed me as greatly as have Francesco Zago and Paolo Botta through their incredible level of musically tasteful and emotionally powerful strangeness inherent in the Yugen and Ske albums. Now, with their new band, Not a Good Sign, these two and their collaborators bring a brilliant fusing of symphonic heavy prog with characteristics of their other works that make for a truly fascinating progressive rock masterpiece debut in 2013. After having written a number of AltrOck/Fading reviews,, I was very happy to have had the chance to catch up with Paolo and Francesco a bit and chat about their recent projects.
PROG: What do you consider to be the most unique aspect of Not a Good Sign?
FZ: I think it could be the way we’re working on to match different musical form and tendencies. Surely on one hand the old prog rock from the 70s (songs with a huge breath, instrumental parts or wholly instrumental songs, not banal lyrics and without some usual clichées of the genre) and on the other hand a more modern approach taken from rock and post-rock groups of the last 10 or 15 years. This means also old vintage instruments and sounds (especially keyboards from Ske, but also some Zeppelin or hard rock style guitar sounds) but treated as we could do in 2013. This is why we have to thank the precious work of Not A Good Sign sound engineer, Andrea Rizzardo, who made an excellent mix matching our needs with an original taste.
SKE: Being able to merge different trends might be the most peculiar characteristic of the band, even if I will consider it successful when I will see both young and less young audience enjoying a concert of ours. That would be it, being able to communicate musically with different kinds of audiences. We’ll see.
PROG: Could you tell us a little bit about the concept/themes for Not a Good Sign and how the concept came to be?
FZ: I wouldn’t say there’s a unique concept, surely not in the “old” sense of the word. But there’s clearly a general mood that flows through the whole album. We didn’t decide it in advance, before writing or arranging the songs. It is a trend that emerged and took its own form as the songs were coming up during the rehearsal. We surely could define it [as] a dark album, even if we always wanted to balance this general mood with a great attention to details, particularly in the harmonic and timbrical departments. Dynamics are maybe the most important feature for us, probably of the intensive job made in this direction with Yugen and Ske. With Not a Good Sign this has been more difficult in a sense, because we are a traditional rock quintet (with the exception of some acoustic piano parts and cello in a couple of songs) without the huge palette of acoustic sounds we used in the aforementioned projects. Finally, my job as a lyrics writer gave a natural unity of contents and style to this feature. Alessio Calandriello was great to adapt his abilities as a singer.
SKE: It definitely took shape while working on it, and it naturally reflects our feeling towards music and reality nowadays, which is more than what I personally expected from this band. At the beginning it was just about the music for me, but as it unfolded it showed how much the context in which you make music can influence it, if you are open enough and care for it.
PROG: What was your primary songwriting influence, if any, for the new album?
FZ: Difficult to say..:-)) Well, two years ago we didn’t start with a precise stylistic idea. We didn’t want to do a “Genesis-oriented” or “KC-oriented” band, or whatever else like this. Paolo and me just proposed our own material to the band and worked on it. However, as it is obvious, many influences were acting consciously or, rather, unconsciously. So, in retrospect, and during the arranging/recording stage, I found myself working side by side with my favorite bands and guitar players from the past, as King Crimson or Led Zeppelin. Surely we tried quite openly to avoid the more complex features coming from out Rock in Opposition and Canterbury background. I would say that in Not a Good Sign we were greatly influenced by post-rock bands and sounds, as Radiohead or Sigur Ros. I would add a splash of Black Sabbath, which I consider a perfect blend of old rock (not metal) and dark (btw, somewhere in the album there also a brief but distinct quote of a BS classic, and a Zeppelin one too…:))
SKE: I don’t think [of] myself as a songwriter, really… as a matter of fact, I wrote just two tunes for Not a Good Sign that involve vocals (“Almost II” and “Flow On”), the others being instrumental ones. And those were the first “non-instrumental songs” that I ever wrote. I kind of enjoyed doing so, even if I admit I like it better to work on pure instrumental tunes. In both cases Francesco wrote the lyrics for the music I composed. In retrospect if I should think of influences for those two tunes, I would say KC or Genesis might be the most prominent ones.
PROG: At this point you’ve already gotten a bit of live experience with the AltrOck Festival. What is your favorite song or section to play from the new record?
FZ: Personally I really enjoyed to play live the title track. It’s very powerful and perfect for the live stage. I also liked very much “Almost” (even if it’s the most challenging song of the tracklist…), and using the bow on the guitar in the middle of “Witchcraft” was pure fun…!
SKE: Each tune has its tricky parts, but when playing live you also need to take care of sound changes, effect changes, etc. That is ok for the most part, except when something goes wrong and you need to make up for it while you are in the middle of something else. That can be distracting and can lead to a less effective performance. Therefore, my favorite tune for this set could be “Afraid to Ask”, where I only play piano without sound changes and I can focus on music 100%. And that’s a relief if compared to tunes like “Almost I” or “Not a Good Sign” which are both challenging and tricky to manage on stage.
PROG: From your interview with the DPRP it sounds like the AltrOck festival went great. What other bands did you most enjoy watching at the festival?
SKE: Well, all [the] bands made great shows, so it’s tough to choose just one. I’d say Humble Grumble was my personal highlight, because they could entertain me both musically and visually; their show, in fact, is a powerful blend of intelligent music and colorful fun! They released two albums on AltrOck, their last one is called Guzzle It Up! and i strongly recommend it. If you have the chance, definitely go to see these guys live!
PROG: Your comments with the DPRP also made us hungry for some shows (you commented on your plans to play live with this band). Do you have any shows or tours scheduled that are coming up?
SKE: We are currently working on the European live schedule; we are making agreements for some festivals but nothing 100% agreed so far. More soon.What I can say is that we are planning to play live a lot, that’s one of the very aims of this band, so we are going to take every decision needed to pursue this. We are also trying to book gigs for a North America/Canada tour in 2014, so stay tuned and of course drop us a line at email@example.com for further information or if you can help :)
PROG: I was hoping you guys could talk a little about your involvement with AltrOck and Fading Records. How did you get involved with these record labels and what is your role with these labels apart from being musicians?
FZ: I was a co-founder of AltrOck label with Marcello Marinone in 2006. We just produced [the] first Yugen album, Labirinto d’acqua, and couldn’t find a label willing to release it with suitable conditions. Since then, we found other interesting bands (Accordo dei Contrari, Rational Diet, Mirthkon were the first ones) to release and so AltrOck began [as] a real label, mainly devoted to avant-prog and RIO bands. Some years ago we thought to open a division for more melodic and prog projects; we called it Fading. During these years I played and produced four Yugen albums and Kurai (one of my collateral projects); I played on [the] Ske cd and took part marginally in other things. Since 2012 I’m not anymore an associate of the label, but my collaboration with AltrOck and Marcello Marinone goes on as a composer, producer and guitar player. Next September AltrOck will release Empty Days, another CD by me, and the new Spaltklang CD, a Swiss band guided by the sax player Markus Stauss, which I played guitar in. Finally, next year we’re going to release the next Yugen album.
SKE: In 2004/2005 or so i was looking for more musicians to contribute on some weird music I was trying to make at the time with Mattia Signò (Yugen, Ske). I gave some cassette to Marcello Marinone, and he pointed to me Francesco as a solid guitar player and composer. I did not have enough “ready” material at the time, but he did, and I was asked to join a band that would have released its first album under a brand new label. The band was Yugen and the label was AltrOck. Since then i cooperate in every way i can with AltrOck/Fading, especially for the visual part of the communication and of course album art or graphics, as it matches with my day-job skills, being a video-artist.
PROG: I’d love to hear a bit more about your involvement with Empty Days, which features Elaine Di Falco on vocals. Is it still too early to talk more about this project? The trailer demonstrated that once again you are presenting some truly incredible music. Could you tell us a bit about this new project and also what the fans should expect from this upcoming release?
FZ: Originally Empty Days was born as a sequel of Kurai (released by AltrOck in 2009). It was a very complex and experimental one; I used a lot of particular compositional technique involving improvisation and electronics. Working on the new materials in this direction, I found myself writing more and more different things, thank also to the influence and collaboration of Elaine Di Falco (who sang some songs in Yugen’s Iridule in 2010). Unexpectedly, a more melodic trend came up, so I decided to find another name for the project. It was simply too different from Kurai. Finally, I had a collection of seven songs (I wrote music and lyrics, except for two John Dowland’s songs and some poetry by Nabokov and Heaney) and seven brief instrumental pieces. The structure recalls openly Yugen’s first album, Labirinto d’acqua. I decided also not to use a traditional rhythm section and devote all the job in an acoustic, purely electric or electro-acoustic direction (there’s no synth on the cd; just acoustic and electro-acoustic instruments. Digital treatments are just exceptions). Finally I wanted to emphasize the voice role. In one track you will hear also a classical singer, the Irish-British mezzosoprano Rachel O’Brien, singing a classical Dowland’s song, a truly “pop song” of the 17 should expect…? Mmm… it won’t be an “easy” album, I would admit, but the mood is really intriguing. At least I’d say they’ll find something new, maybe unexpected, and a great performance by Elaine Di Falco, in particular. But I have to thank also all the other involved musicians, they all worked with passion. I hope the fans will like it… I prefer [to] let them talk about it!
PROG: In my personal opinion, Italy seems to be a powerhouse country for producing top progressive rock bands, both in the 70’s and in recent years. Is there something culturally that you believe contributes to this?
SKE: mmm right. Well, not an easy question. I should have knowledge of the cultural setting of other countries to properly compare it to the Italian one, which I don’t. What I know is that nowadays sadly Italy isn’t doing much for the spread of culture…at all. It’s definitely a country with strong cultural history and excellence in music and overall arts, and that must have an influence on people. Maybe growing in a country like this makes you have a soft spot for arts… or maybe not. Maybe it has to do with the fact that you really need to be creative in “everyday life management” to survive this country, and that can lead to develop a creative personality or musicality as well. I wouldn’t know… for sure we love pizza, and we love people that stand out from the rest. That might be it :) In fact it is known that bands like Genesis, VDGG or Gentle Giant actually found their first big following in Italy in the 70’s, and not in their homeland.
PROG: And, here’s a few fun/personal questions… Fifteen years ago, what were you doing and could you see yourself where you are now?
FZ: In 1998 I was taking my degree in philosophy at the university. I was also studying classical guitar and chamber music. The adventure with my first group, The Night Watch, was almost closed after just one CD. Well, I really couldn’t imagine, for better or for worse, what I would have done in the next decade or so, especially as a musician.
SKE: 1998. I had hair. I was in high school and probably i wasn’t even playing rock music yet, or i had just started to do so. I guess I couldn’t imagine where I’m at now, but only because in your teens you have so much potential that you can really turn into whatever you want to. Except that you rarely have clear in mind what you would like to be, not sure if that’s a good thing or not, leaving open doors to whatever might happen. Well, it worked for me :)
PROG: What was the first concert you went to?
FZ: I don’t remember the first classical music concert I went to; maybe some classical guitar player around 1985 or so. My first pop-rock concert was Sting in Milan, I think in 1987 or so, during the “Nothing Like the Sun” tour.
SKE: I honestly don’t remember. It might have been anything from a marching band exhibition to some classical music performance. That of course not counting my own solo concerts I kept making with my Bontempi toy organ from 4 to 8 years old, when my parents decided it was probably a good idea to send me to study some music, eventually. So much for aching eardrums. Boy, they were in for quite a surprise, LOL.
PROG: What was the first album you bought and how have your musical tastes evolved up until today?
FZ: I had the fortune and possibility to listen to a lot of vinyls of my brother; I got to know Led Zeppelin, Genesis, King Crimson, David Bowie and many others in this way (I literally consumed LPs like Seconds Out or The Song Remains the Same). So I began buying my own LPs quite late; the first one I got with my own money and going personally to a shop was A Trick if the Tail by Genesis, during the summer of 1986 or 1987.
SKE: I’m not sure if it was a Beatles or a Queen album, and it was a CD. I was somewhere around 11/12 years old. But of course I already had a little collection of classical music bought by my parents, that I used to listen to. In my teens I wasn’t really a big music listener though; it all began when i started to play rock music, my mates loaded me with these strange music albums and the addiction started. I guess I’m kind of an oddball within musicians or music listeners, as I jumped from classical/hip hop teenage listens, directly to niche Italian progressive music from the 70’s, completely skipping the classic rock part such as Led Zeppelin, Deep Purple, etc. Even nowadays I don’t think I’ve ever listened to a complete classic rock or hard rock album, not sure why. Is that a Good Sign?
PROG: I’d like to close off by saying a huge thanks to Paolo and Francesco for the time they took out of their busy schedules to talk to us here at Progulator. Thanks for the great music!