Interview with Tony Spada
from Holding Pattern
by Menno von Brucken Fock
The history of Holding Pattern starts in 1979 when guitarist Tony Spada and drummer Robert Hutchinson decide to create and play their own music. Music with a message rather than the music they played before in numerous bands, doing cover versions of other artists. Just before entering the studio to record their self titled debut (mini) album, Holding Pattern keyboardist Ken Archer left the band and eventually a replacement was found: Mark Tannenbaum. In 1981 this mini-album saw the light of day and a mere 10 years after it’s original release, “Holding Pattern” was extended and released as a full length album entitled “Majestic”, on which the current bass-player Tony Castellano can also be heard. Shortly after the release of “Majestic” guitarist Tony Spada put out a solo album called “Balance
Of Power” and then Holding Pattern seemed to be vanished from this Earth, until Spada, “out of nowhere”, came up with the acclaimed solo-piece “Human Element” in 2004, with the collaboration of several (ex) members of Holding Pattern. This time the fire kept burning and amazingly enough, here’s the brand new studio album ”Breaking The Silence”.
From the office of Surveillance Records, on a cold winter’s day in Hartford USA Tony Spada, founder, composer, producer and guitarist of the band reflects on over 25 years of HOLDING PATTERN …
MENNO: Hi Tony! The name Spada doesn’t sound as a genuine English name to me. Where does the Spada family come from originally?
TONY: I was born in the USA as a typical American kid but both my parents were Italians, no liaisons with the mafia though, don’t you worry! Besides, if I did have those liaisons, I would have been much richer by now probably!
Before talking about your new album I’d like to dig into Mr. Spada’s history a little. I’ve been studying the notes on both sleeves of Majestic and Balance Of Power of which I have the luxury editions. I noticed that as a teenager, you participated in a guitar-contest for young talents and you ended up second place behind Tony MacAlpine, which is quite an achievement since he is well renowned both as a guitarist and as well as a keyboardist. Did you ever get in touch with him after that contest?
Gosh, you really own both the collector’s editions? I don’t even own one! I think I only have a promo somewhere….. About the poll, yeah that was right before the start of Holding Pattern, must have been something like 1978. In fact MacAlpine and I went to same Music College where I studied guitar and he studied piano if I remember correctly. He lives in Bloomfield right across the river from where I live so yes, I run into him occasionally.
According to the info on the sleeves mentioned afore your main influences are The Beatles and Yes. In my opinion what we hear in HP Music are distinct similarities in style and compositions with Happy The Man and especially Steve Morse’s Dixie Dregs. Like Steve you seem to be quite familiar with other musical styles like classical and jazz. What part does Morse play in your musical career?
Steve became a friend starting the early nineties when we did a mini-tour with the reunited Dixie Dregs and once he introduced me to their manager Frank Solomon, we did more shows with Steve and his band. Steve’s musical studies and mine are parallel: just like many of us in those days we were admirers of bands like Mahavishnu Orchestra, Genesis and Yes but our classical studies provided us with the ability to write music in a different way and to combine classical, rock and jazz. The hi-tech style of playing is similar to great guitarists such as Bill Connors, Eric Johnson or Jimmy Herring. I love to play rock music with a lot of movements as in classical music. HP is not influenced by the Dregs as such but we share the same combination of education and favourites. Besides, I think there’s a lot more country and bluegrass influences in the Dregs music. As kids we all started out to play like Johnny Winter, Jimi Hendrix or Jeff Beck but later we learned about classical and jazz music and along the way we started to learn the “hybrid picking” technique.
All members of HP are classically trained, schooled musicians. You yourself studied mainly guitar and composition for about ten years in total. Do you consider this level of schooling to be advantageous or not?
It cannot be compared with people who are self taught. Except for the solo’s of course, I write every note down on a manuscript, like in an orchestra. People I play with have all the notes on paper and play exactly what I want them to play. Since we don’t like to rehearse much, this works just fine and because everyone knows what to play and when, we can focus on the solo’s and re-learning older songs.
Doesn’t this approach interfere with the creativity of other members of the band and have you always written down all music you composed?
Not quite! A lot of the tunes I come up with, get rewritten during rehearsals and usually I try to fix any changes instantly and they have the reworked manuscripts in front of them the next day at the latest. Sometimes I wake up in the middle of the night and I have this melody in my head and in the early days I used to think that I would remember a tune until the next day. Most of the times however I was proven wrong and it was gone, so that’s when I started to write the notes down instantly and since then I’ve never changed this. My whole schooling was based on reading manuscripts, by Bach, Fernandez and others, as I studied classical guitar, so for me it’s the easiest way to memorize music. Another advantage of manuscripts is that you can communicate much more easily with fellow musicians. If I was to teach another guitarist where to put his finger on what string because he wasn’t able to read notes, it would take me a whole day for just one song, so I really don’t think you can do business that way. ….
Don’t you think there a risk of putting in themes from other composers subconsciously because you had to learn so much music by other (classical) composers?
That’s a really good question! Indeed I went through an awful lot of classical compositions, but I do my utmost to avoid this kind of thing happening. Whenever I or maybe someone else have the slightest idea there might be a resemblance between my music or as much as a chord in it, and another composition, I rewrite my song instantly, no matter how much I liked it and sometimes even before it has been written down. I just read a story about Paul McCartney’s “Yesterday”: he woke up one day and he wrote that song, but for a long time he thought his father showed him this song earlier so he was afraid to put it out, until one day he finally went to his dad and played him the song and his father subsequently told him he never had heard that song before! So then he recorded it and it became a huge hit as we all know. Up until this day no one sewed him!
In your resume there’s also some videos mentioned, among others “Mercenary” from 1984. What kind of videos were these and will they ever be released as DVD or bonus material?
Our manager at the time thought it would be good to record a video-clip for MTV because “Mercenary” would be released as a single in the UK. Actually the clip got airplay on MTV and there were a few more clips by HP as well on air in the program “Night Flight” in 1986. It’s quite funny you mention these videos because at present there’s a record company in California that’s interested in re-releasing the “Balance Of Power” album with a DVD as a bonus. From a recent tour there are some live recordings in Japan that might be on it, but probably the video of “Mercenary” along with possibly one or two more clips will likely be on that DVD too. Furthermore I know of a lady that used to tape a lot of concerts. For years she recorded each and every show by Kansas and she worked with Annie Haslam too and I know for a fact she taped a whole bunch of HP concerts. If she’s able to transfer these tapes on to DVD format, we might be able to put out a DVD from those gigs as well. We’ll see how things go, but surely I would think it a great idea to have a DVD as a bonus covering the history of HP!
I guess you‘ve been touring a lot in both the US and Japan as a solo artist and with you own band. Now HP goes back on the road?
Yes, though we never stopped playing HP songs, the band was brought together by the promoter of the Poseidon-festival in Tokyo in 2005 and he invites us every year, so now the band is playing as HP again. Currently we have some concerts in Japan scheduled as well as a performance at Baja Prog, where I play as guest with the Alex Carpani band. After Baja I’ll be joining that band for the last leg of their tour in California. Should be pretty interesting because I believe the singer from Le Orme is with them and they’re also with another Italian band called “The Watch”!
What about NEARfest?
Last year I was there, sure, but not to perform. We did a sort of meet and greet for three days and I joined Paul Whitehead in his booth. He’s famous for his early Genesis covers and he also designed the cover for our “Breaking The Silence” album as well as the cover & artwork for “Waterline” the new album by the Alex Carpani Band. Carpani is a great keyboard player and I was granted the honour to play on their last album. We just got word from a French company that both “Breaking The Silence” and “Waterline” are in their top 5, which is kind of cool, isn’t it!
In the nineties HP did many live shows with a singer: Jeff Brewer. Do you have any contacts with him and what made you decide you’d rather play purely instrumental music?
Jeff is a great singer and believe it or not, like ten minutes ago, I received an email from him! He’s a gifted musician, he ‘s still in the music business and he’s a nice guy too. I think he plays in a band called After The Fall (also featuring former HP-member Ken Archer-MvBF). In fact After The Fall opened for us on a couple of shows! The reason we ended up playing instrumental music was that right after the “Balance Of Power” album, I put a new band together and we played a lot of shows as a trio. We had a lot of fun doing it and for me as a guitar-player these performances were truly awesome because I got to play a lot of guitar and as a result of that I decided to stick with that band, rather than performing with a vocalist. At that point HP had split anyway. Once in a while we had some reunion shows where I invited Mark Tannenbaum and I know there are a few pretty spectacular videos of some of these shows, so I’m hoping to include some tracks from these shows on to the DVD we mentioned earlier.
Shortly after “Majestic” you released the solo-album “Balance Of Power” with contributions by Mark Tannenbaum and Tony Castellano, still a HP member today. Is it fair to say that problems with “Hutch” (former HP-drummer Robert Hutchinson) were the reason that this album was not a HP album?
(Laughs), yeah I’m surprised you didn’t hear about it! We had problems with Hutch since day one! He’s a very tough guy to get along with and although the two of us founded HP, he was actually fired from the band around the mid eighties. He moved to California and I deliberately avoided contact with him for about ten years or so. However, he kept on trying to contact me, lastly through Mark Tannenbaum and in the end we met and I must admit he seemed a changed person! He was invited to be part of the reunion and he went to Japan with us, that’s why he’s on the new album, playing that live track from 2005, and he really did well. During rehearsals and on the tour he was just great! Then, about two months before we were scheduled to go into the studio to record the new album, he turned into “Hutch” again, which is truly remarkable and a shame coz’ he’s a fine drummer. If you want to have dinner or just hang out with someone he is the perfect guy: he’s got a great sense of humour! But when it comes to a working situation he is just impossible. No one could work with him so he got fired for the second time!
Are you the owner of the band-name Holding Pattern?
Yes, I think I am. I came up with that name and everyone liked it. It comes from the aviation (A holding pattern is a predetermined manoeuvre designed to keep an aircraft within a specified airspace – MvBF), and that’s another thing Steve Morse and I share: he’s a pilot too, although I gave up flying some ten years ago when I got married. So if I wanted to fly again, I’d have to do a lot of tests and stuff. My wife’s from California and she will be flying from East to West with me to keep me company during the tour mentioned before. My original idea was that, being a pilot, travelling with the band would be a lot easier but we ended up travelling in vans still the same, so that didn’t work out as I thought it would….
After “Balance Of Power” you shared the stage with The Dixie Dregs and as a result there’s a collaboration between Steve and you in a song called “Sleaze Factor” that ended up on “The Human Element”. What’s the story behind that track?
Now that’s a nice question because no one asked me before why that song was on The Human Element album! This song actually has been recorded during that tour we did with the Dregs. We did some “live on the air stuff” together and as a joke we played that song as a soundcheck for Steve and when he walked into the studio he laughed and said “you guys play this better than I do!” At the time I was planning to do an album with a trio in styles I grew up with: Jeff Beck and Jimi Hendrix and we recorded among others the track “Mile High” (Human Element) that day. So Steve and I decided to record Sleaze Factor for fun and we did it in one take, just to get level with our instruments, no one has been fooling around with it!
Has the decision to play live shows as a trio, without a keyboardist, after “Balance Of Power” been influenced by the fact Steve Morse Band was a power-trio also?
Although we played as a trio, we still used a lot of keyboards: Tony plays keyboards and bass-pedals simultaneously and I use a guitar-synthesizer for the orchestral chords, so apart from “power-trio stuff” we still used a lot of keys and we played many HP songs as well! For example on “Mile High”, my favourite track on “The Human Element”, I run the synthesizer through the PA system to produce those mighty strings underneath the guitar sounds and people asked me: where is all that keyboard-stuff coming from and in fact it was me playing all that!
The biography mentions that you work as a guitar teacher but also that you compose a lot of music. Still, eleven years after “Balance Of Power” you release an album of “a mere” 42 minutes. Did you write a lot of material for other artists, or didn’t you record all the things you wrote?
Oh surely I wrote tons of stuff I never recorded because it’s mostly acoustic. I used to do a lot of live shows on my own as a classical guitarist but I don’t see the point in recording that stuff because who would want to buy it? It’s a small market all ready. Steve Morse wanted to do an acoustic album but in the end he didn’t for the same reason.
I know Steve Hackett did acoustic albums and still does: they seem to sell well, but that’s an exception perhaps. You could do an acoustic album however, as a bonus with a forthcoming live album?
That’s a cool idea, you’re right on it! You know as we played shows as a trio I used to open the set with a 20 – 25 minutes acoustic solo performance and I’d like to include some of that stuff on that DVD and try to make something like “best of both worlds”. A lot of tunes I wrote are ragtime style or jazz and they wouldn’t fit on either albums and are completely different from the more classically orientated acoustic tracks included in both solo-albums.
Still the Music on “The Human Element” album is quite varied, stylistically speaking and the compositions originate from many different years. How did you make a choice which pieces to record?
It wasn’t that hard to decide because those songs were mainly the live set we used to play, a mixture of styles featuring guitar, while the other half of the set would be the “Balance Of Power” and Holding Pattern stuff, tracks like “Arrival”, “Ten Passed Midnight”, “Ground Zero” and so on.
Did you ever perform live in Europe? I can’t recall any gig by HP here, neither by many other bands like Happy The Man or Shadow Gallery.
I regret to say not. You know a guy named Rob Hanemaayer? He’s got a contact in Switzerland who would like to have us play at the PROGSOL festival in October, but as always, it comes down to the money issue: they’re not able to pay for the airfares. To let it to be profitable for us too, seems to be very difficult to realise. Most of the time, the budget just isn’t big enough to have us fly across the ocean. I’d really love to play in Europe though, since HP has fans all over the world.
On “The Human Element”, there is Tony Castellano, playing bass & keyboards but also the current HP drummer Robert Gottfried. How did you get in touch with him?
When we were trying to put a trio together for “The Human Element” I talked to my manager to get me the best drummer possible and for sure Rob Gottfried was “the man”. He’s just soooooo good, but extremely busy as well. Around here he’s quite famous you know. He does a lot of solo performances and he is pretty popular TV personality, especially with the kids as “Rob The Drummer” in Sesame Street. He travels all over America to help children regain their self esteem, preventing abuse of certain substances and he is a well respected and renowned jazz drummer too. Just like Dennis Chambers (a.o. David Sanborn – MvBF) he is a muscle drummer! I guess he’s been in Tokyo for at least twenty times and he’s been to Europe (Belgium and Russia) as well. We managed to make contact and he agreed to listen to some of our music, so we sent him copies of BoP and some HP stuff and that same night I got a call and he said he just loved it and that we should get together and play. So Tony C. and I went up to his studio and we started playing and it sounded like we were ready to go tour! The three of us played for 2 or 3 hours and we really had a ball. After that session he said to me: “this sounds like a band to me, let’s do it!”
You released “The Human Element” as a solo album too. Is the name Spada more popular in the States than Holding Pattern?
That’s a tough question. I really don’t know but what I do with the trio is too much different from the things we do with HP so it seemed a logical choice not to use the band-name.
You used to do a lot of session-work. Are you involved in other projects at the moment?
Yes I am. The other day I was approached to do some work on an album, I think it will be called “Pirate Sales” or something, together with Gentle Giant guitarist Gary Green. A truly sympathetic guy whom I met at NearFest a couple of years ago. Recently I did an album with a band called Domestic Casualty and next week I’ve been booked for sessions on a jazz/fusion album. In Florida I did a lot of session work for radio-commercials, television-commercials and so on.
Obviously you are a professional musician. How about Robert Gottfried and Mark Tannenbaum?
I used to refer to Rob as “the busiest man in showbiz” because he’s always gone. At the moment he’s in LA, some 3000 miles away, doing clinics, demonstrating drums etcetera. By the way, I’m working on a new endorsement deal too: with GHS strings. Mark Tannenbaum is a booking agent, all he does is book bands and he’s doing a great job too. My estimate is that he’s got about 300 bands. I think practically every club or nightclub in Connecticut book through him, almost a monopoly. Mark agreed to play on the album, more or less as a guest because he is done with touring so probably we will hit the road the three of us as before. Maybe we’ll add a bass-player, likely Bob Laramy, but he is an extremely busy musician too. This would enable Tony C. to focus more on the keyboards.
And how Tony Castellano?
Talking about Tony, I think he plays in four other bands and he makes solo-albums too. I played on both his albums “The Fun Size” and “The Red Hour”, which are very good progressive rock albums: sort of “Genesis meets Frank Zappa”, and he writes really hilarious lyrics! Another amazing feature of Tony C. is that he is like a computer: mistakeless! Once we played something like twenty shows in a row and he didn’t hit one bad note! Therefore Rob Gottfried calls him “musicmachine”. He’s just unbelievable. He shows up, looks at the manuscript, plays every note as he should and the next time he comes to a rehearsal he knows it all by memory. In fact he knows the songs better than I do and that’s the God’s honest truth. He really forces me to be on my toes and if I make a mistake …(grins) and he just gives my that smile and tells I should have played an A natural instead of an A minor, and I just say “oh yeah, I know I made a mistake but you don’t have to analyze it”! Although he is a very serious musician he’s got this funny side to him as well, which not many people see, but I do. He’s one of my best friends too! It’s kind a strange how we met by the way. Back in the early days we were doing an interview for a radio-station and a girl, Ann Castellano, who turned out to be the program director came up to me and said “hey, I’ve got this younger brother and he loves Holding Pattern and he’s great musician” and I just thought “yeah sure, whatever” and that was it. But a few years later, when he came for an audition, he introduced himself as Tony Castellano. I asked him if his sister was called Ann, and when he confirmed, I said to him “Tony, if you want to you have the gig”! He did and never left the band….. The engineer we used for Breaking The Silence is a very well known guy, who also worked with Lisa Gerrard and worked on the Gladiator soundtrack: he was stunned. I’ve heard him say: “Spada comes into the studio with these guys to play impossible human music and they do it in one take as well”!
I guess you may consider yourself blessed with such top-musicians playing with you! If I compare “Breaking The Silence” to “Majestic”, I hear more guitars and less keyboards. Was the album originally written for a trio?
Actually there’s a lot of keyboards on the album but most of them have been played by Tony and me, as we would also play this music live. Mark did all the solos and since he’s no longer active as a musician, he warned us his fingers might be a little rusty. He has been studying classical piano since he was four years of age and he is like a shred machine on the keyboards and he’s got a lot of technique. When he came into the studio and started playing we looked at each other and said: “rusty?? where!!!”, because he did play some amazing solos for the album.
On the “Breaking The Silence” album you are also credited as producer. Did you produce the album because of the budget or did you have special training to become a producer?
That was a deliberate choice. I’ve been hanging around in studios since I was a teenager and when I was offered the opportunity to hire a producer, the engineers used to say ”no need, coz’ he knows what he’s doing”. I am very tickly about sounds and if you have like hundreds of mixes and you would have a producer from outside our music, he would likely make you sound like you don’t wanna sound so we kind of stay away from those.
Do you have your own studio?
Yes, I have my own studio in my house, but mainly for the demos. I record my guitar-parts here and some of the keyboards and bass. Then we move on to a larger studio, the Planet of Sounds studio in Connecticut operated by Miles Mangino. He has done the lot with renowned bands (a.o. Nickelback – MvBF) and he tours around the world, emailing me from Rotterdam or Paris and sometimes even he calls me with his blackberry and says “hi, I’m having breakfast in Venice, what are you doing?” and I’d have to say “I’m mowing the lawn!”. He ‘s a great guy and a fantastic engineer. Actually his studio is so big, that we had the release-party of “Breaking The Silence” there with over a hundred and fifty people attending!
Do you use the internet and the computer solely for communication with the outside world or do you exchange pieces of music as well?
I use the computer mainly as an email machine and to look up stuff. Just like you when you requested an interview by phone rather than email I like to deal with a person directly and although I use pro-tools in the studio I still prefer the good old tape: if I don’t like what I hear I’d rather do another take than editing and pasting like all those kids-bands do. They enter the studio and do one verse and one chorus and the rest is done via the computer. I don’t like that at all. It’s like cheating when you play an electric guitar but having it sound like an acoustic one, I couldn’t do that! So when you hear a nylon string guitar at the end of “Like Waves” it is a nylon string guitar, for me it’s inconceivable to use an electric guitar instead. Everything you hear we have played on the original instruments, no pasting or attaching and personally I think guys like us are far more creative than the younger generation. People always ask me why we are you playing that weird kind of rock because it’s not commercial, but I don’t think it has to be commercial to be listened to and I just like to play it!
What kind of influence do the other members of HP have on the music on the new album?
Well, for this album I did all the arranging myself but the other guys definitely put in their own ideas by changing the instrumentation or the sounds rather than rebuilding a whole song. I’m not like a dictator who tells people what to do note for note, because these guys I work with are just too good: if anyone would like to change something we try it and see what comes out best.
What’s the biggest market for music by Spada & HP? Were the albums successful financially?
Luckily for us all the albums made us money! From the profits of the Human Element album I could buy our house so that wasn’t bad at all. And we are fortunate that so many distributors all over the world want to buy our records and even from the digital companies I see cheques coming in every day!
That’s really cool for you because I know a lot of bands in this genre who have trouble surviving….
Yeah, it’s really sad but true. I was talking to Martin Orford from the band IQ and he quit that band because he was just fed up with the whole band-life. I know other guys have day-jobs to make a living and in the weekend they can play the music they love. I never had a job in my life, I’ve always played music! You know, the biggest problem is that the major record labels are run by managers, it’s all corporative now whilst in the earlier days those companies were led by people who really cared for the music. Their goal was the make records, now they only look at statistics and sale-figures and when it’s likely they might loose some money, you’re down and out!
Does “Breaking The Silence” mean there’s more to come?
Absolutely, we’re not done yet! Probably there will be another solo-album in the near future too and maybe even a live DVD.
What more can I say? That’s great news: new solo-album, re-release of the BoP album, maybe even a live DVD…I guess all the fans will be eagerly anticipating what’s next to come! On behalf of us all, I wish you and Holding Pattern every possible success and Tony, I’d like to thank you very much to grant me this interview on a Sunday afternoon!!
You are most welcome, it has been a pleasure talking to you!
Holding Pattern Official Website
Alex Carpani Band Official Website
Paul Whitehead Official Website
DPRP Review of Holding Pattern's Breaking The Silence Album