That home to the eclectic and wonderful, Italy’s AltrOck label, is also home to what in my humble opinion is one of the best avant rock bands working today. That band is Yugen and their leader is guitarist Francesco Zago, and together with Yugen’s keyboard player, Paolo “Ske” Botta, they have formed an Italian avant-prog supergroup of sorts, under the cryptic name of Not A Good Sign.
AltrOck’s recent press release heralding the recent arrival on 10th June of the band’s debut album among other things states that we “will recognise the Old Prog School from the 70s, but in a modern key”. The idea of some of Europe’s finest and most adventurous musicians tackling old school prog is more than enough to whet the appetite, so I just had to fire off some questions at Francesco and Paolo.
Roger: Thanks for taking time out to talk to DPRP. Let’s start with an obvious one; what gave you the idea for Not A Good Sign?
Francesco: Thank you Roger for your interview. The idea of Not a Good Sign came out three years ago, when Marcello Marinone, Paolo Botta and I began to think about a new project for the AltrOck/Fading label. The general idea was to produce new material in a different style, more accessible and rock-oriented than Yugen’s and Ske’s music. By the way, we never thought about ourselves as a “supergroup”…:-)) Just a new way to melt our compositional features.
Roger: Great band name by the way! Where did that come from?
Francesco: Around one year ago I wrote a song called “Not a Good Sign” for the group. At that time the group didn’t have a name yet. We had some loose ideas, but none of them seemed convincing. Suddenly, just after a rehearsal in Summer of 2012 Gabriele G. Colombi, the bass player, said: “We could use that title as the name of the group… why not?” We immediately accepted the idea.
Paolo: I think it does apply perfectly to nowadays lives as we see it. When I go out, I see everyday “Not a Good Sign” faces everywhere. The economic situation in Europe and in the rest of the world is changing our lives, so naturally this is reflected by the music we are making, starting from the very beginning: band name.
Roger: Apart from you two, who else plays on the album?
Francesco: In March 2012 we met a band from Genova, La Coscienza di Zeno, who were to release their second album for Fading Records. We asked the singer, Alessio Calandriello, and bass player, Gabriele G. Colombi, to join us.
Paolo: There’s also Martino Malacrida on drums, a very young but incredibly gifted musician, when we listened to him playing during the band’s drummer auditions, there were few doubts left as to who was going to be the band’s drummer!
Roger: When AltrOck talk of “Old Prog School”, what are they hinting at? I can’t imagine that you’re going to sound like vintage Genesis!
Francesco: Well, you’re right… we’ll never sound like vintage Genesis or other great bands from the past. We’re trying to explore our own style and skills, but a part of our musical background and personal tastes inevitably goes back to classic prog, for instance in terms of some vintage keyboards and guitar sounds, or sometimes in the structure of the songs. However, this is just a part of our sound. Many other influences came in.
Roger: That leads neatly on to the obvious question; which bands influenced you the most from the original progressive rock era?
Paolo: If I should choose just one, it would definitely be King Crimson.
Francesco: I totally agree with Paolo. King Crimson is maybe the only one “old school” prog band that has been able to renew itself in the last thirty years in terms of style and sound.
Francesco: My approach in Not a Good Sign is totally different from Yugen. Yugen’s music has to do a lot with chamber music; it’s 99% written and arranged on the score. Instead for Not a Good Sign I worked as a more conventional song writer. A lot of details came out during rehearsals with the guys; arranging music for the studio recordings has been a crucial moment to define many features. And here I wrote all the lyrics, while Yugen is totally instrumental, with some exceptions.
Paolo: Personally with SKE I approached composition in a lot of different ways, I did not really plan what was going to come out. With Not a Good Sign the musical ideas have been roughly cleared out since the beginning, so in a way there was less “dirty” job trying to figure out which direction to take, and more time spent on giving the right feel to compositions as a whole. But as usual, there was a lot of trial and error from my side, so I ended up composing more than double the amount of music needed, which means there are lots of leftovers around, just waiting for the right place and time.
Roger: I like the sound of that! More in the can is good news indeed. What level of improvisation, if any, is used on the album?
Paolo: Aside from some solo section in one specific tune, this band is not really improvisation-oriented, but hey, you never know!
Roger: One for Paolo – you are known for your collection of vintage keyboards. Did any get used on the album?
Paolo: Yes, of course. Lots of Hammond, some Rhodes and Wurlitzer pianos, some monophonic synths and a lot of string machines. Actually I had much fun trying to filter the many effects all of these instruments, to give it a more “personal” or “unique” approach. So much that some sounds would probably be very hard to recreate exactly. And that’s the good thing of analogic instruments, I guess. I am particularly proud of this one sound I used in the very beginning of “Making Stills”, which sounds like a cross between a tiny plucked instrument and a xylophone, but was instead produced by a Fender Rhodes, by manually stopping its higher tines and suddenly releasing them in a musical way. Loved it! In a couple of tunes I also used some digital synth; I wonder if anyone can guess where that is 🙂
Roger: That’s one for all you keyboard players out there… J. Francesco, you mentioned earlier you penned the lyrics on the album. Lyric writing is a string to your bow that I was unaware of. Do tell us more.
Francesco: Yes, I wrote the lyrics for the album. I also chose and set to the music the poem by John Donne, “Witchcraft by a Picture”, specifically arranged for the voice of Sharron Fortnam, the singer from North Sea Radio Orchestra. I mainly wrote the lyrics directly in English; just in a few cases I translated into English some Italian things I sketched before. As for the subjects, the songs talk about despair, confusion, solitude. The lyrics of the album are inspired by a consistent and pervasive dark mood. Normally I prefer using symbols and images rather than writing “stories”, which I think is also a proper counterbalance to this kind of powerfully evocative music.
Roger: Good to see Sharron’s involvement; I really loved the last NSRO album. How did your first appearance as Not A Good Sign as part of the AltrOck Festival in Milan on 1st & 2nd June go?
Paolo: it was a very warm audience welcome, we tried to do our best to give our emotions to the people, and people gave us back a wonderful experience.
Paolo: AltrOck/Fading is becoming more and more like a big family, so that we already knew 90% of the other bands musicians as well, and obviously we were there to see their shows. Moreover, the day before I performed with my own band SKE, also on Fading Records, together with Francesco and other musicians from Yugen/Camembert, so let’s say we got to know the audience beforehand, which is always a good thing. This Festival is ever growing, and I hope it can continue like this.
Roger: Was any of the AltrOck Festival recorded for future release?
Paolo: As a matter of facts yes, our shows were recorded, but at the moment I really have no “official” answer to this question. Is that a Good Sign?
Roger: I believe it could well be! Do you plan to do more gigs as Not A Good Sign?
Francesco: While Yugen was originally conceived mainly as a studio project, Not a Good Sign was born with the specific aim to play on stage.
Paolo: YES! The main goal of this band is playing live, so that’s what we are looking forward to doing! We are already receiving some concerts offers, so if anyone has the possibility to have us play somewhere, you can contact us through AltrOck here: firstname.lastname@example.org. We will appreciate it!
Roger: Do you think it is ever likely that one or other of your musical incarnations will play in the UK?
Paolo: Well, this is a good question. Let’s say that we are always glad if we can find the possibility to perform our music, wherever it might be. And it would be VERY nice to play where some of the music we love most actually started, so from our side it’s a big yes. Should we expect a call from UK, then?
Francesco: I agree with Paolo. It could be a great pleasure to come there and play, and I think the best way to appreciate our music should be attending our shows, notwithstanding the differences among the projects.
Roger: If anyone is reading this and can help bring this marvellous music to the UK, get in touch with the band! What’s next for you both?
Paolo: I want to write more material for Not a Good Sign as a live band, I really dig it and hopefully you will too! Beside this, it’s about time I get back doing my SKE homework. This will probably take some time, but hey, good things come to those who wait.
Francesco: At the moment me and Paolo are mainly writing new material for the upcoming shows of Not a Good Sign. During the last months I finished a new cd for AltrOck Records which will be released in September, called “Empty Days”. I don’t want to reveal too much about this now…:-)) but it will show the “non-Yugen side” of my musical interests, focusing on song writing. More news will come soon, don’t worry… At the same time, I’m beginning to work about the next Yugen album, which will be released in 2014. In September we’ll get back on stage together with Yugen after the long rest from 2011 and the release of “Mirrors”.
Roger: That’s all very good news indeed!
Thanks to Francesco & Paolo for taking time out from their busy schedules to chat to DPRP, and we look forward to hearing the album.