Violinist Joe Deninzon is one of the musical sensations of 2012. He is the founder of Stratospheerius, an outstanding rock band that crosses boundaries, incorporating classic rock, progressive rock, fusion, world music and electronics. Joe discusses his musical background and latest projects with Progressive Rock Central.
Can you give our readers a brief history on how you came to be a musician?
I was born into a family of classical musicians. My father played (and still plays) the violin in the Cleveland Orchestra. My mother is a concert pianist and has around 40 students. Our house was literally a music school with people coming in and out and simultaneous violin and piano lessons being heard in different rooms, but my parents are strictly classical musicians and had no frame or reference or knowledge about any music outside of that genre.
I started playing violin and piano when I was 6, but when we immigrated to the states from Russia, I fell in love with what I was seeing on MTV and hearing on American radio. When I was 12, I took up bass, started writing songs and formed my first band. I later taught myself guitar and really felt more connected to rock and jazz music than classical. In high school I listened to a lot of Zeppelin, Kiss, Queen, and Aerosmith. I knew I wanted to be a musician for as long as I can remember, but I always knew I did not want to spend my life sitting in an orchestra. The first instruments I learned to improvise on were the bass and guitar. I later transferred the rock and jazz language I learned on those instruments to the violin.
What kind of musical training do you have?
I was studying classical violin with my father since age 6, and later at the Cleveland Institute of music. I have a bachelor’s degree in Jazz Violin and Violin Performance from Indiana University and a Master’s degree in Commercial Violin from Manhattan School of Music.
What do you consider as the essential elements of your music?
My musical tastes are eclectic, to say the least. Rock is the foundation, but all my varied influences creep in, like jazz, funk, bluegrass, Middle Eastern Music, all filtered through a distorted electric violin-fueled rock n roll meat grinder.
Your music crosses boundaries. Who can you cite as your main musical influences?
I think my top five artists of all time are Miles Davis, Frank Zappa, Stevie Wonder, Bruce Springsteen, and Led Zeppelin. I have a deep love of 70’s fusion and progressive rock (Mahavishnu Orchestra/Jerry Goodman, Jean Luc Ponty, Yes, King Crimson, Return to Forever), But I also love great songwriting and admire people who are master performers and communicators (Beatles, Steely Dan, Bruce Springsteen, U2, Steve Vai), and the larger-than-life escapism of pure rock (Zeppelin, Queen, Muse).
I think what all my favorite artists had in common is that they just didn’t give a shit and did their thing. I think it’s about figuring out who you are being true to yourself. The music has to be honest and not contrived and the audience will feel that immediately. I am also a big fan of modern composers like John Corigliano and John Zorn, as well as Mark O’Connor, both as a writer and a player.
Your current band is called Stratospheerius. How did you come up with the name?
Years ago, I was playing in an orchestra backing up Smokey Robinson. One of the violinists had to play a solo with some really high notes and someone said, “Wow, that’s really up in the Stratosphere!” to which the violinist responded “I should’ve brought my Stratospheerius.” It was a play on words and he was making a reference to the great 17th century Italian violin maker Antonio Stradivarius. I thought this word applied well to the kind of music I was trying to write; space rock that was fueled by a wild electric violin playing way up in the stratosphere. It’s not the catchiest name in the world, but once people know us, they never forget it.
The Next World… is dedicated to bassist Robert Emmet Bowen III. What was his connection with the band?
Bob Bowen (Robert Emmet Bowen III) was a member of Stratospheerius from 2004-2007. He can be heard playing all the bass parts on the 2007 CD, Headspace, the song “House Always Wins” on the new CD, “The Next World…,” and is the upright bass player on the Joe Deninzon Trio 2010 release, “Exuberance.” I met Bob when we were both doing our Master’s Degree at Manhattan School of music in the late 90’s. We became fast friends and worked in a variety of groups together until he joined my band. He was also an incredible graphic artist and provided all the artwork for our new CD.
Tragically, Bob was killed in August of 2010 in Manhattan when his bicycle was hit by a passing truck. He was 45 and is survived by his wife, son, and daughter. In addition to my projects, Bob also worked with legendary jazz saxophonist Lee Konitz, as well as Tony Trischka, John Hicks, Joe Lovanno, Matt Wilson, James Moody, and many more. The new album is dedicated to his memory.
How would you describe the music in your latest album The Next World…?
Progressive, melodic rock with sprinkles of jazz, fusion, metal, bluegrass, ska, and Balkan Gypsy music.
Tell us about your first recordings and your musical evolution.
My first CD, “Electric Blue”, was recorded during the summer of ‘98 between graduating from Indiana University and moving to New York. It was an all-instrumental jazz-fusion album and I used a bunch of great musicians I had known in the Cleveland scene for many years. My goal was to arrive in New York with a CD in hand that I could give out, find a band, and start gigging as much as possible. At the time, I came out of jazz school and was listening to a lot of Jean Luc, Didier Lockwood, Weather Report, Mahavishnu, etc.
After this album came out I went through a bunch of different lineups in New York which eventually morphed into Stratospheerius. I had always been a singer and had written vocal songs, but could not find a way to reconcile that with all the instrumental fusion I was writing. I gradually set out to incorporate some vocal material into my set list.
The second album I did, “Adventures of Stratospheerius,” had Alex Skolnick on guitar, whom I befriended when I was teaching at the New School. This album was 50 percent vocal and had a mishmash of styles. I was still trying to figure out who I was musically. The Live Wires album also captured that era when Alex was in my band as well as Jake Ezra (guitarist for The Book of Mormon) and we were travelling around playing a lot of fusion with a few vocal rock tunes mixed in.
Long story short, I think our last album, “Headspace”, and especially the new one, “The Next World,” really capture that sound I have been seeking for years, one that combines my influences as an instrumentalist and my influences as a songwriter and vocalist. It took me ten years to really figure out what I wanted to do and establish the true sound of this band. I know it’s an ongoing journey, not a destination, but I’m really happy with the musical direction we are on right now and the response has been amazing!
How’s the current music scene in New York?
The music scene in New York is in constant flux. It’s hard for me to recognize any specific trend dominating the scene right now, but there are always amazing and creative musicians in the areas of jazz, rock, crossover classical, singer songwriters, and hip hop. I like how venues like Le Poisson Rouge have created a way to hear classical and hard-to categorize crossover music in an intimate club setting.
I love the scene in Rockwood with free music and an enormous variety of great artists coming through. World music venues like Drom and Mehanata are incredible places to hear diverse music from all over the planet. There are cynics who say the scene is not what it used to be, but there have always been and will always be cynics. New York has a way of always reinventing itself and even though your favorite venue may close, there are always new venues opening up. Plus there is the constant influx of new talent from all over the world. It’s great cause as a musician, it keeps you on your game. No matter how weird or out of the box your music is, there is always a venue in New York City where you can play it.
If you could gather any musicians or musical groups to collaborate with whom would that be?
I love all the people I’m collaborating with right now, but I can mention a few names of people I have never worked with who I think would be fun and creative: Steve Vai, Mike Keneally, Eddie Van Halen, Tal Wikenfeld, Jeff Beck, John Corigliano, Mark O’Connor, Chris Thile, Steve Howe, Rick Wakeman, Kanye West, The Roots, John Mayer, L. Shankar.
What violins do you play?
My main acoustic violin is made in 1979 by Bernardo Gutterman, out of Chicago. The first electric violin I purchased in 1995 was a 6-string made by Eric Jensen. Right now, I play a Mark Wood Viper fretted 7-string Flying V electric violin and alternate that with my acoustic.
The day I bought my Viper in 2003, I went straight to a rehearsal with a band, plugged it in, drew my bow across the strings for the first time, and right at that moment, the big blackout happened that knocked out the whole Eastern Seaboard. Sorry about that.
Where do you purchase your violins?
My acoustic violin was given to me by my father. He had played on it for twenty years and was looking for something that would blend into the orchestra more. I brought both of my electrics directly from the makers.
Do you play any other instruments?
I play mandolin, which I picked up a few years ago, as well as guitar and electric bass. I also sing all the lead vocals in Stratospheerius. I studied piano when I was very young, then gave it up. That’s one instrument I wish I played better.
Which are your favorite violin guitar effects or techniques?
I’m interested in going beyond the traditional functions of the violin. I see a lot of unpaved territory with this instrument, even though it has been around for hundreds of years, we are just scratching the surface.
First of all, I’m endlessly fascinated with the percussive things the violin can do. “Chopping” is a technique invented by Richard Greene in the 60’s that involves muting the strings with your left hand and coming down hard with the bow, creating a “chopping” sound. Basically, your violin becomes a snare drum. This technique can be combined with chords to imitate a funky rhythm guitar, and can also be used to imitate a guiro or a DJ scratching a record. It sounds amazing with a wah wah pedal.
I also love incorporating delays and loops into my solos. It’s fun to use pitch-shifting pedals like whammy’s to create lightning fast shifts that are not humanly possible on a regular violin. Many traditional string players and acoustic purists don’t realize that working with effects is not just blindly hitting pedals or buttons. It requires taste, timing, and precise coordination between your hands and your feet.
There are times when I’m singing, improvising on the instrument, and changing sounds with my feet simultaneously. I don’t see the use of effects as a crutch to compensate for any lack of playing ability but simply a wider palette of colors to paint your music with. When it’s done right, it really has the WOW factor.
Do you still pay some of your early violins?
People see me wailing on my electric with Stratospheerius, but at least 50 percent of my life, I’m playing unplugged on my traditional acoustic violin. It’s funny that people see you doing one thing and thing that’s all you do. Most guitarists I know play a bunch of different electrics and own at least a few acoustics and go back and forth depending on the gig. I want to see the day when all string players function the same way and the electric violin is not seen as a novelty.
What was the first big lesson you learned about the music business?
That kid sitting next to you in algebra class in high school can end up being the head of your label or your booking agent or your bandmate. You might grow up hating country or bluegrass music, but 15 years later you are on a session and the producer wants you to cop that style, but because you never respected it or gave it any credence, you can’t do it and he ends up calling the next guy.
The big lesson I learned is; you can’t discount anything or anyone. Diversify your palette and respect and honor whatever music you are playing and whoever you are working with at any given time, and it will pay dividends.
Do you have any plans to take the The Next World… album on the road?
We are always performing. There are no 3-month long 90-show tours planned at the moment, but there are always shows going on in any given month in many different cities. Just check our website or facebook page and sign up for our e-list.
What music are you currently listening to?
I’m always revisiting my favorite bands like Yes and Zappa and Mahavishnu, but I’ve been listening to the new Springsteen and Keane albums. Also there’s a solo tuba and classical guitar recording of Alan Baer from the New York Philharmonic with Scott Kuney playing some badass Astor Piazolla arrangements that someone turned me on to.
Also digging the recent Black Keys and Foo Fighters releases. There is a great Maxim Vengerov recording of all the Eugene Ysaye sonatas and reworking of the Bach Tocatta that’s ridiculous. The new Nikki Minaj album has some nice moments too. Also, have you checked out this Swedish band called Dirty Loops? They do some heavy reworking of Justin Bieber, Britney Spears, and Lady Gaga that’s off the hook!
Do you have any upcoming projects to share with our readers?
I just published a book for Mel Bay titled “Plugging in; a Guide to Gear and New Techniques for the 21st Century Violinist.” Half of the book is an introduction to improvisation in the styles of blues, funk, and rock. The other half deals with gear-related things, like choosing an electric violin, shopping for an amp, working with effects. There is also a CD and DVD. This book basically answers questions that students have asked me repeatedly over the years. Some of these are things guitarists take for granted, but are completely new to string players. I basically wrote the book I wish I had when I was 17.
I also recently joined the Sweet Plantain String Quartet. This is a traditional acoustic string quartet which combines classical, jazz, Latin influence, blues, and hip hop. I sing and play violin and mandolin, the cellist raps, and the other violinist, Eddie Venegas, also doubles on trombone. This group has toured all over the world and just signed a new management deal. Look for the debut CD in the near future.
I am also constantly writing music. I have about 80 string quartet arrangements of well-known rock songs I have written which I hope to publish and make available on my website. Someday, I’d love to write an electric violin concerto, if I can find the time.
Aurelien Budynek (guitar/vocals)
Aurelien hails from Bordeau, France and is a graduate of Berklee College of Music, where he studied with Dave Fiuczynski. In addition to playing with Stratospheerius since 2008, he has also toured and performed with Cindy Blackman, Vernon Reid, Daredevil Squadron (with Members of the Trans Siberian Orchestra), The Dan Band, and Rock of Ages.
Jamie Bishop (bass/vocals)
Hailing from Cape Elizabeth, Maine. Jamie is also a graduate of Berklee College of Music and has been with the band since 2007. Jamie has laid down the groove for a wide variety of artists, including the Syn and Francis Dunnery’s New Progressives, Stefani Vera, and The Prigs.
Lucianna Padmore (drums)
A member of Stratospheerius for over a decade, Bronx New York Native Drummer Lucianna Padmore has been praised by Modern Drummer magazine for the “Deep grooves and serious fusion chops.” Lucianna has been involved in many different projects in the New York scene. Performing highlights include jazz tuba player Bob Stewart, opening for Shirley Horn, Chico Debarge, Amel Larrieux, Kelis, James Spaulding, Bertha Hope, Jimmy Heath, Clark Terry, Sun Ra Archestra, Josh Rosemen Quintet, Oscar Peterson trio, and the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra, to name a few. Lucianna has toured in Austria, Italy, Germany, Switzerland, Spain, Morocco and Haiti.