Stratospheerius reaches for the clouds with atmospheric mix ofblues, funk, rock and more
By Steve Wildsmith
It’s difficult to say what sort of music, if any, Joe Deninzon would be playing had the Russian native’s family stayed in St. Petersburg, but one thing’s almost a certainty — it wouldn’t be the funk-blues-rock-classical concoction he does today as founder of the band Stratospheerius.
Deninzon’s family emigrated to the United States in 1979, he told The Daily Times during a recent phone interview, to escape discrimination toward Jews. He was 4 when they came to America.
“My dad wanted to leave there, wanted a better life for his kids,” Deninzon said. “We moved to Cleveland, and almost immediately my dad – who also plays violin – got a job with the Cleveland Orchestra.”
It was a given that Deninzon would wind up with a violin in his hand, given that both of his parents were classical musicians. When he was 6, his father gave him one and he began to learn to play … but American culture began to work its magic on the youngster, and listening to the radio, he fell in love with rock ‘n’ roll and, later, jazz.
“All of the sudden, violin wasn’t cool anymore,” Deninzon said. “I took up guitar and bass while still studying violin in my ‘other’ life. I took a big journey and came back to the violin.”
Two things occurred that helped change his mind. One was musician Michael Stanley, a name unfamiliar to most outside of Cleveland but something of a hometown hero to music fans there. He would consistently sell out arenas in his hometown, and his twin daughters attended school with Deninzon.
“He heard me play at one of our high school concerts, and at 16 he invited me to play with his band,” Deninzon said. “I knew the notes and the music, because I could do it on the guitar, so I just translated it to the violin. And I got a great response and some media attention from that concert.”
The second was a recording given to him by his father by the legendary Gypsy-jazz violinist Stephane Grappelli. That led to his discovery of other eclectic and groundbreaking artists, and suddenly the violin didn’t seem like such a stodgy instrument.
“Hearing some of those guys really opened my mind that you could do a lot of cool stuff on the instrument,” he said. “That was in the early 1990s, while I was still in high school, and I thought I could pave my own way with it. There were a lot of great guitar players, and I was a decent guitar player, but I wanted to stand out and do something unique.
“There was a certain sound I heard in my head that nobody else was producing, and I wanted to make it happen. It just took a few years to figure out what I wanted to play.”
He started with the rock ‘n’ roll influences with which he first fell in love on American radio — bands like Led Zeppelin, with its roots in the blues, and Yes, one of the progenitors of progressive rock. Over time, he added in the greasy funk-blues of Frank Zappa, the jazz of Miles Davis and even classical flourishes by such composers as Stravinsky and Mahler — all filtered through his violin.
“I sort of take elements from genres that I like and put them into my music while avoiding elements I don’t,” he said. “There are certain elements of the jam band scene that I love, but a lot of times there’s just aimless noodling going on. I’m a big fan of progressive rock, and I like a lot of elements of that music, but there are some elements that I don’t like.”
Eventually, he began putting together a band that would become Stratospheerius, seeking out like-minded players who thrived on a multitude of influences and genres. Combining jam, fusion, rock, progressive, jazz, metal and more, the band sounds like a condensed version of Trans-Siberian Orchestra, with vocals added. The New York-based outfit has opened for Tim Reynolds, Mickey Hart, The Slip and John Scofield, among others, and was a winner in the John Lennon Songwriting Competition.
The band’s most recent album, “Headspace,” takes all of those elements and adds even more – Middle Eastern soundscapes, singer-songwriter virtuosity and a balance between the music and the vocals that’s drawn praise from critics. Next week (on Thursday, June 16), Stratospheerius will make its East Tennessee debut in downtown Maryville, a “warm-up” for the band’s showcase the following night at Chattanooga’s annual Riverbend Festival, where the group has always enjoyed a warm reception, Deninzon said.
“Performing is one of my favorite things to do in life,” he said. “I love to be in front of the audience, and I love being spontaneous. You’ll never hear a song we do performed the same way twice. From a performance standpoint, I’m really inspired by Bruce Springsteen. I love the way he pours his whole physical being into his performances.
“We’ll record a song one way, and it’ll take on a life of its own as we perform and tour with it. And it seems to go over really well with all kinds of audiences. It’s funny, because I’m not into labels – all of the sudden that puts you in a cage, and people think of you as only one thing. If any sort of audience appreciates our music, then I’m down with it and fine with it.”
Tiles and Stratospheerius: The Old Miami 11-20-10
by Eric Harabadian
The Old Miami in Detroit’s Cass Corridor is truly one of the Motor City’s downtown venues that have stood the test of time. It’s been there through the good and the bad and the years have done nothing to erode any of this rugged institution’s charm or character. I’ve heard it likened to the long-lamented New York City alt/punk club CBGB’s and there may be something to that. Perhaps that’s one of the reasons that ground-breaking NYC violinist Joe Deninzon and Stratospheerius has been back a number of times and been embraced by the local hipsters and the cultural cognoscenti with open arms.
Electric violinist and lead vocalist Deninzon made no haste kicking their animated and adventuresome set full throttle with a tune off their Headspace album called “Long Rd.” It was an energetic rocker, with the mad fiddler front and center leading the charge as if his life depended on it. Another strange track off that same album, “Old Ghosts”, brought in a bit of funk laced with a tuneful chorus and jazzy lilt. “Today is Tomorrow” highlighted drummer Lucianna Padmore’s tabla-like flourishes and asymmetrical rhythms that gave the tune an exotic Middle Eastern feel. Another song called “Gods” showcased yet another aspect of the band’s sound where Deninzon plays his electric fiddle “bowless” in a pizzicato fashion like a guitar. “The House Always Wins” found Deninzon switching to mandolin for a gypsy blues taste, with stellar accompaniment by French guitarist Aurelien Budynek.
It seemed like Stratospheerius covered just about every kind of musical genre imaginable and the snappy ska-like “Tech Support” further displayed that notion. Bassist Jamie Bishop really propelled this one into overdrive, with some wacky and truly inspired soloing by Deninzon on the violin. As the set wound down they dedicated one of their more “prog rock” numbers “Mental Floss” to their much-anticipated gig mates Tiles. Guitarist Budynek stepped out with some ripping leads joined by cool and avante garde sound effects manipulation by Deninzon and an exceptional drum break by Padmore.
The band Stratospheerius features Joe Deninzon (vocals, violin, mandolin), Jamie Bishop (bass), Aurelien Budynek (guitars), and Lucianna Padmore (drums). The sound is hard to classify in a genre.It combines modern and classic music in a way that is hard to find. The new album Headspace showcases the style nicely.
The Wood Viper Violin: Stratospheerius’ Joe Deninzon On The Electric Violin
by Patrick Ogle
Joe Deninzon of Stratospheerius says you could fill ten books with him talking about the violin. We decided, therefore, to get specific. We talked to Deninzon about his Viper Violin and how he would up playing it. Deninzon comes from a family of classical musicians. His father played with the Cleveland Orchestra for 30 years. He began lessons on the violin at age 6. Then he fell in love with rock music and later on, jazz. But at the time, he learned bass and guitar and shunted his violin to the side. What kid wants to play violin in a rock band?
“A few things happened which were major catalysts in my life. The first was when I heard Stephane Grappeli, my first introduction to jazz violin. The second was when local Cleveland celebrity Michael Stanley invited me to play violin with his band, and the third was when I heard a recording of Jerry Goodman with the Mahavishnu Orchestra.” says Deninzon.
These three things opened him up to using all the musical concepts he had learned and brought him “back” to the violin — the instrument he feels he is and was most adept at. He went looking for an electric violin.
“I did some research and bought a six-string Jensen electric violin, which had the top four strings of a regular violin (E,A,D,G) and went two fifths below with a lower C and F. This instrument served me well for many years, and then I moved to New York and met Mark Wood,” he says. “His Viper used the same Barbara pickups my Jensen did, so the sound was identical, but what sold me on the instrument was the ‘chest support’ system, which allowed me to free up my mouth and chin, since I sing and play violin at the same time, and the frets enabled me to nail the high notes at clubs where the monitor situation was less than ideal. I also loved the fact that it had a seventhth string (a low B-flat), which went a whole step below cello range. Perfect for distorted power chords, or recording cello parts for string arrangements.”
The Viper is a solid body instrument — not acoustic — and as such, it needs to be played through an amp. Deninzon is emphatic when discussing an amp versus playing through the PA.
“I don’t care what anybody tells you, and I’ve had arguments with many soundmen about this. Electric stringed instruments sound like crap when put directly through a house system,” he says. “I have a very strong opinion about this. You wouldn’t run an electric guitar direct in a live situation, would you? Since the Viper has such a large frequency range, I have found it to sound good with Fender Twins or Mesa Boogie Cabinets. The more powerful tube amps usually are best for these instruments.”
Deninzon also likes exploring how different effects sound with the Viper.
“When I played guitar, I became well-acquainted with distortion, wah, delay pedals, etc. I like how those things sound on a violin. Not quite like a guitar, not quite like a violin, something completely different,” he says. “I have two huge pedal-boards I use when playing with Stratospheerius or Metro Strings. I am also developing a book for Mel Bay addressing how string players can get into using effects and incorporating them into their sound.”
In the studio he uses it in many different ways.
“Often when someone is on a budget and can’t afford to hire a whole string section for their project, I play the cello and viola parts on a Viper and the violin parts on a regular acoustic violin,” says Deninzon. “With the right amp and EQ, you can get a pretty realistic cello sound.”
Among the Viper’s best features are the chest support system which incorporates a guitar strap behind the back and an adjustable chest support device. This means you do not have to hold the violin and strain your neck and shoulders. He also likes the way the Viper looks.
“The design looks like a flying V guitar, and is one-of-a kind for an electric violin design. Very sleek. ” he says. “The frets are a great cheat sheet, since in a rock situation, you can’t always hear yourself, and this really helps you nail notes. It’s especially great if you’re a singer and are trying to multi-task on stage.”
He does think there are some things about the Viper that could be rethought.
“My female colleagues have complained to me about getting “viper boob” when they play for extended periods of time. I think he needs to work on adjusting the chest support system to make it more comfortable for women.” he says.
He also says there are intonation problems — but adds most fretted instruments have those.
“The area where the F, C, and G string are has intonation problems, and sometimes the instrument goes flat as you go up the fretboard. On a violin, there is almost no margin of error, and I know Mark is constantly trying to improve these things,” says Deninzon. “When I bought the instrument, the D and A string would get ripped every once in a while around the third fret, and I had to sand the lower frets down a bit to smooth them out and prevent this from happening.”
In addition to Stratospheerius’ new CD, Deninzon is also writing and recording with his new electric string quartet, Metro Strings.
by John Liberty
STRATOSPHEERIUS’ LOCAL DEBUT
Meet Joe Deninzon, the ‘Jimi Hendrix of the violin’
As a young man, Stratospheerius frontman Joe Deninzon played bass, guitar and violin.
There came a point when he had to pick an instrument, and he went with the violin because he was better at it. The Russian-born musician, who grew up in Cleveland and now lives in New York, was classically trained on the violin and listened to a lot of jazz, but echoing in his heart and mind was the music of Led Zeppelin, Frank Zappa and Aerosmith, among others.
Deninzon found a balance between the two styles with an electric violin. Five years ago, he bought a Viper, a seven-string, solid-bodied wood violin shaped like a flying-V guitar. He bought it from Wood Violins, a New York-based manufacturer of electric violins, violas and cellos.
“I played violin, thinking like a guitar player,” Deninzon said during a phone interview from New York. “I was able to scratch both itches.”
Deninzon and the rest of the progressive-rock band Stratospheerius will make their local debut at 9:30 p.m. Friday at Bell’s Eccentric Cafe, 355 E. Kalamazoo Ave. Admission is $5.
The group — Deninzon, drummer Lucianna Padmore, bassist Jamie Bishop, percussionist Benny Koonyevsky and new guitarist Auerelien Budynek — released its latest CD, “Headspace,” last summer. The band blends rock, jazz, funk, R&B, hip-hop and freewheeling instrumentals. And, of course, there’s the Viper.
People tend to look at his instrument as a novelty, Deninzon said.
“I’m trying to get past that and just make music,” he said. “People kind of freak out because it’s different.”
The animated Deninzon — “I go nuts at live shows” — said “people have called me the Jimi Hendrix of the violin,” although he said he’s constantly looking to refine his sound — “It’s a journey, not a destination.” He also wants to revive a dying part of the live-concert experience by “bringing back the glory of the guitar solos, or, in my case, violin solos.”
A Few Words With… Joe Deninzon
Interview by John A. Wilcox
Born in St. Petersburg, Russia, Joe Deninzon has been called the Jimi Hendrix of the violin. From his work with Blackmore’s Night, Project Object, and Byron Nemeth to his prog fusion ensemble Stratospheerius, Deninzon has put his own stamp on the violin. Hot on the heels of Stratospheerius’ latest release Headspace, Deninzon served up a corker of an interview for Progsheet!…
PS: A good portion of kids play violin starting in elementary school, then move on to other instruments or give up music entirely. What made you want to stick with the instrument?
JD: I think my parents, more so than anything else. I was raised in a household of classical musicians, and they saw it as a career path for me from an early age. I was given a violin at age 6, and put through the standard curriculum of a classical violinist. coming from Russia and entering the American public school system in the midwest, People who played the violin were perceived as geeks, and I wanted to fit in and be cool. as a young kid I was very influenced by my environment and my peers, like most kids. At one point, I was seduced by what I heard on the radio and saw it as a way to still be a musician, but connect better with the the public. I saw rock and pop music as a way to communicate with people and be “cool”. I stayed with the violin because it was what I always did best, and people thought of me very differently once they heard me play. Those moments and my parents’ encouragement kept me going. As I grew older, I began to appreciate classical music on a deeper level and began to realize how ignorant most people around me were.
At the same time, I began hearing more intricacies in jazz and rock. When I was young, I was not aware that you could rock out on the violin, and I badly wanted to form a band and write my own music, so I took up bass at age 13, and guitar at age 15. I was always singing for as long as I can remember. During high school, I lead two separate lives: my life as a classical violin student, and my life as a guitar hero wanna-be in juvenile rock bands. When I first heard Stephane Grappelli, Jean-Luc Ponty, and Jerry Goodman from Mahavishnu Orchestra, it changed my life. I realized that I could play my favorite music on the violin, which was my strongest instrument, and I could try to do something innovative with it. I already knew the “language” of rock, blues, and jazz on the guitar and electric bass, and it was just a matter of transferring it to the violin, which came very easily to me when I first tried it.
PS: What are you able to express through the violin that you couldn’t with, say, a guitar?
JD: First of all, the violin has an unparalleled ability to sustain notes and imitate the human singing voice. Great sustain is something all guitarists strive for but don’t always get. I am also endlessly captivated by its percussive qualities. I think the violin is as much a percussion instrument as a melodic instrument. There are endless things that you could do with a bow that you just can’t do with a pick. The big challenge, though, is playing chords and imitating voicings of a guitar or piano, something I’m constantly working on. As well as intonation.
PS: When I think of violin in jazz/fusion/rock/pop, it tends more often than not, to sound pretty. Your playing can be heavy, rat ass nasty, & smokin’ hot. What drew you to this aggressive approach to the instrument?
JD: I actually got sick of the “pretty” violin sound that everyone knows. I wanted to get away from the cliches of my instrument, and I did this by using guitar pedals, chopping, scratching with the bow, imitating cuica drums, records scratching, using wah wah pedals, not always playing “notes”, imitating guitar feedback, I can go on and on…
I can still sound like a traditional violinist when called upon to do so, as I am 75% of the time, but it’s good to be versatile. I look at it like an actor taking on different dialects. The problem is people might catch you on a gig doing one kind of thing and think that’s all you do. That’s human nature.
The first people who inspired me to get away from the standard violin sound were Jerry Goodman on Celestial Terrestrial Commuters (Mahavishnu’s Birds of Fire album), and Sugar Cane Harris’s blues-harp-like solo on The Little House I Used To Live In (Frank Zappa’s Burnt Weeny Sandwich album).
PS: What did having the solid discipline of classical training bring into your more improvisational soloing?
JD: It allows you to execute whatever is in your head, and also gives you a deeper musical vocabulary. I would encourage any musician on any instrument to get a solid classical foundation, even if their goal is to play rock, blues, electronica, jazz, whatever…
Any student that comes to me and says they want to be a rock star will get the Led Zeppelin book and the Kreutzer book of violin etudes assigned to them on the same day.
PS: What is the most enjoyable aspect of being part of Stratospheerius?
JD: Meeting fans that drive 3 hours to see you. Travelling and playing music you like with people you like. Not knowing what mystical lands the music will take you to on any given night, Getting great energy from audiences. I can go on.
PS: Are all the arrangements for the Stratospheerius material worked out on stage before you go into the studio?
JD: Yes. The songs on the new album were “broken in” over the course of many months in live situations. I much prefer that before going into the studio. The songs are already a part of you.
PS: How did you come to hook up with Rave Tesar as a co-producer? I first became aware of him when he played keys with Annie Haslam.
JD: He was recommended to me by our old guitarist, Jake Ezra, who’s band “Van Davis” recorded their last CD at his studio. Rave is an amazing musician with infinite patience. I know I drove him crazy during the mixing process. We are always on the same page and finish each others sentences when dealing with music.
PS: Tell me a bit about working with Lucianna Padmore. She is one kinetic drummer!
JD: She was a young student at the New School majoring in jazz. Alex Skolnick and Ron Baron, former guitarist and bassist with the group, knew her from school and brought her into the project a few years ago, and she has been with us ever since. I love her like a sister.
PS: Give a little background on the tune Pleasurepain.
JD: It’s sort of autobiographical and deals with the dichotomy of love and conflict that exists in marriage, once you get past the infatuation/newlywed stage. You can apply it to any relationship. You gotta work at it.
PS: I love the line “Try to resurrect a better version of yourself” in Long Rd. What inspired the lyric?
JD: Long Rd is kind of a sarcastic song about the mixed messages you get growing up as a teenager. The self doubt and conflicted feelings you have about things, some of which carry over into adulthood. It also addresses the fact that we take for granted all the good things in our life and complain too much, hence the last verse. I guess the main message of the song is to chill out and not take yourself so seriously.
PS: Of all the songs out there to cover, what drew the band to the Police’s Driven To Tears?
JD: We’re all huge fans of the band, and it was a song that always spoke to me over the years. I like the issues it addresses, and I’ve always wanted to cover it. There are songs that I respect so much that I have to honor them by playing them and making them my own, and songs that I respect too much that I have to honor them by not playing them. The Police song and any other cover we’ve done would apply to the former, I think music by Bob Dylan, Bob Marley, and the Clash would apply to the latter.
PS: How did you get the gig playing with Ritchie Blackmore on Ghost of a Rose?
JD: I was recommended by somebody, but I never found out who it was.
PS: Did Blackmore give any specific instructions, or were you left pretty much to your own devices?
JD: His producer, Pat Reilly, gave me a few general guidelines, but I came up with most of the parts myself.
PS: You’ve played with Frank Zappa stalwarts Ike Willis & Napoleon Murphy Brock. Was Zappa a big influence on you musically?
JD: Absolutely. We’ve covered a bunch of his songs live, and I grew up listening to his music. I think Zappa, Miles Davis, Stravinsky, and Bruce Springsteen, are my biggest musical heroes of all time. I respect anyone who makes groundbreaking music on their own terms.
PS: Any plans to play with Mahavishnu Project again at some point?
JD: No. Certain members of that group have a poisonous personality.
PS: What’s next up on the musical horizon for you?
JD: Stratospheerius has been taking up most of my time and I plan to keep writing with and recording the band, but I have many different projects on the backburner that I really want to follow through on. Among them, an acoustic jazz record that is 70% done, a solo electric/acoustic violin/voice project that I want to pursue (inspired by Tim Reynolds), some kind of electronica project incorporating the electric violin, maybe some re-mixes of Stratos songs. I am also working on some psychedelic string quartets, as well as writing more commercial pop songs with my friend Chris Millaterri. Someday in this lifetime, I want to write a jaw-dropping electric violin concerto. There are definitely not enough hours in the day.
PS: Please tell me 6 CDs you just never get tired of listening to!
Bruce Springsteen – Born to Run
Frank Zappa – Roxy & Elsewhere
Screaming Headless Torsos – 1995 debut
Miles Davis – Kind of Blue
Stevie Wonder – Songs in the Key of Life
Mahavishnu Orchestra – Birds of Fire