ProgSheet [July 2007]

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‚Äôs 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