By David Iozzia
Rock music fans will recognize John Elefante as the vocalist/keyboardist that replaced Steve Walsh in the band Kansas from 1981 until 1984. During his stint in Kansas, John was a primary songwriter on the albums "Vinyl Confessions" and "Drastic Measures." John co-wrote and sang the song "Play the Game Tonight" from the album "Vinyl Confessions," and that song hit Number 4 on the Billboard Mainstream Rock chart. From the album "Drastic Measures," John wrote "Fight Fire with Fire," a song that hit Number 3 on the Billboard Mainstream Rock chart. That song remains a staple in the current Kansas setlist. John also co-wrote the songs "Right Away" and "Everybody's My Friend" with his brother Dino Elefante, and those songs reached the Top 40 on Billboard's Mainstream Rock chart.
Christian Rock and Contemporary Christian Music fans would acknowledge the band Petra as a pioneer for those musical genres. Petra was nominated for thirteen Grammy Awards and they won four of thrm. John Elefante was a producer and arranger on the Petra albums "Beyond Belief" and "Unseen Power." Both of those albums were Grammy winners in the Best Rock/Contemporary Gospel category.
John produced many other records for a variety of artists. In 1987, while producing an album titled "California Metal," John and Dino Elefante recorded a track for that record titled "Wasn't It Love" under the name Mastedon. That band would go on to release full-length albums in 1989 and 1990. John also released three solo albums in the mid to late 1990s.
In 1993, John and Dino broke ground and built the Sound Kitchen recording studio in Nashville. That studio, under John's management, would go on to record artists like Bruce Springsteen, Faith Hill, and Tim McGraw.
2010 saw the U.S. release of a John Elefante & Mastedon record titled "Revolution of Mind." In March of 2011, John phoned me from his basement studio in Brentwood, Tennessee to chat about this record.
Dave: Thanks for agreeing to do this interview John. Are you still Nashville-based?
John: I live about twenty miles south of Nashville in Brentwood.
Dave: You and I are here today to chat about your latest record, John Elefante and Mastedon's "Revolution of Mind." When you walked out of the studio after finishing this record, was it possible to have any expectations as far as sales or tour support?
John: Not really. When you finish a record you really don't think about things like that. You think about things like how well it will be received or do I think it's better than it is. Or, in the case of my personality, I usually hate it when I'm finished with it. My expectations are usually pretty low at first. I have to step away from it for a while and get some objectivity.
Dave: Many veteran bands refuse to invest the time and money to write and record new material because of dwindling record sales and lack of radio airplay. What were your reasons for writing and recording "Revolution of Mind.?"
John: I don't agree with the theory of not making new records. My thinking with this record was that I'm not trying to re-invent the wheel. I was born with a tenor voice which is indicative of a lot of great singers from the 70s and 80s. Lou Gramm from Foreigner, Steve Walsh from Kansas, and Brad Delp from Boston come to mind. You don't hear too many guys with tenor voices these days. They're not en vogue. Chris Daughtry sings high and I really like his voice. Ever since Nirvana, things got hipper to lower sultry vocals. I wanted to make a record that sounded current but was indicative of what I do best. That's the classic rock thing. It's probably presumptuous to say I was trying to make a current classic rock record because "classic" usually has some kind of age that goes along with it. It has to have been out 25 to 30 years.
Dave: I'll say twenty.
John: Okay Dave, twenty sounds good. To better answer your question, I'm not a guy that can sit around and not make new records. I have many friends who are out there in bands that are touring. Most are not making new music. They are getting gigs on past reputation and fame.
Dave: Your liner notes to "Revolution of Mind" thank the fans that have written you and encouraged you, not only through the mail, but through e-mail and social networks like Facebook and MySpace. Obviously, you're active on the computer reading what fans have posted. In 2011, do you have to get even more active on the computer reaching out to music fans to get "Revolution of Mind" heard?
John: Not really. I'll do some of that but getting my record heard is the job of my publicist. That's not my skill set. But I do like to read what people have to say. People, via the Internet as you stated, have been literally begging me to make a record of new music. It has been a while. They wanted me to do it, I wanted to do it, so here it is.
Dave: How do you prevent the time you spend on the computer from interfering with the creative processes of writing, recording, and rehearsing?
John: That's hard to answer. The computer has never been a distraction. Computers for me are the beginning of the day and the end of the day. I get on the computer first thing in the morning to read the news and see what happened overnight in other parts of the world. I don't get newspapers anymore. I'll check Facebook and Twitter to see what's going on. I posted something recently about my son going to a hockey game. It's mundane to write about every little thing you're doing but the fans like to hear what you're doing. I don't tweet very often. But when I have something to say, whether it's earth-shattering or not, I try to blurb out something.
Dave: Many a musician that I've interviewed laments about the music industry of the 21st century and the drastic effect the Internet has had on their profession. As you sit back and look at today's music industry, do you see a glass half full or a glass half empty?
John: I see the glass as half full. When you've been in the industry as long as I have, there have been massive changes as you already know. I personally liked it better when records were records and when bands focused on making a great record from top to bottom. Today, I see how my daughter cherry picks music. With a twenty dollar certificate from iTunes, she'll get one-offs from everywhere. I've never seen her buy a whole record. Here's the reason I see the glass half full: you can buy a piece of machinery to tune the vocals and make everything sound perfect. Technology can make singers out of non-singers. I've yet to see a piece of machinery that can write a great song. That's what keeps the glass half full for me. A great song is still a great song. Sort of like having an ever-changing appetite for different types of foods, I get in the mood for different types of music. Driving home from a Spring break where I was visiting family in Florida, I wanted to hear older Genesis and older Foreigner. I wanted to introduce my kids to that as I was driving. When we first reached the beach, I pulled out the best of The Spinners. Remember them"
Dave: Of course. I grew up on Motown and R&B.
John: I analyze songs and a great song never ceases to amaze me. "Working My Way Back to You" was playing. Every part of that song is awesome. The verses back into the bridge and chorus. The chorus is perfect. I wondered if they realized, as they listened in the control room, what a massive hit they wrote.
(Editor's note: During our interview, neither John or I remembered that this song was written for Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons in 1966. The Spinners's cover version from 1979 was a bigger hit.)
Then I wondered if that still goes on now. Do people still write music from that aspect or is it all about a groove now? I like to think it's all about the song. Everybody loves to hate the Train song "Soul Sister" because it's so darn popular. The first time I heard it, I knew it would be a smash and a massive hit. I love hearing when a guy has ability and comes up with a song like that.
Dave: I like to think that people can leave the studio knowing they have a good song, yet they can't think they have a hit song until they see how the public receives it and embraces it.
John: That's so true Dave. A lot of great songs have been written that never come close to hitting the top. But I'm sure The Police, listening to "Every Breath You Take" in the studio, knew it would do well.
Dave: One of your ex-bandmates, Rich Williams from Kansas, told me that they knew they had something with "Carry O Wayward Son." But they didn't know it would get as big as it did until rock radio and the public embraced it.
John: Rich has told me that also about that song. I don't think they ever expected "Dust in the Wind" at all. They probably thought that song would be the last song in the world that would be the pinnacle of their career.
Dave: I've had many a conversation with musicians yet you're the first guy I can ask this question. How has today's music industry affected studio owners and music producers?
John: Since I don't own a studio anymore, that probably answers your question.
Dave: Then why did you sell? Was the writing on the wall?
John: From 1995 until 2003 or 2004, my brother Dino and I had one of the most successful studios in the country, The Sound Kitchen.
Dave: Hands down!
John: I saw the money we were making and the activity in the studio. I saw the buzz we were creating. One day it hit me when Bruce Springsteen was in one room, Faith Hill was in the room next door, and Julio Inglesias was down the hall. That makes for a pretty successful operation. Then I saw a growing trend with Pro-Tools, which is basically a studio in a box. I'm sitting in front of one right now. The way you make a successful studio is by nabbing big-time producers like Dann Huff, Mark Wright, and Justin Neibank. If those guys are comfortable in your studio, they stick around. They pay the bills for you. I started seeing a trend where guys like that were coming around, but less than half as much. They were going home to work on the overdubs. Home studios were a growing trend. I told my brother that it was time to get out. With the Pro-Tools thing, and the fact that every year they come out with something that does more and more, I knew we'd be a dinosaur in a few years. Fortunately, we sold it and got out at the right time. In this economy, it might have gone right back to the bank. We had so much money tied up in equipment. Everybody was so hot in the early 2000's on the Sony 48-track digital recorder. The list price on those things was about 180,000 dollars. In the last five years, you're lucky if you can find somebody that would even haul it out of your warehouse. They're so heavy; they must weigh 1200 pounds. If you can get somebody to remove it for you, you're fortunate.
Dave: Yet it was must-have equipment ten years ago.
John: We had four of them. Yikes is all I can say.
Dave: The fans I attend concerts with lament ticket prices, 90 minute headlining sets, and pricy V.I.P. packages if they want access or autograph opportunities with their musical heroes. I know the band doesn't control ticket prices, but.....
John: When I saw The Eagles recently, they played two hours. I never thought about sets being shortened, but come to think of it, they have. Tom Petty played 90 minutes when I saw him and he left seven or eight hits on the table. I was so disappointed. I'm staring at a Kansas/Heart poster in my basement right now. The ticket prices were twelve and fifteen dollars. If my kids come down here with their friends and see that, imagine their faces. What can you buy for fifteen dollars these days. My Eagles tickets were almost $300 a piece. I took my wife for our anniversary.
Dave: Attending big-time tours like that has to be a special occasion for most families, definitely not an average Saturday night out. What are your thoughts on V.I.P. packages? Obviously, if you come out and tour, you'll hang out after your set and sign everything the fans present.
John: Selling the V.I.P. experience is not genuine to me. I liked it how it was in the old days. I remember getting a baseball signed by Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris and it didn't cost me a penny.
Dave: To take Mickey's side, in the later days of his life he saw a growing trend where his autographed memorabilia became a commodity for re-sale.
John: In this economy, veteran bands are seeing no revenue from physical copies of their CDs. Record sales have become a way to raise your popularity level up enough to justify going out on the road. Nobody's selling records so the V.I.P. experience being sold to fans is just another way to increase revenue. I don't like it though.
Dave: We briefly touched on the role the Internet could have if a musical artist is proactive trying to get his music heard. You and I are old enough to remember the huge impact MTV and the music video had. And firsthand, you saw the video of the Kansas song "Fight Fire with Fire" blown up to 35mm film and used as a movie trailer in 1983. That certainly helped that song reach number 3 on Billboard's Mainstream Rock chart. Every band with a MySpace page has a grainy, low-quality video and a tool like Youtube at their disposal. Are you surprised that more bands aren't self-producing a high-quality video and spreading the word through Youtube?
John: Yes, but it's so expensive to get high-quality video up on Youtube where you can reach a lot of people. You still need a two or three camera shoot with a jig if you want to do it right. To take the side of just putting up low-quality video, many independent bands are doing video in a funky kind of way and they're getting thousands of hits. Check out videos by Pomplamoose. They're a boyfriend/girlfriend duo. She's pleasant to look at. She's cute, but not flashy. They do remakes. He has a Pro-Tools rig and he uses Apple's Final Cut Pro software on a Macintosh so the video is high-quality. They've built a career on Youtube. The catch is that every one of their videos has a million hits. That's a lot of people. It is phenomenal how many people are hitting their videos. Youtube has to love them but it's going to get to a point where Youtube has to pay them. If I can get that many people to watch a video of mine, I'll guarantee sales of 50,000 records from it. Who needs a record company if you can do that?
Dave: I just think that high-quality video might become part of the new business model for musicians.
John: I agree Dave. That's why I brought up that example. The Pomplamoose videos are high quality. Personally, I wouldn't know how to run all of the equipment that they are utilizing. I'd have to employ somebody and that's not cheap.
Dave: Congratulations on the release of "Revolution of Mind" and best of luck with it. Anybody that enjoys progressive rock and modern melodic rock is going to love this record. How do describe it when music fans that haven't heard it ask what your sound is?
John: Modern classic rock, unless that's an oxymoron.
Dave: No. It is close, but I'll give it to you.
John: I know it's on the border (laughing). I know that's walking the fence. Yet the response I get when I say modern classic rock is "cool, I want to hear that." A lot of guys I run into are 40-something. They eat that up. It's the stuff they grew up on. I recently saw my buddy Dave Amato from REO Speedwagon playing a show with Styx and Night Ranger. It was in a 16,000 seat arena and the place was almost full. None of those bands has a new record out. I had coffee and a great conversation a few weeks ago with Kelly Keagy, Night Ranger's drummer. He said that when the Seattle grunge scene first caught on, classic rock bands couldn't get arrested. We couldn't get a gig to save our lives. After grunge died down, people seemed to rediscover bands like Foreigner, Journey, Styx, Kansas, and Night Ranger. There was a sudden surge in demand. Those bands hit the road doing package tours and it was through the roof.
Dave: You sing all of the vocals on "Revolution of Mind," and that's a departure from previous Mastedon records. What else changed?
John: The amount of different artists than I utilized in the past. That's another sign of the times. When you own a big box recording studio, there was always people hanging around. I could ask a guy working in the next room to come over to play a rhythm part, a lead part, or to sing backing vocals. Mastedon was kind of like the Alan Parsons Project. A whole lot of people were involved. I couldn't do that this time. It was basically me, Dave Amato, my brother Dino, ex-Kansas guitarist Kerry Livgren, and a guy named Anthony Sallee. Another thing happening these days that I don't like, but everybody's doing, is people are sending music files to each other. They never interact in the studio. People have home rigs in their house. If you send them files, they can add to it and send it back. Very little interaction between musicians happens in the studio. I loved the days when we'd all be in the studio together.
Dave: Are physical copies of "Revolution of Mind" available or is it only a digital release?
John: According to my record company Big3, it should be available everywhere.
Dave: The record starts with a big punch from the title track and it takes the listener on quite a musical journey. It's a modern sounding record, but it's crafted in an old-school fashion that makes me want to listen through big headphones and get lost for 40 minutes.
John: That was my intent Dave. I wanted to make a record that would play forward from top to bottom without fillers, not just a song with a lot of little brothers hanging around.
Dave: The musical journey that I feel this record takes me on culminates with a 10 minute plus song called "One Day Down by the Lake (See You Real Soon)." The six songs that follow, especially "Water into Wine," which starts the journey that brings me back home. How much effort and time do you put into sequencing your records?
John: I paid a lot of attention to sequencing this record. I probably changed the sequence twenty times. You do the best you can, hoping that it flows and makes sense. Back in the day, sequencing was everything. On some new records, sequencing is not that important.
Dave: My currently favorite cut from "Revolution of Mind," which will probably change the more I listen to the other songs, has to be "Questions (It's About Time)." Sonically, it's a style I enjoy. But lyrically, it makes me think about conversations we need to have with our children. Questions like "is their middle ground' and "will you embrace a lie or the truth" are so prophetic in 2011. As is your statement "tomorrow is today." Thanks for writing those lyrics John.
John: I appreciate that Dave; that's a great compliment. I knew that song was special after I finished writing it. At this point in my career, I highly doubt that I'll have a number one hit. I pull out that song now and then and I mess with the mix. I also have an acoustic mix of that song. For some reason, I want to pitch that song to somebody else. Maybe they can make a humongous hit out of it. It plays great on my record but... For instance, Jay DeMarcus from Rascal Flatts is a good friend of mine. I want him to really listen to the song. Hopefully, he'll get it the way you did. Who knows, sometimes several artists can cut a song before it becomes a hit. It happens.
Dave: "You Can't Take Anything" and "The Western World" are two other songs that invoke a lot of thought with your lyrics. Obviously, you're a songwriter with ears and eyes wide open to the world around you and that the songs you write are personal. That's rare.
John: I try to not get political when I write songs.
Dave: I always felt that being political was the easy way to go.
John: It is Dave.
Dave: The guys that write personal instead of political come from the heart and have to open themselves up. It's a risky road to walk down John but I'm glad you took that path.
John: I appreciate that Dave. What you said about "Questions (It's About Time)" shows you got what I was trying to do.
Dave: Your band Mastedon, who readers shouldn't confuse with the American metal band from Atlanta called Mastodon, developed a fan base over the last two decades. Those fans have anxiously been awaiting this record. What direct feedback have you received?
John: Most of the hardcore Mastedon fans are in Europe. This record came out earlier in Europe on Frontier Records. I did a bunch of interviews in different countries. It was the best received record I ever did. Germany ate it up. The song "Revolution of Mind" was released as a single in the U.K. and it charted Top Twenty. Here in the States, it's not released as Mastedon so it will be harder to gauge.
Dave: Do you have any plans to support "Revolution of Mind" with tour dates?
John: I'm looking at several offers right now. We do have two dates on the books. One is in Toronto and the other is in Knoxville, Tennessee on September 4. That is at a big street fare that draws tons of people. I have a great band all lined up. It's going to kick ass. I don't like going out unless I can do it right.
Dave: What songs from "Revolution of Mind" will be your favorites to play live?
John: I'll definitely play "Questions" and "Revolution of Mind." I want to play the ten minute song "One Day Down by the Lake," although right now it's going to be hard to pull off. We won't have enough rehearsal time for that song.
Dave: If you're doing a thirty or forty minute opening slot, how much of this record will you feature?
John: I'll play at least five songs from this record. I'm hopeful that my record company can land me an opening slot on one of the classic rock package tours.
Dave: Would that force you to round out the setlist with the Kansas song "Fight Fire With Fire"?
John: Of course. I'll have to play that song at that point.
John: No. It's definitely a song that I'd want to play. Kansas still plays that song during their encore. I doubt if I'll get the forty minutes that you mentioned Dave. It'll probably be closer to twenty-five minutes.
Dave: Just don't talk between songs!
John: I won't talk at all between songs. Without tooting my own horn, some people might remember me from Kansas. They'll be pleasantly surprised. I'd love to get on a package tour but sometimes they are pay to play gigs. The only way to make any money is to sell product. It's tough out there man.
Dave: If you're not going to talk between songs, you'd better introduce your bandmates now.
John: It's guys from an existing band that I love called Sixwire that will do these dates with me. Steve Mandile will play guitar, Chuck Tilley will drum, and John Howard will join him in the rhythm section on bass guitar. They're all great players. I had to put people together that could learn the material quickly. Everybody is so busy these days. In the old days with Kansas, we'd rehearse for a tour five days a week for a month and a half. It was like spring training for a baseball team. We took it very serious. Now it's two rehearsals and we're off to play the gigs. Some of the material is going to be a little hard to pull off
Dave: Any conversation that combines my two passions, rock music and professional sports, is okay with me. Let's keep that train of thought going. In the liner notes to "Revolution of Mind," you thank ex-Tennessee Titans coach Jeff Fisher for keeping your voice in shape. I'm guessing that you're an N.F.L. fan that yells at your football coach as much as this New York Giants fan yells at his coach Tom Coughlin.
John: Not exactly. Jeff's actually a very good friend of mine.
Dave: What are your thoughts on his firing?
John: Knowing Jeff very well, I think it was time. It was good for both parties. Both Jeff and the Titans organization needed to move on. But I wasn't screaming at him the way you mentioned. Jeff is one of the biggest music fans I've met in my life. He's a musicologist; I'm a sports nut. Especially N.F.L. football. That combination is lethal. Many times over the last twelve years, he'd invite me to sing at something, whether it was at one of his charity events or after a Titans victory. Many times he'd call my brother and say "get your gear ready, we're partying tonight at my house."
Dave: I could talk football and music all day John, but I think this is a good spot to end the interview. Thanks again for the opportunity. Feel free to close the interview with a message to your fans.
John: Thanks for always standing behind me. My fans were the encouragement I needed to make this record. The time they spent writing me or e-mailing me did not fall on deaf ears. Their encouragement was why this record was made.