Interview with multi-instrumentalist Steve Grandinetti - thrills his audience with humor and consummate music

"Music is the language of the spheres, and lately popular music is just horrible in my opinion, void of emotion or talent. It has become a commodity, formulaic, derivative and entirely unoriginal or dangerous."

Steve Grandinetti: New York Gumbo

Steve Grandinetti is an internationally acclaimed recording & performing artist, multi-instrumentalist (Piano, Organ, Clavinet, Guitars, Bass, Drums, Harmonica, Melodica, Percussion) and BMI affiliated Singer-Songwriter, Producer, and Arranger with four releases; "Jonjano’ Baro’" 2011, "Heart Of Me"2012, "Only Love Is Real"2013, and his tour de force “My American Heart” 2014. Number 1 on the Reverbnation singer-songwriter charts, he is a consummate performer, who never fails to thrill his audience with humor, stage antics, exceptional guitar & keyboard playing, soulful singing and amazing drumming. He has performed with legends like The Neville Brothers, Lil Buck Senegal, Henry Gray, Paul Rishell & Annie Raines, shared the stage with NRBQ, The Band, Willie Nelson, Rosie Ledet & the Zydeco Playboys, Walter Trout, Deborah Coleman, Ben Rice, and other greats. He has performed in New York, New Orleans, Philadelphia, Seattle, Portland, L.A, San Antonio, Omaha, Boston, upstate New York, Vermont, New Hampshire, Maine, Massachusetts, Oregon,and all over Washington State. He is planning his first European Tour with his band in spring of 2015.

2014 found him in a new role as Sound Designer for KCPT's production of “King Lear” for which he composed and performed music, as he did for the feature film “Johnny Suede”. He has and continues to record for several indie artists on piano, organ, clavinet, drums, percussion. He currently has a catalog of over 500 songs as well as a novel that has an original soundtrack and two screenplays he hopes to have published. Steve’s music is heard internationally on radio stations in the USA. He has a licensing deal with LA Sound who is selling his music in Japan. He is on the roster at Best Entertainment,inc. Through social networking he has fans in Europe, Asia, South America, Australia, Canada, Africa, Virgin Islands, and all throughout the USA. Steve played 160 shows in 2011, and 290 shows in 2012, and 196 shows in 2013. He is preparing his first European Tour with TJ-Concerts in Holland. The Steve Grandinetti Band with Steve, John Sanders on Bass and special guest drummer Pete DePoe of Redbone fame will tour Netherlands, Germany, Switzerland and Austria fall 2015. He is also an educator, teaching piano, drums, bass, guitar, vocals, theory & ear training, songwriting and band classes. He has taught and performed at Centrum’s Blues Workshop and School Of Rock. He studied music at Manhattan School Of Music Prep Division, Fordham University, Julliard School Of Music, graduating from Loyola University in New Orleans with a B.A. in psychology & music. He also holds a M.S.Ed from the University of Pennsylvania in Counseling Psychology. He also studied film at NYU Film School, Photography at The New School, acting at Tulane University, and attended Adelphi University, and Loyola Law School.

Interview by Michael Limnios

What do you learn about yourself from the blues and what does the blues mean to you?

The Blues is the least pretentious form of music. This unique blend of African and European influences is the root of all modern music. To me it is pure emotion, where an individual expresses universal experiences of the human condition. What I learn from listening and playing the Blues is that there is no limit to the depth of emotion that can be expressed in this musical form, and the beauty of this music is that within this seemingly limited structure (12 bar or 8 bar) there are endless variations available if we learn to trust in the creativity of the moment.

How do you describe Steve Grandinetti sound and progress, what characterize your music philosophy?

In describing my own sound, I would have to say that even though I am primarily a singer- songwriter and musician who works in several musical genres, the Blues is at the root of all I do musically. My music is a veritable gumbo of all the musical influences and experiences I have had throughout my life. My progress has been a lifelong passion for music and is truly my way of honoring the life force. As a young child I first felt the rhythm and wanted to play drums. My mother was not ready for drums but she did get me a piano and some lessons. I was fortunate to learn how to read music and learn this most important instrument at age 7. Growing up in New York City I was exposed to all kinds of music and although my parents were not musicians they loved listening. I was primarily exposed to Blues, Jazz, standards and singers. Listening is essential to becoming a well rounded musician. Unfortunately my first teacher was not very nurturing, coming from the conservatory mentality and I did not stay with her for long. I attended Catholic school where there was no music program, but since I could read and play keyboards I was recruited to play the organ at church. My first memories of the power of music was going to Broadway musicals, and classical concerts where the music overwhelmed me emotionally.     

           Always interested in the drums I joined the CYO Drum & Bugle Corps when I was 11 hoping to play drums but ending up first on bugle then baritone horn, which I played for a year before finally getting to the drums. It was there that I learned rudimental drumming and quickly became the best snare drummer. I marched in all the major parades in NYC, and learned about esprit de corps. I continued to play snare drum in several different Drum Corps over my teen years and was captain of the drum line. At the same time I played piano and sang and started my first band at age 12 with my brother and some friends. We played dances and parties for our peers and adults, entered into talent shows and won many prizes. We also played for many charities and I began my professional career at that time performing live on the radio as well as for very large audiences. Attending Catholic High School that also had no music program I started a jazz band, began teaching drums and piano and taught myself guitar. Getting my first drum set I also began to play drums in different groups, jazz and rock. Since music was so important to me I also attended Manhattan School Of Music Prep Division on Saturdays, studying jazz drums, ear training and theory. I was finally in my element at this prestigious institute and surrounded by the best young musicians in New York City, it was highly competitive and college level. My life in music was full on. During this time I attended a CYO camp and learned to play the Steel Drums from a wonderful teacher- Jerry Lopatin- who also became the best piano teacher I ever had, and he is the one who taught me the blues form and how to voice chords and improve my sight reading. His passion and supportive teaching style has stuck with me all through my life. Once again I found my natural abilities led me to become the lead pan player in the ensemble and then I took over his position teaching at the camp during the rest of my high school years teaching many others to play steel drums.

      My high school years were busy as I played in Drum & Bugle Corps, different bands and combos( jazz trio, 16 piece big band, rock bands, folk duos) on drums, piano, or acoustic guitar and vocals); Steel Drums and also teaching. I also was involved in  musical theatre as a musical director, pianist and vocal coach. Upon graduation I attended Fordham University on a music scholarship, and after acing all the music classes available I got permission to attend Julliard School of Music at night taking 20 credits a semester during my second semester and sophomore year. I was also interested in Psychology and decided to transfer to Loyola University in New Orleans as a music major studying Music Therapy as a percussion major. New Orleans was my rebirth and immersion in Blues and Jazz in the very place where they were born. I absorbed the rhythms and sounds that are heard all over the city; Blues, Jazz, Funk, R&B, Rock & Roll, Creole, Reggae, Latin and the great second line tradition. I fell in love with the city and it's music. For the first time I found my lifelong influences-- Professor Longhair, Dr. John, The Neville Brothers, The Meters and many others. After college I attended graduate school at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia getting my Master's Degree in Counseling and during that time I played piano bars but did not have much time for more musical experiences. 

     After school I spent a decade as a sideman either on drums or keyboards playing in Rock, Jazz, Blues, Country, and Reggae bands touring and also getting to work on a major movie soundtrack. I honed my playing, performing, recording skills and singing, and wrote tons of songs. I learned from several front men and began my own band as well. The past decade I have been teaching a lot and focused on my own original music.

     So as you can see my own musical progress parallels America—and my own music is a gumbo of all these influences, from the marching drum corps, to musical theatre, jazz, blues, rock etc.

    As to my musical philosophy, I believe in the groove first and foremost. Without a solid rhythmic foundation there can be no music. I also strongly believe in improvisation rather than playing the same way every time. Music is spiritual for me and a way to honor the Creator. Listening is essential and I mean listening to each player as well as yourself in an ensemble. I am also a strong believer in stretching out beyond limitations and trusting the process.

"The Blues is the least pretentious form of music. This unique blend of African and European influences is the root of all modern music. To me it is pure emotion, where an individual expresses universal experiences of the human condition." 

What experiences in your life have triggered your ideas for songs most frequently?

When it comes to writing songs my ideas come from all of my own experiences, and I feel that the personal reflects the universal. I write about our world today, and my songs come in many ways. Sometimes I will wake up from a dream with a song fully developed and just write it down. I am influenced by free flow and just seem to channel most of my songs. Sometimes I will write instrumentals and sit at the piano writing out the musical notation using my knowledge of harmony and counterpoint. Other times I will just have lyrical ideas and then write music to go with it. Often both music and lyrics come at once. A few years back my house was broken into and I was robbed. I immediately wrote a song about it( It Don't Matter To Me); when an ex was in a car wreck I immediately wrote a song about it (Blessing In Disguise). I have written songs about my mother, brother, girlfriends, one of my cats, political protest songs, humorous songs, instrumentals, and I like to write in several genres all of which I consider roots music.

What has made you laugh lately and what touched (emotionally) you from blues circuits?

I have not laughed about any blues per se but Frank Zappa gets me laughing often and he is also a huge influence on my music and work ethic. But emotionally I am always moved by the Blues- especially people like Robert Johnson, Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf, T Bone Walker, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Buddy Guy and so many others. Most recently I was very moved by Jimmy Vaughan's song “Shackles On Me” which deals with the tyranny of our present government and their desire to put RFID chips in all of us. This is a brave and timely song.

"All western music comes from the Blues. Most recently my student band is learning the Blues but still struggling with it because they do not listen to the music." (Photo: Steve with The Off Balance Blues Band)

Which is the most interesting period in your life? Which was the best and worst moment of your career?

I would have to say my whole life has been interesting, but these past six years have been most interesting as the music industry goes through a total decline and everything is based on the internet now. Playing 290 shows in 2012 taught me more than any school ever could. In the real world there are all kinds of surprises, good and bad. Best moment of my career would be releasing 2 CDs in a six month period. The worst is playing solo gigs at restaurants where the owners expect background music and I am not background music, where they clamp down on my spirit and treat me with no respect. That is by far the worst. Also having flaky sidemen who show up late for a gig or play really poorly with no love in their hearts.

Why did you think that the Blues music continues to generate such a devoted following?

The Blues will always survive because it is real music expressing real emotions, that express universal experiences. Blues fans are the best I know. They appreciate quality music.

What’s the best jam you ever played in? What are some of the most memorable gigs you've had?

Best jam ever was getting to sit in on drums with Henry Gray and Paul “Lil Buck” Sinegal during the Centrum Blues Festival 2002. My most memorable gigs have been Playing With Fire Blues Fest, and others which we will get to in question #11. I also enjoy playing our local Wooden Boat Festivals, always a great crowd.

Which meetings have been the most important experiences for you? What is the best advice ever given you?

Anytime there is a festival you get to talk with other musicians and some of the best advice came from Lil Buck Sinegal – he is typical of most great blues men, down to earth. It wasn't so much advice but rather a philosophy of life that extends to the music. He told me how he looks after his elderly neighbor and cuts her lawn for her. He talked about showing Jimi Hendrix some licks. A musician' life is not an easy one, traveling, always away from home etc. And what I have learned from the greats is having a life, being grounded and staying positive. Also taking care not to get lost in drugs and alcohol. I lost many good friends and players over the years to both.

"The Blues is the least pretentious form of music."

(Photo: Steve Grandinetti & Lil Buck Sinegal)

 Are there any memories from recording and show time which you’d like to share with us?

Recording music is always fun for me but also very intense. As Tom Waits said, “ Recording music is like putting the boat into the bottle; while playing live is like rowing a boat out in the ocean”. One of my greatest all time experiences was at WOMAD 2001 when I got to hang with and meet many of my musical heroes- Peter Gabriel, Steel Pulse, Gregg Allman, and playing with the Neville Brothers.

What do you miss most nowadays from the blues of past? What are your hopes and fears for the future of music?

Well in general I miss people learning to play their instruments, not using auto tune, teleprompters, and lip syncing. But the Blues stays pure because it is built in. What I miss is that most young players do not know the Blues. When I was coming up we would always play blues, it was a meeting ground. Let's play a 12 bar blues. I always teach my students the blues but I find the younger ones are not as interested in it. As to the future of music I feel music in general, especially popular music is reflecting the dumbing down of our society. I think all the technology has diminished the quality of music since people take the easy way, rather than learning how to read write and play. Music is the language of the spheres, and lately popular music is just horrible in my opinion, void of emotion or talent. It has become a commodity, formulaic, derivative and entirely unoriginal or dangerous. Of course there are always a few exceptional performers but nowhere near the level of what has come before. So many people seem to think music is acrobatics focused only on technique and speed rather than on form and emotion. Another issue has been the denigration of music in our society becoming background. People do not respect music anymore. We are losing venues and more and more amateurs and destroying the business by playing for free and lowering the standards. Club owners also do not pay well or at all. Musicians are now expected to do more work for less money; booking agents are disappearing as well. Everything is on the internet and social media now. This has been going on now for the past 30 years as arts and music education has been lost; people are uneducated as to what music is or what makes for good music. Attention spans are so short people do not listen to albums anymore, and can barely listen to even one song. My fans in Europe have commented on my videos saying that people are rude at my shows and do not really listen; this is true. People talk loudly, are on their cell phones, texting and do not know how to listen. Music teaches us how to listen. Without listeners we cannot have music. This is a subject I could pursue further but my hope is that things will come around.

Which memory from Neville Brothers, Lil Buck Senegal, Henry Gray, The Band, and Willie Nelson makes you smile?

All of my memories from the Neville Brothers, Lil Buck Sinegal, Henry Gray (Photo), The Band and Willie Nelson and others make me smile. These are my heroes, mentors and the people who I try to emulate. First of all the higher level musicians are always kind and humble people. I could tell some great stories but I think it is best that I don't. But let's just say I have had some really fun times with some of the aforementioned folks. In the end it is all about the music and that is all that matters. I must say that Lil Buck was the warmest and most accessible of all. He listened to me perform and when I came off stage he complimented me and was thrilled that we shared much of the same repertoire. I really connected with him personally. The Neville Brothers are probably my all time favorite band ever. They are just so deep and funky and intense, I love them so much. I remember Art saying he did not like playing the Northwest that much because of the cold rainy weather, and that show it did rain and was cold. Cyril and I go back and he is the brother I am closest too. These men have been through so much in their lives and it all comes out in the music. New Orleans is a tough place to live. The Band are another of my all time favorites and again they are all gentleman, total professionals. Levon was a hoot, so sorry he has passed.

You are also known as educator. What is the relation of new generation with the Blues music and culture?

As I mentioned earlier most of the younger generation are not familiar with nor have an interest in the Blues. I do my best to teach them the history of music and have taught a class on the History Of Rock which goes back to Blues (originally called race music) and Country (originally called Hillbilly) and is a mix of these two. All western music comes from the Blues. Most recently my student band is learning the Blues but still struggling with it because they do not listen to the music. As I stated earlier how can you authentically play a genre without listening to it and studying the greats? Again this is a problem with our present society where people do not do serious research and listening anymore. You must immerse yourself in it to get it.

"My music is a veritable gumbo of all the musical influences and experiences I have had throughout my life." 

How is an Italian to play the blues in USA? What are the lines that connect the world legacy of Blues?

Well I am an American of Italian decent, but I am American through and through. And the Blues is an American original. It does not matter what country, sex, age, background you have regarding the blues. It is the feeling, the desire and love of the form that makes great blues players. It is universal in it's appeal.

If I could change one thing in the musical world and it would come a reality, what would that be?

The one change I would like to see in the musical world is the same as in the whole world—re-humanization -- take out the bottom line that dictates what “product” or artistic expression dominates the culture of the time. But this has always been the way of this world, those with money and power decide which artists are worthy of promotion, without promotion there can be no real distribution. In some cases true art is also commercially successful, but rarely. So many true talents never get heard by large audiences while the same small selection of material is shoved down the throats of the masses and as we see the level of the average listener becomes diminished in musical understanding, depth and feeling. But this is a trend of the digital age. “Where any view of Money exists Art cannot be carried on, but war only” William Blake. We all know the great Blues originators and early rock and roll originators were rarely compensated compared to those who came after stealing their ideas. Rehumanizing also means putting real instruments and voices back in music, the autotune, pro tools fix it in the mix, the drum machines all have mechanized what is of the human spirit, and the reason for this is again money. Why hire a drummer when you can use a drum machine. Why hire strings etc when you can save money using machines. So if I could change one thing that would be it, put the humanity back in popular music, let it be more natural less mechanical.

What are the lines that connect the legacy of the blues with soul and continue to jazz and rock?

The Blues is the foundation of all modern music. The mixing of African and European musics in the late 1800's which we call the Blues is the seed of all modern music. The 12 and 8 bar forms are the original template for songwriting. To me it is that structure which continues through subsequent genres with variations on the rhythms, melodies and harmonic structures. And of course improvisation is key to all of these musical genres. The Blues is complex in it's simplicity, while jazz is truly the most complex form of modern music in all aspects- rhythm, harmony and melody, breaking free of the pentatonic scales and mainly basic chords of the blues to extended chords and substitutions and modes and exotic scales over complicated and odd time signatures. Lyrically all these forms use similar themes from everyday life-- heartbreak, love, death, hardship, illness, alcohol, drugs, sex etc. So the lines connecting them all are lyrical themes, song structure and improvisation.

Which incident in music history would you like captured and illustrated in a painting?

I would opt for seeing Pythagorus discovering the overtone series, and in fact there are quite a few illustrations of his work but not specifically seeing the story I learned about in music school where he was the first to discern intervals using a string. Without Pythagorus music as we know it would not exist, he laid it all out and we still use the same Greek modes as well as his discovery of the overtone series which is the basis for all the musical intervals. He of course saw the whole world as a large monochord and was said to be the only man to hear the music of the spheres. Of course he was focused on strings and forbade his students to listen to cymbals and flutes, he also felt that music should be spiritually uplifting. I choose Pythagorus. R. Crumb has already done a great job of painting most of the greatest blues artists.

Is it easier to write and play blues as you get older?

I do not think age has anything to do with performing or writing, it is just another social construct. It is true that over time, having clocked more flight time as I like to refer to it, that one can do his work more easily. But that is also a generalization because sometimes that leads to boredom, lack of taking chances, staleness and even just going through the motions. So in my mind it is the individual artist of any age and all ages that must be present enough to give his all. Some burn out young, some take time to develop. But creating is never easy.     (Photo by Jeff Eichen)

What is your dream?

My immediate dream is to find a group of loyal, professional musicians who love my music enough to share my musical vision and join forces with me to travel the globe in my band. I have dealt with so many flakes, hacks, weak musicians and frenemies here it has been difficult to really present my musical ideas properly. So my dream is to have an amazingly tight unit, team, and musical family with bass, drums, a keyboard/guitarist to switch off with me, percussionist, horns and backing vocals. That is my dream.

The extension of that is being able to support a world tour. My dream has always been to have my own studio and rehearsal space (which I manage to have in rentals), to finally have my own land and space surrounded by nature. I would like to be able to release 4 albums a year, I still have enough material to do just that for quite awhile at the same time continuing to write new material. I would also prefer playing festivals and larger venues to coffee houses and clubs. I want an agent and manager and team around me. This is my dream. I would also like to write music for film and television, which I have only barely touched. My dream is always to make music and make a living do only music, not to become super rich but to be able to live. This has gotten harder and harder in the past decade.

My dream for our world is for peace, equality and freedom among all humanity. To care for our planet and all beings with respect, love and harmony.

"The Blues is the foundation of all modern music. The mixing of African and European musics in the late 1800's which we call the Blues is the seed of all modern music."

Happiness is…?

Happiness is performing music live in any setting with an engaged audience. Happiness is instruments being in tune. Happiness is letting spirit take over and leaving the ego out. Happiness is having fans who get what I am saying and playing. Happiness is selling CDs and getting to autograph them. Happiness is music—learning, playing, recording, listening, and not just man made music, music of nature and found sounds as well. Happiness is getting to answer interesting questions and finishing!!!

Let’s take a trip with a time machine, so where and why would you really wanna go for a whole day..?

If I could travel back in time I would want to play drums with Louis Armstrong during his early days in New Orleans. I was fortunate enough to meet him when I was a child and he was magical. He is one of my all time favorites.

     In closing I would like to thank Mike for this great opportunity to explore these questions in depth, it has made me think more about the music. I love the Blues and have to say that not many Blues men play as many instruments as I do-- I spent many years as a drummer and pianist and in the past decade have really developed my guitar playing, especially slide and also harmonica. I love it all. And there is nothing better than belting out a tune. I hope more people will be turned on to the greats and take the time to study our rich American tradition of music.

Steve Grandinetti - official website

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