Q&A with Italian band of Dirty Trainload (Bob Cillo & Livia Monteleone), the dirtiest rock n’ roll meet the ‘suffering’ blues

"The impact of Blues was nothing short of revolutionary, back then, for a reason, born as the honest voice of oppression and segregation. Rock' s birth brought a revolution as well, in a different way, reflecting social and cultural changes... What about today? Both blues and rock have seen a myriad of different expressions of their evolutions."

Dirty Trainload: Rock’n’Blues Anarchy

Italian band of Dirty Trainload is Bob Cillo, Livia Monteleone and Go Balzano. Bob Cillo started the project in 2006 and to this day he plays his guitar, a bottleneck and handles some old analog drum machines loops, sometimes while singing. Livia co-writes and has co-written and co-arranged Trashtown and Revolution and Crime, and has been playing her baritone guitar, sometimes a banjo, a theremin, and singing for the last couple years. Go Balzano has been on board of our nasty train since 2011, adding vigor with his drumming. The highly personal sound of Dirty Trainload is marked by a lo-fi inclination to sounds borrowed from alternative and garage-punk environments. In 2007 the Dirty Trainload released their debut album "Rising Rust" as a duo; the reviewers spent plenty of kind words on it. Back then Bob was sided by Marco del Noce on vocals and harp. The second album "Trashtown" has been released in 2011. It features Livia Monteleone from Santa Cruz, California who sings and plays Banjo, Baritone Guitar and Percussions. In 2014 came out the third album "A Place for Loitering" released in 12" vinyl format.

These three albums were produced by Fabio Magistrali and were recorded in his home. No editing work and no personal computer has been involved in writing, arranging, performing, recording and mixing. These albums also feature an awesome artwork by Benjamin Guedel. In 2018 the trio recorded the band’s fourth album, Revolution and Crime, a concept album on which the band offers its personal view and scathing critique of the current state of social justice. For the first time, Cillo and Monteleone share vocal duties on a number of tracks. The album was produced by Filippo Strang at VDSS Studio, with a cover by illustrator Claudio Losghi Ranieri. Tha band had many cross-country Italian and European tours. Also performed in California, in Chicago, at the “Deep Blues Festival” in Minneapolis and in Mississippi. Dirty Trainload is not an "emerging band" but rather it is and will always be a "definitely submerged band", the underground music scene being its natural habitat. Bob says: "We play the blues the way we want and feel to: it’s all about Blues and Anarchy"

Interview by Michael Limnios

How has the Blues and Rock Counterculture influenced your views of the world and the journeys you’ve taken?

Bob: When I was about 12, I spent a couple of weeks in summertime in a camping vacation on the mountains, far from my records and cassettes. I realized that all those records and cassettes kept playing clearly and seamlessly note for note in my head and would not go away. The music I loved, and still love, had become an essential part of me; a component of my personality I could no longer ignore or disregard. Blues and rock had permeated my DNA influencing my lifestyle and the choices I would have made for my future life. My first strong musical love was Lou Reed. Years later I released that my story was pretty much the same story as Jenny’s, the character of Lou Reed’s lyrics “ Rock’n’Roll”. All came consequently: the craving of becoming a musician and forming a rock band, taking blues and rock’n’roll in consideration as reasons of life, keep that flame burning and being part of the rock counterculture movement... whatever that was. All of the above was a perfect match with the developing of a social conscience and a highly personal sense of political commitment... like the MC5, ha! ha! Travelling around the world to play or meeting music in its various forms is the greatest reward I got from guitar.

Livia: A whole lot!  I could say it literally shaped me and my life. The Blues historically has been a voice for denouncing injustice, not only heart-aches. All the many manifestation of non-mainstream forms of music, mainly deriving from blues, rock and, for me, American folk, have always carried social commentary, from harmless ballads, all the way to loud and powerful instigation to bring forth the revolution! My interest and love for those forms of music has grown in parallel with my intolerance of injustice, in any form. I took the “no justice, no peace” to a core place: in my personal life, as a person involved with political activity, and in my artistic life, as the writer of songs almost uniquely about the truth of social affairs, or at least, as I see it.

How do you describe band's sound, music philosophy and songbook? Where does band's creative drive come from?

Bob: There were these two separate worlds in my musical culture growing like parallel dimensions that could not meet. On one hand there was my imprinting with the blues, from the roots of the African-American Delta blues to the great guitar heroes of the 60’s and early 70’s, that I always loved. On the other hand, as I just mentioned, I grew up as a huge fan of the Velvet Underground; I loved the attitude of all the irreverent rock’n’roll of the 1960’s from the Garage-Punk, to the “Proto-Punk” of the Stooges, Blue Cheer and MC5 and then the New York Dolls, the Californian Punk of ‘77 and the post-punk of the 80’s of bands like Suicide, Gun Club, Cramps and Birthday Party. I always thought that it would be great if the two parallel dimensions in my musical culture could converge: I thought that a whole new and magical music could be created. Unfortunately, I was feeling frustrated as I could not share these thoughts with any other musicians. When I was playing with my previous bands, seemed that the two separate music worlds I loved, were doomed to stay apart. I formed the Dirty Trainload with these considerations in mind, I wished to finally carry out this project of letting the two worlds collide. Livia loved the first album of the Dirty Trainload, which I had released with a former band-mate. I found in her a great musician on the same wavelength or page; an ideal partner and complement to carry on the project from a creative point of view.

"We are sons of our time and try to play, sound and behave accordingly. Nostalgia doesn’t really belongs to our feelings. That said, every rock’n’roll musician probably misses a time when thousands of vinyl records were sold, and you were playing in front of hundreds of people on a regular basis."

Are there any memories from gigs, jams, open acts and studio sessions which you’d like to share with us?

Bob: I don’t have lots of particular anecdotes. I think that the most glorious memory is the whole picture. We played big venues, small clubs, festivals, squares, squats, by a merry-go-round on the seafront in the early afternoon, in front of a crowd or three people, in Berlin, Helsinki or Palermo, on a porch among the cotton fields in Mississippi, in Chicago, Budapest or London. Each of these experiences was great in its very own way. In the thousands of kilometres we run or fly, after every single tour, we bring back home a precious treasure: the memories of the people we met and became friends with, the new places we’ve been visiting and the time shared with the bandmates... and all the great music heard or played, of course!

Livia: I remember fondly the recording of our second album with Dirty Trainload: Trashtown. That was a crazy time for me. I went through cancer care and a crippling motorcycle accident. My friends built me a tiny studio to rehearse in.   Bob and I wrote damn good songs together, while separated by an ocean and a continent. Bob came to California for my last round of chemo, to pick me up, all bald and weak, We went to play a few gigs in Minneapolis, then Chicago. We hung out with the likes of T-Model Ford! ...and some other heavy weights of the Delta Blues sound. It was magic. It was like joining the family you didn' t know you have... and really feeling you are part of it, you speak the same language.  You stomp your foot, and think: this is where I belong!

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

Bob: We are sons of our time and try to play, sound and behave accordingly. Nostalgia doesn’t really belongs to our feelings. That said, every rock’n’roll musician probably misses a time when thousands of vinyl records were sold, and you were playing in front of hundreds of people on a regular basis. There was a time in which an electric guitar was considered way cooler than a laptop with a lit apple logo, ih! ih! Unfortunately, any rock band should take into account that their audience seems to tend to slim down, generally speaking. Possibly live rock music is losing interest in a younger audience. Nonetheless it’s more exciting and challenging when you are doing something you believe in, in spite of any fashion. You carry out something that you bring in your heart as part of your personality and not necessarily following a general trend. We hope we will continue to find our “magic spot” to express ourselves the way we want and feel to... and, yes, in front of a young audience too!

Livia: One of the things I can state I miss is maybe the fact that there were... less bands around! Now there are so many of us, eager to play. Many bands are so young, sometimes happy to play for a beer and gas money. This has also created a market where what we do is not compensated the way it should be. We are probably one of the most underpaid categories in the work world. What I hope for, right now, is for the situation with Covid-19 to get to a point, so that allows for our return to make music in small and bigger venues. You cannot listen to a live concert of Dirty Trainload keeping distance among folks and a mask in front of your face.

My more personal hopes for the future revolve a lot around a project I have with Bob Cillo. It was born from a common interest, concern, and sometimes involvement, in regards to the significance and the conditions of prisons and jails in this world. This project is called BEHIND BARS. We created an anthology of prison songs' - a mix of personal interpretations of covers and original pieces – where we tell about all that can be related to the human, emotional or social situation of being imprisoned, or being on the lam, or of the death penalty, and also the political commentary about all this. We are gearing up to working in an Italian prison, offering a workshop to a number of inmates, trying to get them involved with our song-writing process. We are taking this project very seriously, and we' re working hard to deliver a honest, rich, intense, positive experience to the folks in this high security prison. There is a little fear, but mainly there is a lot of hope.

"The blues we take inspiration from was born far from the spotlight of the mainstream culture. The blues we love is bound to the soil, born in mud and sweat, struggling with hard social conditions and poverty. The rock we love was naturally born as the soundtrack of a counter-cultural movement and not domesticated FM nonsense."

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

Bob: I would like to see more attitude and instinct vs. “calculation”. This means more intellectual integrity: genuine creativity or personal music research vs. plagiarism or even mere imitation. The blues and the rock’n’roll will keep to garner the interest of an audience as far as they will remain vital. Blues and rock are still effective forms of communication if intended as ever-changing forms of expression, open to contaminations with different languages; this is what the world needs. Our time needs a fresh soundtrack and an original culture. This is why the tribute bands phenomenon is such a bummer. If rock and blues will fall back on their glorious past, they will be no longer recognized as lively forms of music. Of course, this does not mean that we cannot take inspiration from the past or deeply love our roots; which is the point of Dirty Trainload, for example.

In essence, an artist should not worry in advance about the taste of his public... or, even worse, taking in consideration what the mainstream assumes his audience should like or not. A healthy creative process is the exact opposite. Musicians should create and play the music they love and, as far as they believe in what they’re doing, a discerning audience will trust them and find interest in their music. That’s why we are always gathering massive, oceanic crowds at our shows, ha! ha!

Livia: I would create new platforms, new forums, new venues for the people to enjoy art in general, but especially music. Music is an experience that takes over your entire being, the body, the heart, the emotional self. You do not find anything else that envelopes people' s participation like it happens with music. Human beings need music, and they need to share its experience. Today we are confined to concerts with hard-earned dates, in too few venues. The culture of any country should give room to music, almost going back to the way societies at the tribal stage were giving it: it should be more present in our communities. At the same time the job of a musician should be recognized as such, and paid fairly, protected like other categories. Here in Italy musicians have kept the spirits high for everyone during the lockdown, playing on rooftops, playing for hospitals, celebrating the heroes, advocating hope. Their performances filled TV programs and the social media: they moved the world to tears. But now we are the last ones who will get a chance to work again, and maybe three or four of my collegues, out of maybe a hundred I know, received the government aid. 

Make an account of the case of the blues in Italy. Which is the most interesting period in local blues scene?

Bob: We have some good friends who worked hard to put together an interesting blues scene. They play in a band named “The Blue Cat Blues” and are putting on an event named “South Italy Blues Connection”. It takes place in a lovely location in Matera and it’s growing every year... Too bad this year it was cancelled due to the Covid problems. My project Bob Cillo & the Mafia Trunk is more straight blues than Dirty Trainload. In our town there are some other really brilliant musicians and great bands but not necessarily strictly blues related.

"One of the things I can state I miss is maybe the fact that there were... less bands around! Now there are so many of us, eager to play. Many bands are so young, sometimes happy to play for a beer and gas money. This has also created a market where what we do is not compensated the way it should be."

What does to be a female artist in a Man’s World as James Brown says? What is the status of women in music?

Livia: Well, it used to be a lot worse, that' s for sure! We know very well how even the big divas (Nina Simone, Tina Turner are some well-known cases, but the list is long!) of just a few decades ago were beaten, betrayed, robbed, most often by the men who would be managing their careers, usually also their husbands or partners. Even keeping away from these extremes, and in more modern times, we see that the music business, including the rock scene, used musicians, imposing the will of producers and recording companies. For the women in that world was even worse, since often they even had to fight for their rights within their own band.  There are many documentaries about this, and several on Youtube.

I may be old by 'mainstream music' standards, and I have to say that even in my youth, in the San Francisco and Bay Area of the 90' s there weren’t many women who would play an instrument, let alone an electric guitar; they were mainly funneled towards the vocals.  But during the 90' s we sure started to push through. I saw the birth of great new realities, like Righteous Babes Records, a label that Ani di Franco founded, rebelling to the impositions dictated by the existing big labels of the 90's. I saw more women on stage, wearing all kinds of hats: instrumentalists, band leaders, orchestra directors, punk rockers, virtuoso, or even sound persons, producers, roadies! I am now surrounded by talented strong women who are ready to do what it takes to be treated equally in the music business, but that does not mean the times have radically changed.  I still hear and witness a lot of crap. Everywhere.

What is the impact of Blues and Rock on the socio-cultural implications? How do you want it to affect people?

Bob: The blues we take inspiration from was born far from the spotlight of the mainstream culture. The blues we love is bound to the soil, born in mud and sweat, struggling with hard social conditions and poverty. The rock we love was naturally born as the soundtrack of a counter-cultural movement and not domesticated FM nonsense. We play the blues in our own personal way, emancipated from clichés. We are committed to exploring a different language and coming up with a new voice: an antagonistic or dissident voice, raw, pure and vital. We don’t belong to a world divided in an increasingly dramatic way, in first rank citizens and second or third rank citizens. The society we live in, chases obsessively the objective of productivity and profit, and it’s scared of everything appearing obsolete or dysfunctional. Dirty Trainload is a wagon of dirt, a thorn in the side of a candy-coat world, where all must be aseptic and efficient. We will never be a mainstream band.

Livia: The impact of Blues was nothing short of revolutionary, back then, for a reason, born as the honest voice of oppression and segregation. Rock' s birth brought a revolution as well, in a different way, reflecting social and cultural changes... What about today? Both blues and rock have seen a myriad of different expressions of their evolutions. So many of those evolutions morphed into truly avant-garde forms. In a larger picture, personally, I see blues and rock as the voice of the restless. I do not find myself 'wanting to affect people' in some way with music, but I hope for folks to have more access to a healthy kind of music, rather than the 'music pills' the market manages to make folks swallow. If you bombard ears with stupidity, the ears get used to it. I wish for a cultivation of true culture, so, musically speaking, I would like for people to be exposed to forms of music out of the commercial mainstream, and we will see how that affect them!

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

Bob: That sounds really exciting, I’m feeling spoiled for choice. Watching Lightnin’ Hopkins playing in a Juke Joint? Participating a wonderful festival including Muddy Waters and Jimi Hendrix in the line-up? Watching Robert Johnson practicing guitar in a graveyard in the mid 30’s? Making Adolf Hitler more confident about becoming a great painter? Meeting Elvis in 1953 and ask: “Hey, need a guitar player”? Watching The Velvet Underground at the Andy Warhol’s Exploding Plastic Inevitable Show or the MC5 and the Stooges playing in Detroit in the 60’s? Or maybe simply visiting the Fender factory in the early 50’s and get a couple of Tellies as souvenir? Ha! Ha!

Livia: Tons of places! But if the pick had to be one, right at this moment I' d like to be in front of Sister Rosetta Tharpe, look at her fingers slide confident on the fretboard. With her technique she was a pioneer and precorsor of rock'n'roll! She even was one of the first guitarist to use distortion, imagine that... I would be checking her out as she leads the band, as she rocked the gospel, with the shouting and the stomping. She is one of my most beloved guitarist and singer, but I also am in owe, since she had a female lover with which she collaborated and performed with, as two queer black women ...in the late 1940s! To have my dream complete I would have a chat with that amazing personality, a woman larger than life.  I' d ask her tons of questions, hear how she arrived to that sound, and her style. Then I' d get blessed by her goodness, her positive charge, the smile she carried in her heart, while kickin' ass.

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