Interview with JOHN BLANCO (former SPYS Singer)

1st part of 2 - 10th July 2002


1 - Welcome back, John! First of all, would you like to tell me something about your music training (since early youth until the day before SPYS)?

Andrea, let me start by saying it’s an great pleasure to be able to share some of my thoughts with you about my years in SPYS and the music that has comprised my life…

I truly had a gifted childhood, I mean in the sense of all the opportunities I was given growing up. To begin with, I come from a pretty musical family. My father was a very accomplished professional singer as well as a talented drummer. So growing in the Blanco household always meant you were surrounded by music.

At an early age my parents figured I clearly exhibited the sufficient musical talent and enrolled me into a professional boy choir (St. Kilian Boychoir). This choir gave me the opportunity to learn music and acquire a keen professional attitude towards the arts while still relatively young. By the time I’d graduated grade school I had already sung at New York’s Lincoln Center many times, often under the batons of some prestigious conductors like Leonard Bernstein and Seigi Ozawa. I had also appeared on American television numerous times and had even recorded an album with Andre Kostelanetz and Metropolitan opera star Phyllis Curtin for Columbia.

But fame was only part of it. The greatest aspect of this upbringing was that my teachers were all world-renowned vocal directors in their own right. My first vocal coach was Arpad Darazs (protégé of the Hungarian composer Zoltan Kodaly) and my second teacher was Hermann Furthmoser, who had come from the Vienna Boychoir.

Obviously my love for music grew out of some wonderful experiences as a kid. Then in high school I teamed up with some equally talented musicians. Coming with an ingrained classical music background, the musicians I tended to gravitate towards were usually those who likewise had classical training. During high school, and then into college, I played in a NY progressive rock band. This was in the 70’s. We called ourselves Harpy and we became quite popular playing the NY club scene doing our interpretations of Yes, ELP, King Crimson and Zeppelin. It was Harpy where I built some really solid friendships with people who would continue to take part in my musical evolution.

Harpy consisted of Jimie Martino, a double bass major from NY’s Columbia University, Gary Gerber, a percussion graduate who was also very jazz-influenced. Errol Allahverdi, an incredible classically trained keyboardist who to this day I still collaborate with musically, and finally John DiGaudio on guitar, who would later join me to start up SPYS with Ed Gagliardi.

To balance out our audience Harpy also included a remarkable Beatles set. Not really catering to the early "mop-top" material, we preferred the more esoteric Sgt Pepper’s and "beyond" staple of songs. As we had a marvelous and accomplished keyboard player, always surrounded by Moogs, Melotrons, pianos, and other assorted synthesizers, we took claim to songs like Penny Lane, Strawberry Fields, I am the Walrus, etc. The more progressive Beatles stuff. We also did this in total costume long before there was ever a Beatlemania (Broadway play) or all these other Beatles tribute bands started popping up.

Harpy got very popular but when it came time to sell our music to record companies we hit a lot of brick walls. The progressive rock scene in the late 70’s had pretty much dried up. Record companies weren’t really signing this genre of music any longer and we saw music move away from complex musical arrangements to very streamlined, pop-like song structures. Harpy was like a whale in a gold fish bowl. After creating some great, yet unsuccessful demos – even one co-produced with Ed Gagliardi – Harpy came to a close in 1979.

At that point, a Harpy demo that contained some of my songs caught the attention of a production company affiliated with CBS. They wanted me and my songs but not the band. It was a traumatic time all around with the business becoming ever impossible to navigate. Consequently Harpy broke. To end the saga I nearly signing a "suicide" pact (a horrendous deal) with this production company but luckily Ed and John came to my rescue.

Ed was always a fan of Harpy. Even on breaks from Foreigner he’d always stop by to catch our shows. He had always wanted to do something with John DiGaudio so when he left Foreigner the opportunity arose. As I was leaving Harpy anyway, the three of us got to thinking that it might be advantageous to join forces. The rest is pretty much history.


2 - What about your influences of those days? Which were your preferred artists and albums?

As I’ve pointed out, my influences growing up were pretty much in the liturgical variety. That is, a lot of Latin motets, choral singing. Like any typical kid I started as a soprano and worked my way to second alto before my voice changed to that of an adult male. It’s still very much in the tenor range. But my first real introduction to pop music was the Beatles. I loved everything that came out of Lennon and McCartney and as a youngster fashioned myself as "growing up to become a Beatle". So while every other kid was aspiring to be a policeman or a doctor, I convinced myself that I would sport the old mop top and mimic the Fab Four. I actually started out as a singing bass player in my first band just because Paul was my favorite. Plus I didn’t want to have to just stand there in front of a microphone with my hands at my side – I needed to strum something.

Then later in the 60’s and early 70’s bands like the Cream, the Who, Hendrix and other more pioneering bands cropped up and I went with the flow - but never losing sight of my "harmony" roots. In fact, you might say I was more the Vanilla Fudge fan than a Cream fan. Guess I always loved the strains of the church organ in music.

Albums like Fragile (YES), Tarkus (ELP), and King Crimson had a heavy influence on me. I like records that break the rules; that start people down different corridors. CSNY, the Hollies, Queen – music with an edge but vocals still in the forefront. I guess another special album for me was Weber and Rice’s Jesus Christ Superstar. I was in high school when that came out, already a Deep Purple fan, but Ian Gillan’s performance just floored me. I actually sang "Gethsemane" and "Heaven on their Minds" as my audition for Music College.

My tastes wer,e and still are rather eclectic. I love Benjamin Britten and Bach but I also love Blackmore and the Buggles.


3 - How did you come and form SPYS?

Both John DiGaudio and I had left Harpy, which over time had amassed a following that included members of other local bands who used to come see us. In essence, we had become a "musicians band". One familiar face that liked to pop in to see us from time to time was this bass player named Ed Gagliardi. This was some time in the mid 70’s, prior to his joining Foreigner. I guess over time we all became friends.

Like I said earlier, Harpy recorded numerous demos but we discovered that the music business in the 70’s was undergoing serious change. The long opuses that had become emblematic for many progressive bands were giving way to shorter, more compact – even pop-oriented – songs. I think this was the beginning of what we were later to label AOR (album oriented radio). In addition, people like Elvis Costello, the Sex Pistols, the Clash – punk and New wave – was starting to find it’s way across the Atlantic. Bands who positioned themselves in the serious progressive motif were finding it extremely difficult to get signed. After numerous, and pretty noble attempts, Harpy called it quits. I was about to get signed to CBS through this production company, who by the way wanted me to go out as a solo artist, which was not what I really wanted – I truly like the band setting. Coincidentally, John D (DiGaudio) was planning to team up with Ed. So the result was the three of us banding together to start the nucleus of what was to become SPYS.


4 - Why did you choose SPYS as name for the band? Did you have any others to pick from?

We were never very prolific as "idea" people collectively. Let me explain what I mean.

We were all plagued with great creativity. Billions of ideas bouncing off the walls, but to make it as a "SPYS" accepted idea meant it had to go through an unusually rigorous filtering process. I mean thousands of SPYS songs were tried and auditioned by members of the band for consideration, but very few ever saw the light of day. The selection of an idea had to be pretty much unanimously approved by all five of us. The same went for finding the name for the band. We tossed around millions of possibilities but almost all of them were laughed at, cursed at or thrown out because they just couldn’t get the quorum necessary to be seriously considered.

John Digaudio and I were avid readers, specifically spy novels. I believe it was John D who came up with "Spies" which we all morphed into SPYS. Unfortunately I can’t recall any of the other candidates but they all had to be inconsequential.


5 - Which was the artistic alchemy in the early stages of SPYS? Who had the main inputs in songwriting? Who was the member whose ideas were rejected most and why?

Throughout most of SPYS years we were all contributors to the sound that developed. We all came with similar, yet often, different influences. We also approached the craft of songwriting differently. Some of us wrote music in the more structured, parochial manner. That is, assembling complete phrases, melodic ideas, choruses, bridges, an intro and an outro. Others preferred a more "bit-oriented" style. Marrying loose ideas with other random musical phrases – requiring a more collaborative effort. I approached songwriting more the former. As I am schooled in composition and structure, when I sit down to write a piece of music; I usually finish it – all parts. Very rarely will I leave an idea incomplete. The alternative always made me feel like I was building a house but forgetting to put on the front door.

My early collaboration was with Ed and John D, as Al and Billy had not yet joined us. The three of us wrote a number of tracks (at least into their rough stages) that would subsequently end up on our debut album. "Don’t run my life" was the first that we tackled as a songwriting team. It started with an idea Ed had. He had bits of a chorus and melody and even some lyrical ideas that John D and I wove around, each adding a bit more melody here, a lyric there, a guitar part there, etc. until it was done.

Not to slight Al Greenwood who later joined us bringing along a bunch of new melodic inventions as well as providing some fresh and objective improvements to our already written material.

But some songs actually had some very interesting beginnings. Quite often I would sit on a stool with an acoustic guitar and audition "songs" to the boys. It was very "unplugged" in a sense. The guys would then poke around, maybe pick a melody, or line or chorus, and append it to some rough idea they had. For them, I think it was extremely effectual. For me, it was totally nerve-racking. I felt like they were stealing my body parts to build their own Frankenstein monster. Of course, later I was to accept the approach and even find it inspirational. Starting in one place and never knowing where you’d end up until it all came together in the end.

"She Can’t Wait" was a tune I auditioned for the band. I thought it was a great song in an almost Cheap Trick kind of way. That particular evening I recall auditioning a few songs sequentially. They pulled a part out of one song to begin "Ice Age" (it got merged with something Al was working on). Anyway, when we got to "She Can’t Wait" I figured "no way are they going to pull this one apart. It’s perfect as it is, right?" Wrong!

After I ran through it from beginning to end I recall looking up and seeing Al picking his fingernails and Ed yawning. I think it was Ed who turned to me and said, "That’s nice. Do you got anything else?" I mean I was stunned! So they both run upstairs to get something and John and Billy turn to me realizing how distraught I’m feeling and Billy says, "John I hear it. You have to play it one more time for us. I don’t think everyone was really fully listening." That was Billy, who was to become one of my best friends, teaching me a very important lesson that day about this business. You’ve got to trust in yourself, persevere, regardless of what others think, stick to what you believe.

So when they came back down, I said, "I want everyone to listen to this song one more time. There’s something here and I think it could be…I mean it is…a great song." Well the rest is history. Of course parts got refined, ideas from Ed, Al, Billy and John were merged, but the end result still remains one of my favorite SPYS songs.

And the free-form style to our creative process didn’t end there. I remember helping Al develop keyboard ideas or helping Ed craft bass lines. As I was a guitar hobbyist, I would also provide John with guitar ideas when he was stuck. Conversely they all had just as much creative input into me. Both Ed and Billy were great singers, and everyone in the band had great suggestions for improving a lyric or a melody. I learned a lot from all of them. I cursed and cried a lot too, but that’s what being in a real band is all about.


6 - How did you find working with producer Neil Kernon? What kind of man is he?

Neil is one of favorite people in the world, not just the business. I haven’t spoken to him in years but in the short time we worked together he had a tremendous influence on how I approach music. Fundamentally, he was extremely effective as acting as the "catalyst" for us in the studio. You have to realize that by the time he became involved, musically we had already solidified a sound for ourselves. It was not "whole" yet but he was able to bring out the depth that was in our music without distorting or compromising our vision.

He is also a marvel to watch behind the mixing board. He knows where everything is, why it’s there, where it should go, how it’s used, how it should never be used and how to create a different sound from something or someone by simply kicking it around a bit. He’s also a great musician in his own right. Sometimes you can work with someone who is trying to get you to do something or hear something in a different way, but has difficulty explaining it conceptually because he or she has no real appreciation of the technique or technology supporting it. This often becomes a wall between the producer and the artist. Neil, due to his own extensive musical background, has no difficulty bringing down that wall.


7 - Which were the main differences as approach and state of mind when you started writing and recording "Behind Enemy Lines"? Do you have any particular situation (funny, I hope) involving someone of the band in that period?

The second record for any band is always a tough one. You’re coming off the heels of your debut effort and based on whether, or how well, the public has accepted you, you hear voices whispering. Telling you what to do. Influencing you. You listen to some. You discard others.

We had just come off a wonderful tour with Thirty-eight Special, and had actually wanted to continue touring because we felt the band was really beginning to gel as a live act. Remember from the very beginning, although we all had track records as live performers, SPYS was pretty virgin to the stage – we were a studio band up until then.

We also felt touring would help us surface some new dimension that might not normally appear when you’re constantly confined to a sterile studio environment. Nonetheless, there were numerous changes taking place within EMI and the new rank and file wanted us back in the studio to record the next album.

Unfortunately, not all of these changes were with the record company. As a band we were beginning to tear away from our management. In fact, in the midst of recording BEL, we terminated our management contract with Barry Taylor and Abe Hock (Olympia Management). We were also suffering internally as a band. The financial failure of the debut album, mismanagement, and lack of any cohesive strategy had created strain among all of us. Not only that, but a few of us were going through some personal problems, some even becoming dependant on some of the more unsavory substances that travel along the rock and roll road. I know this paints a less than positive picture of the band but as time would tell, we lived it, some of us suffered it, but all of us survived it.

Behind Enemy Lines, from a songwriting perspective, began with writing duties belonging to Ed, Al and myself. Huddled in Al’s Dix Hills, NY house (in a guest room that doubled as Al’s home studio) we began crafting the basic tracks for the album. Billy Milne was more a song "polisher" than a songwriter per se. He was great at listening to an idea and suggesting sure fired ways of improving it melodically, structurally, lyrically or even harmonically.

John DiGaudio, although a wonderful writer himself had begun distancing himself from some of the others, reasons personal to John, Ed and Al. As John’s old friend from Harpy I often tried to act as an intermediary between the three of them but other than to help establish at least a tolerable working environment for all, I was incapable of rebuilding the relationships that had become frazzled.

Nonetheless, the three of us wrote the musical shells for the songs and then after about two weeks, presented them to the remaining members of the band to begin fleshing them out in "around the clock" rehearsal sessions. Regardless of all the turmoil many of us were experiencing we all equally committed our hearts and souls to creating the best album we possibly could make.

Ed and Al produced the album, but the third member of the production team was a man by the name of Clay Hutchinson. Clay, an accomplished record producer in his own right, had helped us produce the demo that had ultimately got us signed to EMI. We always loved working with Clay and his studio Kingdom Sound (Syosset, NY). Fortunately, our experimental spirit that might easily had been dulled by much of the upheaval surrounding us, remained intact when it came to making music.

Once the songs had been hashed out by the entire band and we were all comfortable with the arrangements, we hired Le Mobile, a Canadian mobile recording unit to come down to New York to record our basic tracks. I believe Neil Kernon did something similar, after us, while recording a Kansas album. We completed all basic tracks using Le Mobile at Ed’s manor house on the river, a bit of an inconvenience for Ed, after having moved all his furniture into numerous spare bedrooms to create a cavernous recording area in the center of his house.

Assembling all the basic tracks, we then moved to Kingdom Sound where we completed the record.


8 - Why did SPYS dismember? Where did everyone end up?

Many of us knew the demise of SPYS was evident before it happened. We had simply become very dysfunctional as a working entity towards the end. John D wanted out to move on to new things. The rest of us all but disgusted with how the record company had abandoned us wanted to make a clean start. So Al, Billy and I decided that if we did continue it would not be as SPYS. Ed was on an emotional roller coaster rendering him almost unbearable to work with during the SPYS latter days. This left the three of us to pursue our musical futures un-tethered.

Al had brought in Bob Kulick from Balance to help out on some of the guitar tracks on BEL and as Balance was all but history by then, we asked Bob to join us. Through some new management we came across another bass player and accomplished songwriter, Steven Dees (Novo Combo).

The five us, calling ourselves "Sing Sing", began writing new music and finally completed a demo recorded at the Boogie Hotel (Foghat studio) in Port Jefferson, New York. Unfortunately, Sing Sing could not land a deal. We tried but the music scene was just not looking for another AOR/mainstream "super group" consisting of former members of SPYS, Balance and Novo Combo.

As for SPYS, we all went into various businesses, many still involved in entertainment and music (either privately or professionally) and we talk to each other from time to time. Some of us even returned to school – in fact John, Al and I have made livings in different technological arenas while still keeping indirectly connected to the music business.

After leaving Sing Sing, I started doing radio jingles while trying to start up a number of new rock bands. One of my ventures was a band called "Vertical Man", trust me I grabbed the name long before Ringo did his album. It’s actually an English phrase I picked out from a book by John LeCarre – yes, another spy novel. I co-produced VM with a New York guitarist by the name of Michael Barberick and it included one of my best friends on drums - Billy Milne. The executive producer was none other than Tony Bonjovi, owner of the Power Station and cousin of Jon.

9 - What have you done since then up to today?

Music continues to be a focal part of my life regardless of whether I ever get rich or famous from it. My lifestyle is pretty enjoyable right now and that allows me time to dabble in writing, recording and producing. I’ve also had a run at acting. No movies (other than some old SPYS videos). Haven’t done Broadway yet either – other than from the seats; but when I do get the itch, I try out for a play with a local regional theater company and get my fix for the lights that way. I’m really quite a ham!

Over the last few years I’ve been amassing a pretty incredible array of technological tools (i.e., guitars, digital recording equipment, MIDI paraphernalia, keyboards, etc.) to record with. I continue to write, most often returning to some of my early progressive roots. To some extent, some of those elements that might appear "poppy" almost always re-appear in what I do.

My writing continues to evolve but no longer do I try to write to appease the faceless masses. I believe real music must be sincere and genuine and truly come from ones’ soul. The days of chasing some musical tail or trying to guess what’s the "next big thing" is better left to the Brittany Spears’ and Backstreet Boys’ of the world. I get my satisfaction developing things that are true and worthy to my own ears and simply pray that there are others out there who might find it enjoyable as well. That’s the best I can do for the moment.

Does this prohibit or preclude any possibility of ever joining up with some of my former band mates in the future? I hope not. One thing I’ve learned in this business is never say never…and never mix by only the dials. Anyway, I thank you for allowing me to share some of my SPYS history and personal experiences with you. Hope I haven’t scared anyone off.

It’s been a real trip…and it ain’t over yet.