Written by: Paul Gleason
Sonic Jesus are on the verge of releasing what’s sure to be one of the most ambitious and exciting debut LPs in recent memory.
Neither Virtue Nor Anger comes out tomorrow (April 16, 2015) on Fuzz Club Records, and it’s a monster of a double album, loaded with inspired arrangements, passionate performances, and a fearless execution. It’s that rare first record that jumps past the birth pangs of doubt and enters the world with a confidence so strong and a vitality so apparent that you know that the musicians who made it are here to stay.
These musicians are the core duo that form Sonic Jesus: vocalist, songwriter, and multi-instrumentalist Tiziano Veronese and lyricist and multi-instrumentalist Marco Baldassari.
Veronese and Baldassari, along with their stage drummer Simone Russo, gave SEM an exclusive interview on all things Sonic Jesus, focusing on the making of Neither Virtue Nor Anger, which SEM will review tomorrow (April 16, 2015).
SEM: Thank you for chatting with us today, Marco, Tiziano, and Simone. Why did you guys start Sonic Jesus?
MB: I wanted to take part to this incredible explosion of music. A temporary break from the world was the fuse.
TV: Embarrassment was the main impetus. Art is my medicine: my passionate love for art makes this feeling of awkwardness lighter.
SEM: How did you choose the band’s name?
MB: I wanted a great name, easy to remember, and I looked at what I loved the most.
Sonic is a very common word; you can find it anywhere. Back then, inspiration came from “sonics”: that word, “sonic,” was often spinning in my mind; and I knew a lot of people who properly used that word, people I’ve always admired. In a little time, I just realized it might have worked for us as well. “Jesus” is my favorite song by The Velvet Underground.
It was easy to join these two words together!
TV: Jesus is “sonic” because He loves His neighbor as himself!
SEM: The cover for your debut album – Neither Virtue Nor Anger – is an artwork by Mirco Marcacci, which is based on Bernini’s The Ecstasy of St. Teresa (one of my favorite sculptures). Why did you choose this piece for your album cover?
MB: We wanted something with a strong impact, and Casper Dee from Fuzz Club wanted something that looked like an icon. Mirco immediately proposed L’estasi di Santa Teresa, which is one of the greatest and most ambiguous works by Bernini. Mirco’s interpretation was simply marvelous.
SEM: How does the album cover relate to the music?
MB: Like I said, Mirco identified in our music the same ambiguity of Bernini’s masterpiece. The work is a blend of the sacred and the erotic, and he felt the same blend in Neither Virtue Nor Anger.
TV: Our album is made up of two faces of the same coin. The artwork from the album comes from the music and vice-versa.
SEM: How did you come into contact with The Black Angels and decide to release the “Molly Moves My Generation”/“Lost Reprise” split single.
MB: Casper Dee had proposed to us a split single. We had talked with him about many other bands, but The Black Angels had never been mentioned. Then, out of the blue, he proposed to us this split with them, and we enthusiastically accepted this suggestion. The Black Angels are a great band, and it was a thrill for us to share with them something that will last in time.
SEM: Neither Virtue Nor Anger is a double album. Does each of the four sides have a different thematic or sonic identity? If not, please describe the sequence of the songs.
TV: Two people who currently describe the Sonic Jesus’ identity: me through music and Marco through lyrics. We wrote the album in two years: every single day of those two years helped me change the way I expressed myself. Thank God I am kind of a chameleon! (laughs.)
Tracks like “Monkey on My Back,” “Lost Reprise,” and “Underground” are part of the Sonic Jesus’ first life, while “Sweet Suicide,” “Telegraph,” “Triumph,” and “Dead” are all more recent. I think that everyone will notice this change of style when they listen to our work. Our identity is displayed in this double album: two years of changes and fights!
MB: The album describes the different identities that Sonic Jesus have had. You can feel the change and the growth. The truth is that each of these songs was written in different periods of our path together, so they represent several episodes of our artistic life. There isn’t a thread that leads the listeners through the songs. The more time passed, the more we were realized that we were creating a real manifesto, which includes and pays homage to the last 50 years of a certain kind of quality music.
The truth is we started with the idea for a single album and ended up with a double. But we could have even done a triple!
SEM: As a double album, the record is very ambitious and shows confidence. Why is now the right time for Sonic Jesus to release a double LP?
TV: We were ready one year ago, but Fuzz gave us no more than a year to complete the album. It was a big mistake (laughs)! Since that day, I’ve never stopped composing, and finally we ended up with plenty of songs, with even more versions of the same of the same songs that we had previously recorded. Casper, don’t make the same mistake again! (laughs).
MB: It may look ambitious or presumptuous to make a double album as a first release, but it’s not. I’ve known Tiziano for many years. I know his attitude, and his inspiration and ability to compose are almost unstoppable. Since the first day of working on the album, I knew it would be a double: there were so many top-notch songs that a selection would have been impossible.
Tiziano wasn’t sure about the idea of a double album, but eventually he gave in to both Fuzz’ insistence and mine (laughs). Confidence in what we were doing existed and still exists. Our artistic project is all based on our mutual comprehension.
SEM: Marco, the Sonic Jesus Facebook page mentions your interest in poetry. I’m wondering who your poetic and lyrical inspirations are?
MB: I’ve always loved art with a passion, and poetry is the first form of art that caught me. As a teenager, I used to skip school and go straight to the public library and read Rimbaud and Blake. Sometimes I ended up reading the Beat poets all the way through to Campana and Sylvia Plath. There is not just single source of inspiration: I like words and playing with them.
SEM: Tiziano, why did you make the decision to move from drums to being the composer and instrumentalist for Sonic Jesus?
TV: I never made a decision. It was an unexpected, and I was unwitting, unaware of it. I never thought it might happen! After playing drums for 14 years, I went through a long crisis, both spiritual and emotional. And, while I was looking for a cure, I thought that the best thing to do was to start all over again, and that’s what I did. I took the only guitar I had in house – my mother’s guitar – and I started to strum and sing. I had never done it before. Since that day, I’ve never stopped doing it because the cure works! And truth be told, I am still a drummer!
SEM: Tiziano, please list the instruments you play. What song or songs do you feel best demonstrate your abilities as an instrumentalist and arranger?
TV: I have many instruments in my house: some of them I bought in person, friends have given me others. My friends feed my creativity! Sometimes, one of them drops by and says, “Here, I found this in the garbage bin.” And this was how I ended up playing a beautiful melody for “My Lunacy.” I played a Bontempi keyboard for kids. And I played a partly destroyed cello in “Lost Reprise,” which an employee at the grocery store gave me. I also play drums, guitars, basses (one is not enough), Farfisa organ, synths, and many percussion instruments. These are the instruments I played in the album. But my instrument is still the drums, for sure.
SEM: How much programming goes into the construction of your songs?
TV: Maybe you’d better ask, “How sick do you get while composing?” (laughs). I don’t like using the verb “programming.” I don’t program a thing. I enter the studio and let the flow of creativity take control. Then I find something interesting, and I start creating the actual track and searching for the right sound of the instruments. This part may take weeks or even months!
My problem is that I play every instrument and that requires a lot of time to think what may sound better in the track with each single instrument.
SEM: Please discuss the arrangement and instrumentation of “Lost Reprise,” which appears on Neither Virtue Nor Anger, in addition to the split with The Black Angels?
MB: The version in the split with The Black Angels is the original version of “Lost,” on the record of the same name. That first version was composed four years ago, and when we chose it for Neither Virtue Nor Anger, Tiziano wanted to give it a more “shoegaze” sound. But the track was so cool that I wanted to expand the lyrics and bring it back to its original sound, and that’s how “Lost Reprise” came out.
Tiziano sang the split version, but on the album version, there’s a more “dreamy” version sung by a feminine voice. The “Lost” story ends here.
TV: As Marco said, the song had so many changes! I remember the day Lou Reed died, I was composing a new version of it and this thing totally changed my idea about this track. I remember I wanted to honor him, so I introduced the guitar riff at the beginning that accompanies the listener throughout the song. Then the organ, with the other instruments that slowly enter the composition, one after one, prepare the mood for this lyric voice, ending up with the cello that cradles us and moves us. Then, finally, it’s the solo time – a long guitar feedback at a balanced volume that won’t annoy the listener: a passionate homage to Lou Reed. I needed to balance that feedback so that the listener would keep his eyes close!
SEM: You chose “Locomotive” as the first track on the album. How does this track introduce the musical and lyrical themes of the album?
MB: Using “Locomotive” as the opening track was Casper’s idea. I think it was right to open the album like that. It’s the only track that explicitly talks about love, and it’s through this song that love permeates the whole album – sometimes in a balanced, sometimes in an unbalanced way. The lyrics, in this song like in all the others, come out of what Tiziano composes and the kind of composition he makes. I let music get to me, and I follow it.
SEM: How did “Sweet Suicide” come together? The hooky drum riff, lead guitar lines, vocal melody, and bursts of noise make for quite an original listen.
TV: It was one of the last songs I composed. It was easy, straight, and quick. And it’s strange because you have very interesting rhythm figures in it. I usually start with guitar and voice; this time I started with drums. I composed the drum part rhythm accidentally, while warming up. I was enjoying the metronome click in the headphones, playing along with it, and eventually I came up with that crazy groove.
Then I gradually added the voice part, and if I’m not wrong, what you hear is the very first melody that came to my mind, as often happens with me.
I liked the song even with this raw sound: it was incredible. And that became a problem when it came to the guitar parts: I couldn’t find the right spot for them. It drove me nuts. And eventually a fuzz effect on an electric guitar made my day. Stereophonic explosion! My advice is to listen to this song with headphones at full blast… like I do all the time!
SEM: Tiziano, please talk about the various effects you use on your voice on the record. Would you please mention some specific songs as examples?
TV: I spend entire days searching for the right voice effect. I really love distortion: it reminds me of old garage tracks, along with delay. And even rotary: an effect that literally makes your head spin. Everything is mixed with a lot of reverb.
The best effect I created is the one on “Triumph” – a good equalization, but the most original one is the one on “Whore Is Death”: I was just standing on my knees trying to take a cable…my mouth was close to the Farfisa Reverb connected to a Repeater, and I happened to speak in it. The sound it produced was just perfect.
SEM: “Monkey on My Back” has a simply terrific guitar riff – dirty and hard- hitting. Tiziano, how did you come up with it?
TV: It was one of the hardest riffs, and I admit I am still working on it. It’s a simple riff, powered by a fuzz, along a semi-acoustic guitar with two powerful humbuckers.
SEM: The vocals on the song are equally compelling. What inspired the words and melody?
TV: I listen to a lot of folk, and I like expressive and soft singers – those sorts of melodies by Sandy Danny or Nick Drake, Dylan or Sixto Rodriguez. I also love newer artists like Fleet Foxes. I definitely think it’s folk music that inspire my melodies
MB: In our songs, the words come after the melody. I let music inspire me, and out of that music I write the lyrics. That kind of frames the music. It’s never easy to express an idea in a language that is not yours. You always need to render the message and make your lyrics real. I’ve learned many new terms since I’ve been writing lyrics in English: I like that.
SEM: The film director Federico Fellini is a key inspiration for Sonic Jesus. How does his work serve as a possible entry point into “My Lunacy” and “Cancer”?
MB: He is not the only artist we were inspired by, but I must admit we would have loved to put some scenes of 8 1/2 in music (laughs), and “Cancer” can potentially homage the Satyricon. Apart from that, the instrumental part of “My Lunacy” can be heard as a grateful homage to the Maestro Ennio Morricone.
SEM: What Fellini films inspire you guys?
TV: Fellini is a great source of inspiration. My favorite movie is Amarcord, but Fellini is not our only source of inspiration.
SEM: Please describe the Italian psych scene and Sonic Jesus’ place in it.
MB: I don’t think we have much to share with the Italian psych scene. There’s something called “occult Psychedelia,” and I love such a musical genre to be in Italy, but we don’t belong to it. I think that bands such as Father Murphy, Lay Llamas, Jennifer Gentle, or Julie’s Haircut are fantastic, but again we don’t want to limit ourselves to one category: labels only fit good wines!
SEM: Please describe your live setup. Who joins the two of you on stage and who plays what?
TV: When we are on stage three friends of ours join us: Simone Russo on drums and percussion; Fabio Perciballu on guitar and percussion; and the geologist of the band, Giuseppe Guratti. I play guitar and sing; Marco plays organ, percussion, and a lot of other crap (laughs).
SEM: Please tell me about your touring plans.
TV: Honestly, I don’t remember where we are going to play. All that matters is that we’re just playing.
MB: Unlike Tiziano, I memorized the tour plan (laughs). We are going to visit all Europe, from London to Athens, and we will play in 10 different countries – more or less 30 dates in 40 days. A good trip.
Images used with permission of Fuzz Club Records.