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Articles Home » Interviews » SPYS - 2002 Interview with John Blanco
 
SPYS - 2002 Interview with John Blanco
INTERVIEW: SPYS (Jun 2002)
Behind Enemy Lines with John Blanco.

In The Spotlight - SPYS
Interview with John Blanco
Written by: Gdazegod (June 24, 2002)

June 2002: One look through the melodic rock/AOR history books, and you'll no doubt see reference to a New York band called SPYS. Long revered by the AOR community, but not enough is known about their beginnings/origins, heyday, nor the aftermath. Perhaps their biggest claim to fame was the fact that ex Foreigner members Al Greenwood and Ed Gagliardi were part of this esteemed lineup. Also, the fact that Neil Kernon was involved on their debut album is enough to set the tongues drooling right? For those unfamiliar with the band, the lineup was: John Blanco - vocals; John DiGaudio - guitars; Al Greenwood - keyboards; Ed Gagliardi - bass; Billy Milne - drums. The band, in the main, came from Long Island, and produced two albums on the EMI America label: SPYS (1982) and 'Behind Enemy Lines' (1983).

To finally set the record straight, I invite singer John Blanco to give us some time to recount the history of SPYS. While he was at it, the other 'John' (John DiGaudio) managed to find time to participate as well. Cool. As you see throughout the interview, JB=John Blanco, John DiGaudio=JD. But you knew that already didn't you' Read on MacDuff..

Life Before SPYS

Thanks for sharing some of your words and thoughts with us John. Not much is known about the early days of yourself, Billy and John DiGaudio. Obviously Ed and Al came from Foreigner, but what were the earliest origins for the three of you?
JB: There really isn't a simple answer to the question. I mean the three of us ' John D, Bill and I truly came from different musical streams growing up. I recall John D once saying that his first guitar was an old Harmony guitar his mother bought from some mail order catalogue and how he taught himself classical guitar from old Segovia recordings his father had. And I know, Billy in his younger days played with a drum and bugle corp. I'm being totally serious. In fact there's a march section in 'Behind Enemy Lines' that Billy pulled from his previous experience.

My experience and musical evolution was somewhat bizarre. I was trained in voice at a very young age and sang in a famous boys choir up until I was about thirteen years of age. So I always felt I was destined to be a singer and performer, even as a kid. While the other kids were outside playing baseball I was in some church singing the chorales of Bach and Bruchner. I know I'm showing my age but I actually had the distinctive honor to have performed with Leonard Bernstein at Lincoln Center, the American premier of Benjamin Britten's 'War Requiem'.

But I think the real question you're asking is: what 'bands' were we playing in before forming SPYS?
It's no secret that John DiGaudio and I knew each other, having gone to the same high school and circulating with many of the same people. During high school I was singing for a popular local band - Harpy. It was pretty much school dances and teen discos but the core of that band wanted to go professional after high school. A few of us planned on getting music degrees in college (which we did) - we were that serious about music as a craft. The guitarist of that band didn't really have the chops or discipline to take the next step (I think he's either an insurance salesman or works the roller coaster ride in a traveling carnival troupe today). So, knowing John DiGaudio was out there and not part of any band at the time - and also a huge progressive rock fan like the rest of us - we asked him to join up.

For us, Harpy was a necessary staging period in our careers. We became very popular in the northeastern US, known especially for doing perfect copies of Yes, ELP, King Crimson, etc, which was the progressive music of the time - as well as doing a complete Beatles set in Sgt Pepper's attire. So each night I was imitating Paul McCartney, Jon Anderson, and Greg Lake (some of my favourite singers) while John D was going from Steve Howe, Jimmy Page, Ritchie Blackmore to George Harrison. Although Harpy made some great demo tapes the industry was moving away from the progressive sound and we were seeing the early days of new wave and what was to soon to be AOR/mainstream take over. But one benefit of being in Harpy was networking with a lot of other great NY musicians. One who used to always come by was Ed Gagliardi. At around the same time Ed was playing with another NY band, also into progressive music. He was already a Harpy fan, and over time, a friendship grew between the three of us.

It was actually Ed who introduced us to Billy Milne. Seems one of the bands Ed had been in for a short time before joining Foreigner was an outfit called the Billy Falcon Band. Billy Falcon was a really talented NY songwriter who had a record deal already. His music was much more straight-ahead rock-n-roll but with an intelligent bent to it along the lines of someone like Bruce Springsteen and John Mellancamp. Anyway, Ed took John D and I to see the drummer of this band and we were blown away. We had always played with great drummers, fast, complex, etc, but Billy had an energy level that was totally off the charts and his ability to move between simple and extremely complex patterns without dropping a tick was amazing. Billy was simply the only choice for our new band. He was heavy, creative, and just happened to have the voice of an angel. I mean this blond haired athletic looking guy 'this drummer' could really sing. To a lead singer, how unfair is that?

The guys in Foreigner had a major shakeup before and after the 'Head Games' era, with Ed and Al both leaving the fold. Do you recall what their reasons were?
JB: This is true although the real facts are pretty personal to both those guys. I mean Ed and Al left Foreigner independently - totally different time periods and for different reasons. It would be easy to conjecture some of the circumstances behind their departures but I don't think it would be fair to either of them. I will say that John D and I were there when Ed went through his 'exit'. It wasn't a happy time for him. You might say it was almost like a divorce. Whether it's your fault or the other persons, you keep asking yourself - what did I do' What didn't I do? What could I have done differently? In both cases the departures came with the typical phases of pain - a sense of denial, then anger but then finally, 'ok, time to move on.'

And what was the catalyst to bring you all together under the SPYS banner?
JB: John D and I had done all we could with Harpy. At the tail end we had made a pretty impressive demo. In fact, Ed co-produced it with us during his time off from Foreigner. We shopped it around and the reaction was 'Hey some of the songs are good. The singer is good. But the band doesn't have the right sound.' I think it was all bullshit but hey, at least they stroked my ego. In fact, the reaction really did a number on my head. I felt like Paul and Yoko rolled into one. A and R people wanted to sign me but without my mates. I felt excited and horrible at the same time. At that point I came close to signing with Columbia but my attorney ended up saying it was a 'Hendrix Deal'. Meaning the contract was going to make a lot of money for the record company, lawyers, managers, and agents but the artist would end up poor. This was back 1978-79.

Plus, add to it that I was planning to get married so it was like 'Make a decision boy! You wanna be a rock star or do you just wanna be a nice guy? So being the nice guy that I was, I decided on leaving the band, consequently initiating its breakup, and being perceived as Satan incarnate. But coincidentally, John D was going through some similar internal upheaval. After leaving Foreigner, Ed had proposed starting a band with him. When Ed was told I was already committed to leaving Harpy he made a similar proposition to me figuring he was now getting two of his favourite musicians to start over with. It really did work out for all of us.

We started, just the three of us, woodshedding songs at Ed's house on Long Island's north shore - a beautiful house on the Nissequogne River. And actually our first song was 'Don't Run My Life'. Ed had this great chorus and John D immediately started fooling around with the guitar part that subsequently became the signature of the tune. We approached it as an 'almost' Beatle song. Ed mentioned to me that he wanted to write something that would help him vent some of his frustration with the music business and his life at that point in general; and I just saw it as a way to express personal angst. I'm pretty good at taking the seed of an idea and building on it, so I went off, as did John and Ed, and the next day we had the nucleus of the song written. Interestingly enough, I think the next song we started writing was 'No Harm Done' which became the closer on the first SPYS album. It was actually a song I had started writing when I was in Harpy. The rest is pretty much history.

What timeframe are we talking about, with your getting together?
JB: Well roughly speaking, the late 70's saw the final chapter of Harpy. We were playing to packed houses but having a real difficult time getting our fans to accept our original material over that of Yes, ELP, etc. I mean 'Roundabout' was still getting more applause than maybe something called 'Summers of Moments' (a Harpy song). Not saying that the Harpy stuff was as strong as maybe Karn Evil 9 (ELP) or Heart of the Sunrise (Yes) but we had some really great tunes under our belt. It was very frustrating to say the least.

Ed was already a successful, a well-known Long Island star with Foreigner 'home town boy done good' but what was special was that he still came by to say hello, see what we were up to or how he could help. So in 1979, after he had left Foreigner and Harpy had disbanded, we saw the beginning of this new band - not called SPYS yet. I know it was about that time because I got married in the winter of 1980 and I remember having to invite members of both Harpy and the new band to my wedding. It was like the Hatfields and McCoys. Not sure if your familiar with the famous American hillbilly feuding families, but arranging the seating at the wedding had to be strategic so that no brawling started during 'The Bride Cuts the Cake'. By mid 1980, the SPYS unit was pretty much intact, including the additions of Billy (Milne) and Al (Greenwood). Al being the last to come aboard.

Did you have any other band names in mind when putting the band together?
JB: Good question. Actually we did things kind of weird back then. All of us had just come out of some pretty tyrannical band situations. The dictator being either another band member or the management. Not surprising, we all said 'Hey wouldn't it be refreshing if we could possibly approach SPYS a bit more democratically'? I know at the time that we all believed it a great idea. Not sure if I'd still agree with the premise today though. Not saying 'democracy' is a bad thing, but in bands, I think you need to have a leader. Some people are great at 'vision' and others at implementation. You can be equally creative in both but the worst thing you can have is a bunch of creative visionaries bumping heads with each other. Looking back I think we did our best to keep things in check though.

I was music-only. Had no aspirations of managing my own, or any one else's career. Didn't even like taking part in the technical aspects of the craft. That's so weird for me to say today because in the SPYS days, I loved being in the studio, but not behind the console. While everyone else was in the control room debating the number of 'repeats' needed for the echo on the snare hit, I'd be by myself in the studio proper at the piano writing a new song. It's so different today where I love to be at the center of every aspect. Subsequently, for business reasons I had to become technical. So when I came back to music I was able to apply my newly found technical knowledge to creating music. It does work when you can maintain a balance.

Back to your question - being democratic also applied to band naming. We all had a pad and paper and started jotting down anything that even remotely sounded like a potential band name. In about a week we had about 5,000 names. And we would sit together 'auditioning' names for each other. We were like TV executives pitching the new fall lineup to the chief network mogul. And of course every name had to have a story or reason supporting it ' 'So John why do you want to call us Iron Canoli's'? And I'd have to say something like: 'because our music will be hard and heavy but also have a smooth cream filling! It was insane! Vvery Spinal Tap-esque.

Anyway there were a lot of beer bottles being tossed in all directions and you'd hear encouraging comments like 'Come up with a name like that again and we will kill you and your dog Toto too.' In retrospect, I think SPYS (which I believe came from John D) was just the name we hated the least. I mean, the reaction following the other 4,999 was usually 'You moron, you ass-hole, you insipid village idiot, spit drooling maggot!' But when we came to SPYS, it was like ' silence ' and then, 'Hey not too bad.' So in relation to the other names considered, having SPYS as a name just seemed to suck less on the Idea Suckometer. So we went with it. Also, John D and I were both avid spy novel readers, e.g. LeCarre, Robert Ludlum, so the whole spy backdrop painted a very sensual, mysterious picture. Perfect for rock-n-roll.

Did the band have an approach/theme in mind as to what sort of music you'd like to play'
JB: Theme' No. Approach' Yes. Maybe. I mean our approach was that the music had to blend all our favourite styles. We weren't going to force the drummer to play anything that he didn't feel comfortable with or force the guitarist to imitate someone else. What was natural - came out. You have to realize that all of us, to a certain degree, came out of the 70's playing in bands doing the likes of Led Zeppelin, The Who, Yes, ELP, Crimson, Bowie, etc. Most importantly, we were all Lennon and McCartney fanatics. So no matter how technical we became, melody, harmony and good song structure remained critical to the invention. Furthermore, we were all well trained musicians. No matter how much we loved the rowdiness and mayhem of rock, we approached it with a certain finesse.

In the 70's we had witnessed a number of key progressive bands begin to fall out of the limelight with the fans and critics. I mean in the early days of prog, you had exemplary virtuosos writing and performing great pieces of music. Their virtuosity was simply an extension of the music; a way to express what they felt. Later in the 70's I think we started to see many artists discard the music and believe they could substitute dexterity and lightening chops in it's place - a terrible misstep in my opinion. The mid 70's, with bands like Boston, Foreigner, Journey, and others of the knit coming about, saw what would become 'mainstream' or AOR, and a return (I think) to writing some strong melodies again. True, to some great artists the three and a half minute song constraint may have been horribly confining - but the discipline helped us to become musically more economic and clever in our designs.

Working within those parameters - writing well-crafted, well-performed, articulate, tasty, hooky songs, that efficiently (not necessarily effectively) demonstrated our talents, was clearly the only guardrails we set up for each other.

JD: Yeah pretty much what you hear on the records we wanted to create real songs. You know, melody, hooks, and we wanted to be proud of it musically too.

The EMI America Years

I've always wanted to ask you guys this. Firstly, how did you land your deal with EMI America and what was the band's relationship with them like?
JB: We had recorded a truly a terrific demo tape of the band. It wasn't our first though. But interestingly enough, each demo iteration we did (which usually had about 5-6 tunes) always had in common, the same three songs. In fact, when we went to release the video for 'She Can't Wait', instead of using the album version, we used the demo version - it was that strong. When we completed our last demo, we knew it was the one. Before even sending it to A and R people, Ed took it to a friend of his - Barry Taylor, a former rock magazine editor who had just crossed over into artist management. Barry was actually the same friend who got Ed his audition with Foreigner. After hearing our tape, Barry immediately took it to his partner, Abe Hock, whom I think had previously been the president of Zep's Swan Song label.

The two proposed managing us from the get-go and were able to get the buzz going that brought every serious label of the day to our door. Of course, it was up to us then to land the deal with a killer showcase. Up till then we were strictly a studio band, never having performed live with each other. Granted, cumulatively the band had amassed billions of stage hours with other bands but in its present lineup had never even played a small club date. Having the interest of the labels forced us to put together a 40-minute show, and through a friend who owned a local discotheque, we spent the next 48 hours creating a live set. By the second day, Barry and Abe were ushering in A and R people. Within 72 hours, after tossing a number of offers around the table, we walked away with a deal with EMI.

Our relationship with EMI was really hot and cold. But it was pretty apropos for what the industry in the early 80's was going through. Record sales in general were down. Touring? Forget it. No one was filling arenas. Even mega acts like the Who and the Stones were feeling it. Then this new thing called MTV came around. The business model was changing and we were smack in the middle of it. I think what A and R people wear gives you an idea of what the temperament of the industry is at any given time. Before the 80's the A and R guy was either a cigar smoking 'suit' that showed up in a stretch limo with a trophy blond on his arm ('OK Tiffany, get me some ice while I talk business with the boys.') or he looked like a rock star himself. In the 80's, enter the third kind, some young guy who was a cross between Sid Vicious and Elvis Costello. I mean the music scene was really having an identity crisis.

Don't get me wrong; I met some incredible people at EMI and through EMI. People like Bob Currie and Don Grierson were always supportive of us. But let's face it. It's big business. Under the surface it's cold corporations that have to meet their sales projections and satisfy a board of directors. So the team that signed us one year, and who believed in everything we did, wasn't necessarily the same team we saw the next year. If the sales are not there (and not only your sales, but the complete label roster) a new regime is brought in. For the first album we were like the poster boys for the 'Soon to be Incredibly Rich and Famous' and for the second album we were like 'And who are you guys again'? Yes, the glitter fades.

JD: Well, we had two 'names' in the band, so getting a listen wasn't too difficult. After that it was the music. Our relationship was great with EMI early on, but got a little strained around the time of the 2nd album. We thought we could have been promoted a little stronger.

Judging from the band pic/press kit, you guys all looked squeaky clean. What were your Management (Barry and Abe) plus EMI America trying to model you on (ie: other artists)?
JB: Well hey, it's not like we were N'Sync or the Backstreet Boys. It's actually funny you've raised this point ' Just recently I showed the album cover to a friend who was unaware that I was in SPYS, and his comment was 'Oh I remember you guys. You were like posers right'' I laughed remembering that 'posers' were what we called bands who didn't have real chops but just had the looks and the hair. Truth is we never really paid much attention to our 'look'. The way we looked or even acted on stage was really based on the material we were doing and the stage experience we came into SPYS with. I really like to control a stage, so I'm all over it. I always liked how Freddy Mercury could move about. He had an almost 'ballet' approach. Very dramatic, sensual. You probably never saw me perform live but I incorporated more 'theater', meaning I didn't just stand at the microphone and sing. I interacted with the other band members and even the audience.

But no, there was no 'image' consultant involved or any major time spent on creating an image or look for the band. I wouldn't go too far with that squeaky/clean metaphor though. I don't think any of us was Jeffery Dahlmer but we weren't exactly the Singing Nuns either. I mean we saw the signs of depression and the substance abuse that goes with it. We tried to keep sane when the business and some of our personal lives were going sour. Sometimes we were successful, sometimes it got ugly.

Did the success of other contemporaries such as Asia or Yes have a bearing on SPYS commercial approach during the 1982-83 period?
JB: Can't say whether their success hurt or helped us. Realize, coming out of the 70's even Yes was going through some hard times. In fact, lineup changes, side projects aside, I'm not so sure if there really was a Yes group intact while SPYS was starting up. But I'm not really much of a rock historian. You'll have to double-check the chronology out for me.

The first SPYS album was produced by Neil Kernon, who in my opinion is one of the finest producers and people in the business. I mean that on multiple levels. I learned so much about production, what sounds good, what doesn't sound good, trust your ears not the meters, etc. - just good common sense stuff. Production 101. Neil has a long and close relationship with the Yes camp, having worked in the studio and on tour with them. In fact in our early prep days for going into the studio, we were sharing Neil with Jon Anderson, as Neil had just completed producing Jon's 'Animatio'n album. Neil, after learning how much a fan I was of Jon's, asked if I wouldn't mind allowing Jon to come in and possibly doing a duet with me on one number ('Hold On ' When you feel you're falling'). I have always been in awe of Jon and jumped at the opportunity. It actually almost happened. We were going to time the session to be when Jon was planning to come over from England to kick off some 'Animation' press and radio interviews. Unfortunately the album went a few weeks behind in release; hence the American press junket got pushed back. As we were being pressured to complete the album we couldn't wait any longer and the duet never occurred.

Asia came out just as we were mixing our album and I remember thinking, 'Hey this is a good thing. Music that's compatible with ours. I thought Asia's album was great but not necessarily better than SPYS so I think it gave all of us some sense of confidence.

I remember when 'Owner of a Lonely Heart' came out, but that was after SPYS had ceased to exist. I was blown away. Melding the traditional Yes sound with this young kick-ass guitarist, Trevor Rabin, as well as Trevor Horn's production (who I happen to love as a singer too), I thought prog music had passed into the next phase of its evolution. I was out of SPYS at the time, writing, trying to start another band, trying to get my feet on solid ground again, and when the album came out, thinking, 'OK. This is where it's at. I gotta do something like this.'

For someone who's mission was to merge the best of progressive rock with intelligent pop, the commercial failure of SPYS made me doubt everything I was trying to accomplish. The resurrection of Yes brought that hope back to life.

JD: I'd say that for SPYS, Asia was probably more of an influence than Yes because they had more of the mainstream appeal that we were going for.

I can't help but notice a slight progressive streak through the music, despite it's AOR'ness (for want of a better word). Were you and John DiGaudio the principal drivers behind that?
JB: We were all into it. John D and I were giant prog fans - as a side note, I even remember seeing ELP's American debut at the Filmore East in NY City. Remember the band Flash? I think it had Steve Banks on guitar (early Yes guitarist). Al Greenwoood played in the American version of that band before joining Foreigner. Seems the band came over here touring but then the label went belly up or something and they were left stranded. Part of the band went back to England and part of it stayed here taking up residence in the States. As Banks had the rights to the name, they continued touring and shopping for a new label but nothing panned out. Needless to say, Al made his way to Foreigner.

Billy loves and plays every kind of music. One of his favourite drummers is Phil Collins. So between the Yes, Genesis, ELP, subsequently Foreigner musical styles, I guess you could say progressive music was in our blood. But don't get me wrong; individually we had tastes and preferences all over the map. Progressive rock being only one dimension that made up our musical psyche. Not to mention, we differed in our tastes also.

JD: Well, Ed was really into the progressive vein also, although John B and I spent a lot of time playing and writing some pretty hard-core progressive stuff.

You mention Neil Kernon before. What was it like working with him on SPYS?
JB: I could write a book about Neil in terms of how he influenced me. So without coming off like we were closet lovers let me just state for the record what impressed me so much about him:

He has two of the best ears in music. His ability to hear pitch and timing deviations is unbelievable. He can also tell you when your singing flat - and it's good, and when you're singing right in the center of the tone - and it's not good. He plays every instrument known to man. He can sit down at the piano and start playing Chopin or something from the Steely Dan songbook without dropping a beat. The kind of guy who can turn to any guitarist and say. 'Yeah that's good. But I'd do it like this'. And actually be able to demonstrate what he means. He earned our respect for that. He has a story about everyone. He'll keep you entertained and laughing for hours. Knows how to use his personality to calm people down, to rile people up or just be a regular Joe. He's a genius behind the console. Knows where everything is and why it's there. And he loves to experiment. 'Hey mates, let's bounce the Lexicon on the floor a few times and see if we can't make it do something it's not supposed to do.' Just an all round nice guy. He can just be a friend, a shoulder to lean on. He knows how to read people; he hears what you're saying and what you're not saying. He's passive when needed but also knows when it's time to throw someone against the wall.

JD: It was great working with Neil - VERY creative and a good musician also.

Neil does have this reputation for the 'kiss of death', producing many albums which have gone nowhere, though I agree, he's an awesome producer - probably the best ever! Were you aware of his unenviable track record with the likes of yourselves, Aviator, Autograph, Valentine, Streets, Shy?
JB: Ooh, very interesting. So what you're saying is I can blame my lack of success on Neil and the fact that I've been left living the remains of a dismal existence' Sleeping in the back of a 1978 Subaru station wagon, eating the scraps that I find in the dumpsters behind the local McDonald's - is all because of that bum? God! I knew it wasn't me (ha ha).

Seriously, I know that Neil has been involved with numerous acts, not sure of his hit/miss ratio, but given the nature of the business, one hit often undoes the weight of numerous failures. Neil has seen many of those hits. Look at his involvement with all those Hall and Oates records. I also know that what doesn't return a great financial reward isn't always an artistic failure. God, I know of numerous records that I think are brilliant, that probably myself and one other person in the northern hemisphere own. Art is funny like that. There are just as many pieces of music out there that are getting all the attention 'being labeled the masterpieces of the age' that I think are simply trash. I guess if sales were the only governing factor here - we're all in trouble.

To quote John Lennon ' 'Whatever gets you through the night, it's alright, it's alright.' That's how I approach the making of music.

Were you aware also that 'SPYS' the album is rated among the top 10 melodic rock/AOR albums of all time' That's some great recognition even after all these years. Some of those tracks are timeless: 'Don't Run My Life', 'Ice Age' and my favourite 'Hold On (When You Feel You're Falling)'.
JB: I was just made aware of the fact. 'So Neil where the hell are all my royalty checks'? Seriously, your point is well taken. I know the melodies and performances on some of our stuff stand up to time. I often have problems listening to the old stuff, not because I think the arrangements or songs themselves are embarrassing, but rather it recalls a memory of what was going through my head at the time. What I can't believe is, with all the retro and revisited music that's finding it's way on records today by new artists or even in movies and TV commercials, why won't someone re-cut a SPYS tune' They've got my permission. Must be some secret conspiracy out there. The leaders of the industry behind oak walls and closed doors have conspired to declare a ban on all SPYS music ' 'Yes it's all right to redo 'Ruby Don't Bring Your Love To Town' and 'Gypsies, Tramps and Thieves', but there can be no SPYS. They are a threat. They must be banned at all costs or civilization as we know it will cease to exist!'

JD: Yeah'.just found out recently'trying to get it in print'.John and I are pretty proud about that.

A question for both of you. Which album did you (and the other guys in the band for that matter) prefer?
JB: Goes back to that time thing (what was going on in my head back then). I can't speak for all the guys but I think I would guess for some of us, the first album, recording it, starting up with a record label, etc. was the most exciting album to do. The sophomore effort is always hard. I mean doing the first album, the songs were all set, we had spent countless hours writing and refining the tunes. We knew the material backwards and forwards. Our only burden was re-capturing the excitement and getting it on the record. Song-wise I think each album has it's strengths and weaknesses. But no lemons. We never did a song we didn't believe in. We may have missed pulling it off as planned but every song had a purpose. But I'd go with the SPYS debut album.

JD: They both have their good and bad points'they're pretty equal for me.

Personally I love both, but lean more towards 'Behind Enemy Lines'. Tell us about that record. Some great tracks on there, plus the fact the band did most of the production themselves.
JB: Talk about a perfect segue. Here I am singing the praises of one album and you pick the other. Cool. Writing and recording BEL was a weird and wonderful experience. We had just got off the road pushing the first album. If you recall the first album garnered a lot of great attention, but we toured too late in retrospect. Some really pissy decisions were made by management, by the label, and God knows by us. By the time we got out playing for fans, the record was no longer in the stores, original pressings had sold out, EMI was shipping Stray Cats albums to record stores instead of back-ordered SPYS albums. It was getting ugly. We were still getting airplay as we were completing our tour in the States with 38 Special, and had hoped to continue on the leg of another tour but the label said no way, back in the studio boys, we want number two. We wanted our second album to be different but with all the problems we started having with EMI, with our management, and even internally within the band, it was hard to have it not sound different.

The music for BEL was really written by three of us, Al, Ed and myself. Billy wasn't really a songwriter per se. I mean he was really creative and had great ideas for arranging vocals parts and lyrics. But he was more a second phase guy. 'Let me hear what you have and I'll try to improve it' - type of a person. John D was really creative songwriter but by this time had become very downhearted on how things were going. As we went into the second album he was really becoming indifferent over how the band was developing and how it was being managed (or even mismanaged). At that time he was also starting to have a falling out with Ed and Al, which was unfortunate for everyone being how close we all were. Unfortunately pressure was taking its toll on each of us in a different way.

We wrote the album, Ed on bass, Al on keyboards and me on guitar. Our mission was to draft all the tunes, make some sloppy demos on a small tape recorder, and then begin rehearsals with the whole band to flesh the tunes out before beginning the recording phase. The rehearsals were at Ed's house in Nissequogne. After about two weeks of rehearsing we brought down Le Mobile from Canada. Le Mobile is a state of the art mobile recording unit. It sat in Ed's driveway while we spent two weeks laying down basic tracks. Once the basics were done we moved to Kingdom Sound in Syosset, NY. Throughout the process, Clay Hutchinson co-produced the record with us. A wonderful man (unfortunately now deceased) and a great producer who actually produced the demo that helped get us signed.

JD: There are great tracks there, but sometimes I think that maybe we shouldn't have produced it ourselves.

Who came up with the Russian theme on the title track' That was cool.
JB: It's hard to say who came up with the whole idea of making the album a concept record. I mean 'concept albums' were not exactly popular at the time. When we started with the record, it was just to write good, solid SPYS songs. No theme or concept. Lyrics were always a group participation event. Nonetheless, for rehearsing I would always come prepared with a rough lyric just so I had, as the singer, something to get an idea across with. On this album, many of my 'rough' lyrics actually made it to the record. 'Heartbreak' was like that.

In 'Behind Enemy Lines', I just had this stupid reference to 'Leningrad station'. I think it was Al's opening keyboard part that gave me the idea of it being 'Russian' in a sense. The fact that we were SPYS gave us the idea of trying to re-tread the lyrics to encapsulate a bit of a spies yarn. So it was like we went back and retrofitted the spies aspect into the record, after the fact.



With that decided, it wasn't long for me to consider adding a Russian lyric to the song in a semi-Prokovian style. There was still a cold war thing going on you know. I can sing in Spanish, Italian, German and Latin so I thought adding some Russian would be a great kick and add some spice to the record. I never realized how difficult Russian could be to learn. We asked our management at the time to find us a Russian translator and they actually got us one from the Russian consulate in NY. He came in for about a week to work with me. So while the other guys were off laying down guitar or keyboard overdubs I was working with 'Sergei' getting a quick lesson in Russian phonetics and dialects. The translator took suggested lyrical ideas of the song and we worked together to make sure they (a) said what we wanted them to say and (b) could be easily sung by a choir. Of course the choir was the whole band overdubbed multiple times.

Also the inspiration behind the lyrical humor of 'Sheep Don't Talk Back'?
JB: Great track. And yes, I'm glad you get the humor. I just read a recent review that was a result of the 1997 reissue of the record and the reviewer just didn't get it. He thought it was our idea of trying to do a heavy metal tune. Not even close. We were just taking a break during a rehearsal, polishing off a bottle of wine (or many bottles of wine), and some of us got into a philosophical debate about the current state of music. The radio was on and as a song would come on we would say what we liked or disliked about it. Sometimes the debate would get heated as one of us would like something while another would ask 'how the hell can you like that'? Anyway, the Beatles 'I Am The Walrus' came on. There was dead silence until we all chimed in: 'What a great fucking song!' It was unanimous.

I think I came up with the idea of writing a song that had ingenious lyrics - great phrases - but made absolutely no sense. I mean come on. When the song came out I was getting mail from church groups saying how decadent it was. Plus getting mail from Appalachian red-necks saying 'Well I'll be tarred and feathered. You'z fellahs really knows what its about, don't 'ya!? I'm talking some scary stuff. Point is it was total nonsense. I mean at the end (barely audible), just to send it a bit further off the cliff, we throw in 'pigs on ski trip, pigs on ski trip' What's that all about?

The other question which I've had for years was whether SPYS actually gigged outside of the New York area' I know Bob Kulick (who played guitar for you on both the albums) and Peppy Castro who were with Balance at the time didn't venture too far out of the city limits. Was it the same for you guys?
JB: Pre-SPYS we all did a lot of 'outside NY' touring. As SPYS was basically a studio band, our only time on the road was opening up for 38 Special. It was a great tour of the east coast of the US. Basically arenas and college campuses.

JD: Well, we did an East Coast tour with 38-Special 'Great time! From Maine to Georgia. From New York to Tennessee. Mostly colleges and hockey rinks.

After 1983, what happened to SPYS, and where did everyone end up?
JB: Well I don't see the rest of the guys as much as I used to, so to the point of where did we all end up, I can only speak for myself and John D who I still see pretty regularly. Post-SPYS, I teamed up with Al, Billy and Bob Kulick (Balance) and Steven Dees (Novo Combo) to form another band called 'Sing Sing'. We wrote some great stuff and got a lot of label interest but nothing panned. At that point Billy started doing some studio work helping his old friend Billy Falcon put a new album together that was produced by Bon Jovi. Billy Milne did the demos but never got to play on the actual record due to some scheduling conflicts. Steven Dees was doing a lot of writing and had a few deals in the works in publishing. Think he ended up moving down to Florida. Al and Bob Kulick became the nucleus of a band that Joey Lynn Turner was putting together. I think Al actually did an album with Joey as well as a tour after that.

Ed was going through some tough times late in SPYS and even after. He really got difficult to work with towards the end so we lost contact for a few years. We actually share the same birthday (February 13) - of course he's a few years older than me - so every year he would call. I really had problems speaking to him at first because I think for some of us we believed he was the cause of many of our internal problems. I mean I really love the guy, but this business can bring the best and worst out of people. But that's a long story in itself.

After a year or so following the breakup, I really left it to 'let bygones be bygones': we buried the hatchet and ended up having a really nice reunion. We're talking about 15 years ago now. We talk every once and awhile and I believe he plays with some friends once in awhile just for the enjoyment. He has a family and seems to have gotten himself together and doing fantastic.

After Sing Sing fell apart 'it only lasted about a year', I started doing some voice work (radio jingles) just to make money. I also went back to school for computers. This was the first time I was starting to really dig into the technological side of things. I think later it helped me develop and evolve as an artist and producer. But more to the point, although music remains at the center of my life, it is not what I do for a living. At least not at this exact moment.

JD: Unlike the others, I stayed away from the business after SPYS. I was kind of soured on the whole music scene for a while.

Upon reflection guys, what was the most memorable thing for you being associated with SPYS?
JB: Sorry. This question is impossible for me to answer. Not because I don't want to but only because it's just impossible to answer. SPYS was a roller coaster ride. It was filled with thrills, surprises; it took me places I would never have seen in my life otherwise. I cried. I laughed. But there just wasn't one moment. There were millions. Creating our first video. The whole spectacle and adventure of being on, what is in fact, a movie set. Having people wait on you - making sure you're happy. Who'd mind that' Working with directors. Working with some great producers.

Touring was awesome too. Having played clubs for so long. You can usually 'see' the audience. In many ways you even 'know' the audience - all the familiar faces. You learn to deal with a good audience and even the occasional hecklers.

But when you're on an arena stage. Fact is, it's better than sex. When we went on the road Al and Ed warned me, be prepared to have people screaming curses at you to get off the stage. Come on, when you go to a show and an unknown band comes out to warm up the crowd, how often have we all yelled for the headliner. Well I went out the first time with that warning echoing in my head. Only what I found was nothing of the sort. No screams 'Get off you bums!' We stepped out to people who knew our names. Who knew and sang along with the words of our songs. It was actually easy to perform. I got high on it. And it was at that point, or during occurrences like that, where I realized how successful we really were and how much airplay we had gotten to that point. The fact that it didn't turn into fiscal success was the only frustrating aspect of the experience.

JD: Pretty much everything'. the rehearsing, recording, touring, partying, fighting'..everything!

Life after SPYS

You're from the top end of Long Island. What's it like living there, away from the hub-bub of downtown New York?
JB: Well I'm not sure how well you know Long Island or the NY area but it's not like I'm living out in the boonies with the livestock. Seriously, Port Jefferson just happens to be a great town on the island's north shore. Beautiful homes and gorgeous landscapes. And the town itself is a pretty happening place. Very artsy, a lot of antique shops and we have a great cafe scene. Even though I've always lived on the island, I've always worked in Manhattan (the hub-bub). So I'm not so far from the action when I get the urge. Only about 50 miles from the big city or just about an hour by train.

I notice you've got some of your own material up on MP3.COM. Your album 'To The Boundary Mosaic', is an expression of your own musical dabblings over the years?
JB: Yes. The internet is such a cool place. Who would have thought I would be communicating with someone as far away as New Zealand? In the early days of music, I was always into the more organic side of making the music. I wasn't a button pusher or a dial twirler. But for economic reasons I had to get into the digital profession. It's been very lucrative and satisfying for me; of course nothing beats being on tour, going to far-off places, hearing the cheering of your name in arenas and dining with the Osbourne's, but'.

Just making a living wasn't enough. I needed to get back into music again. So I tried putting together new bands, even joined up with Billy Milne on a few of them, but it got too hard and demanding. Playing with a group of guys, having a family and 'real' job is pretty gruelling. I also got very impatient. I'm a perfectionist.

I don't have the luxury of eating and sleeping with the band, writing and playing ' bonding as a unit, etc. That's easy for 20 year olds who see nothing else in front of them but their art and careers. I wanted a way I could be totally self-contained. Wasn't into the collaboration thing so much anymore. So a couple of years ago I started building a small studio in my house and began devoting some serious time to composing again. The digital world provides me a limitless playground to surface my ideas in an autonomous fashion. Not to mention, the quality of equipment, or at least the equipment you need to record a record today, is absolutely unbelievable. In truth, there are things I can do in my studio now that would have been almost impossible to do 20 years ago. Not saying that state of the art studios, that cost a billion dollars a minute are obsolete, but do you know how many great records, even best selling albums, are being done in small digital studios at a fraction of the cost' It staggers the mind.

You've mentioned 'To the Boundary Mosaic'. The title is probably a reach for many, or at least would make one wonder what I'm talking about, but having lived through the September 11th ordeal, I wanted to write a song that expressed what I was feeling. A friend of mine wrote a song right after it happened. It's a beautiful piece. He asked me if I was inspired to do the same and at the time I said no. I was being honest. I really didn't feel inspired to deal with my feelings in an artistic way. At least not at the time.



Not to mention, right after the event you started hearing all those novelty parodies and really garbage tracks people were trying to make a profit off of. I just didn't want to jump on that bandwagon. Then in December of 2001, after things started to settle down a bit, I started to sketch out an idea. I had this 'Kyrie eleison' (Lord have mercy) melodic idea sitting around that I heard for choir and rock band. I was toying around with writing a modern day Mass. After September 11th, the Kyrie seemed quite fitting in respect to someone trying to come to terms with the madness of terrorism, but I didn't think an entire work, like a full requiem Mass was feasible for me. So I took parts of another song I had been working on and started threading the two ideas together.

I approach writing music from many different directions. Sometimes I'll have a melody or a chord sequence in mind and I'll build the song around a phrase. Often I have a lyric or a poem that inspires the melody. Strangely enough, in this case I started with just a title. I thought 'To the boundary mosaic' was a pretty cool line ' what the hell did it mean' No idea. Call it cosmic or whatever ' one night I'm watching the Weather Channel on cable and the meteorologist starts pointing to a map of the US and it's like the typical map you see in an Atlas or on a globe. The states of the US are all in different colours. Well it looked to me like a colourful tapestry'or mosaic. At that point I knew that I had to write a lyric that explained to people the resilience we as a people have for protecting what we love. It probably holds true of any community or country. But here was America, a country constantly bickering with itself, continually poking fun at each other, riddled with scandals, still suffering from pockets of racism and bigotry. But when we're attacked'look out. We pull ourselves together as one nation. One people. To me that's the Boundary Mosaic.

You touched on the events of Sept 11 with the song 'To The Boundary Mosaic'. As a New Yorker, this shocking event obviously hit home more than most?
JB: It sure did. I had friends who worked there. I was there about two weeks before it happened, having drinks at 'Windows of the World' (restaurant at the top of one of the buildings). It was one of my favourite places. I used to work down the block. It hit home. America was moved beyond words - but to be a New Yorker - that took it to another dimension.

It would be fair to say that music could be used as part of the overall healing process of Sept 11 if people are open to it. Would you agree with that?
JB: Oh definitely. Music is one of the greatest healers. I mean take it down to its basics of rhythm, pitch, frequency and harmonics. It has both a physical and metaphysical effect on all of us. I don't think it's that different from spirituality in that way. That's why liturgical and religious rituals have always relied on music as background or even foreground to their purpose. When I was a kid, when I had a bad stomach ache or even a fever I remember one of the ways I could make myself feel better was by putting on some of my Beatle 45's. It calmed me and took me to a place where real healing could happen.

I think, we as a people can use music to bring ourselves closer. We can share the sorrow, the pain and strengthen each other using it as a medium. It's another form of Communion.

Are you aware of any local New York events/gigs/activity based around 'remembering Sept 11'?
JB: So many events have occurred to keep the memory and spirit of all who have been affected alive. Some of them have been the Madison Square Garden concert that Paul McCartney helped organize. But there have been many more, smaller but equally important events. You can't open a NY paper today without seeing at least one reference to a charity event or activity that's planned in the area to benefit the families and friends of those who have been affected by this.

Your song bios refer to musical references such as ELP, Yes, Queen, The Beatles. That obviously says that older classic/retro rock artists still do it for you. What about some of the more modern artists/bands out there. Anything out there that catches your ear?
JB: Oh yeah, definitely. I mean in the prog vein I'm always turned on by people like Dream Theater, Spock's Beard, etc. There are a lot of bands out there true to the prog spirit but still experimenting and trying to merge the old with the new. I hope I'm doing the same with my music. I also admire people like Enya. Just picked up the soundtrack from Lord of the Rings. That was filmed in New Zealand correct' (Sure was.. Ed) The music is awesome and works great with the visual experience pf the film. I like Fish, and most recently I've picked up 'Drops of Jupiter' from Train. Great production and tunes. I also like people like Bob Whelan (Riverdance). His choice of instruments, Celtic or otherwise, is brilliant and his melodic ideas personally gives me chills.

I also like a lot of other music that isn't in the prog style. My tastes really run the gamut. My sons are two terrific musicians just coming of age. One's a drummer (Ian) and the other a singer (Paul). They keep me tuned into many of the newer bands like Linkin Park, Slipknot, Korn, etc. Not to mention I like some stuff from NIN. I really get influenced from many different musical streams. In the coming year I hope to produce my boys or do something with them. They keep teaching their old man new tricks.

Typically anything that has a strong lyric, melody or harmony will catch my attention. There's even some Backstreet Boys that I think is cool. But it has to be something more than just 'ear candy'. You know, the banal stuff that sounds good one moment but you know has no real value. Benjamin Britten, Bach, Anton Bruchner, Carl Orff, Gershwin ' all composers I love. In recent years I've become a devoted Andrea Bocelli fan. I'm so impressed with his ability to move from straight classical to an almost pop sound. It shows not only that he has the chops to do it but that he loves the music as well.

I'm also a big fan of some female country singers like Faith Hill, Shania Twain and Jamie O'Neil. I think it might be that many studio players in new country today originally came from (or at least borrow from) the pop AOR mainstream sound of the 70's and 80's. One of the greatest criticisms I heard concerning a Shania record was 'This is the best rock album Def Leppard never recorded!' It's not surprising that the voice arrangements, song construction, and even guitar solos in new country remind me of the 80's in many ways.

I'll ask this question in any case, because my readers will quiz me later asking why I never asked it. And that is: any chance of the SPYS team getting back together to reunite temporarily or permanently' I have many record label contacts who would snap at the chance of getting you guys back together to play melodic rock/AOR, and reunions are the 'in-thing' at the moment?
JB: It's not a bad question or even an untimely one. In fact when the SPYS CD was released in 1997, Renaissance Records wanted to try to get us to put something new together. The time wasn't right for many of us though. Then after about six months of the CD being out there we got a call to see if we would be interested in participating in a Roswell Anniversary Rock Festival in Mew Mexico. I think most people know what Roswell signifies 'UFO's, extraterrestrials, etc. All that cool stuff. The record company and the 5 of us came to an agreement that if they funded it, we would go into a rehearsal studio and put together a 30 minute set. The record company would handle all logistics. The concert was going to be on the scale of a Woodstock seeing the reunions of a bunch of 70's and 80's bands including groups like the original Deep Purple, Procul Harum, Foghat, Uriah Heep, Heart, ELO, Spooky Tooth, and many others, and it would be headlined by the Who. Sounds like a dream ticket huh?

Well everything was going as planned, we were poised to start, when a tragedy in San Diego unfolded. I'm talking about the whole Heaven's Gate cult suicide. Immediately following the news all the sponsors and corporate backers started backing out. I guess people like Coca Cola and Microsoft felt it was bad business to tie their names and logos to an event that had any weirdness or cult activity associated to it.

There was some talk about other corporate sponsors getting involved but none ever materialized and the rock festival idea disintegrated. Could it happen again or would we be interested in rejoining today if the option and possibility existed' Why not. I for one would do it. I'd be curious to know what some of your readers think.

Thanks for your time John, but before we wrap, is there anything you'd like to share with the many SPYS fans out there?
JB: Well it was wonderful to be able to share some of my thoughts and memories with all of the SPYS fans who still exist out there. I know the music we made back then meant so much to us personally, but when I hear from fans who tell me stories of how our music touched them personally, helped them overcome obstacles or even changed them in some positive way'it just makes the pains and frustrations that went along with making the music seem so trifle. It really helps me to look at the positives and see that the five of us, for as short a time it was playing together (maybe 3-4 years), did make a difference. I continue to make music and hopefully, in one form or another, as the complete original band or as just a small teaming of the band, you may soon hear some new music coming from us. I wish everyone my love and hope for the future.

Thanks to both John's for giving GLORY-DAZE their assistance in putting this together. As we alluded to in the interview, the guys would not be averse to getting together musically. If you'd like to see this happen, drop us a line with your support.'


Related Articles
Spys - 1982 Spys
Spys - 1983 Behind Enemy Lines
Spys - 2002 Interview with John Blanco (2002)



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#1 | 490 on October 09 2006 17:26:26
Very cool,interview. Thanks for this.
 
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