One of my favorite things about progressive music festivals is the opportunity to meet new people who love progressive music. I met Mike Visaggio at ProgStock 2018, and we chatted about his life and music and perspective. Mike is the keyboardist and primary composer for symphonic prog band Kinetic Element. From their website: Kinetic Element “harbors musical roots in classic artists like Emerson, Lake & Palmer, Yes, Asia and Genesis and blends those influences with philosophical and spiritually powerful and uplifting lyrics.” We talked with Mike about his musical history, Kinetic Element’s new album The Face of Life, and more.
Tell us a little bit about your musical background.
I’ve been playing music since 1961 when I started on the accordion at age 9. My first band was in Queens in New York City playing top 40 hits in the late 1960s and moving into the early rock scene of FM radio with a blues rock band, but started playing original music in 1970 trying to compose progressive music which at the time would be the likes of Tull, Doors, Cream, Mountain, and then Yes. I was studying at Queens College in New York City and had some cool professors who immersed me in Bach and Beethoven. I had an opportunity to get into the studio with an Americana artist named Billy Falcon in the late1970s and did three albums and an LP with him, and I had the only tour of my life with that band in 1979. But I was never really formally trained. I’m pretty much self taught and just figured out by ear as much as I could. I also loved the Allman Brothers, Lee Michaels, Traffic, early Chicago, Iron Butterfly, The Who, but it was Yes, ELP, Genesis, and King Crimson that put me on a path away from blues and pop and classic rock and into the more complex and structured format of what we now call prog rock. I was away from music for 15 years and did some originals in the early 90s but really didn’t get back into the swing of things until the early 2000s when I was already past 50 years old.
Who were your musical idols growing up?
Undoubtedly the bands I have already mentioned were influences but if I had “idols” it would be the keyboardists of Yes, Genesis and ELP, and we all know who they are. I knew I wasn’t in their league in technique and mechanics, because I was self-taught, but I learned as much of their work as I could and let them inspire my own composing. I never tried to “be” them, but I knew that if I could get the hang of what they were doing I could blend it into what my own creativity was dreaming up. I’m very thankful to everyone who likes the way I play because I know there are way better players aplenty in the genre. I do have a talent for playing to my strengths in orchestrating and creating soundscapes and doing good keyboard solos. I guess I’m more along the lines of Tony Kaye and Clive Nolan in what I do.
How did Kinetic Element form? Tell us about your band mates.
I set out in 2005 to do a solo album, not really knowing what I was doing because I had no recording knowledge, and really still don’t. But making “Starship Universe” led me to a drummer named Michael Murray, who was like me, just banging away with local bands in Richmond but who, like me, had this burning love of prog. I’d been doing the album with a drum machine but when Michael found out what I was about, he wanted to play on the record so we got together, it worked out well, and the two of us have been the nucleus of Kinetic Element its whole existence. He’s a classic rock drummer who has been “progressively” transforming into a prog drummer the whole time we’ve been working together, and he keeps getting more sophisticated with every new piece. Plus he is now our recording engineer and I don’t know where I’d be without him. He also dreamed up the name Kinetic Element.
The wonderful Mark Tupko joined us in 2014 following a veritable parade of bassists for the first eight years, and is still on board. Mark is from Poland, he’s an American citizen, and he’s like having Squire, Rutherford and Entwhistle all rolled up in one nice package. I love watching his face light up as a new piece of music takes shape at rehearsals.
Our current guitarist, Peter Matuchniak, is pretty well known in the prog world, having been with the Gekko Project, The Steppes, most recently Bomber Goggles, and has several of his own solo releases. He lives 3,000 miles away from us in California near Los Angeles (the band is based in Richmond, VA) and we have to work with him via file sharing. We had a really wonderful player named Todd Russell from 2008 to 2017, but Todd decided our respective visions for the band were not compatible, and left us right after we played Progtoberfest in 2017. So with Peter we sound a bit different, as he is a Hackett acolyte to Todd’s Howe. And he has exceeded all our expectations since coming aboard.
Vocalist Saint John Coleman came to us first in 2013 when we heard him with his band DEJA in the Norfolk VA area, but things didn’t work out and we had to use three guest vocalists on our second album “Travelog.” We decided to ask John back and on his second go-round with us things are much better as we gave him a lot more latitude to do things his way and he has responded by turning in a great powerful performance on our upcoming CD The Face of Life.
Tell us about your latest album, The Face of Life. How is it different from previous albums?
I guess first of all it’s shorter, because we are doing a vinyl release as well as a CD release, and you can only get about 45 minutes onto a vinyl record. Powered by Light and Travelog were both 70-minute works. Powered by Light was all spiritual in lyrical content, Travelog had some allusion to politics without being partisan, but always with a view towards the value of individual liberty, but The Face of Life is totally about encouragement to be the best we can be as individuals because life is so damn short. Musically I would say they are all good symphonic progressive rock, and TFOL is the first time we have had a true lead singer doing all the vocals from start to finish. In a sense all of them are of one piece because while we see life differently, we all are certain that being excellent to one’s fellow man is an ideal well worth striving toward. There’s so much out there that’s really dark. So I try to be an agent of light to at least dispel that darkness in my own sphere of influence.
What are some of the central themes of The Face of Life?
As I said, pretty simple … be good to your fellow human being. There are rewards for that, and we can, in a sense, in deciding to walk hand in hand with the Creator, live above the human condition of cyclical ascension of various forms of darkness in which the human race is sort of sentenced to dwell.
Tell us about your decision to crowdfund the album. How will the money be used?
Totally for production costs. Right now it looks like we are going to have to dig down and hit up our personal reserves some in order to get it done but our fans are being a tremendous help. Crowdfunding brings our fans up close and personal with what we’re doing, and I’ve tried to let them see the ongoing making of the album via Facebook posts and hear not only snippets but whole sections of pieces as these are completed, and we have one whole piece linked on the GoFundMe page. There’s nothing more fun than sending out the rewards when the product is finally in hand.
When will The Face of Life be released? Will it be available in multiple formats?
We seem to keep hitting snags with the mixes and that has pushed back the release date to the end of January 2019 because of the length of time it takes to get a vinyl LP manufactured. We are keeping our fingers crossed that we will get it out there before January is out. The CD version only takes eleven days, but vinyl is a ten week process.
Any chance we’ll catch any more live dates this year?
Peter lives on the other side of the country, so unless we get a festival invitation, and it looks like only Progstock and Progtoberfest are possible, we will not be playing out on any major stages. We’re also gently lobbying to persuade the European festivals to give us a shot. If a friend of the band’s who loves the music and is learning it to possibly fill in for Peter, actually succeeds in doing that, we MAY have some Eastern shows but that’s a big “if.” Peter will fly in to play with us for any major concert dates but we’re not counting on being able to get booked on one. So we’ve started planning another CD to be ready in a year.
Bonus question: If you could jam with any band in history at any time, who would you play with?
Wow, there are so many … of course Yes, or Genesis. But I would kill to play with The Strawbs, or Pendragon. But you know what? If Mountain still existed I would have loved to play with Leslie West. I have a big old soft spot for Tom Petty!! And I always thought that The Cream needed keyboards. Could you imagine a pipe organ on “White Room?” I could. LOL
Thanks for the opportunity to share, Tom. Prog Lives. It keeps us young. And, “A spirit with a vision is a dream with a mission.” Mike V.