If you are a Proglodytes follower, you might know that I attended ProgStock 2018 this year, and was able to live-blog the entire event. The weekend was stacked with some amazing performances, but one of the most amazing ProgStock performances happened at the second late-night event. Though I was sleep deprived and running on fumes, Joe Deninzon’s set with his band Stratospheerius jolted me awake. I wrote: “Seeing him play was like eating candy- every time he played a solo, I couldn’t help but smile and cheer. He had an intimidatingly talented backup band as well. In a room full of a lot of musicians, it’s hard to impress, and I can confirm that everyone was blown away. His concert was a blast- one of the most impressive and fun events all weekend.” Soon after, his band was was announced for Progstock 2019’s main stage, which let me know that everyone else, including the ProgStock festival organizers, agreed with me!
As I’ve become more familiar with Joe Deninzon’s music, I’ve grown more and more impressed. His music with Stratospheerius is a unique blend of various styles and genres, and is infused with a punk-ish energy that is rare in the progressive music world. He’s a prolific and innovative composer and a session player, with a long list of collaborations. And on top of all of this, he’s a really nice guy too! Joe stopped by to answer a few of our questions about his personal history, his music, and his philosophy.
I’ve read in interviews that you came from a very musical background, though it was primarily classical music. What drew you to the violin?
My parents. My mother is a classical pianist and my father is a classical violinist, so I was watching them practicing and hearing music in the house since I was born. I remember listening to records of Jascha Heifetz, Zino Francescatti, Fritz Kreisler, and Yehudi Menuhin, and comparing their playing styles when I was 4. My dad started me on violin when I was 5. I had a love/hate relationship with the instrument, especially when we emigrated from Russia to the States and it was not considered “cool” to play the violin where I went to school. Obviously now, it’s all love.
Who would you say were the most formative artists in your musical upbringing?
The violinists I mentioned above, plus Itzhak Perlman. I love composers like Stravinsky, Shostakovich, Brahms, Mahler. In the early ’80s I discovered Queen, Yes, Van Halen, Michael Jackson, Aerosmith. In high school I got into Zappa, Miles, Coltrane, Jean-Luc Ponty, Mahavishnu, Kings X. Zeppelin, Steve Vai, I can go on and on…
Tell us about seven-string fretted Viper electric violin.
My weapon of choice is a 7-string fretted “Viper” Flying V electric violin created by Mark Wood and built by his luthier, Joe Domjan. The bridge transducer is made by Richard Barbera. I like having 7 strings because I get the full range of violin, viola, and cello, and a whole step LOWER than cello. This allows me to play low, heavy power chords, walking bass lines when I’m doing solo live looping, demo string quartet arrangements. Many of my compositions are written on that instrument, in three clefs.
I like having the frets because it helps me get oriented on the fingerboard, especially when I’m simultaneously singing. It also helps when the monitors are fucked up and you can’t hear yourself. Mark also patented a special harness system where the instrument is attached to your body, and you don’t have to contort your hands and chin to hold the violin in place. This frees up your mouth if you’re a singer. It’s a big stretch for someone who spent their whole life playing a traditional violin or viola, but as a singing electric violinist, I can’t imagine playing anything else.
Can you give us a rundown of your effects rig?
I am a stomp box fetishist. I love experimenting with different sounds and rising to the challenge of making music from these gadgets, not just pressing buttons.
I have a Pedaltrain classic pro pedal board which I load up with a Dunlop mini wah, Mooer delay, Zoom Multistomp MS 70CDR, Digitech Whammy, Line 6 DL4, Boss Harmonist, Line 6 Fm4 Filter Modeler, Digitech Bass Synth Wah, Earthquaker Arpanoid, Electro-Harmonix C9 Organ pedal, and Korg Miku Stomp. I also use a Line 6 MM4 Ring Modulator, and for my travel rig, I use a TC Electronics Nova. I record direct through a Tech 21 Blonde pedal, which I also use as my main distortion/overdrive. I like Fender Twin amps for my loud gigs. Mesa/Boogie Cabinets are also great for violin. For my smaller gigs, I use an old Tech 21 Trademark 60. For small jazz and solo gigs, I have a Roland AC-60. I’m old school and love playing through good amps, but when I run direct, I’ll use a Tech 21 Sansamp, Blonde, or LR Baggs Para Acoustic DI.
How did Stratospheerius form? What do you hope to achieve with Stratospheerius’s music?
I got my Bachelor’s degree in Jazz Violin at Indiana University and moved to New York in 1997 to do my Masters in Manhattan School of Music. The summer before I moved to NYC, I recorded a fusion CD called “Electric Blue” with local musicians in my hometown of Cleveland. My goal was to find a band in NY to play that music and gig around while I was going to school and trying to establish myself as a working musician. Around that time, I had a stint teaching violin at the New School where I met renowned guitarist Alex Skolnick, who had quit Testament and was doing his Bachelor’s in Jazz Guitar. I invited him to play with me and he introduced me to drummer Lucianna Padmore and bassist Ron Baron, who became the first real incarnation of the band. The name came from the famous 18th century violin maker Antonio Stradivari and and the fact that our trippy music was up in the stratosphere. A violin colleague of mine coined the phrase. I spent years finding my sound. Originally it was an all-instrumental jazz fusion/jamband project, but I loved to sing and kept incorporating more and more vocals in what I was writing. Over time, it morphed from a jamband into more of progressive rock outfit, and those audiences gravitated to the music. My goal with Stratospheerius is to continue making creative, high energy rock with extended compositions and virtuosic improvisations, but with hooks that draw people in. I use it as a vehicle to push the boundaries of the Electric violin. I just want to continue putting out records, touring, and building the band’s following internationally.
Tell us about your bandmates in Stratospheerius.
I have been fortunate to have some of the greatest players on the planet in my band!
For the past decade, the lineup has been Lucianna Padmore on drums, Jamie Bishop (the Cin, Francis Dunnery) on bass, Aurelian Budynek (Cindy Blackman, Marky Ramone) on guitar. This is the lineup on our last two albums. We have recently parted ways due to everyone getting busy with other musical projects, babies, etc etc. We are still friends and those guys still play shows with me, but my new core lineup is Michaelangelo Quirinale on guitar, Paul Ranieri (Mark Wood) on bass, and Jason Gianni on drums. Among Jason’s claims to fame are that he played drums on the original SpongeBob SquarePants theme and was Neal Morse’s handpicked drummer to sub for Mike Portnoy on tour.
I’m gonna namedrop some other cats that have played in my band over the years: drummer Kenny Grohowsky (Brand X), drummer Tobias Ralph (Adrien Belew trio), bassist Bob Bowen (Lee Konitz, Tony Trishka), Randy McStine (Stu Hamm, The Fringe, Dave Kerzner). Randy has subbed in my band on every instrument except violin. I always joke that if he ever learns violin, I’m out of a job! I did the algorithm and with the pool of players that know my music, I can have around 772 different versions of the band!
Your latest album, Guilty of Innocence, features a unique blend of genres. How do you feel this album differs from previous records?
I like to blend genres because my musical tastes are so diverse, but I feel this is our heaviest, most focused, ROCK record. Even thought it was recorded over the span of three years, it’s the most cohesive, in my opinion.
You’re also in a group called Sweet Plantain String Quartet. What are some of your favorite things about playing with them? Tell us about Sweet Plantain’s composition process.
Sweet Plantain is a traditional string quartet (2 violins, viola, cello) that mixes Classical, Jazz, Funk, and Hip Hop with Afro Cuban and Latin traditions. We do mostly original music as well as arrangements of music by Antonio Carlos Jobim, Aldemaro Romero, Paco de Lucia, Luiz Simas, and other Latin composers. Eddie Venegas, who plays lead violin and is the main writer for the group, also doubles on trombone, and I double on mandolin and vocals. Unlike Stratospheerius, this group is completely acoustic. We’ve toured all over the US, Russia, Sweden, Italy, and the Caribbean. The original music was written by Eddie, myself, and our co-founding cellist, David Gotay, who died of kidney cancer in 2015. Our writing process involves Eddie or myself bringing in a new piece, and we’ll workshop it, change things, cut things out, test drive it in performances, and continue to tweak it until we’re happy. Much the same way Stratospheerius works. Playing in a string quartet is a very intimate and intricate form of music and it’s a different kind of high than playing with a loud rock n roll band.
On top of being a prolific instrumentalist, composer, and collaborator, you’re also a dedicated educator. What is your philosophy on music/instrumental education? What have you seen work as far as effective methods?
Having grown up the son of classical musicians, married a classical musician (my wife is a violinist with the New York Philharmonic), and having gone through the typical eduction a classical violinist would get, including Suzuki training, etc, I take issue with the way string players are taught. You learn technique and you’re taught to read and observe every dynamic, every articulation, every mordent written in the music. You are not allowed to question anything or even have an opinion until you are an adult. The teacher is the master and you nod your head and obey.
Not only are you deprived of any improvisation training or creative input into the music, but at the conservatory level, I know teachers who will refuse to work with a student if they find out that in their spare time, the student is playing in a genre outside of classical music. In the classical world, if you’re a player who dabbles in “alternative” styles (rock, hip hop, jazz, etc), there is still the stigma that you’re not “serious.” This is why you get professional string players who can site read anything you put in front of them, but have a mortal fear of playing anything that’s off the page or, God forbid, a “wrong” note! This approach to education not only hinders the development of an important part of your brain, but it does the student a huge disservice by limiting their professional opportunities when they go out into the world.
This mentality is changing with more and more music schools having creative string departments and encouraging cross-pollination with strings and their non-classical departments, but the stuffy conservatory mentality still is widespread, especially outside the U.S.
As a person who has been contracting string players for mostly non-classical gigs in New York for the past 15 years, I can tell you that while talent pool with the right skill sets is growing, it’s still very small and we have a long way to go.
My goal is to break those boundaries. For years, I’ve travelled the country as a clinician at high schools and colleges and music camps, including Mark Wood’s Rock Orchestra Camp in Kansas, where I have taught for the past 8 years. It’s a long road but the goal is to make string players more creative and encourage them to find their voice!
You’ve done countless collaborations with artists from so many genres. Who are your bucket list collaborators?
I’m a huge Spock’s Beard fan, so I would love to work with any of those guys past or present, including Neal Morse and Nick D’Virgilio. I’d love to do something with Mike Portnoy, Matt Bellamy, Rachel Flowers, Steve Vai, Jon Anderson, John Corigliano, John Zorn. I’m sure I can come up with a crazy long list, but these are the first artists who come to mind.
If you could further modify your violin to do anything you wanted (technical expertise/physical properties of the universe aside), what would you want to add?
Wow, that’s a tough one! I’ve always wanted to find a way to flip it around my back like ZZ Top with their guitars. If Mark can figure out a way to make that happen with the Viper, it would just take it to the next level!
What is your go-to karaoke song?
Tequila, but only if I can do the Pee Wee Herman moves.
Seriously, anything with a fiddle on it, especially “Come on Eileen” by Dexy’s Midnight Runners, which is fun to sing and gives me an excuse to shred on my violin.
Who is your favorite fictional character?