Interviews

Interview with Marco Machera

Many folks know the name Marco Machera as co-founder of EchoTest, the bass driven, fusion/prog infused group that also features the incredible talents of Julie Slick (Adrian Belew Power Trio, solo artist). Others might have heard his work with Teho Teardo, Paul Gilbert, TROOT, Chrysta Bell, and more. Marco is also a very talented multi instrumentalist and songwriter, with several brilliant records to his name. I talked with Marco about his musical background, his attraction to the bass, and his solo works, as well as some great advice for musicians and artists.

Tell me about your musical upbringing! What were some of your first musical loves?

I have two older brothers and they were (still are) big Iron Maiden fans. As a young child and teenager, I was obsessed with Maiden – even now, I know their albums by heart, note by note, word by word. Growing up, I became interested in other heavy metal bands, then slowly transitioned to progressive rock. Rush was another significant band in my musical upringing. I have always admired them as flawless musicians, but also as human beings. Their integrity, their sense of humour, their dedication to music – all those things definitely shaped my outlook on life.

Earlier this year, I was devastated at the news of Neil Peart’s passing. His lyrics meant the world to me… they helped in difficult times. However, Rush led the way to other important discoveries. Through them, I found out about Yes, Genesis, and finally King Crimson. What can I say about King Crimson? They have changed my life forever. They sounded darker, and more mysterious than anything I had heard until that point. Truly fascinating music, that once again exposed me to other incredible artists. It’s a neverending cycle.

Photo credit: Avraham Bank

I know that you are a talented multi-instrumentalist, but tell me about your history with the bass guitar. What do you love about playing bass?

When I was a young kid, the sound of the bass appealed to me. I was drawn to the ‘feel’ of the rhythm section. For a while, I thought of myself as a drummer (I would spend hours playing along to records, hitting the mattress with broken sticks that my drumming brother would toss away). Finally, I realised that the more I liked a bassline, the more I liked the song, therefore I made the choice. Mom and dad bought me a cheap bass guitar when I was 12. My brothers played in a band and I noticed how difficult it was for them to find a decent bass player. Everyone wanted to be a guitarist or a drummer! I thought, ‘I will learn how to play the bass, so that I can join their band’. That’s how it went.

I took some bass lessons from a private teacher, but I was a terrible student. I guess that I have good ears and a good sense of time, therefore I can learn to play material quickly, even when it’s very complicated. Looking back now, I wish I had studied harmony and how to sight read better, although throughout the years I have expanded my vocabulary through constant research and experimentation. I’m also a very different bassist than I was 15 or 10 years ago. When I started, I wanted to play as many notes as I could, I was anxious to show people how good I was. I was into jazz and fusion players. In fact, I worked a lot on my chops. My interest progressively shifted into songwriting, and how to come up with basslines that could serve the song effectively.

Also, I have been working extensively on my sound, and making the best use I can of the possibilities that the instrument can offer. That involves thinking in a different way than a traditional bass player would, and I get to put that concept into practice a lot with EchoTest, for instance, or with some of the session work I get involved with. I still remember that one time that I told Tony Levin, ‘You know Tony, I’m really trying to make the bass sound like it is not a bass’, to which he replied ‘Well, after all these years I’m still trying to make the bass sound like a bass!’ That definitely put things into perspective.

You have been able to work with some pretty amazing musicians in your career as a session player. What have you learned from the various musicians you’ve played with that you think might benefit those who want to follow your path?

Speaking of Tony Levin, I have had the chance to play with him a few times so far. The turning point was attending the Three of a Perfect Pair music camp in upstate New York, in 2011 (where I also met Julie Slick), when I traded some notes with him for the first time. During one of the daily workshops, Tony was lecturing the participants on improvisation in music. I was a bit jetlagged and feeling lousy, having traveled from Italy a couple of days before, and couldn’t focus on what was being said. However, when Tony asked if anyone wanted to join him and drummer Pat Mastelotto to improvise a bit, I didn’t hesitate and raised my hand. I was younger and fearless. I grabbed my bass, Tony was on the Chapman Stick. He said ‘You start’, and honestly, I was not expecting that at all! I totally felt the pressure. I started playing some horrible, cheesy funk groove. Slapping the bass, nonetheless. Poor Pat started following me, but I could see Tony was not impressed. He played less and less as the minutes went by, and finally stopped. He said something like ‘Well, this sounded more like a jam, not really what I intended to demonstrate’. I felt terrible, although he was very gracious to me afterwards.

However, it taught me a lot about listening to the musicians you play with – the hard way. I have learnt a lot from Tony about restraint and being a supportive, sensitive player. It all comes down to that, actually. Anytime I’m involved in a session, I’m required to “deliver the goods” in an effective, tasteful manner, and quickly. My suggestion would be to get better at understanding what the artist or producer wants. It tends to vary from session to session, but if your voice on the instrument is strong enough and you have a good sense of the big picture, of where the music might go and how you can make a difference, then you will do good. I realise these are big topics. It takes time and dedication, but every new session will be better and more satisfying than the last.

EchoTest was formed in 2014 with the tremendously talented Julie Slick. I read in an update that you two are working on an album. Tell us what you can about it. How will it be different from Daughter of Ocean?

I guess I can start with the things that it shares with Daughter of Ocean. Once again, it’s going to be a concept album – we feel that crafting these epic “musical journeys” allow us to dig deeper into the music and make each record a bit more special for us and the fans. I have used the word ‘epic’, as this next album will maintain the epic qualities that characterized Daughter of Ocean. I loved working on Daughter, because it allowed us to dive into dreamy places, to stretch the boundaries a bit. It was an enjoyable process, as much as it was difficult, considering that the material was so layered and the post-production had to be very meticulous. This time, I feel we managed to have a better sense of the songs from the very beginning, it was easier to merge a grittier approach with our typical layered songwriting style. I’d say we are almost finished with the writing and arranging of the parts. Unfortunately, Covid-19 is slowing things down – the plan was to enter the studio in the summer to record the drums, and to add final touches to the songs. But it will have to wait.

In the meantime, I’m still working on some of the lyrics and coming up with vocal parts, and I keep trading files with Julie and Alessandro via Dropbox and Wetransfer. The concept will be based on the Snoqualmie tribe’s legend of Moon the Transformer, especially on the material that was recorded and translated by anthropologist Arthur C. Ballard in 1916. I think we planted the seeds for that in 2017, when we visited the Snoqualmie falls outside of Seattle, right after the recording sessions for a Seattle-based project called TROOT. Usually, Julie provides me with a theme and I work on the set of words that will be transformed into vocal melodies. Sometimes she also suggests ideas for lyrics that I edit down or expand, depending on what is needed for a specific song. Right now, that’s what I’m focusing on.

You’ve released several albums over the years, filled with contemplative, thoughtful, intricate music. Can you tell us a little bit about each of your solo records- One Time, Somewhere, Dime Novels, and Small Music From Broken Windows? How do you feel like your songwriting has changed over time?

I always say that, if I were to compare my albums to movies, One Time, Somewhere would be a Michelangelo Antonioni film, Dime Novels a Terry Gilliam’s production (probably The Adventures of Baron Munchausen) and Small Music From Broken Windows would be a David Lynch picture. Of course, I’m not implying, in any way, that my stuff is as good as what these gentlemen have created. To me, it’s just a fun way to look at it.

One Time, Somewhere was the result of prior years of writing – it sounds very eclectic, and goes a bit all over the place, but I’m still happy with that record. It’s very representative of that time in my life. I wanted to inject new energy into the pop song formula. At least, that was my humble contribution to the cause. I was inspired by the work of iconic people like Adrian Belew, Peter Gabriel and David Bowie, just to mention a few. I can’t believe it’s been almost ten years since it came out!

With Dime Novels, I was trying to keep up with the momentum, while at the same time pushing the envelope further. I’m very fond of that album, although it wasn’t the easiest one to make. I was being very particular during the post-production, and I guess I drove my co-producer Francesco Zampi crazy. I would change my mind on small details every now and then, until I finally decided I was going to stop and put the album out. Somehow, I managed to put together a great cast of musicians on that one: Pat Mastelotto, Tony Levin, Markus Reuter (who also co-wrote John Porno), Jennifer Maidman, Italian guitarist Cabeki, and others. That was one adventurous record… as one reviewer at the time put it, I was “furiously pushing at the walls of musical convention”.

Small Music From Broken Windows is probably the album closer to my heart, and the most representative of my modest career. It’s very intimate, a lot darker than my previous efforts. It was greatly cathartic during a difficult time – it helped overcoming some fears and to regain self-esteem as a person and as a writer. For once, I was happy with all the lyrics on the album. As a matter of fact, I still am (which is a rarity!). It set new standards in my writing. As with my playing, I’m learning to be more effective as a songwriter. In my case, it meant honing the craft with time, step by step. I guess I will never stop learning new things. Right now, I’m at the point where I need to be more introspective with my music. I’m working on some new songs that are very moody and mysterious. I will let the music guide me.

Your artist bio says, “I don’t play music- I make it happen.” Can you expound on this artistic philosophy and approach?

I never think too much about what I’m going to write, at least at the beginning of the process. I set some conditions that will help shaping the music and the words. It could be a basic structure, a particular sound effect, a loop, a chord sequence. In that sense, the music “will happen” as a consequence of that basic conjuction of elements. Sometimes I might involve other people that will help taking the music to different places. In some ways, I create the conditions that will enable something to happen – hopefully, something beautiful and meaningful.

Your albums feature contributions with some incredible musicians. What do you value most in a collaborator? Do you compose with certain people in mind?

It’s never the same. Usually, I compose something and I find myself thinking, ‘That person would be great on this’. Whenever possible, I try to have that person on the track. I have recorded a lot with Pat Mastelotto over the years, and I know he will come up with something cool… in other words, he will surprise me. One interesting aspect, is that Pat and I share a love for timeless pop music – The Beatles and XTC, for instance. I invited him to contribute to my albums because I wanted to make good use of his pop sensibilites. The Mr Mister heritage, so to say. Which is not at all “standard pop” – there will always be some unpredictability in his playing, and that’s exactly what I’m looking for. The left-of-center take on things. After Pat joined King Crimson, I have noticed that most of the sessions he was involved with were of the prog kind, always leaning on the odd time signatures and the progressive rock feel. I wanted to bring back some of that XTC’s Oranges and Lemons vibe.

In general, I’m very particular with the drummers I work with. They are essential to my music. Alessandro Inolti, the man behind the drums in EchoTest, has the rare ability to contribute meaningfully to whatever I write. He understands perfectly where the music is going, and makes my life so much easier. It’s a special musical partnership, as much as the one I share with Julie Slick. We don’t have to talk much, we just know how to pleasantly surprise each other.

What are you working on lately?

A lot of different stuff – I haven’t toured in a while (and sadly, this won’t change for several months), so I’m putting a lot of energy into songwriting and recording new material. As a way to reinvent myself during these tough times, I have started collaborating with a company that produces library music, so I’m currently working on a release for them. I’m also producing an album for D’Addio, a very cool Italian singer-songwriter, residing in London. There is so much soul in her compositions, and I greatly enjoy working with her. Other than that, the pandemic was a good excuse to catch up with some projects I have neglected in the past. I will try my best to bring them all to completion.

Finally, what is the best, most direct way that fans can help you?

By purchasing my music on Bandcamp, at http://marcomachera.bandcamp.com – I’m also offering a VIP subscription plan, with special releases, exclusive videos, and other interesting content, which wouldn’t be available otherwise. I would also encourage people to follow my blog at www.marcomachera.com and keep up to date with my activities… and ramblings.

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