Fireworks Magazine Online 59 - Interview with Marcus Bonfanti

MARCUS BONFANTI


Blues rocker Marcus Bonfanti has been making some waves with his third album ‘Shake The Walls’, an impressive album harking back to the 70s in style and approach. After reviewing the record last issue, James Gaden got in touch with Marcus to find out more about it.

Can you give readers who may be new to your music a brief summary of your career to date?

When I dropped out of University in 2003 I decided to put a band together and play as many gigs as we could, mainly because that’s what all my favourite musicians did, they just played and toured and learned how to do it that way, but also ‘cos we all needed the money. We ended up with gigs every night of the week playing from 10pm-2am all over the country for 2 years. I got into session playing after that and got to tour the world with loads of different people as a sideman, but I found myself getting bored of playing the same music every night and not being creative. I left that scene and moved back to London to make my first solo record. I got a deal with a small label and ‘Hard Times’ was released in 2008. I toured that album solo (I'd played all the instruments on the album myself  because I couldn't afford to pay a band) and started work on my second album ‘What Good Am I To You?’ while I was on the road. The label gave me a budget for my second album so I could employ a band and also record in a studio - ‘Hard Times’ was done in a friend’s front room! That album was released in 2010 and we toured as a band after that pretty relentlessly for 2 years, playing shows and festivals around the UK. In 2012 I signed with a new label and started work on ‘Shake The Walls’ which was released this year and that's where we are now...
 
Who were the main influences who started your interest in making your own music?

I've always admired great songwriters like Tom Waits, Joni Mitchell, Neil Young and of course Lennon & McCartney. I love blues music and rock & roll - it's the style I play but I wanted to write songs rather than just tunes with long solos in them. I have so many influences, it’s hard to choose just a few. I listen to so much music, but when I started out writing songs I just wanted to sound like me, which is probably also the total sum of all great music I was brought up listening to. The Stones, Chuck Berry, Janis Joplin. The music I discovered for myself through trying to find the influences if my favourite rock & roll bands had a huge impact on my guitar playing and singing. I remember hearing for the first time Muddy Waters, Howlin Wolf, Robert Johnson, Mississippi John Hurt, Sonny Boy Williamson, Josh White and Leadbelly. It just blew my mind and was all I listened to for years and its still the music I always come back to.
 
The new album 'Shake The Walls' is quite retro in style, harking back to old school rock from the 70s - there are some Zeppelin touches, old school blues... my favourite 'My Baby Don't Dance' could easily be a Rolling Stones track. Was this your aim when writing for the album, or the result of your influences naturally coming to the surface?

I never set out to make a certain type of album, I just started writing songs on my acoustic guitar and thought that if I can get them sounding good with just me and the acoustic, then when I bring the band in it will still sound great. I love Led Zep & The Stones and have listened to their music for so long, their influence on me will always be heard somewhere in my music. I've always tried to be original but I'm not afraid to show people where I've come from. I like to be honest in my lyrics and give people an insight into my life and the same goes for the music. I take your comment on ‘My Baby Don't Dance’ sounding like the Stones and the Led Zep references as a massive compliment because I've always loved those bands. Jimmy Page is one of the main reasons I picked up the guitar in the first place. Thank you!
 
'Shake The Walls' is your third album. Often artists find their third album is make or break for them - did you feel that way when writing the material?

I felt a certain amount of pressure because there had been quite a long gap between my second album and ‘Shake The Walls’. People had started asking me about the next album and I felt there was a lot of expectation for me to deliver something really good. I don't think I was too worried about it though, I knew I could step it up from the last record because I'd worked so hard in between them. I toured with the band and solo almost solidly for 2 years as well as doing bits of session work for my friends and working with great songwriters along the way. My voice, guitar playing and song writing all improved When I started putting the songs together for ‘Shake The Walls’ I really felt like I was doing my best work to date. We have already been touring this album in the UK and the response has been really great. It's nice to hear that people are enjoying it because by the time you finish recording an album you've heard it so many times to check every corner of it before its released you're not even sure if its any good anymore!
 
'Blind Alley' has a cool country vibe - is this a genre you'd like to explore more?

Yeah, I think so but I don't think I'd ever want to make a whole country album. I love a lot of country and more so bluegrass music. I played with a Bluegrass band for 2 years and toured with them a lot. I got a huge love for the style from them and again it definitely shows in my music.
I wrote ‘Blind Alley’ with Sharon Vaughn, she has written so many great country tunes over the years. I wanted ‘Blind Alley’ to be a tragic sounding love song, it's about following a cause, no matter how hopeless it is, right until the very end and being there for someone when they need you no matter how much it hurts you to do it. I tried to reflect that in the music and I found the best way to do that was with that dark country style. I like my albums to have a variety of styles on them because a lot of my favourite albums do that. Led Zeppelin III is one of my favourite albums and that has so many different shades of what they do. From full on blues to heavy riff rock & and there is also a lot of their acoustic based songs on that record. That's what I want to do on my records too, keep them interesting for the listener.
 
The record has eleven songs, clocking in at 40 minutes, much like an old school vinyl album. Was this deliberate - did you have to reign in the temptation to jam?

Ha ha, yeah man, there's a funny story about that! When we started recording the album we kicked off with ‘Jezebel’. Once we finished Dave Williams asked if we were happy and we said yes, but we wanted to try another and compare the two takes. He told us there was only enough tape in the studio to record 11 songs so if we wanted to do another we had to record over what we had just done! That set the standard for the rest of the sessions and it was great. We would play a song, look around and if anyone looked unsure then we would wind the tape back and go again. At one point we were recording a song that has an extended outro, when we play it live it really starts to take off. During the recording the band was flying and I had lost track of how long we'd been jamming this outro. When we came in the control room to listen back, Dave had to break the news to us that the tape had run out after about 30 seconds of the outro and the five minutes of spontaneous music we'd just played had sadly not been recorded!
The whole analogue way of recording really lends itself to a vinyl release and we will do one before the end of the year. Even the track list reflects that. ‘My Baby Dont' Dance’ is track 7, beginning of side 2, you gotta start side 2 with a big song!
 
How long did you spend writing for the album?

Quite a long time. I started writing material for ‘Shake The Walls’ in 2010 and thought I pretty much had it written by summer 2011 but then I got dropped by my label, picked up by another and dropped halfway through recording it. Suddenly I had no options left to make this record and no money either. I decided to have a look at the material I had and decided to write more songs, as so much time had passed since I'd written some of them they didn't feel fresh or exciting to me anymore. I began writing again and collaborating with lots of my friends to get a different perspective on my songs. By the time I signed with JIGSAW I had almost an entirely different album to the one I had started making the previous year. I was still writing tracks up to the day we went into The Grange to record. ‘Bang Of A Gun’ was written about a week before we started tracking.

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You chose to record the album at Grange Studios in Norfolk, where the album was done with analogue tape rather than today's method of digital. What were the reasons for that decision?

When I met up with JIGSAW they turned me on to The Grange and thought I should go take a look at it. I'd been wanting to do a record like this for a long time but it wouldn't have been right for my previous two releases. Now I have a band that I've been on the road with for 3 years, we gigged the new songs and know how each other plays, the whole unit is really tight. I wanted to capture this on record. When I met Dave Williams at The Grange we talked a lot about how some of my favourite records had been made (he had been involved in some of them!) and how best to capture a band but not make a live album. We got drunk a few times and listened to records and I felt that Dave was the best person to produce this album and The Grange was the place to do it. As soon as I heard my music being played off a tape machine I knew I'd made the right decision. It sounded like all the records I obsessed over when I was growing up. There is nothing like analogue recording when it comes to capturing the energy from a group of musicians.
 
You cut the album live as a three piece with Scott Weiber and Alex Reeves, occasionally augmented by Paddy Milner on Hammond organ - how challenging was that for you? 
What were the advantages and disadvantages?

It was so easy doing it that way, we have played together so many times and know each other so well, we just treated it like a gig. Everyone set up so we could see each other and we would pick a song, count it off and go! A few times when we listened back we realised that some of the arrangements we'd been playing live didn't quite transfer to the studio so we would throw around some ideas until we found something better (usually simpler) and then record it right away to capture the excitement of a new arrangement. Having Paddy Milner join us for 3 songs was really great, he is one of the most incredible musicians I have ever had the pleasure of playing with and a great friend too.
 
You won the Kevin Thorpe award for 'Best Original Song' at the British Blues Awards for your track 'The Bittersweet' which closes the album. What do you think it is about that track which resulted in it being singled out?

It was quite a surprise for me to be nominated in that category because at the time the song was only available on a limited edition EP that I sold at gigs. When I heard it had been nominated, I had no idea how anyone at the Blues Awards got hold of it but I was very honoured all the same! It was great to win that particular award as songwriting is something I have really worked on over the years. It is also so important in order to take music that is heavily influenced by the blues somewhere new. I hope people liked the song because the lyric is real. It's about life and all it's highs and lows, something I think we can all relate to.
 
You've been touring in support of the album - how has the reaction been to the songs?

Really great, I am so grateful to everyone who has taken the time to write something positive about it or get in contact with me personally and tell me they are enjoying the record. Like I said, when I was making this record I was totally consumed by it and by the time it was released I had heard it so many times I didn't know what it sounded like. All these positive responses make me know I got it right. The other night I had people singing along to songs, that was pretty cool, someone shouted "if my baby don't dance I know her sister will" at the top of his voice at another show and I've had people shouting requests from my record during the show too. I really like that.
 
What's next for Marcus Bonfanti?

Next I will be touring Europe round the end of the year and going to the States too. I don't like standing still, I prefer to be doing things, so in amongst the festivals this summer and the touring at the end I the year I’ll be getting ideas together for the next recording. Then we'll do it all again but even louder! If I can keep on playing music and releasing records for the rest of my life, I’ll be very happy.
Marcus-Bonfanti-Interview

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neil hodgson said:

...
Nice interview with a really top guy catch him live and I guarantee you will leave happy one of the best out there
 
August 30, 2013
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