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Published: 1999/01/15
by Bob Makin

Blind Man’s Sun: More Is More

In 1972, The Who, Yes, King Crimson, Pink Floyd, Frank Zappa and Genesis were all turning the raw rebellion of rock ‘n’ roll into art. Only a decade later, MTV was born, the seed of punk rock began to blossom and art rock was given up for adoption.

I don’t know how rebellious Blind Man’s Sun are apart from a musical standpoint, but I do know their visionary music is the antacid for the fast food that MTV churns out. There will be no throwing these boys against the channel’s wall to see if they stick. Instead, Blind Man’s Sun independently have released two double discs in three years: 1995’s ambitious self-titled effort and this year’s vibrantly theatrical follow-up, Of the Spheres.

The band was born in 1994 while its original members keyboardist/vocalist J.D. Daddis, bassist Bob White, vocalist/guitarist Marco Femino, guitarist David Chiappetta and percussionist Kevin Romanski were studying music performance and business at Syracuse University. About a year ago, drummer Darren Gage, who is pursuing a master’s degree in music at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N.J., joined Blind Man’s Sun. Around the same time, the band moved to nearby East Brunswick, N.J., to be more centrally located.

Live gigs became more plentiful, the band became even tighter, but with six cerebral, eclectic composers, it became a challenge while recording Of the Spheres — partly with Dan Archer of Phish fame and partly with Greg Frey of Ween fame — to find a cohesive sound. By allowing each other to orbit a variety of musical space, they succeeded. Now comes the task of expanding a grass-roots East Coast following, while turning a deaf, dumb and blind industry onto their big batch of tunes.

Imagine if Pete Townshend, Peter Gabriel and Frank Zappa got Kurt Weil, George Gershwin and Stephen Sondheim really high and convinced them to join a rock band. Now who is going to get a band like that? A band that closes each hour-plus disc that comprises Of the Spheres — the largest studio recording ever produced by an independent act — with half-hour rock requiems.

Kids!

Kids, singing right along with the deepest of Blind Man’s Sun’s literary lyrics and grooving to the most far-out sections of their mind-boggling mix of jazz, calypso, techno, funk, zydeco, country, gospel, psychedelic and progressive rock and musical theatre.

Townshend once said, “The Kids Are Alright.” For long a time — most of my music journalism career actually — I wasn’t so sure. But with swing, jazz-groove and jam bands on the rise, I feel much better about the direction young people are willing to go with music, real music, not just the cookie-cutter rebellion corporate deems appropriate. Listening to Blind Man’s Sun, I’m convinced that, unlike, say, government, business, media and prison labor, rock ‘n’ roll can be as big as it wants, as big as it needs to be. Fuck ‘em if they don’t get it.

I get it and that’s enough for me. But that’s not enough for the band, so I got with them at their rented house in East Brunswick. At the time, manager Michael Chiappetta, David’s brother, was shopping a five-song EP distilled from the poppiest moments on “Of the Spheres”: the hippie-spirited jam of “Juggling Om,” the Rage-Against-the-Machine-on-Broadway nugget “So I’m Singin’,” the zydeco stomp of “Hampton,” the whimsical “Sprockets” and the Bob Marley-inspired, funky fun of “Lion.” OK, so maybe the mythological epic “The Hero’s Requiem” and “Indescartion,” a Descartes-inspired battle between the mind, soul and heart, are a bit much for MTV, but they both could work on the theatrical stage. When was the last time a rock ‘n’ roll band brought that much to the table?

Why leave Syracuse? That part of the country is so fertile for the jam scene.

J.D. Daddis: We came to dislike the weather very much. We went to school there, but we’re not from there. And the weather really hit us hard.

We’re actually more centrally located for our touring. While that scene is very fertile in Upstate New York and New England for jam bands, if the jam band scene had never come to mass fruition, Blind Man’s Sun could still exist as a unit.

Where is everybody in the band from?

Marco Femino: I’m from Boston.

Dave Chiappetta: I’m from Long Island.

Daddis: I’m from South Jersey, Medford, and I just moved to Philadelphia. And Bob and Gage are from Glen Ridge, and Kevin’s from Albany.

Do the strong compositional skills of the band raise the bar of the jam band scene?

Chiappetta: I don’t think any of us went to school to be in a band. It happened naturally, at least for me. I think it’s fair for everybody in the band too that this ‘scene’ opened the door to real music in this kind of ensemble. Each one of us wanted to pursue music, whether it was orchestral music, jazz, film scoring or whatever, we never looked at our music as if we were in a rock band per se. This jam band scene opened those doors.

I don’t know if we can raise the bar compositionally at all, because I don’t know if we really are in the scene. If you were going to break down all the elements that comprise the bands that are in the scene, we don’t really hold all of them or even half of them.

Daddis: I think it’s a lot bigger than the jam band scene. There’s a lot of variables involved that coincidentally all came together. One is that for the most part, except for maybe Kevin, there’s a lot of jack-of-all-trades, masters-of-none in this band. A lot of us could have gone any path: jazz, classical, film scoring or composition. We all fell together.

The entire world is becoming more eclectic and all the barriers are falling down in communication and religious ideas and everything else. This kind of happened to our music. We all come from such different influences. When you throw them all together, you just get a mind-boggling amount of variety and diversity. There just so happens to be this jam band scene that’s brewing and continuing to snowball in the Northeast. We happen to get labeled into that scene, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, because it’s probably the coolest thing going on in music right now as far as I’m concerned.

There’s a lot of things that I respect that are a part of the scene that isn’t really a big part of our music. We’re not very socio-political, we’re a lot more inward spiritual or life imitative. We like to explore as much of the realm of emotion in music styles as possible. That’s not necessarily what the jam band scene is about. It’s often very grass-rootsy. Not that promoting peace and environmentalism is something we don’t believe in, it just hasn’t become a focal point.

Femino: We all take from our influences. It’s not, ‘Hey, let’s write these really crazy songs.’ It’s more like you write what you feel. A lot of us do relate to classic rock. We always said there’s going to be a resurgence of the classic bands, like Led Zeppelin, The Beatles and The Who or whatever. If that’s where your influences are and what you relate to, those guys were all about writing quality music.

Chiappetta: From pretty much ’80 on, music, at least popular music, has been a product of MTV. The world has really changed. Their focal point is on what sells, what doesn’t and why it does. But a lot of record companies have forgotten that mega-bands can still exist, bands that are really serious about their compositions, not just fitting a formula but breaking the mold once again, creating a new scene, a new sound.

Daddis: I agree, but one of the reasons the big guys aren’t taking a chance on us yet is we move so much faster, society as a whole, 25 years later. It’s a lot more of a swallow-someone-up, spit-‘em-out, here-today-gone-tomorrow kind of routine than it was 25 years ago. At the very least if a band like us, if not us, can continue to produce passionate, quality music, then you’ll always have an audience out there, however small, that will always buy it and become loyal fans, because they like to sink their teeth into it.

Someone who listens to our album might not dig it. It might not be a one-listen kind of album, but there are people out there that really want to sink their teeth into something. Those people learn to like it more and more over a long period of time.

Chiappetta: You also take into account that you’ve got an 18-year-old kid who was born in 1980, they have not experienced a groundbreaking band, except for Nirvana and Pearl Jam. They’re pretty much the only two bands that really had that kind of magnitude, that were doing something new and album-oriented. And even both those bands are fairly one-dimensional, but they’re the ones that are even close. So I think (serious composition) could work in today’s world.

Two double discs in three years. How did you approach that from a songwriting, production and economic standpoint?

Femino: We have individual investors, who are comprised of family and some people who just really believe in the band.

Daddis: We decided to come together outside our little practice room and start a business with which we could sell our music. Most of us actually majored in music business not performance, so whenever we’re not playing or writing, we’re pretty much sitting around debating trends and reading trade magazines. We’ve tried to educate ourselves as much in that realm as much as we did challenging ourselves artistically. You can’t be a total idealist, and I don’t think anyone can say we’ve compromised at all artistically, but there’s so many pitfalls that good bands make business-wise where they go by the wayside, whether it’s signing a contract and getting shelved or signing a contract without any leverage. They just sign their careers away. We wanted to be sure we didn’t do that. So we’re trying to act like a small label would.

Like an Ani DiFranco situation?

Daddis: Right. Of course, we went enormously over budget. We were freaking out: ‘We need 20 grand by tomorrow. How are we going to get it?’ We had to beg. We almost tripled the budget. We’re very fortunate that we had 25 investors that paid for the whole thing. But this is a six-figure bill. It was not a cheap project.

Chiappetta: It was definitely a major release even for a major label.

Daddis: We’re going to bring back epic rock, and you’re going to see ridiculous, huge productions.

Peter Gabriel can come out of hiding.

Chiappetta: The precedent we wanted to set with the album is that if it all does roll the way we want it to, we have no intentions of fitting into a mold. We’re going to keep going with it, whether it’s stage production. I mean, there’s no way we’ll do a triple CD.

Daddis: We almost did a triple on this one. Four more songs and we could have done a nice triple.

Chiappetta: The experience that we had on this album was unbelievable. The money that we spent was only on the album. We lived in a trailer park for the summer. I slept in my car for three months.

Daddis: The band has not made a penny since we started. We don’t take any money out and we work jobs on top of it. You live like a damn pauper, but you have more time to write. I’ve always found many artists, whether it’s actors, musicians or painters, work full-time jobs to stay alive and think they’re living poor. But then they put 10 hours into their craft. You should work 10 hours a week, live piss poor, and spend the rest of your time doing what you want to be doing.

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