Interview by Parisa Eshrati
Before playing the Fox Theater in Tucson, I had a chance to speak with the guitar virtuoso Al di Meola. He described finding solace while writing his new album, Elysium, discussed the direction of the music industry, and more.
How are you doing today?
Great! We’re out in Miami Beach right now, the weather’s fabulous. It’s kind of a place that I come to every now and then. I have a home on the beach. I come here to write music or relax. One or the other. Great place.
I know you go out to Miami when you’re in the writing or recording phase, so what are some of the perks of doing that out there instead of staying in Jersey?
For the writing phase I come here because I have a writing room built into my place. I have this big console built where I can write scores. I just find it very conducive for that kind of thing. Especially late at night. I open my door so I can hear the ocean, there’s no disturbances whatsoever. Usually I don't record here because I have a studio up in my house in Jersey where my office is. Once it’s written here I go back there and sequester myself down in the dungeon.
Your new album, Elysium, will be releasing in May and you created a Pledge Music campaign for this album. It seems that one of the reasons you went through this way was to be more engaged with fans, as you can send them personal videos. Would you say that’s the main reason for starting the Pledge Music campaign?
That was the one reason I was kind of talked into that being a great idea, It seems to be a growing trend, this type of thing. And then, of course, the proceeds going to my favorite charity, the ATA [American Telugu Association] seemed appealing. So, you know, we’re playing the game. Everything’s changed in this world of music.
Absolutely. I read in an earlier interview that you’ll either watch a movie or listen to a certain album before starting to write your own music just to help you get going. Was there anything in particular that motivated you for this album?
No, this album was a different set of circumstances: I was going through a divorce and it was like a means of therapy to write, to really get my mind off the horrendous thing a person has to go through when they go through this completely unjust system we have in America, where lawyers just take advantage of the weak. It was a brutal thing and I found that writing was the one area that served as a kind of meditative escape from all that hell, you know? I went down into my studio since I was still living with my ex at the time and I just locked myself down there and I just kept writing and writing. It was kind of therapy through a difficult time. Then, you know, the light at the end of the tunnel appeared. Things started to get very positive as the whole process started to come to a close after a two year hell-ride. So I feel like the writing took on a different kind of depth and definitely growth.
I’m really interested to see how it’s all going to come out in May. Another thing I wanted to bring up: you posted an article on your Facebook a little while back about how the millennial generation is killing the music industry. There’s no doubt that that’s the current state of the music industry right now, but do you expect that there might be a shift in the near future, that maybe it will collapse and start fresh again?
It’s what I’ve been praying for but I don’t know if it’ll happen. Whatever’s left of, say, CD stores, it looks dismal for the future. Everything’s turned digital so physical product is pretty much finished which is really, really a shame. That’s part of it. The music end of it is really where the attention span of people has really gone down a lot from the 60s and 70s where people were really into music. Now music has become frivolous. It’s become background noise for a lot of people while they’re on their computer or may a tenth of the time they’re in their car. The other majority of the time they’re on their phone. The whole world has changed and not for the better in some regards. But what’s become more interesting for me is trying to keep the ball rolling in a positive direction. We made this tour more alongside a record release, but the tour is going to be a return to the electric guitar just like the new record is featuring that early sound I had. The Les Paul sound. So there’s a link. And that music will never die.
You’ve stated before how you feel a really big difference in your reviews and just in playing shows out of Europe, South America, Japan, and Russia. Do you feel that maybe the music industry out there doesn’t have as high of the marketing approach, kind of more not a big business? What do think is the difference?
I think there’s a higher appreciation for acoustic music. What I’ve been doing and focusing on more so these last 20, 25 years has actually been embraced by foreign countries where I didn’t have to face the dilemma of having to play electric guitar. I built a voice on playing the acoustic guitar and a repertoire that appeals to the senses of a lot of those different nationalities. I’ve been working there more than the United States. The States is definitely far harder because we have to pay all our expenses here as opposed to Europe that cover a lot of expenses, plus a better fee. Here it’s way harder. You pay all the expenses, electric fees. American musicians are definitely more needy for higher fees themselves so everything is more expensive in the United States. And we don’t have the support of radio because it’s not mainstream music. I don’t know what to say. It’s very healthy in foreign countries. My aim with this was to resurrect and reclaim some of my past glory. Go out there, strap on the electric and say, "Wait a minute, there’s a lot of young guns out there but I’m gonna slay them all!"
What a plan! In 2013 you released that wonderful Beatles tribute album All Your Life. With The Beatles having such a vast discography, how did you select which songs you wanted to cover?
I picked the songs that had the most interesting harmonic movement where I could take the chord changes and intervalically syncopate the rhythms as they went through the changes. When you have songs like “Penny Lane” and “Michelle” all of them have beautiful changes. Once you have a nice harmonic movement throughout a song what I can do to give it my stamp is to syncopate and use counterpoint in a way that makes it easy for me to lay the melody on top. The melodies stay pretty much intact. I might have displaced the melody rhythmically but for the most part it’s recognizable. My stamp really is the way I approach those songs that have good harmonic movement where I can syncopate. That gives it an originality, for my taste. My world meets their world better that way as opposed to me trying to copy what they do--which has been done thousands of times by other people that love The Beatles just like I do.
It turned out really beautiful. You also recently discussed that Return to Forever could have had a reunion but there’s a bunch of crazy stories that got in the way that you’ll write about in your book. Are there any stories that you might be able to tell today?
Scientology was a big factor with Chick [Corea] and the management. It was not a help, unfortunately. It’s kind of a theory of a guy, of L. Ron Hubbard, who had written a lot of policies and ways in which to do things in life that Chick was actually brainwashed into thinking was real and should be applied to every single decision he makes. He had management completely agreeing with that because they’re also high-level scientologists. You have a guy who was my idol growing up that wasn’t hindered musically, for sure, it just hurt his decisions following those policies which were actually bizarre and how he dealt with things. Instead of using his own common sense he would use the philosophy of L. Ron Hubbard. I found it to be--I could see it, the writing on the wall. I got my first dose of it when I was 19. I could see something was definitely off to the point where even I wanted to see what it was about so I got involved with it for like two weeks and ran for the hills after that. I saw what it was like to try to get out of it. It was really impossible to get out. It’s very frightening, in a way. Once they get a hold on you...I don’t know if you’ve seen the HBO documentary or not but you should see it. Going Clear. If you have HBO On-Demand you can see the most mind-blowing documentary made, ever.
I’ll have to check that out.
I think unfortunately that played a big role in why the thing didn’t continue. We had gotten the group back together for what could have been a great ride, a really great ride. Greed and brainwashing really destroyed what could have been something phenomenal.
Really such a shame. Also just kind of going off that: - is your book something you’ve already started writing or drafting out?
No I haven’t but I should start soon. I just have to find a bullet-proof vest. Get comfortable wearing that all the time.
Yeah, I can imagine the stories that’ll be in there! So you’ll be in Arizona pretty shortly, you’ll be playing with Billy Cobham. If I’m not mistake it’s just for the Arizona dates, is that correct?
Yes, that’s right. The promoter there is a friend of mine, Danny Zelisko. He’s always wanted to hook me and Billy up together. This time it’ll be, not necessarily playing together, but it’ll be both bands on the same bill, so he’s psyched. He’s wanted me to go back to playing electric for a long time and I didn’t really think that I was going to do this, so here we are full circle coming back, doing the music of the early records and Billy’s one of the fusion top-guys of that era. Still doing it. In fact I saw him a few weeks ago in Munich. I have a home in Munich too. I went to see him. So yeah, we’re going to see one another again in Tucson.
That’ll be awesome. Do you think there’d be a chance of a tour happening together between you two?
Well it would make sense. It would be a great idea, we’ll have to see. You know when it’s two different agents and different managers it’s more difficult but it’s not un-doable, it’s a lot easier if you have the same agent.
We’re going to be spoiled out here in Tucson for getting to see that. I guess just one last question to wrap it up: since we are calling from a college radio station, since you went to Berklee College of Music and have an academic background as well—do you have any advice for students studying music today?
Ah… I’ve thought about it. You have to have undying passion to do what you’re going to do. And just persevere and try to actually even copy what your idols do. There’s a learning process that happens when you try that. Then eventually you’ll develop your own voice. It’s a double-edged sword, but the internet is a way for people to hear what you’re doing if you have something special to say, but the lack of record stores is a big concern so I have a split feeling on the whole future of the music business. But to keep going, you have to have a passion that’s undying. I just wish them luck.
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