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"My Pretty Vampire"
Known for her bold colors, bolder characters, and retro throwback style, Katie Skelly has carved a niche for herself in the world of comic books. With her premiere book, “Nurse Nurse” and her latest release, “My Pretty Vampire” from Katie Skelly blends 70’s cult movie sleaze, European comic styling of Guido Crepax and Jean-Claude Forest with a modern sensibility. The result are comics that are elegant in their simplicity compared to many other over-designed art styles, but with stories rife with gleeful sex and violence.
Beyond the Longbox interviewed Katie Skelly on what she looks for in a protagonist, what comics are the building blocks of her work, and what it was like writing erotic comics with a Catholic upbringing.
For master bassist Robert Miller what matters most is the music. Oh he’s intrigued with how to make the business of music work and can speak lucidly about it. He has wrangled with how to find the best and widest audience for his group, Project Grand Slam, and its unique blend of Classic Rock and Latin reframed into the mold of jazz rock fusion. And it’s a severe understatement to say that he’s a multi-hyphenate or defier of genre classifications.
With that in mind he is faced with the professional and creative conundrum of being caught in the middle; is PGS rock or jazz?; should the music be genre specific or totally distinctive? And in turn, when the music becomes too difficult to label it may be harder to find the right audience. The bottom line, though, is that his music is special and not just like everything else out there.
Thankfully, in a very wide world filled with online discoveries and digital communication there is definitely an audience for PGS. I think a big audience. They’re out there, in the U.S. but also in Brazil, Mexico, the Czech Republic, South Africa, etc. And that’s what makes seeing the band live such an enriching experience as it sometimes shifts and changes in its live form — that international experience is right there in the band.
Miller has assembled what he jokingly calls his International Cartel – a group of young, extremely talented musicians mainly from overseas. Places like Puerto Rico, Italy, Mexico, Brazil, Canada, and Dominican Republic. Together, they take Miller’s compositions and his brilliant Classic Rock covers, and transform the music and transfix the listener.
Witness the recent permutation of the band when it performed material from PGS’s latest album, “The PGS Experience”, at its recent CD release party at NYC’s Rockwood Music Hall. The ensemble that night was comprised of Ziarra Washington (vocals), Mario Castro (sax), Baden Goyo (keys), Tony Greco and Flavio Silva (guitars), Ruben Coca (drums) and Carlos Maldonado (percussion) in addition to Miller on bass, and they absolutely knocked it out of the park. Just listen to their version of Jimi Hendrix’s “Fire” off the disc with Ziarra kicking out the lead vocals and you’ll immediately “get” PGS. When that’s replicated on stage it’s worthy of global embrace.
So such an aural experience warrants pulling back the curtain a bit and asking band leader Miller to explore how he does it.
Q: What’s the process behind your music?
RM: For me it all starts with the rhythm and the groove. I fiddle around until I come up with something I like. And it must have a memorable melody because people respond to and remember great melodies. Next I add the colors – the sounds that fill in the cracks and make the musical painting come alive. Then I decide what solos I want to have in each case based upon the instrument and the song. I rarely have more than two solos per tune. I choose an instrument because I want that specific sound, I want that timbre. For example, on our version of The Kinks’ “You Really Got Me” we have a sax solo followed by a guitar solo. I felt that I had to have a guitar solo in there. The Kinks were the forerunners of grunge. They were the hardest of hard rock back then. I mellowed out their song a bit in my arrangement but I also wanted to get back to what it was that made that song great, so that’s why I put the guitar solo in there. And it works – even Dave Davies of The Kinks said so!
On our version of Jimi Hendrix’s “Fire” I gave the keyboard a solo. Why? Because given Hendrix everybody expects it to be a guitar solo, and I didn’t want to have the guitarist be compared to a god like Hendrix. I wanted a different sound, a different feel. Again, I think it worked.
Q: You write mainly instrumentals. Do you compose vocal songs too?
RM: I’ve written only one vocal song to date called “New York City Groove.” It was a big challenge for me because I’m much more comfortable writing instrumentals. But vocals are a big part of the PGS experience so I felt that I needed to write one.
The melody of “Groove” I actually wrote 20 years ago and had forgotten about. I found a cassette tape in my drawer from an old rehearsal with a version of the melody. What can you play a cassette on these days? Well, as it turns out that my wife saved a boom box from when our kids were young. I put the cassette tape in, listened, and said to myself, “Hey, that’s not bad.”
So I finished the music in about 10 minutes. Then I decided that I wanted to make it a vocal. My difficulty is that I'm a music guy not a lyrics guy. The music may have taken me 10 minutes but the lyrics took me a week! When you write lyrics you have to have a thought in mind as to what you want to say.
Q: Everybody else who writes lyrics seems to…
RM: I know! I listen to the words in songs but I rarely think much about them. I focus more on the sounds. You know that great Dylan song “Subterranean Homesick Blues”? The one that goes “Johnny’s in the basement mixing up the medicine…” I loved the sound of that word poem. John Lennon also used to string together words as sounds. Just listen to “I Am The Walrus”.
Q: You told me there were two songs that you didn’t rehearse before your recent performance at American Beauty in NYC. What were they?
RM: One was “Lucky Seven” from our last album, “The Queen’s Carnival”. The tune is in 7/4 time. It starts with a bass figure and then the sax comes in with the melody. My sax player Mario is an amazing musician but that night he totally spaced on the tune and it took him about a minute to get it right. Meanwhile he was playing all around the melody. But what came out was really interesting. It had kind of a Middle Eastern feel to it. It was like a new song. I loved it!
He was trying to work his way into the melody. And we’re playing live, so I can’t exactly stop him and say, “This is how it goes.” My point is I let him figure it out and work it out and it came out very cool. Of course, nobody in the audience would have ever known what I just told you. That’s one of the best things about doing original material!
Q: Do you encourage your vocalist Ziarra to improvise?
RM: Absolutely. I don't think we play any tune exactly the same way twice. She’s doing something different each time. The inflection, the rideout. We’re all doing something different. That’s what makes this music fun to play.
Q: You do a cover of a Cream song. How did that come about?
RM: I loved Cream. They were maybe my favorite band from the ‘60s. And I definitely picked up a lot on the bass from listening to Jack Bruce. We do a PGS-style cover of “I’m So Glad”. I felt that I needed to do a Cream song and people have asked me why that one. Well I didn’t want to choose something obvious like “Sunshine of Your Love.” I always loved how Cream played “I’m So Glad” in concert. I thought that I could take the essence of the song and do something different and interesting with it. Our version of the song is now one of the most popular tunes we do in concert.
Q: Ginger Baker came out of a jazz background before Cream.
RM: Yes and so did Charlie Watts of the Stones… For the last 60 years or so all Charlie has said he wanted to do was play jazz. I guess he plays rock and roll because it makes a him a ton of money!
Q: What was the other unrehearsed song you played at American Beauty?
RM: The other one we didn’t rehearse in advance was called “Beyond Forever”, also from our “The Queen’s Carnival” CD. The interesting thing about that song that night from my point of view was that Ruben, our drummer, came up with a slightly different feel for the song than on the recording. It made the song different, but again I loved it!
Q: Did you tell Ruben to play it that way?
RM: No I don’t tell anyone how or what to play. They’re all great musicians. I value and encourage their creativity. The main difference between what we do and pop music is that in pop the songs are played the same note-for-note each time they are performed, while with our music because it’s improvisational in all respects the songs are always different each time we play. And the different lineups of musicians that I use also changes the songs. Each musician brings his or her own feel and sensibility to the tunes so they take on a different character depending upon he lineup.
Q: Ever thought of doing a workshop to teach how one of your songs comes together?
RM: I’d love to do something like that! In fact, at the right venue I would bring in a brand new song and evolve it right then and there with the band in front of the audience like we do at a rehearsal.
Q: Ever thought of doing more out-there instrumentation?
RM: I’ve thought of doing plenty of things! I’d love to be experimental like that. I consider myself a rock musician that has brought jazz into what I play. I don’t have the same schooling or attitude that the pure jazz guys have.
Q: What does a pure jazz bassist do that you don’t?
RM: It’s more the attitude, not what they do that’s different. You’ll also notice that my music doesn’t include bass-only solos, or drum-only solos for that matter. Not my bag, and it changes the drive of the song, So I solo within the context of the song. People have said this - and I agree - I play “lead bass”. If you listen carefully to PGS it’s the bass that defines and drives each song. I’m not just laying a foundation. I’m filling gaps and doing my improvisation within the context of our jams. The great bass players that I admire, guys like Jack Bruce, Jim Fielder, Tim Bogert – also drove the music. I also don’t do all the gimmicky stuff like slapping and popping. And I don’t use pedals and effects. I have a certain distinctive sound that I try to maintain. I want people to recognize my playing and my sound. The great Jaco Pastorius had a distinctive sound.
Q: I can’t imagine writing a novel as an improvisation. Jazz or other music you can do improvisation and it works.
RM: This is what I do. Let’s use Cream again as an example. Cream had a framework for every song. A melody, a beat, chord structure, then they went off into improv land. Everything I do has a framework. I set the framework, the song has a feel, a vibe, a rhythm and a melody. I typically start with having the melody played twice in order to establish it. Then we do solos and we return to the melody a final time. It’s a classic way of structuring but I think people like to have a framework around music. My wife, who’s not a musician, yells at me whenever we play something that’s too long.
Q: What does she consider too long?
RM: Ten minutes is beyond her comfort level. She says nobody wants to listen to anything that long!
Q: Are your kids musicians?
RM: They’re not musicians but they love music and they’re big fans of PGS.
Q: Tell me about the writing experience.
RM: It’s mystical for me. Sometimes I write things and completely surprise myself. On the new CD I wrote a song called “Fishin”. It’s a Caribbean Island/Jimmy Buffet vibe kind of song. Where did that come from? I haven’t the faintest idea. I started playing a riff, I fooled around with it a bit, and all of a sudden something came out that had an Island vibe. Boom! I ask myself, “Do I like it, do I not like it?” If it passes the smell test I bring it to rehearsal and I play it for the band and we work it out. And this one worked out great. Same thing with “The Queen’s Carnival,” which was the title tune for the last album. A Latin song, a fiesta. I didn’t start out to write that but it just happened.
Q: That was the one with the Latin feel?
RM: Yes that was the Latin thing. I grew up in Queens NY. My father and I listened to Spanish music on the radio all the time. But I didn’t set out to write a Latin song, it just happened. And my guys – being mainly Latin – they made it work. Again, from my perspective those are the great unexpected things I love. It just happens and I have no idea where it comes from.
Q: Do you ever imagine yourself not playing anymore?
Q: They’ll bury you with your bass?
RM: Yup – just me and my Pedulla!!
Dance music producer Tony Moran recently joined forces with Rock and Rock Hall of Fame recipient Nile Rodgers and singer Kimberly Davis to add another notch in his belt of accomplishments. The result was "My Fire" — a new song which premiered this week (with an accompanying music video.) Moran has been making records for a solid 30 years with a long string of successes attached to his resume.
The Irish/Colombian penned top-charting hits for the Cover Girls and then worked with Donna Summer, Michael Jackson, Gloria Estefan, Deborah Cox and many others. Moran was named #92 among Billboard Magazine’s Top 100 of the “Greatest of All Time Dance Club Artists.” Says the producer of 67 #1 records, “It will always be an honor to be included on that list of utterly amazing talent. But it’s just as great an honor to have worked with over half the people on the list!”
Moran has worked with and remixed some of the biggest female artists ever -- divas like Rihanna, Mariah Carey, Martha Wash, Cher, Madonna, Whitney Houston and Janet Jackson. “Perhaps my having worked more often with women has something to do with the dance market itself. I took a quick, informal look at Billboard’s list of ‘Greatest of All Time Top Dance Club Artists’ and noticed that women outnumber men there, too. “For me, things simply evolved naturally on their own, giving me lots of experience with women, as both songwriter and producer. All that was exciting and remains unforgettable. And then Luther Vandross -- one of the greatest male singers of all time -- asked me to write with and produce for him. I was blown away as this amazing person re-calibrated my mind and opened me up to creativity with no limits or restrictions of any kind.”
With gusto he continues, “Celine Dion, Michael Jackson, Gloria Estefan, and Vandross all gave me the most incredible work experiences. These encounters were extremely personal and engaging. You don’t go into a room with any one of them and not be on your “A” game. You just arrive like that. You have to. Of course, I always do my homework, preparing in advance as best I can. But working with any of these astounding talents is magically unique, period. I just can’t compare them.”
Moran also co-wrote and produced over half of Estefan’s 1998, “Gloria!” — her most dance-oriented album ever. Besides being known for Estefan’s “Don’t Let This Moment End” and “Heaven’s What I Feel,” this two-time Grammy nominee was remixing other popular songs, too. In 2007, he twice achieved #1 on the U. S. Billboard Hot Dance Club Play chart. Those hits were “Walk Away” featuring Kristine W and “Keep Your Body Working” featuring Martha Wash, late of Two Tons O’ Fun.
The widely respected singer, songwriter, music editor, producer and remixer has worked with a client list that includes Ne-Yo, Robin S. and Kenny G. Among the singles Moran created as a solo artist was the dance anthem, “If I Was Your Boyfriend”, performed with Anastacia and “Free People”. His second hit with Martha Wash and another #1 on the U. S. dance chart. Moran recently worked with vocalist Jason Walker, producing his chart-topping dance music release, “So Happy.”
As if those weren’t enough, Moran produced other major dance club hits like “Put Your Hands Up”, “.” and “The Promise”. And we can’t forget “Body to Body, Heart to Heart” for Cher’s “Living Proof” album. Another major production was Donna Summer’s “You’re So Beautiful” which appeared on “The Journey: The Very Best of Donna Summer", her greatest hits LP. In December 2012, Moran released “Valley of the Moon,” an additional original production with the late Ms. Summer, recorded at the same time as “You’re So Beautiful.” What’s more, Moran produced Deborah Cox’s four dance hits — “Easy as Life”, “House Is Not a Home”, “Everybody Dance (Clap Your Hands)” and “Tenderness.”
In addition to his talent for pumping sounds, Moran creates a vibrant presence in any room. When the youthful, energetic music master strode into the room for our chat, his ripped arms gave the impression of a man with as much physicality as musicality. Maybe that physical acumen helps him as a touring DJ-performer.
Currently considered one of the best known Dance music DJs, Moran plays to massive crowds at events worldwide. In the last several years, DJs have been transformed from remixer/producers into full-fledged live performers. DJs like Calvin Harris, David Guetta and Skrillix have become marquee names, achieving the stature of such band-oriented headliners as Imagine Dragons. And although Moran resisted it for a while, he has become another star to join this celebrated group.
Most DJs who crave national attention quickly realize they have to branch out into making music, not just spinning it. After 14 years away from the DJ booth, Moran slowly realized that the opposite is also true. “As the years go by, I’ve heard so many times that I’m ov-ah,” Moran says, in a thick Brooklyn accent. Or he hears, “I thought you hung your hat up and moved to Key West.”
A couple years ago, Moran stopped turning down requests to DJ, and reintroduced himself to his fellow gay club goers. He forced himself out of his studio to dance and express himself live for his audience, which he does every time he spins. As he puts it, “I’m not a bit embarrassed about smiling, throwing my hands in the air, jumping up and down or even falling off the DJ booth. My only goal is to give people a good time and to let them know that I’m sharing it with them. The spirit of music is contagious”
As he says from his home studio in Manhattan’s Chelsea neighborhood, “For 14 years I wasn’t spinning at all. It was only about a year ago that I decided to DJ again on a regular basis. I’ve always been a DJ but had focused for so long on studio work. “But after recording three albums in a row, I found myself essentially locked in my recording studio with only one or two other people. I realized I was becoming a hermit and became disenchanted with just that way of being. I was basically not seeing anyone except my boyfriend. Regardless of any monetary success, that solitary way of being was no longer fulfilling.
“So I decided to hit the circuit again. Event promoters and producers were buying [Moran’s Centaur Records compilations] and they started asking if I would play this party or that. For a long time, I had been turning down the offers. I never want to do anything unless I know I can offer my personal best, and my head just wasn’t into it. But then I started playing at Miami’s Crobar. The experience was so incredible, I was like, ‘What have I been missing?!’”
Moran had re-discovered his own groove. He had first made his mark In 1981, when he teamed up with friend Albert Cabrera, to form the Latin Rascals, the legendary free-styling hit DJ duo. Their re-edited versions of hit songs enjoyed major air-play on New York City dance radio WKTU’s popular mix show. That exposure led to a deal with Shakedown Studios who hired them to restructure hit radio songs into viable dance club hits.
Shortly thereafter, the duo was contracted by another studio, Fever Records, to write and produce a song for one of their new acts, The Cover Girls. The result was “Show Me” which not only became Moran’s first Top 40 gold record, but also helped usher in the freestyle music era. That success opened the doors for new artists including TKA, Sa-Fire (“Boy, I’ve Been Told”) and Lisette Melendez (“Together Forever”) — all of whom benefited from Moran and Cabrera’s skills.
At the heart of his success is his family, explains the born and bred New Yorker. “I come from a close-knit, supportive family. We were poor but there was so much love and still is. I was never made to feel awkward for believing that dreams could come true. As long as I stayed in school, kept out of trouble and had good grades, I was allowed to work on turning my dreams into reality.”
He adds, “I started as a DJ at Brooklyn Tech, my New York City high school. As a result of my own particular style of playing and of blending hip-hop with other music, things started happening and I began to receive attention. It must have been around 1980 when I started building my own club speakers from spare parts. And when I started doing block parties in Brownsville, Brooklyn, the crowds got bigger and bigger.
“I grew up part of a time and place where the people around me loved block parties. I’m so glad that I was there to live it, feeling all that ethnic fire emerging onto the dance floor. The inspiration from that experience has been a part of me ever since. I couldn’t afford to buy vinyl back then, as hungry as I was to support my obsession with music. But I loved the way that energy flowed out of it. Despite the fact that creative extended versions of songs were all over the map, a gifted DJ could find a way to take everyone on a shared journey of delight. I wasn’t even 21 yet, but I managed to get myself into clubs like Paradise Garage, Bond’s, and Danceteria.”
The twice Grammy-nominated artist received what he considers a Harvard-equivalency education from dance music pioneers like Arthur Baker, John “Jellybean” Benitez, Shep Pettibone and Junior Vasquez. So he went to a college of a non-conventional sort.
“I got a job at the world-famous ‘Downtown Records’ store in the Wall Street area. Not only did they sell the same dance music I was hearing out on the streets and over the radio. They also sold all kinds of Dance music, arriving from all over the world. Some of the biggest club DJs on the New York circuit shopped right there and I found myself was interacting with them every day. Getting a real-world education from taste-makers like that was priceless — and again, inspiring.”
Then in ’82 — shortly after meeting DJ Albert Cabrera at the store — they became partners, combining the special editing techniques they had developed independently. “As a team, we began creating our own music, melding together our favorite selections from the world around us. Next thing you know, we were dubbed “The Latin Rascals” and had our own show on WKTU, NYC’s #1 radio dance station. Our sound and style made us so popular so fast, it was hard to believe what was actually happening. After hearing our show, producer Arthur Baker asked us to apply our special style to his remixes and POW! Suddenly we’re in music business with our first credited song, by Bruce Springsteen’s “Born In The USA.” Can you believe that. And the list grew from there…”
Moran’s first Top 40 hit -- the ’80s song “Show Me” by The Cover Girls -- featured lots of percussion. It was a natural part of his environment. “Because I’m Colombian and Irish, and was raised in a Spanish ghetto, I was always surrounded by percussion. When I began making records it just seemed natural to include it. I didn’t do that in response to other percussive records. Our whole freestyle sound was considered revolutionary for the way it incorporated Latin-style melodies and chord progressions with beats that, while not being hip-hop, became the driving forces of the songs we produced.” The multi-faceted DJ/producer/artist looks back with pleasure on freestyle tracks that included “Dance With Me” by Concept of One, “One Way Love” by TKA, “The Question” by NOEL. Also “Arabian Knights” by Latin Rascals “Funk Boutique”, “Inside Outside”, “We Can’t Go Wrong”, “Promise Me” and “Wishing On A Star.”
“In addition to producing the Fat Boys,” he notes, “each of our songs made it at least to the Billboard Top 100.” Moran credits his freestyle background for the pop sensibility he incorporates into his music today. “Playing music that generates a feel-good energy is what I love about being a DJ/mix master.”
Moran measures a successful dance floor by the number of hands in the air as the crowd happily dances and sings along. He eschews the strict underground house mentality preferred by some of his contemporaries. Instead he imparts his remixes and productions with a hook-laden commercial appeal that’s both radio-friendly and dance floor-driven. A number of DJs don’t consider it cool to play vocals, seeing them as trivial, but Moran has consistently employed pop vocals in the music he’d written or produced.
“I like playing vocals,” he says. “Every DJ has the right to express himself in his own way in his sets. If I based what I was going to do creatively on every opinion that came to me, I’d never get a chance to be myself. Another DJ once came up to me when I was in the booth — I’m dancing around the booth, I’ve got my hands in the air -- and he’s like, ‘You know, DJs are not supposed to dance.’ I said to him, ‘Well, then … I guess I’m not a DJ. But I’m still the guy behind the turntables here!” I’ve described it before as working to get the hormones flowing. That’s the way I like to be. I like to see people smiling and jumping around. I like to watch people touch each other. I not talking about sexuality. I just love to see people share their energy with each other. It brings me a lot of satisfaction.”
In January, Moran released Moodswings, a double CD set of his most definitive productions. In this package, he presents both his influences and musical experiences. On the dual CD’s 28 tracks (subtitled “Feel” and “Move”), Moran surrounded himself with an all-star team of players and singers including veterans Davis, Walker, Wash and Ryan Shaw. “Moodswings allowed me to express the many different musical styles I knew were within me. My label and collaborators helped me pick the best of the best from the many things we had created. The writers and singers who worked with me made us a top-notch team. I was there for every vocal. That’s what a producer does. Essentially, ‘Moodswings’ is my dream come true, a genuine labor of love. Being in control of one’s own project changes everything.” Moran is constantly busy, most recently with the richly layered "My Fire," his current collaboration with legendary mega-producer Rodgers and Davis — the lead singer of the group CHIC. He blends elements of Rodgers' trademark funk sound with soul, disco and house influences on the uplifting track. As Davis said in a statement, “The flame is burning, just waiting to be fanned. I hope our song makes people feel good, as though they’re in the middle of a party, letting go and having fun.”
The project came together after Moran recruited Davis to work on a song for Moodswings, calling the singer "a rare talent in the realm of Whitney [Houston] and Mary J. [Blige]." Moran co-wrote the track with friends and collaborators Mike Greenly and Audrey Martells. Then Rodgers joined in after hearing a rough cut while Davis was touring with the Hall of Fame guitarist's iconic band. To her surprise, he expressed enthusiasm about being involved. "Of course, I said yes," added Davis. "Not only is he my boss but he’s also Nile Rodgers! No sane music artist would deny Nile being a part of their project."
Adds Moran, “Nile is a true inspiration to the world in his ability to create and shape musical genres," "It was a thrill to work with him in the booth." The Patty Nieto-directed video for the song features behind-the-scenes footage of Rodgers, Moran and Davis recording the single, as well as Davis strutting her stuff in Times Square.
Continues Moran, “The idea was to incorporate the vibrant energy of New York City to capture the spirited power of the song. I’m truly completely open to any new project I take on. I just want to give everything I’ve got, every time, all the time.”
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