Interview – John Novello of Niacin – Interview

By  Todd Whitesel

It seems that the meeting of the musicians who would form rock/jazz/fusion band Niacin — keyboardist John Novello, bassist Billy Sheehan, and drummer Dennis Chambers — was as inevitable as the connection they made with the number three: vitamin B3 (Niacin), the Hammond B-3, which figures large in Niacin’s sound and playing in a trio format.

Novello, Sheehan, and Chambers joined forces in 1995. Each were (and are) accomplished studio musicians, but the trio format gave the three members a platform to write and play music, without concessions.

After four studio albums and two live releases, Niacin released Organik in late October 2005. It has a progressive-rock vibe, but it also neatly bridges the gap between ’70s funk, classic rock, fusion and jazz. It’s a fiery mix, heavy on the classic Hammond B-3 sound that nourishes Niacin’s music coupled with Sheehan’s bass playing without boundaries and Chambers’ explosive drumming.

Goldmine spoke with Novello about Niacin’s beginnings, Organik, playing in Japan, working as a music teacher and becoming pen pals with Chick Corea.

Goldmine: What initially brought you, Sheehan, and Chambers together?

John Novello: When I moved to California with my late wife [Gloria Rusch] — she was one of the top vocal instructors in the world, and Billy had arbitrarily come to her for vocal lessons with his band, Mr. Big. So the Mr. Big people were coming over to the house every day to study vocal lessons with my wife. Me and Billy met a few times — he knew I played, and I knew he played, but we had never done anything together. One day he said, “Hey man, I hear you’re really a freakazoid on the B-3.” I said, “Yeah, I love it.” He said, “I’ve never been in a band with a B-3. One of these days we’ll have to jam.” That was way back in ’85. About 10 years later he gave me a call — he had a budget because Guitar magazine was doing a guitar compilation CD; they were having all these great guitar players contribute a track. They called Billy up, because even though he’s a bass player, he’s almost like a guitar player on bass.

He called me up and said, “Hey, I’ve got a little budget here from Guitar magazine. Maybe this is a way for us to hook up. Let’s cowrite a tune; we’ll get a drummer and do a trio thing to give it to Guitar mag.” The name of that first tune was “Niacin.” Pat Torpey, the drummer for Mr. Big, is who played drums on the original tune that went to Guitar magazine.

We had such a good time working together in the trio format that Billy said, “Let’s just keep writing some tunes. This could be cool.” So within six months to a year after that — I think it was in ’95 — we wrote about 13-14 songs, and we really dug ’em. We just said, “Hey, let’s just go in and do a whole record ourselves, and we’ll see if we can get a deal afterward.”

Once we finished the demos, both of us had seen — not played with but had seen — Dennis Chambers several times and thought, “Man, he’s a monster drummer; he might be a good guy for this.” We sent him the demos. He liked it, and the rest is history.

This album has the B-3 all over it, but what’s interesting is you cover the sounds of a Jon Lord to straight jazz and everything in between.

When I was growing up, I literally started out as an organist playing in R&B soul bands. I was playing everything from Wilson Pickett to Sam & Dave and then Earth, Wind & Fire; Tower Of Power; Sly Stone; James Brown and all that stuff.

When the psychedelic movement started I got into Vanilla Fudge, Cream, Traffic, ELP, King Crimson, Steppenwolf, Deep Purple and all that. That brought the rock part into my black, sort of soulful R&B trip.

Then I got turned onto Jimmy Smith on the B-3 and started getting into all the blues cats — Jack McDuff and Jimmy McGriff, all the bluesy B-3 players.

I studied classical piano after that stuff. Then I went away to Berklee in Boston and studied jazz. So the jazz part of me, jazz and classical, is the latest part of my experience.

Because of all that I’ve got an eclectic background, which actually was a little confusing because I could never figure out what direction I was going to go in if I do original stuff. That’s why the Niacin project was cool, because Billy and I said, “Let’s just write whatever we want.” I think if you had to analyze Niacin — most critics will say we’re a progressive-rock band — but we’re a little bit more than that. Most progressive-rock bands don’t show off jazz chops. Although Billy isn’t a jazz player per se, Dennis and I have played lots of jazz and on jazz projects. I kind of like that vibe because Billy anchors the band with his rock and progressive-rock vibe — he’s like Jimi Hendrix on the bass; Dennis can do anything — he’s very eclectic — he can go from brushes and bebop. He’s one of the few guys who can play really intense jazz and jazz fusion and at the same time play a simple, little funk beat and kill you! That’s because of his background: He played with P-Funk and all that stuff.

It’s sort of a lucky combination of players, because if you replaced anyone in the band — there’s obviously all kinds of great players, but if you replaced Billy Sheehan with some other great bass player like Marcus Miller, it would still be a good band, but you’d lose that part of the Niacin sound, you know.

Then if you got Vinnie Colaiuta — he’s a monster drummer — he’s not as funky as Dennis, so then you lose part of that. I’m sure you know Keith Emerson could play in Niacin and add his stuff, but he doesn’t bring the jazz and funky stuff; he’s more of a neo-classic rock player.

So it’s funny how the three of us came together and that it actually works. We even sort of made an agreement that if one guy can’t do it we’re not going to do a record without the other guy. A lot of people said, “Well, Dennis is really busy. What are you going to do if he’s too busy?” I said, “We’ll wait until he’s not busy; we’ll do the record; we’ll do the tour.” We don’t do subs.

How do you and Sheehan approach writing?

I do most of the heavy writing. Billy and Dennis are untrained — not that that makes them lesser players — but they don’t read or write music. I’m very trained, so I do most of the arranging and heavy writing, but Billy will come to me with ideas, or me and him will jam and turn on the tape. We get ideas that way; we’ll both listen to them, and he’ll go, “Yeah, that idea is cool. Let’s develop that.” I’ll go and develop it and work out the demos, and then he comes back and listens to it and might go, “I think it needs a little different bridge or ending.” So we cowrite in that way. We do all the writing, although Dennis cowrote a tune with us on one record because he was playing a good jam, so we used it.

What do you like best about playing in a trio?

I think in any trio, even if it was a guitar trio or organ trio or piano trio, what’s great about a trio is that you’re stripped down to the bare essentials. You’ve got the bottom; you’ve got the rhythm, and you’ve got the lead instrument. All three people really get to play in a setting like this; everybody has to pull their own weight; nobody can be anemic; nobody can lay back — the moment somebody lays back a whole third of the sound is missing. If I wasn’t happening, all you’d have would be great bass and great drums. But who wants to listen to a track with no melody, you know? So all three of us have to really come to the table in this gig, and since we started this gig as a no-styles-barred band — “Let’s just write some cool music that we all dig and play the shit out of it, and we don’t care what anybody thinks.” It was that kind of a project at its inception, and it’s that kind of a project now. We’re fortunate that there’s enough of an audience that likes that kind of thing.

You’re obviously not laying back on these tracks, but I don’t get the impression that anyone is just noodling for noodling’s sake.

No, no. Me and Billy, even Dennis, we both come from a concept of a song is more than a jam, you know. A jam is a jam; if you get lucky on a jam and it happens to sound like a song, that’s the exception. Most jams — no matter how good they are — still are jams; they lack structure and melody.

We always try to write structured songs that have sections that make sense that go into others and flow seamlessly. I try to make sure that there’s a real good melody — even if it’s complicated, it’s still a melody.

Even though we’re busy, we’re never busy for busy’s sake. It’s like a movie: If there’s gotta be a nude scene or an explosion or special effect, I don’t mind any of that as long as the script definitely demands that. Sometimes you go to a movie and you’ve got so many special effects and goofy things that don’t need to be there, [that] it distracts.

Is the opening song on the CD, “Barbarian @ The Gate,” as challenging to play as it sounds?

Yeah. There’s a lot of bitch tunes on this one, but that first one is a real bitch. “No Shame” is a bitch for me, because even though it’s just a funk tune, I wrote that whole middle part that sounds like Weather Report horns or something. That’s a chop-fest there for me to play.

But that first tune is sort of like an RTF [Return To Forever] tribute. And so it just burns from the get-go. It’s pretty short, too; I think it’s barely three minutes long.

Did you set the metronome at 3,000 and go for it?

I was the one that came up for the original lick on that one; I remember when I was writing and thinking I want to write a really burning line that just kicks butt like an old RTF line. That’s how I started out conceptually, and then I wrote that beginning line and had Billy solo over those changes. So we jammed a little bit, then we both looked at each other and said, “Yeah, this could be pretty good.”

When it came out so good we thought it’d be a great record, because everybody loved Time Crunch — we got such great reviews. We were kinding of thinking that it puts you in the hot seat, “What are you going to do to top Time Crunch?” “Well,” I said, “the first thing we can do is start off with a tune that lets everybody know we mean business.” [laughs]

Another cool track is “Super Grande.” It has sort of a George Gershwin, “American In Paris” sound.

It’s sort of a flamenco feel. That was Billy’s lick; he played that on the bass like a guitar player would. He started jamming that, and I wrote a whole melody over the top of it.

After Billy had that killer riff, I had a great time arranging a bunch of stuff around it. I think we went into a weird bridge on that that’s more of a rock thing. That one’s also got some really cool unison licks, too, with the drums and bass. That’s a very up-tempo tune.

There’s a Frank Zappa cover, “King Kong,” on here. Anything he writes presents its own challenges for everyone in the band.

We always cover a classic on every record. On the last record we covered two classics, “Red” by King Crimson and “Blue Wind” by Jan Hammer and Jeff Beck. The album before we did “Mean Streets” by Van Halen; we always challenge ourselves.

This one, me and Billy said, “Hey, let’s do a Zappa tune.” I said, “Well, my favorite is ‘King Kong,’ and he said “That’s one of my favorites, too.”

That was a little challenging because the original “King Kong” took up two sides of a record. What I did was listen to the whole thing — obviously you’re going to play the melody — and then picked some of the little motifs they had in their jams and threw those in. Of course we did it our own way.

“Magnetic Mood” has a middle section that is probably the most guitar-istic part you play on keyboards.

That tune was fun. The beginning is a very simple, atmospheric, moody piece that we did on purpose. One day when I was trying to arrange it, I kept thinking, “This tune is almost boring to me. It needs something; it needs a bridge.” I remember I stopped and I went, “That would be really good if it went into a fast swing.” But since it was a 12/8 kind of feel you actually had to go into triple time. I thought, “Man, this thing is going to be fast” — that’s the fastest tune on there. I remember when Dennis was doing it his hand was just flying. I really had to [wood]shed my ass off to play it that cleanly and that fast. It was kind of fun because I was trying to make it sound like a Mahavishnu Trio or something, you know.

“Blisterine” has a great organ sound.

It’s haunting. The way I came up with that is because I wanted to write a one-chord song. We got that fast lick together on the bass. Dennis used to play that fast, funky/fusion drumbeat during rehearsals. One day I recorded it on a little cassette and saved it — it was years ago — and I remember when I was writing this record, I got out some of my Dennis Chambers grooves. Billy came up with a bass part, and I just wrote a melody over the top. We got a little carried away; we decided to do one of those really fast licks. I think the ending is pretty much a nightmare.

Prior to the U.S. release, Organik was released in Japan, and you also released a DVD of a live show in the summer that you did in Japan. Does Niacin have a big following there?

Yeah, we’re way bigger in Japan. We’re still, believe it or not, after our seventh record — this is our fifth studio record; we’ve had two live records — we’re still, I think, one of the world’s best-kept secrets in the United States. It’s because of the radio and the nonsense on the radio — the easy-listening stations will neverplay Niacin. Then the straight-ahead jazz stations aren’t going to play us because we’re too heavy. Some of the rock stations — we’re a little too complicated to just be rock instrumental. We get played, usually, on college stations or progressive Internet radio stations, so a lot of people don’t really yet know us here.

We first got released in Japan and sold a lot of our records back in 1996, so when we go to Japan we’re like rock stars compared to here.

I think that’s the case for many bands.

Yeah, it’s kind of a drag, but it’s catching on here for sure. Time Crunch grabbed a lot of new people, and this one out of the gate is really getting some killer reviews and creating quite a buzz.

Was the bonus track, “Footprints In The Sand,” that’s included on the U.S. release written after the release of Organik in Japan?

No. We always write more tunes than we need; we wrote about 16 or 18 tunes this time, and we always have at least one track different than the Japanese release.

You can’t fit them all on one record so you keep a few in the can for things like this. I think we even gave another one to Magna Carta for an iTunes download or something.

One of the things that struck me watching your live DVD — I hadn’t seen Chambers play before — was his economy of motion. His playing seems effortless.

He’s a drummer who really anchors himself. He’s not like a full rock drummer where he’ll bring his arm up real high and hit the snare hard. He has such great technique and such strong wrists that he just sits there, and his hands are barely moving around and he’s playing these monster parts.

On your Web site there’s a great story about you writing to Chick Corea, using the address on the back of one of his albums. And he wrote back!

That flipped me out, because most of the time people didn’t give a shit in those days. He wrote me back, and then we started to become pen pals. One day, when I was in Boston, I got to go to one of the soundchecks because I knew the trumpet player. Then I finally said, “Hey Chick, it’s Novello.” And he goes, “Oh, pen pal Novello.” [laughs]

We got to be good friends, and when I moved out to California I stayed in town with him and ended up working with him and doing some programming of his synthesizers. Then he actually invited me to play synth on one of his records; he wrote the foreword to one of my instructional manuals, and we’ve remained great friends. When he started his own label, he dug Niacin so he signed us to Stretch Records. The first two records in Europe and the U.S. were released on Stretch Records, which was Chick’s label. That’s why I convinced him to play Rhodes and write a tune on the second Niacin record.

You mentioned your instruction manual. What inspired you to take your teaching notes and turn them into a complete book?

When I came out here from Boston, I wanted to be doing what I’m doing now — this heavy fusion stuff and original music. I ended up, accidentally, in a sense, in the wrong place at the wrong time. A very big R&B/disco band that was just launching itself called me — I was broke; I had just moved out here — and I ended up playing with Taste Of Honey back in ’78-80. That was like a silly, R&B/disco band — that’s stuff I was doing before I went to Berklee. I thought, “After all this training, I’m back in L.A. and doing what I did, again.” But I was making all kinds of money, and I went from that band to Donna Summer and made even more money. Finally, in ’85 I said, “I can’t be doing these gigs anymore. Some people would love these gigs since they’re big gigs, but I feel like I’m a keyboard player on two in these bands. So I have to quit.”

I started teaching, just by referral, in the L.A. area, and I had all these notes. I had such good teachers in my life that I took teaching very seriously, and I didn’t want to be one of those guys when someone comes to you and you throw ’em a few hot licks and tell them to transpose them into all keys; that’s not really teaching. I got all my notes together and started copying them and thought, “Man, I’ve got so much stuff I’ve studied, I need to organize this.” So I made an outline, and the next thing you know I was obsessed with writing a book.

I like your comment that talent can’t replace hard work. That’s really what it takes to master an instrument.

Somebody was interviewing Keith Jarrett once and was saying, “You’re a genius; you’re unbelievable” and just going on. And he said something like, “Hold it. Thank you very much for your kudos, but I don’t really like that; it doesn’t really help anybody. That tells somebody else who is struggling that they’re not a genius, and it almost makes them give up. I want to tell you something: It’s just hard work. Most people don’t realize that when they see a performance. They don’t know how many hundreds or thousands of hours that person trained so when they actually perform, it looks like a hot knife cutting through butter. People don’t know what to do, so they go, ‘Oh my God, he’s a genius!’ That sends a false message. Anybody can do what they really want to do, but they’re going to have to do the work.”

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