Aziola Cry are a Chicago, Illinois-based instrumental trio currently comprised of Jason Blake (Chapman Stick), Mike Milaniak (guitar) and Tom Murray (drums). Their first album was Ellipsis, released in 2004 (with Tim Stickradt on drums). Their second album, Ghost Conversations was released earlier this year. Joshua Turner recently spoke with Jason Blake.
Joshua Turner: For starters, your performance at MARSfest had people talking. You did a tremendous job and should really be proud of your contribution to that new festival. How did you land that gig?
Jason Blake: Thanks. Joe Kopecky suggested our name to the organizer of the festival. I had started a project with Joe so he was familiar with Aziola Cry and thought that we would be a great addition. So really, I have Joe to thank for our appearance at MARSfest.
JT: What about the High Noon Saloon and why so soon after a major event? Don't you guys ever rest?
JB: The High Noon gig was booked before we knew that we would be playing the MARS Festival. It just worked out that we were back in Wisconsin so soon.
JT: Who handles your booking?
JB: Currently, I handle the band's booking.
JT: Do you have any other tours or concerts lined up at the moment?
JB: We have a few scattered dates that were already in the works for the remaining part of the year, but we are concentrating on our next recording right now. We are currently rehearsing the material and will be in the studio early next month.
JT: Many festivals are popping up these days. Do you see yourself at another one of them in the near future?
JB: I'd love to. It is always great to play in front of a large audience of people that are into progressive rock.
JT: Let's talk about the new album, Ghost Conversations? How did you come up with the name?
JB: As with all of our albums, the title and music follow a story. Ghost Conversations is about having one last moment with the past and what you would do with that moment.
JT: Why the three parts and how come it finds itself on an EP instead of a longer compilation?
JB: I felt like the music made a statement on its own and would distract from a full length CD so we released it as an EP. The three parts are meant to represent the different stages of the "conversation." Without giving too much of the story away, the three parts represent reflection, confusion, and anger. My hope is that people use their imaginations and develop their own ideas though.
JT: Is the idea to start off soft and finish with an eruption and if so, how does this tie into the unspoken theme?
JB: The story works on certain levels as a continuation of the Ellipsis story. It is the aftermath of that album, if you will. The album begins soft and quiet as a sort of reflection on what has happened. The middle section represents the confusion in one's mind and the third section, or eruption as you mentioned, is the anger felt.
JT: I have seen you in concert twice and both times you've started with this one. Why? Is this your trademark piece, your favorite piece, or is it just a reliable staple until you build up your discography?
JB: We had just released the Ghost Conversations EP at the time, so we wanted to make that the centerpiece of our show. We then sprinkled in a couple Ellipsis songs in after Ghost Conversations had made its statement.
JT: Also, how did you come up with the name of your band?
JB: The name comes from a poem by the poet Percy Shelley. I have always been a fan of his poetry and in one of his poems he talks about hearing the cry of an aziola. By the end of the poem, he realizes that he does not know where this cry is coming from but does know that it is the most beautiful, sad sound that he has ever heard. I thought that the name fit great with the music that I write.
JT: If you ask me, that's a very good name. I've heard some bad ones, and I have been told that one of the most difficult parts about creating a band is coming up with the name. Yours is original, introspective, and clever whereas many bands in the genre have names that often are too cheesy to repeat to my friends. Changing the subject, what's your take on Tony Levin? Is he among your heroes?
JB: I think that it is hard to be a Stick player and not be a fan of Tony Levin. He has done so much for the instrument and made some great music along the way.
JT: In general, tell me about any "significant" influences that we haven't already covered.
JB: I'd say that my biggest personal influence is Swedish bass virtuoso Jonas Hellborg. I have been a big fan of his music for a long time now. I really like the fact that he can put out so many different sounding albums and yet they all sound like Jonas.
JT: To change gears again, let's discuss your songwriting? Is someone in charge of this process or is this a shared experience? Please explain how you go about writing a song with your band-mates.
JB: I write the music and make demo recordings for the rest of the band to learn and develop their parts. What they get is basically just the clean Stick lines that form the basis of the songs. After everyone has a working idea of what they will play, we get together as a band and begin rehearsing the songs. Generally, the structures will remain the same, but we will modify things until each of our individual parts work to further the whole of the song.
JT: When you develop a song, are you driven more by melodies or emotions?
JB: I'd probably say emotions. Since I have a storyline in mind when writing the music, it all has to help tell the story. There are times when a melody may be a part of the story, so it reoccurs throughout the music but once again; the story comes first.
JT: What's your shortest song and why, for the most part, are many of your songs so long?
JB: Our shortest song is "Shadow Lies" off of the Ellipsis album. It's only 2:10. There are actually a few shorter songs on that album that were intended as segues into the longer songs. When I write music, I like for it to constantly move and not stay stagnant. As a result of this, a lot of riffs make up each song and ultimately make their length. I also tend to like longer songs as a listener which also plays into our song lengths.
JT: What prompted you to solely play the Chapman Sticks® when many stick players are really bassists in disguise who take this up as a side-hobby? Rarely if ever do you see a musician don this for their entire set. If you're lucky, they bring it out for a song or two.
JB: I started on bass and still to some degree consider myself a bass player. For this band though, I made it a conscious effort to only play Stick because I wanted this instrument to define the sound of the band. I write and play differently on the Stick and I wanted that at the center of the music. It has also been very helpful in terms of filling out the sound of what a trio can accomplish and gave us more sonic options.
JT: Any idea what else we can expect from the studio, either with solo work or Aziola Cry?
JB: We are currently working on new material and will be in the studio recording this fall. The next album will be full-length and contain some of the most intense and difficult music that the band has played to date.
JT: Any plans in the works for live albums or DVDs?
JB: I'd like to release two more albums to build up our catalog before releasing a live album. It is something that I have thought about though and will definitely do so when the time is right.
JT: Are you in any other projects these days aside from what's been mentioned? Had you ever considered playing a different instrument or pursuing a different career?
JB: As I mentioned, Joe Kopecky and I have been writing music together and hope to get that project moving soon. We started by sending music back and forth and now have begun jamming the music together and working everything out. I have also written some solo Stick music that I hope to record at some point. As for playing another instrument, I have decided that tapping instruments will be my main focus. I really enjoy the challenge that they bring and the possibilities that they open up.
JT: Going back to the beginning, how did you get involved in music?
JB: I began piano lessons at an early age and became infatuated with music. Music became my life. Along with lessons, I began purchasing thousands of tapes and CDs over the years and still continue to do so today. Piano lessons eventually led to upright and electric bass lessons.
JT: When did you decide you wanted to be a Stick player and join a band?
JB: I began playing the Stick about ten years ago. I did a lot of tapping on my bass and eventually decided to take the plunge and get an instrument that was specifically designed for this style. I started on the 8-string Stick Bass and later moved to the 12-string Grand Stick. Over the course of the years, I eventually realized that the music that I wanted to play was meant for a tapping instrument like the Stick.
JT: I wanted to touch upon the others who contribute to your trio? How did you meet the drummer, Tom Murray, and the guitarist, Mike Milaniak, and how did they get involved in this band?
JB: Mike has been playing with me since the start of this band. After I wrote the Ellipsis material and knew that I wanted a heavy guitar sound, I found Mike by placing an ad in the local paper. Tom, on the other hand, just recently joined the band in June of this year. I have known Tom for a couple of years and once the drum spot was left vacant by our previous drummer, I immediately contacted him to play with us. I really enjoy playing with both of these guys.
JT: Speaking of which, why a trio? What about a singer or a keyboardist?
JB: I have always been interested in making the most amount of noise with the fewest amount people. The Stick helps fill in a lot of sound plus the other guys do a great job at this as well. I really don't have any interest in adding members to this band.
JT: Do you see yourself incorporating lyrics into your music at some point? Or is your intention to be strictly instrumental?
JB: I want the band to remain strictly instrumental. The music is written to be a soundtrack to a story. My intent is for the listener to use their imagination with the story and lyrics would feed that to them. I'm not opposed to playing with a singer, but it would not be called Aziola Cry.
JT: By the way, who is responsible for all the eerie artwork and graphics design?
JB: A local Chicago artist by the name of Micka Klauck does all of the band's artwork. I met her a few years ago through a mutual friend and thought that her art was great. I think that it compliments the music very well. You can see some of her other artwork at www.mickaklauck.com.
JT: What's the meaning and the motivation behind the artwork?
JB: That would probably be best answered by Micka. I typically give her the album and song titles along with a vague overview of the storyline. She then creates the artwork based on our conversations and her own imagination. Therefore the art works with the theme of the music, but I'm sure that her story and motivation are different from mine.
JT: What's the worst part about being a musician?
JB: I love being a musician, but it can be very time-consuming. I'm not sure if there is ever really a moment when music isn't at the forefront of my thoughts.
JT: What's the best fan interaction you've had?
JB: We have met a lot of great people who are really into the music. Meeting those people that really get it is so rewarding to me.
JT: I'd like to find out about your current musical tastes? What's the last CD that you purchased?
JB: I just pre-ordered the new Jonas Hellborg Art Metal CD. I can't wait to hear what this one will sound like.
JT: Along the same lines, what's the last concert that you attended as a fan?
JB: Porcupine Tree at the Park West. It was a great show. They played their entire Fear Of A Blank Planet album.
JT: I'd like to find out some of your favorites? What is your favorite album of all-time? Is there any CD or tape for that matter that you've worn out?
JB: I guess that if I had to pick one, it would be the Jonas Hellborg/Glenn Velez album, Ars Moriende. I have listened to this album so many times throughout the years, and I still listen to it as though it is new.
JT: Who is your all-time favorite band?
JB: I don't know if I really have an all-time favorite band. I enjoy King Crimson, Tool, Opeth, and Porcupine Tree more than most of the other bands that I listen to at the moment.
JT: Let's talk about some favorites that aren't necessarily related to music? What is your favorite movie?
JB: I tend to be more into directors than specific movies. The only movies that I insist on seeing opening day are those by David Lynch and Darren Aronofsky.
JT: What is your favorite TV show?
JB: I honestly do not watch much T.V. Typically, if I sit down to watch anything; it is usually a sporting event.
JT: Who are your favorite teams?
JB: I am from Chicago so I am a Bears, Cubs, and Bulls fan.
JT: Do you have a favorite book?
JB: I hate to say it, but I have never enjoyed reading. I wish that I would read more, but I always find myself falling asleep after a couple of pages.
JT: I like to ask this question, because it helps me to identify with the artist, but do you have any pets?
JB: I have a dog.
JT: Before we wrap up, is there anything you'd like to say to your fans at this time?
JB: Our next album will be out early next spring and will be our best yet. Thanks for the support that you have given us. We really appreciate it.
JT: Again, fantastic job at MARSfest! I certainly hope to see you at future fests as well. Also, great follow-up at the High Noon Saloon. Other than that, that's all I have for you at this time. So good luck with any upcoming projects or concerts, and keep up all the good work on the stick.
Ghost Conversations (2007)