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Progressive Rock Interviews


Interviewed by Gary Hill
Interview with Niacin's John Novello From 2000
MSJ: Niacin has a very interesting sound. How would you describe it?
When we originally started it, it wasn't anything contrived, and it still ain't. It was just me and Billy, who knew each other for years. We'd always see each other and say, "Hey, we've got to play with each other one of these days.", cause we were always in different projects. He knew that I played the Hammond B3, and he had never been in a band with a B3. He said, "One of these days we've go to write some stuff based around the B3, no guitar, no vocals cause we've already got project that have that stuff in it. Let's just do what we like, what our roots are." I grew up playing blues and rock, then got into jazz. He was always more of rock/blues player. When we got together we just wrote some songs that fit those roots and weren't thinking commercial or deal or anything. We recorded a bunch of that stuff, and then, when we thought we had something at least we loved, we called Dennis Chambers up because we mutually didn't realize that we liked this drummer because we thought he was pretty unique and an awesome drummer. He added the rest of the puzzle to the thing. The music is sort of mostly high-energy, instrumental blues rock, but it has jazz harmonies in it, because of my jazz background. ON the latest record I added some Fender Rhodes and acoustic piano. here and there. Then live I expand the sound a little more - play some synth leads and stuff like that, but it's mostly 80% built around the B3. The B3 was the staple for the '50's, '60's, '70's and '80's. I mean, you couldn't really find a hot band - everyone from Blood Sweat and Tears, Chicago, Tower of Power, Sly Stone, then you go into the psychedelic groups like Young Rascals, Yes, Emerson Lake and Palmer, Vanilla Fudge, then the Motown sound. The Hammond was either playing chords or comping or taking leads like Jimmy Smith and all those kinds of guys. So, it was like one of THE intruments, really.
MSJ: On the new album you have the one track with guitar and vocals. How did that come about?
Well, the only thing that happened on tn that was really wierd. Me and Billy had written this ballad. You know, we write a lot of songs when we go to do a project, and not necessarilly all of them are right for the Niacin project or make the Niacin record. You just throw them off to the side and see if they're good for another project. This was sort of one of those. With it being almost an Al Kooper type of ballad, I could have played it instrumentally, which would have been the normal thing I would have doen, and played the melody, but we kind of liked the feel so much we said, "You know, this song is one of those songs that you could eaasily write lyrics to and then have a guitar solo on it." Then we said, "Yeah, but it doesn't really fit the project. So, maybe we'll do that for something else, or he'll use it in his Mr. Big project or whatever." Then as we kept listening to it, we kept liking it. So, I called my friend Glenn Hughes and said, "Hey, I've got this song, and I don't know if it's going to make the Niacin record or not, but since we're in the middle of recording, why don't you come down and give it a shot. He sang the hell out of it. Me and Billy just said, "God, this is so cool. Even though we really wouldn't do this song live unless we were on LA and Glann happened to be there, let's call Lukather and have him throw a guitar solo on, and then we'll see if the record company agrees to put it on the record." The only thing that it fits project-wise is that Niacin is really a retro kind of band with those roots just being redone in new ways. So, retro-wise it fits Niacin, still the B3 and so on. So we figured, OK, who cares, we'll have a couple guests on one song and see what happens. It's a really good track. Now the people hear that and they go, "Oh yeah, you guys should have those guys in the band and you should be a whole new band and the whole next album should be all that." We knew that was going to happen. Hey, we aren't neccessarily against something like that any way. Those are good friends of ours, and you never know, stuff like that happens that way. If all of a suddend that tune got a lot of airplay or became a hit or something like that, who knows what we might do.
MSJ: Do you have a method for songwriting or does it vary from track to track?
We're going to try to get Dennis involved in it a little this time, but he's usually so busy. He's like a mercenary. He's playing with all the hot bands, so he's on the road a lot. Me and Billy at this point do all the writing. He has a really sophisticated sort of digital studio, and I have one as well. So, on our won we sort of durning the year are always coming up with ideas and sketches and then we record 'em in our studios as little sketches. Then, as it approaches nearing time to start working on the next CD, I'll go to his studio. He'll play me all his sketches. I'll tell him which ones I like and then vice versa. The the ones that we sort of mutually like we start working on together. We usually fully demo them in our studios. You just take a drum program and computers and do a drum part like that. Then, when the tunes get done, and we're happy with them (we usually write about 20 tunes), we send the ones that are probably going to be on the record we send to Dennis Chambers on a DAT. He listens to them. Then when he comes in, at least he knows them. He changes some drum parts around, of course.
MSJ: When did you get hooked on the Hammond B3 sound?
Well, when I was growing up, you couldn't go the '60's and '70's I can barely name a band (other than a guitar trio) that didn't have a Hammond organ. Even Led Zeppelin had an organ. John Paul Jones used to play B3 on stuff. When I got in to that era, and started playing in cover bands, imitating all those things, since I was a keyboard player...I actually started playing accordion, of all instruments. When I was 9, 10 years old, so, I had some keyboard type stuff there, but only right-handed stuff. Then my sister got a piano, and I started trying to play the piano a little bit. I kind of didn't like the piano that much. Now, I love it, but at the time I just went, "I don't know about this. I like the sound of the organ.". If they didn't have a B3, the other bands still had organs in them, like Vox Continentals or the Farfisa, likeThe Doors. The first keyboard I got was a Farfisa, and I used to try to make it sound like a B3, because the B3 was so thick and gorgeous and the Farfisa was thin. Eventually I got a B3 and I was flipped out, because that was the real sound. Now almost any song I played from Tower of Power to Sly and the Family Stone, James Brown, Wilson Pickett - you know every you name in those times had a B3, so at least I had the right instrument. So, when I took the stuff off the record and played all the right stuff. That's how I got into it. That's really how I learned it, by copying all those mentors. I think my main mentors were, besides Jimmie Smith and Jack McDuff on the blues and jazz side, and Larry Young and stuff. You've got into Keith Emerson, of course, who's the master of the rock B3 and Wakeman in Yes. Then there's all these obscure bands that had B3 in them, Vanilla Fudge and Humble Pie. I just started learning all their licks, and learning all the B3 stuff, and just got hooked on it, and just kept it. My B3 is a pretty souped up little B3. Niacin is a real high-energy sound. There's a lot of things that were done. I midied the organ so I could play synthesizer parts from the B3 manually. There's various types of distortion and overdrive things to get the type of sound that I have - the screaming B3 sound as compared to just a mellow sound. In this band the B3 is basically playing lead a lot. In a lot of bands the B3 is just playing some nice chords and an occasional solo, but in this band, there's no vocals, there's no guitar player. So, I'm pretty much playing the melody and taking a lot of the solos.
MSJ: You have worked over the years with quite a few interesting musicians. Do you have any interesting stories to share?
I've worked with so many different people from a totally commercial disco band like Taste of Honey way back in 1978. They were like the number one group in the world. They had a silly tune actually called "Get Down, Boogie Oogie Oogie" - sold 9 million records. That was kind of funny, because it was two black chicks that were gorgeous and one played bass and one played guitar, and they just became a phenomenom at that time. I ended up being the musical director because they weren't trained musicians - they were ear people. They got lucky with this hit. I remember one day I had just come to L.A.. The whole idea of going to L.A. was to "make it big", start my career. I'd been in classes, shedding and studying music at Berklee School of Music. I get out in L.A., I was only out there about 4 or 5 weeks, I was sort of semi-starving, in that all the money I had taken with me was just about gone. I'd paid my rent. So, now I'm looking around for work, and going, "man, this is harder than I thought it was." I walked into Guitar Center one day. I literally had heard that Guitar Center all the hot touring bands would go in there to buy their equipment and stuff like that. So, I thought, maybe I'll just go in there and I'll play some keyboards. Besides looking at the newest keyboards that I can't afford I'll just play and maybe somebody will see me, which was exactly what happened. I'm in there one Saturday morning and I'm playing an Oberheim, and I'm really excited about this new instrument. At the time, I'm playing it, wailing away, I wasn't really thinking about anybody listening to me. This dude comes up to me and says, "Hey, man, you really play good. We got a hot new band coming out on Capital Records and we're going out on tour in two weeks. We need a musical director. It looks like it's gonna be hot." I almost flipped him off because I was so busy with the keyboard, and I'd been in town four weeks and it seemed like everybody had a pending record deal when t hey were trying to get you to play for free. Nobody really meant it or they were BSing you. So, I almost went, "Yeah, yeah, you and everybody else have a record deal." I didn't. So, I gave him my number, and about a week later I was listening to the radio and I hear this tune "Get Down, Boogie Oogie Oogie". You know, disco was happening in '78. I kind of didn't really like disco, but somehow I had that station or I think the girl I was listening to it. Right before I told her to switch the station, the DJ said, "That was a brand new band from Capital Records called Taste of Honey, number 10 with a bullet." I went Taste of Honey, that was that band. So, I went home frantically, cause here I am, I'm needing bucks, I found his number in my shirt pocket, called him up. Sure enough, they had been looking for me because they had lost my number. It was really funny that two weeks later I'm out on tour playing music that really wasn't killing me, it was not really horrible or anything, but it wasn't really killing me. Next thing you know two weeks after we're on the road, and we're like the number one band in the world. We're in limosines and chartered jets and food catering. We're on all the TV shows. I'm kind of scratching my head going, "this is a weird business." That's funny, because that's not really what my love was. On the other hand, I'm out playing with Richie Cole, who is a jazz bebop alto player. Then playing with Manhattan Transfer, doing tracks with them. Going out and doing dates with Edgar Winter, who was one of my favorite performers because he's so talented. Then doing some stuff with Mark Isham, who won a grammy on that one record. Played all kinds of midi B3 on one of his record. Then I did some stuff with Chick Corea, which was kind of a dream come true, because he was a mentor for years. I ended up playing some synthesizers on one of his records. My career has been all over the place, from disco, R&B to straight-ahead jazz to Manhattan Transfer to ethereal Mark Isham to rock and roll Edgar Winter.
MSJ: Are there any musicians with whom you would like to work?
I've always wanted to work with Eric Clapton. One of these days I've got to do some work with Eric Clapton. I've loved his stuff all the way back to Cream and Blind Faith. He still goes out on tour, does his thing, and he always has a B3 player. I met him in Japan, because they were playing the Budokan, and we were playing another club. He was supposed to come down and sit in with Niacin one night, which would have been so great, but then he got a 24 hour flu and never showed up. Which was a real drag, but I met him, and put the line in there. One of these days maybe we will do something together. So, he's a cat that I've always wanted to play with. I'd love to do some stuff with Prince one of these times. I've always admired his producer ability and his eclectic stuff. He brings a lot of R&B and jazz and blues and funk to his style. It would be fun to work with him on a project.
MSJ: What has been your biggest Spinal Tap moment?
That's a good question. There's so many of those that you can't even sometimes remember them. I think one of them was literally in the movie Spinal Tap. You know when he comes out and they're lost? Well, I was playing Madison Square Garden with some band, either Taste of Honey or Donna Summer or one of those big bands. We did sound check, and then I split to go meet somebody in New York to have some pizza or something. Then, they dropped me off in one of the entrances to Madison Square Garden. That place is so huge, big circular bowl. They dropped me off at this one stairwell, and it was kind of late. I didn't know at all how to get to the dressing room from the entrance/exit area that they had dropped me off on. I had no clue. There was a guard there. I just showed him my pass that I was with the band. I didn't even think to ask him directions. I'm thinking, I'll just walk in, go up a couple flights and I'll find the dressing room. Needless to say, I'm walking through hallways, and tunnels, and up these stairwells - I couldn't find the dressing room. Finally, I come out on one of these entrances, and I'm literally walking under the floor of where the audience is. I look up, and about 100 yards to the left of me is the stage that I'm eventually supposed to be on, but here I am in the back on the floor. So, I didn't want to walk out into the audience to try to get to the stage, and I had to go to the dressing room anyway. I had to go to the back and I finally had to get a guard to have him usher me all the way to the dressing room. I almost didn't make it. So, that is probably my biggest Spinal Tap moment.
MSJ: What was the last CD you bought/what are you listening to these days?
Somebody just gave me the Ian Anderson CD. That was pretty interesting. I didn't listen to the whole thing yet, but kind of interesting hearing him again. It's kind of dated, because he didn't seem to change much, but still cool stuff.
MSJ: This interview is available in book format (hardcover and paperback) in Music Street Journal: The Early Years Volume 5 at
You'll find concert pics of this artist in the Music Street Journal members area.
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