Jacky Winter (Conversations)
Today's episode is a conversation with Phil Gionfriddo who performs under the name Jacky Winter. Chances are if you’ve spent any time at The Tote in Melbourne, you would have seen Phil either on stage or off it. He’s performed in a multitude of bands, including Dynamo and The Bowers, and now Jacky Winter (the band), which has expanded into a live three piece including Paul Pirie from Batpiss, and Erica Dunn from Palm Springs, Harmony and The Steve Miller Band. We discussed his transition from gun guitarist to master of the MPC as well as some of the relationships that he’s forged over the past two decades. You’ll also hear clips from a live performance upstairs at The Tote, which was part of a month-long June residency.
Simon: So, Jacky Winter wasn’t always what it is right now, right? Originally it was you and a guitar; a more traditional kind of thing. What point was the changeover between what you’re doing now and the guitar based stuff?
Phil: I’d been playing guitar for a really long time and was probably just getting a little bit bored just playing guitar. I mean, I play in a lot of rock'n'roll bands; Dynamo, The Bowers, Spencer P. Jones for a long time and a bunch of other stuff. I had a great time doing all of that, but I think I was sorta reaching a limit in terms of my interest in just playing rock’n’roll and pop music.
Simon: You’re an incredibly slick guitar player… I always wonder when you go to a new thing, whether you found that exciting and liberating or whether you felt like you were initially struggling with being so good at one instrument and translating that to the new thing.
Phil: Yeah, it was definitely the former. I was up for it. I just needed to do something different. I think the real turning point was when I played guitar on tour with Phrase (the hip-hop artist), and that was all running a sequencer. I really was loving that whole scenario - that was a live band doing that and just having the whole sequenced thing was a real good time. And I’ve always loved to dance; the thought of being able to make my own jams that I could dance to and make other people dance to was a real cool idea. I asked Phrase’s manager Flagrant about sequencers and he suggested that I look into the Akai MPC, and then once I started researching I realised there was heaps of stuff that I listened to and DJ’d over the years that was made on the MPC or similar type sequencers. Having DJ’d for a long time and doing radio at PBS, and at clubs and rock discos and what-not, there was certainly no shortage of inspiration for sampling and just general groove and what-not… and having a record collection that I felt pretty intimate with was a really good starting point. Particularly I loved the idea of sampling things that hadn’t been sampled before - at least not to my knowledge - particularly a lot of Australian records.
Simon: Do you remember what the first thing you sampled was or what the first thing you chopped up on the MPC might have been?
Phil: I knew that I really wanted to sample X and The Masters Apprentices; they were two groups particularly, and also X-Aspirations - heaps of great drum sounds. So that was a good starting point for me, in terms of inspiration. And then… I listen to a lot of soul music and funk and what-not, but y’know, that’s been done to death [so] I try to lean away from that. Also, just having worked in studios, still learning the craft of how to engineer and produce records, but knowing that I had the equipment and the people around me… y’know, we could just make our own samples, and treat the MPC more as a workflow rather than a means of sampling other people’s stuff. Just falling in love with a four-bar groove that you’ve made and building a song around that, as opposed to, say, sitting around, playing the guitar and falling in love with a verse progression or a chorus, but just honing four bars and maybe listening to that for two or three hours, or whatever… and then developing melody over that… using samples as a way of starting, and then maybe getting to the point where I don’t even use the sample anymore, because I’ve taken it somewhere else. So that was cool; I think the thing I really fell in love with was the ability to work in a completely fresh way, while still trying to make really good pop music… or rock’n’roll, whatever you want to call it.
Simon: In other bands like The Bowers or Dynamo… how much were you collaborating with the other members on that music, for instance, your brother [Alex] in Dynamo or the other guys in The Bowers?
Phil: I’ve always embraced collaborating with others. Generally found that I would hit a wall creatively within writing a song, and certainly getting other people’s input or embracing their idea I’ve found generally made for much stronger material.
Simon: So, were you ever hitting those walls with the early Jacky Winter stuff? I mean, it seems like you’re in a pretty good creative groove now - you’ve got a couple of EPs on the boil now, the album’s going… are [or were] you someone who questions yourself quite a bit?...
Phil: …oh, totally. Well, the thing was that… I guess I got so wrapped up in ambition with playing with the bands, and then if things don’t connect or you think you’re not getting opportunities that you thing you think you would really be able to make the most of, whether that would be touring or releases or festivals or whatever… I got so wrapped up in the perception of what was going on or just trying to get somewhere that I completely lost sight of the fact that it’s just great to make music. So, when I started doing Jacky Winter with the MPC, I was not really concerned about “Am I making an album? Am I going to do shows? Is anyone gonna hear it?”. It was purely just about exploring and creating. And so, in terms of the impediments that I found myself facing; they were probably more about just trying to finish things for the sake of just completing the songs rather than… I didn’t have any pressures around me to do anything because it was just for me.
Simon: Mm… sometimes that can be a little bit… y’know finishing a song, do you have anyone you can send to to say “Hey, is this finished?” or are you some who knows when a track is done?
Phil: Spencer Dyson, who is a very close friend of mine who played in The Bowers for a few years, we made a lot of the music together… he’s got a very expansive knowledge musically, technically and just emotionally as well. He’s got incredible energy, and he’s not afraid of himself and he’s not afraid to approach any kind of song if he thinks it’s good. So, we worked a lot together and I certainly looked for his ideas… I really wanted him to be able to sign off on stuff, whether he was involved in the songwriting or not, because I really trust his opinion. I also worked in New York over a few trips with a producer, Matt Verta-Ray. Working with him, I was definitely looking for his input and he would talk to me with candour… and his wife, Rocio Garcia, she worked quite heavily on the record as well, or the recordings I did over there. So, I made quite a lot of music between 2013 and 2014… I went over five times and worked with Matt and Rocio through that, and just making the record for myself. I actually thought the record was done and was just going to bring it home and put it out myself or see if one of my friends wanted to do it. But then, I ended up falling in with some people over in New York who heard what I was doing and really loved it, and now I’ve got a situation where I’ve got a creative partner with the project, Joe Rosenberg; we both sign off on all the creative stuff, whether it be songs or film clips or photos or whatever.
Simon: It sounds like you’re coming from a point of real strength with this where you’re totally unencumbered by the things you were chatting about before, like expectations… It seems like that time between 2013 and now you’ve been quite productive… has the music just been coming and you’ve just been compelled to do it, or have you had any points where you’ve hit a wall and you’ve had to force yourself to finish these ideas?
Phil: Well, definitely now, because now I’m working with Joe; we’ve got a plan for what we want to achieve creatively and who we thing would like to hear it and all that kind of stuff. Now there’s definitely more of a compulsion to see the project through more than I’m just kind of making stuff as I want, when I want. So, the scope has changed, definitely, but I think the core of it’s the same; it’s just about making really cool songs and not being afraid to explore, which is cool.
Simon: So, this live band at the moment, you’ve got Paul and Erica… do you hear anything in the new [live] interpretations of the songs that you want to thread back into the some of the records? Or is there any chance of them contributing to the upcoming records beyond being in the live band?
Phil: Yeah, absolutely. It’s been interesting to hear Erica and Paul interpret [the songs]… When they started playing with me, I said to just use the studio recordings as a guide, and I just want you to take it wherever you want to take it. It’s been really interesting to hear that. Certainly they’ve been both really open minded, and I think we’ve all found it quite challenging, because while I’ve always sung in bands, now I’m the singer, and I play some guitar but only where I feel like I really have to, because I just want to sing… primarily. Erica is an incredible guitar player, and she’s playing bass for the first time in a group as far as I’m aware, and she’s playing the MPC live, she’s playing some synth. The same with Paul, with Batpiss, he’s going hard on the shreds, and now he’s bringing a lot of that philosophy but he’s also having to approach the guitar in a way that he’s never had to before, and likewise he’s singing with full voice, compared to with Batpiss where he’s more of a screamer… and he’s got an incredible voice. So, really, we’ve had the big focus on harmony. The thing I really stress with those guys is that we all gotta sing. Just trying to make the arrangements as lush as possible with the least amount of parts. So, singing is a big element of that because a lot of recordings are quite dense, so we’re not always going to be able to have every aspect of the recordings fleshed out live. We use the MPC live with a degree of the recorded arrangements but I wanna keep that to a minimum. I don’t mind if there’s a percentage of what’s on the record that doesn’t make it into the live show, so long as the guts of it is there, and generally if you’ve got three singers then you can do a lot with three voices in terms of approximating guitar parts of keyboards or whatever.
Simon: Last question; so you play in a band sometimes with your brother Alex. How many brothers do you have? How many do you play with musicially?
Alex: I’ve got five brothers and one sister… but, just Alex in Dynamo.
Simon: So, I have to ask you… because this is something I struggle with… what’s the secret to a good brother band as far as like… do you guys ever butt heads when you play with each other are you both totally cool with each other every time you play?
Alex: Well it kinda ties in with what I was saying about Erica and Pirie before; I just think if you’re all singing, y’know, you can’t deny that, and that’s the most pure form of playing together, I reckon. Certainly singing a lot with Alex, I think it’s the thing we’ve loved the most.
Simon: It’s definitely a massive celebratory experience seeing Dynamo; always thoroughly enjoyable… but I’m interested to see where this project goes, and the live show… I saw my brother the other day over at our Mum's house wearing his Jacky Winter t-shirt and he was like “Jacky Winter… most underrated band in Melbourne… but not for long”.
Alex: Alright, seal of approval!