By James and Debra Romeyn – Contributing Writers for Xombiewoof Magazine
For a penny in 18th century London folks sat and talked about news over cups of coffee. These places became a center of social interaction, a focus point for the seeker of open dialog. They called this type of coffee house a “Penny Unniversity”. These places unknowingly became location to meet different people, travelers and those that would seek out thoughtful exchanges, much like the college campuses of today.
Penny Unniversity member, Jack LaCompte, has played with artists that span a wide diversity of talent and style: Michael Bolton, Bette Midler, and his band mate Ted Walker has done audio tech work for Stevie Wonder, Journey and Guns n' Roses. These musicians saw an opportunity to create something special, so the band Penny Unniversity was founded, using the name with the Old English spelling, connecting the present with the past and adorning the music world with a unique musical air.
If it's the goal of music to create a distraction and escape from everyday life, Penny Unniversity meets that goal by lifting the listener out of his/her chair and transporting him/her to airy romantic places in Rome, Paris, Capri, Corcovado and the Middle East. One might think a certain pomposity accompanies the traveler, but not so. Penny U has a way of inspiring the listener to breathe in the ocean scents and look over the blue Mediterranean in comfortable jeans.
It was our distinct pleasure to interview Penny Unniversity while on their travels to find out more and bring you a full and enlightened story. We asked Penny U to share their thoughts on the arts of writing and performing.
Here is our Q&A Interview.
Q. Would you please name all the band members and tell us which instruments they play?
Michael Anthony Gagliardi -Guitar, vocals and guitar synth, Rene Almodovar - Percussion and Ted Walker - Bass, synth bass, and fretless.
Q. I know you often play in Central and Southern CA and you opened for Buddy Guy and Aaron Neville last spring. But could you go back to when the band was first formed? How did you all meet?
Actually we all met at a church. Our bassist Ted Walker was the audio/video tech for this large church in Palm Desert. Steve, our first drummer was a youth Pastor and jazz trained drummer at the church. We had played together at church many times and thought we should take this beyond. I (Michael) was a musician with the church band; we all kind of had an itch to play. The economy was really bad in 2010 and we decided to make some extra money if we could. Classic rock covers were really popular at the time but never interested any of us.
I (Michael) was groomed on guys like Al DiMeola, Jeff Beck, and Allan Holdsworth. I had a classical and jazz background. Neither Ted nor Steve were ever in an instrumental group and were not hot on the idea at the time, but grew to enjoy its endless and open writing options. After the first year we replaced Steve after he left to another job in Azusa and acquired Craig via Craigslist, (no relation) ha. After a few months of rehearsals we added Percussionist Rene Almodovar to the lineup. Rene brought the icing we wanted. We eventually replaced Craig with Jack LaCompte an accomplished drummer who has toured and played with Michael Bolton, Bette Midler, and Stevie Wonder. Our foursome is now complete, and we break our performances into the "Trio" for smaller intimate concerts and our "foursome" we retain for larger shows like festivals and outdoor concerts.
Q. Who has inspired you?
Well I think for all of us Life is probably the first mention. Musically life brings out the creative animal. Musical artists have helped by introducing us to this vehicle we use to express ourselves.
Q. You seem to mutually respect each other's talent. Do you all have individual playing styles and if so how did you accomplish such a perfect blending of sounds?
We not only respect each other’s abilities but we are friends! Each of us has his specific identity, sound, and duties to fill in the making of our music. We work very well together and complement each other always. I think we understand unity and team playing since we are not 20 and trying to conquer the world. We are more like a fine wine enjoyed by a fire as you watch the sunset. There is no animosity or rivalry since we all see the same goal at the end of the day.
Q. Considering how accomplished you all are...do you feel playing with each other’s raises each other's game?
We push each other to become greater parts in the sum. We will purposefully write beyond ourselves and record one shot improvised parts to find the nature of each other. Frequently we don't allow each other to hear parts until recording day to drag the best of ourselves out in a recording session. Spontaneity is a resource that brings out a "tadaaaa" moment that the players didn't even know they had, much like a film producer who does not allow actors to see each other until shooting a scene. Life is not a scripted, written, methodical process, music shouldn't be either.
Q. You all seem to be steeped in jazz, is jazz the most essential part of your sound?
Well for me (Michael) that was the style that gave me something to chew on. I loved the composition and playing/writing skills of Al DiMeola, Paco DeLucia ,Manitas DePlata and Andreas Vollenweider. Even though I grew up playing rock as a teen it wasn't enough musically. Ted grew up in classic rock and played in several rock bands as well as being an audio tech for everyone from Journey to Guns n' Roses. However Ted's love of music was not solely rock oriented. Rene was jazz from the beginning and had a wider variety and scope in his influences than all of us, with Salsa, Brazilian, and more ethnic influences.
I don't think we consider ourselves jazz although we are on a number of jazz radio stations as well as ambient, new age, and world. Jazz is certainly a big influence. But not the contemporary or scat jazz. I never really considered Al DiMeola jazz but that's where you find his recordings. I guess that's how we view ourselves. Our current album coming in September draws from a Cinematic point of view. Movie music, sweeping melodies and orchestration is the "soup dejour" on this one. It is such a great mix of Cinematic, Acoustic, Latin, and ambient jazz that we call "Sound Tapestry" because of its stitching of so many influences.
Q. I'd like to explore the mind(s) of the writer(s) in the group. Who does the majority of the writing?
I (Michael) write all the songs, Ted helps build the parts, and is a major part of the recording, engineering and overall look of the material as well as his bass parts. Rene provides the drive, and creates the beats and rhythms, and falls easily into his place of attacking the song with the proper feel. I think I write the lions share because I am a prolific writer. I have at least ten stacks of demo Cd's plus 8 inches high of demo material ranging from Acoustic to Middle Eastern music. I can’t stop writing! It is my outlet for an overactive ADD mind I absolutely love the creative process.
Q. Your music is instrumental. With your songs it's easy to know what inspired the melody; it's usually a beautiful place. How hard is it to express your emotions through musical notes?
Though we dabble in vocal songs here and there, yes most of it is instrumental. The second you put vocals on a song it changes everything. It quickly falls into a genre, or it has to be arranged according to the "formula" musicians use for intro verse, bridge, chorus etc. I hate these parameters. This is what stifles guys like me who want to express life through notes. I naturally feel devoted and fall passionately for a rhythm; the feel, and taste. if you will, for a potential song. It is the topic that draws out the urge, the "towel ringing" I call it of melody and feeling. It is as if it was predestined to arrive, but only in its time. Some songs show up a decade later because they had the melody but not the contagion of feel, passion, and power that evokes the finished product.
Q. Is any of your music by chance or is all your songs completely intentional?
All the songs are intentional because chance is the intention of creation. When you are always in a creating process, chance is what satisfies the intent and that is one of the "eureka” moments. If you are capable of something, it will come out either by chance or intention, make sense?
Q. Which song is your favorite to perform and which are you most proud of from a creative point of view?
Definitely our newest album has some material that I am very proud of, although I bore easily, and I want to move on to the next project. I do love "San Gimignano" off the first album and of course "Escape to Capri". Both were radio favs in Europe.
Q. It's a lot of work to perform. But you all seem to have a lot of fun playing together. Are you able to relax at a gig, even when it's at a large venue, and just have fun jamming?
Yes we are relaxed, but we are very, very insistent on performing the best we can. We mull over sound issues most of all. Most times they are out of our control, but to a musician who is constantly trying to create the "climate" our sound is the greatest Achilles heel, especially if we are not able to have a sound check. We usually prefer to arrive 1-2 hours early to secure a good sound thus securing a good performance.
Q. What's in store for Penny Unniversity?
We will continue to record and play while exposing our group to wider audiences. With the advent of the internet and the decline of record companies and the way things used to be in the Industry, this is the only path any group can take. We are both excited and look to the future for what is to come for Penny U.
We would like to thank Penny Unniversity for taking the time to do this enlightening and inspiring interview for us and Xombiewoof Magazine. We believe your music brings folks together and uplifts their spirits, as well as expanding their minds. All the best to you and to your brilliant successes!
Follow Them on Facebook - http://www.facebook.com/pages/Penny-Unniversity/128078650618788