John Tabacco is a multi-talented New York-based performer with an experimental L.A. attitude. He is a composer, a recording engineer, a graphic artist, a multi instrumentalist, a producer and a singer. He is also CEO of It Iz What It Iz Music Publishing and specializes in the genres of alternative, experimental and pop music.
Tabacco has had an interest in music for most of his life. When he was younger he studied orchestration with composer John Lessard, harmony with the late electronic music maverick Bulent Arel and composition with Stony Brook Music Professor Peter Winkler. He earned a BA in Music from the State University at Stony Brook.
In fact, his debut disc would eventually cover the early years. Tabacco said: “My musical oeuvre has been one big continuation from my first CD The Akai Years (1979-1984). (It was not officially released until 2007.) There are a lot of pieces to the puzzle to put together if you’re into that kind of thing.”
A few years later (1987), he was reunited with his childhood friend producer Chris Pati. “Chris and I go back as far as 5th grade.” Tabacco states. “We also went to high school together. I called him in 1987 to visit his studio and when he heard my music he offered me a job to engineer. I took the offer right away.”
He was soon engineering major label projects with Pati at both Backdoor Studios and (later) at Modern Voices Studios in New York. As 1988 opened, Tabacco would be featured in Keyboard Magazine¹s “Discoveries” column. It included a list of his influences which include: The Beatles, Frank Zappa, Steely Dan, The Firesign Theatre, Thelonius Monk, Brian Wilson, Paul Simon, Stevie Wonder, Stravinsky Captain Beefheart, Elton John, Joni Mitchell and a small group of Long Island musical collaborators.
In 1992 Tabacco began a twelve year run as chief engineer at Sonic Underground Studios in Stony Brook, New York. At the same time he was also working with computer scientist Bob Ball creating the SA3 mastering process. (He was already on his way to a varied and interesting career—only parts of which are herein included.)
He worked on projects for such acts as rap artists The Kemelions, R&B act Faze and heavy metal act Rhett Forrester. He also worked on projects for Columbia Records’ artist Rebbie Jackson, the legendary Bob Marley and Chris Jasper (of the Isley Brothers). Not one to be pigeonholed, Tabacco even worked for television on the Nickleodeon network¹s hit show Are You Afraid Of The Dark?
Tabacco would team up with Pati and Nick DiMauro to put out the 12″ single “Go House Yourself”. This was a blatant parody of acid house music and featured a noteworthy chain saw solo. The tune took the number 39 slot on Billboard¹s Retail Dance Sales Chart by the close of 1989. It was even an international success. It climbed to number 9 in Italy and a “cheesy hand held video” of the tune took the top slot in Puerto Rico as well.
Tabacco sometimes jokes about his career. “With a silly name like Tabacco I figured I’d never stand a chance making it big in the commercial music world.” But in truth he scored a record contract back in 1995.
He states: “In 1995 I signed a reasonable record deal with an Austin Texas based label called Muffin Records.” Unfortunately, luck would not be on his side. A few years later he would be without a label again. Tabacco continues: “By 1998 they went out of business and never released my stuff. In the meanwhile, I just kept on re-mastering the CDs making them sound better and working on new material.”
(When asked to speak about his favorite CDs Tabacco reflects back upon this period of his career.) “My favorite JT CD is a hard question because many of them were created simultaneously. I do have a fondness for the four CDs I worked on from 1993-96. Those being: Life Here, It’s Anybody’s Guess, It’s Out There Feeding On Itself, “Boson Kabloona Waiting Around and Go Figya.”
In 1999 Tabacco arrange and co-produce the album Reinventing The Wheel with author and ex-Zappa guitarist Nigey Lennon. The project was successful enough to even be featured in a 2001 edition of New York Times. The article caught the eyes of big band arranger Ed Palermo who would sign Tabacco on as new lead vocalist for the Ed Palermo Big Band (from 2000 to 2003). They had numerous gigs in the tri-state area including a noteworthy performance at the once great, temporarily (?) defunct The Bottom Line nightclub.
In 2002 Tabacco, along with Lennon and Frank Zappa’s sister, Candy, performed at the Zappanale Concert in Bad Doberan, East Germany. They played Zappa classics and some of Tabacco’s original tunes. It was a good gig and even helped to boost sales of Tabacco’s music.
The next year (2003) led to Tabacco’s arranging music for Sony producer Corey Rooney and his brother Jeff on projects for Toni Braxton and her sister Tamar. Tabacco also signed an indie record deal with Blake Seal’s company sumthindiffrent.com. The company released a re-working of the disc It’s Out There Feeding On Itself under the title: Realized @ 21 Walnut.
Tabacco has discovered the advantages of using the internet. Tabacco explains: “From 2006 – 2007 most of my catalog was released on iTunes and CDBaby including group projects like Brian Rivera, Fuzzy Gray Logic, Gearhead Freaks and Gateways. In fact, all of my back catalog was re-mastered and formatted for the digital retailers around 2007. Because many of my songs segued into one another I had to make them one piece so they would play properly in mp3 players.”
His solo efforts would include approximately two dozen discs by the close of 2009. 2010 saw the release of the first of what was meant to be a 3-CD set. (The tunes for the set were recorded from 2010 through 2011.)
Tabacco explains: “It was going to be a triple CD set based around a college radio show—“Clam Radio”—I do with my seriously gifted singer-songwriter girlfriend, Susan DeVita. Unfortunately, I could not find a way to deliver a triple set to the digital retailers. They seem to only take one CD at a time. So I broke them up into separate discs.”
The first 2010 release, Patience, my boy, was the first of those discs. Tabacco says that it is “full of new songs written over the (previous) year and a half”. It contains 23 cuts of alternative pop and humorous material highly appropriate for college radio.
The material here on this disc is often reminiscent of Frank Zappa and at times even (vaguely) Firesign Theatre. Some of this material might also be appropriate for The Doctor Demento Show although much of it is perhaps not silly enough or just a tad too intelligent. Sometimes the material lends itself to amore intellectual atmosphere.
In fact, the opening track is “Clam Radio Theme” written specifically for the above-mentioned college radio show. Tabacco generally handles the lead vocals, guitar, programming and engineering responsibilities. He is sometimes assisted by additional artists on specific cuts. “Even Though” features some good lead guitar work by Mr. “Jewel In The Heart” Kayen.
Another highlight here is “Meet The Priest At Midnight” which was co-written by DiMauro and effectively references religion and drug addiction in one breath. “Surrender”, not to be confused with the 1978 Cheap Trick hit, is an original song written with DeVita. With lines like: “I tore your heart away like Colorforms” it’s definitely worth a listen.
“Critic’s Choice” has to go to “Gray Goo”. It might not be the critically best song on the CD but it caught your rockin’ reviewer‘s attention first. It is both somehow simultaneously silly and serious and perhaps that’s what makes it work so well. Besides, ya just gotta give points to any song that mentions a “little virus” and “Miley Cyrus” in the same verse.
The next number, “Kind Of Relief” features Steve Briody on guitar and DeVita on vocals. It’s followed by “Dalai Lama Town “which is highlighted by Anthony Pomes bass and guitar work. It also includes vocals and a sharp keyboard solo by Peter Kearns. Yet another track especially worth mentioning here is “When You’re Right, You’re Right. This one shines in part thanks to the electric guitar of Joe Gioglio and more welcome vocal work by DeVita.
Gaga Over The S.O.P. (2010) is the second part of the trilogy and includes 23 clever cuts. According to Tabacco this “contains some new instrumentals paired off with older, stripped down versions of songs I wrote with different groups but never had the opportunity to sing.” Here Tabacco seems to take a bit more control of his music.
Tabacco handles vocals, acoustic and bass guitar and programming. Very little of this material is co-written or features guest artists. It is, indeed, “stripped down” to its core. The album appropriately opens with “Clam Radio Frammis (Variation 3)” which reminds the listener for what all the music here was made.
The second selection is essentially a demo cut. It’s a cover of John Lennon’s “Bless You”. As regular readers know, anyone who does an interesting cover of any Beatles-related material scores points in this column. It might be a cover but it still takes “Critic’s Choice”.
Also included here is another version of a song on the previous disc. “Dalai Lama Town (Stripped)” is a stripped down version that features Pomes on slide, rhythm and bass guitar. “TBZC/Martha’s Alternate Reality” is noteworthy for its improvisational qualities. It also includes a section that is obviously inspired by early Paul McCartney. In fact, upon reading the liner notes one will discover that Tabacco is parodying McCartney’s piano playing in The Beatles’ “Martha My Dear”. It’s oddly familiar and yet unique.
His most recent work, Audio Artifacts for the Dubious CLOUD is the third part of the trilogy. Tabacco says it “is a mixture of the other two—some new songs, some old (stripped) and some instrumentals.” (This album will be discussed in detail in a future column.)
Tabacco’s work is honest, intelligent and often fun. While he jokes about not being a big “commercial” success the truth is his material is all the more refreshing free of any corporate influence. Sometimes we need artists who think outside the box.
My name is Phoenix and . . . that’s the bottom line.