Recently I was approached by Bald Freak Music if I was interested on doing a review on the latest Return To Earth album, entitled Automata. After a couple of spins I was simply hooked. I also had the opportunity to do an interview with Ron Scalzo, the vocalist of Return To Earth and the driving force behind Bald Freak Music. Our conversation soon turned in a very pleasant and downright funny chat…
Hi there and thanks for doing this interview with Home Nucleonics. Your latest album Automata saw its release a couple of months ago. Are you still happy how the record turned out?
Oh yeah, definitely. We’re our own worst critics, but you become a little less self-effacing when you see the positive reviews start coming in. We knew we were facing challenges in that we couldn’t really tour or promote the way we wanted because of Chris’ involvement in Coheed and Cambria, so the most we were hoping for were good reviews and a little buzz, and I think we’ve achieved that. Metal fans and critics can be especially brutal, but so far they’ve been pretty generous with their critiques.
In my review I compared the music on Automata with Nine Inch Nails, Faith No More, Deftones and The Dillinger Escape Plan. How close am I with those bands when it comes to influences?
Right on the money. Chris had a major hand in molding DEP’s sound and it’s no different with Return To Earth. I think RTE has become his platform to really do what he does best behind the kit while spreading his wings as a songwriter and a producer. Nine Inch Nails’ dystopian musical style is definitely an influence, and a lot of people compare my vocal style to Mike Patton’s. Deftones is a band that we all really dig, I love how they use dynamics to great effect in their songs – from a whisper to a scream in a heartbeat. There are so many others – Tool, Metallica, Refused, At The Drive-In.
How does the creative process go within Return To Earth?
Chris and Brett are mad scientists – they work together a lot, specifically on the music, before bringing me a ‘floor plan’ of a particular song. The demo version will usually have some goofy name that will often unintentionally inspire me to come up with lyrics. I spend a lot of time alone with the music coming up with melody lines and harmony lines that I’ll eventually sing on each song. I’ll track some scratch vox to give the other guys an idea as to what direction I’m taking the song and they’ll get back at me with feedback. Then we tweak, add some electronic production, maybe some more guitars, another vocal line. Depends on the song, really – but we all add our ingredients to the mix before we start recording final versions.
Another thing I like about Automata is the tight songwriting. Every element feels like it should be there. How important is for the band to come up with well constructed songs?
Nothing is more important. The other guys, in particular, are very critical, and I think that works to our advantage. We’re meticulous, determined to make the best music we can make. We never settle and I think each guy feeds off the others’ passion. That’s what collaborating is all about – passing that flaming torch around until everyone’s on fire in the studio.
What are your fondest memories of recording Automata? What would you’ve done differently if you’d had the chance?
For me, the fondest memories were of recording the vocals, just letting loose in a big room with the lights down, the headphones on, and the other guys and the engineer watching in the control room. Tearing up my voice, pushing myself to sing all the right harmonies, get all the bile out of my system. It’s cathartic; it’s expelling the demons, at least for a little while. I wouldn’t do anything different – we did the best we could with the time and the budget we had, no need to look back and wonder what could have been. We’re all proud of the album and already looking forward to outdoing ourselves on the next one.
Chris Pennie is probably the most well known member of the band due to his past with The Dillinger Escape Plan and his current stint with Coheed And Cambria. Do you see it as a benefit for Return To Earth in terms of publicity or as a drawback because expectations might be unrealistically high when it comes to the musical output?
Working with Chris can only be viewed as a benefit, not just for the publicity, but because you have the opportunity to work with a guy who’s so great at what he does, who has similar musical tastes, and who you’re simpatico with when it comes to crafting a song. He’s a musical workaholic and that sort of work ethic makes you want to raise your own game. I don’t think many people have expected us to be the next Dillinger, or Coheed Jr. just because Chris is involved in the project. And those who do expect that don’t get us, so fuck em haha.
You’re running your own label, called Bald Freak Music. Can you tell something about the history of the label and what artists are featured there?
I’ve been involved in an electronic project with the help of Ron “Bumblefoot” Thal called Q*Ball for awhile now and we had a nice little buzz going that I hoped would result in getting signed by an indie who could do what I couldn’t as an artist – set up some tours, distribute my albums. I shopped the stuff around early on, and after a few false starts & bad experiences, I decided to just do it on my own, just more formally, and Bald Freak was born. Bumblefoot volunteered his well-heralded solo catalog, so we were now “a label.” I don’t take what I do lightly – I want to carve out my own little piece of musical pie and help bands that have had similar bad experiences. We signed Swashbuckle and put out their first album, brought RTE into the mix later on, and continue to grow. I just signed a band called The Head Set out of NYC, putting their album out this spring. Modern rock, radio-friendly, just another band toiling in the major label farm system who didn’t get the exposure they deserved – a nice change of pace from the madness I usually promote, so I’m real excited about that.
The music industry changed dramatically the last couple of years. Almost all the major labels are either gone or on the verge of collapse. What’s your take on the current events from a business point of view?
It’s my typical luck that I started the label just as the wall was coming down, bands getting dropped like yesterday’s news, layoffs, corporate downsizing. I have perfect grammar, but terrible timing. But we’re surviving – without investors and with a small roster of acts that don’t exactly light it up on tour or on the radio. I’m proud of that. I think labels both big and small are still trying to figure out how to monetize their acts in the Internet age. I just think that 30 tweets a day can only take you so far, the message is so watered down and easily gets lost in the shuffle. The excitement of a new album coming out, a new single, a video – all that is gone, everything is at everyone’s fingertips 24/7. And we’re pioneers – the bands of the ‘90s and before can still capitalize on their “old model” success, jump on stage and play the old hits and they’ll do fine. My acts don’t have that privilege so we’re still in the lab trying to reinvent the wheel. One day, one label or one band will figure it out and the rest of the industry will pile on. My guess is that it won’t involve any of their acts wearing a meat dress or jumping on stage at the VMAs, and that’s fine by me. Just seems that it’s rarely about the music anymore and more about the publicity these days. It reeks of desperation, even when you’re moving 5 million albums.
What should be done to remedy the current situation according to you?
I think the only solution is nuclear warfare, industry-style. Dismantle labels altogether, there’s no reason bands can’t do it themselves at this point. Sites like TopSpin and Bandcamp are changing the game, creating pseudo-labels for acts to team up with and take control of their own destiny. The problem is that most bands today don’t know how to promote themselves – they’re too lazy, too flaky, too drugged up, too apathetic, whatever. They just wanna get up on stage and rock, man. Let the suits do the dirty work. That’s career suicide, unless you’re a 17 year-old chick with a hot bod, decent pipes, and a great producer with a ProTools rig. Then you’re set for life haha. So either dismantle the industry altogether (that’ll never happen – too much money at stake even in an era where money is difficult to make) or regulate the Internet – start cracking down on piracy hardcore, charge monthly subscriptions to Facebook, YouTube, music related sites. I don’t know if that’s a fix, but it’s definitely a game changer. But that will never happen either – there’d be rioting in the streets!
Let’s go on to something less gloomy. Which upcoming releases/bands/projects are you particulary looking forward to hear this year?
I’m really high on this Fitz And The Tantrums album that recently came out – soulful, old school style that warms my heart. Believe it or not, I’m excited for the new U2 album – been hearing rumors of greatness, and they’re long overdue. If Radiohead puts a new album out, that’s always something for me to be excited about. Hopefully we’ll see the new Beastie Boys soon and Foo Fighters always impress me, so those, too. On our end, This Head Set album is really killer and I’m looking forward to hearing what the masses have to say about it. Hopefully a new RTE album later this year, too.
As a final question I would to know what your biggest Spinal Tap moment is in your career as a musician and label owner?
Haha which one to pick? Probably a big show Q*Ball did at Six Flags out in New Jersey, in their big arena – a real make-or-break show for us, we were opening for flash-in-the-pan R&B artist Mya, which was our first mistake. The venue didn’t promote us, we showed up and they “lost” our rider so we had to scramble for gear, no lights or heat in our trailer. I had just broken my elbow so here comes a bald dude in a bright orange shirt, stiff as a board, and Bumblefoot, who’s wearing boxer shorts with little red hearts on them, says, “What’s up, y’all? I’m Mya!” Needless to say the 500 or so hip-hop kids there didn’t take kindly to us – we kept them at bay for the first two songs, but by the third, the coins and the bottles were stage-bound and I started re-examining my career in the industry. But everyone’s got a story like that – you need a thick skin if you’re gonna survive and it’s at times like those that you add an extra layer. And it’s always good for a laugh after years of therapy….
Thanks again for doing this interview. If you have any final thoughts or remarks, please put them here:
My pleasure! Everyone always asks me for final thoughts and I never know what to say, having already said too much already. So I’ll just say “Fuck Nickelback” and leave you to promote my humble little label. Thank you.
Written by Raymond Westland