Interview with Tony Lionetti, Nino Trovato und Jami Blackwood

MATTHIAS STEELE sind ein US amerikanisches Trio, das bereits – mit einigen Unterbrechungen – seit 1985 im Namen des Heavy Metals unterwegs ist. Nun ist die Band seit einigen Jahren nicht nur wieder aktiv, sondern bringt neben den Re-Releases alter Werke auch etwas neues auf den Markt. Der Undergroundler dürfte sie wohl aufgrund ihres Kassetten-Debüts oder ihrer 1991 Scheibe ‚Haunting Tales Of A Warriors Past‘ ins Herz geschlossen haben.

Daher haben wir alle drei Bandmitglieder vor das Mikrofon gezerrt, um einiges aus der Vergangenheit und Gegenwart zu erfahren. Hier im Originalwortlaut nachzulesen:

MATTHIAS STEELE is now active again for three years. What has driven you to this reunion?

Tony: Actually we were apart for three years, only recently getting back together again. Notwithstanding, we have taken some breaks along the way over our entire career, most of which were probably needed for one reason or another. But I think there’s a stigma or a compulsion to keeping this band going. There’s magnetism there. And that is what I think is most important.

Nino: This is something that Tony, Jami and I have been doing together with this version of the band for almost 20 years. Of course Tony and I go back even further but this combination of player’s works well for us. We’re Westerly boys so we’ve grown up together. We split for three years starting in July 2012 with each of us doing something different in totally different projects. There was no contact at all during that time but for me I knew I wanted to get back to MATTHIAS STEELE and get it moving again. It was where I felt at home, it was where I was comfortable and I missed playing with Tony and Jami tremendously! So we finally got together for a fun little meeting and basically cleared the air and instantly fell back into the stupid humor we’re known for. Rehearsals began in early July 2015 and after three years it took a few more rehearsals to finally get back into the groove of things. I was a little nervous about my drumming at first because I hadn’t played Metal in three years. But it slowly came back and I’ve gotten to the point of where I’m comfortable behind my drums again.

MATTHIAS STEELE was founded in 1985. How did it happen and how was the first year?

Nino: MATTHIAS STEELE originally began with our original guitarist Todd Gencarella and myself in late January 1985. We were renting a barn in the middle of winter; freezing to death wearing gloves as we tried to play … you could see your breath as you spoke. We did that for about two weeks when we knew we needed a bassist. We knew Tony from high school and we had played with him in bands in the past. He was playing with a few local guys and Todd and I had a plan to go there one night and „steal“ Tony! That was our plan … and it worked. We offered him the gig and he joined us in the barn for the rest of the winter … freezing! The first year was just so much fun! Our rehearsals always ended up as parties on Friday nights! A friend had built a lighting board that anyone could operate. So there was always somebody flicking switches. We had a large PA system there and we built a small stage with a drum riser. It was as if our rehearsal hall had become a small nightclub. It was just an awesome time to be growing up at 19 or 20 years old in a band and writing some songs that I guess I would consider ahead of our time. Because we were young and dreaming big and because that’s what was going on at the time with the Metal scene locally and internationally with bands Judas Priest, Iron Maiden, King Diamond etc.

Tony: Yes, eventually, we ended up finding ourselves as aspiring rock and roll musicians! Sharing the same vision, we made effort to play and rehearse every weekend in Westerly, RI, borrowing, renting or otherwise owning some rock and roll gear. The early 80’s were fun! But eventually, after playing with various musicians around the area, we found that the Todd, Nino, Tony lineup really clicked. So, around Feb. 14th 1985 a band had been born. We started to take a more serious approach to the music. We had played a few shows with the help of other area bands to get us on the bill. Before 1985 was over we were getting the moniker from some of these bands as „the new young hotshots“ referring to our energized stage shows.“ This could only spell good…

Your band name sounds like the name of a person. So, who is MATTHIAS STEELE?

Tony: For a while the name of the band to which the music we were playing was of little or no importance. But, eventually the subject did come up and we asked ourselves – who are we? Well, somehow our guitarist Todd and myself shared a same likeness to a character in a movie. I am referring to the 1971 movie „The Omega Man“ starring Charlton Heston where he is a doctor, trapped in a world of mutants that only come out by night after the world has been subject to a biological plague. Thus, he is the only man left surviving on the planet. One of these mutants, Matthias – played by Anthony Zerbe – piqued our interest. The unforgettable cry from Heston – MATTHIAS! – echoed off of the dormant buildings of L.A. and that is all that it took. We somehow had to use this name for our band! After acknowledging this we soon realized that we needed something more. The name Matthias wasn’t quite enough. So we pondered the name a little more. We felt that it needed another word or syllable to complete the the name. Well, we asked ourselves – what is our music like? It is after all metal. The name „Iron“ Maiden had been taken. Lol! So we decided to abut the name Steele to the Matthias aka MATTHIAS STEELE. It wasn’t too long after that it took off as a medieval character, a knight that fought for the good of the people, for the village commoners.

Nino: I remember driving around with Tony and Todd on a Friday or Saturday night as we used to do, just cruising around being young and crazy and thinking of a name. We had all liked the name Matthias but Tony and Todd liked it just a little more than I did. After Tony thought of the word “steel” and it was put next to the name Matthias … it seemed kind of cool! We thought it sounded like some sort of knight in armor on his trusty steed. We added the letter „E“ to the end of it and MATTHIAS STEELE was born. Think of the character MATTHIAS STEELE as Iron Maiden has „Eddie“ as their mascot. It just came together for us and eventually the character became the subject in a song or two and then it became part of a conceptual album later on.

Has the band been deliberately founded as a trio?

Tony: Yes and no. When we started out playing we were actually a four piece. Todd Gencarella’s cousin and close friend of ours Adam Thorp (RIP) was a catalyst in getting us all together in the first place. He was a lead guitarist and Todd took care of the rhythm duties. Eventually Adam had some unfortunate downfalls and could no longer play with us. So that left Nino, Todd and I. Todd’s playing had grown to a point where he could efficiently handle the rhythm and lead roles and our sound was very big for a three piece so we stayed that way. We had auditioned some singers to try and fit the lead vocalist position. We had guys and gals try for the job but just couldn’t seem to find the right one. This went on for a while and we were increasingly getting frustrated with playing our music „instrumentally“. So one night at a rehearsal I suggested to the guys that I try and sing through some of the songs while playing bass. I knew where I wanted the lyrics to go in our original material and how they should be sung so we gave it a try, this way I could give the potential lead vocalist an idea as to what was going on in my head. So the first time I sang I remember Todd and Nino wincing and shaking their heads. Well, after a few tries at this we all realized that it didn’t sound too bad after all, in fact, do I dare say that it sounded good? We never looked back. This revelation sealed us as a three piece, a power trio and after some time we realized that we didn’t want it any other way. Nowadays it seems like second nature, fitting like a glove.

Nino: I’ll never forget the night we auditioned a girl to sing for us. It was 1985 and we had just formed. I think it was Todd and I at my house where a girl showed up with her girlfriend. We brought her up to my bedroom where she sang to Pat Benatar’s ´Treat Me Right´ in a falsetto vocal. Well, we thanked her and that was the end of her. But Tony was a little eager to try to sing and when we heard his voice coming through the music it really clicked, he was an instinctive vocalist and just knew what he had to do. It was as if his voice had become our fourth instrument. He only improved from that point on.

Was there a relevant metal-scene in Rhode Island and Connecticut at that time?

Tony: It was better than it is now. It seems that there were venues available everywhere. I remember so many places with good memories. Of course, we thrived in playing in the cities (Providence, Hartford, NYC) already metal accepted areas, but it was some of the more remote and obscure gigs that made you feel that you reached out and touched someone. As of today, there are only a select few venues who would successfully host our brand of product.

Nino: I think there was a very good scene at the time! There were always bands playing gigs and putting on big shows that we were usually part of. When the metal scene was bigger back in the 80’s you always had a show to play. These day’s it’s not as popular as it was back then. Here in the States and especially in our area there are a lot of cover or tribute bands that draw crowds. So for us it’s a matter of trying to get on a bill with them and do our own thing but of course we’ll have to toss in a cover or two to keep the interest of our audience. It’s become tougher for us which is why we always hear of big Metal Festivals in Europe … and we’d love to be a part of that somehow!!!

So, when will we see you on a stage in Europe?

Tony: If the situation poses itself I suppose the possibility exists. I understand that the music scene is very receptive to us over in the European countries, The Baltics, Scandinavia, even Russia. Probably more so than in the U.S. Our inspirations come from European bands so it would seem fitting for us to be accepted there. And they have such cool festivals! I would LOVE to play the festivals!

Nino: I think it would be a dream come true if we could leave our nice comfortable lives for a few weeks to play on some of those stages in Europe!!! We’ve read about them, we’ve seen video clips of them… after 30 years of being in this band that would be a huge goal to achieve by getting to Europe and playing on that stage for those fans!!! If we could do it just once I think we would die happy men!!! AND it would be a hell of a story to tell people back home too!!! So MY question is, „does anybody want to let a heavy metal band from America stay in their home for a week or so while we tour Germany?

Now, everybody should shout “Yessss!”. Great, let’s see what will happen. You told us, that your main inspirations came from Europe. So, what were your musical influences?

Nino: My influences are quite simple… I grew up on Classic rock from the Beatles to Led Zeppelin. My greatest influences are Queen, Cheap Trick and the 80’s Metal bands. We grew to love obscure bands from Europe very very early on … Picture, Witchfinder General, Accept, Raven etc. But then Judas Priest and Iron Maiden were leading the way here in the States so we followed. Believe it or not, for a drummer I’m a HUGE Randy Rhoads fan!!! Not just his style of playing and what he accomplished at such a young age but the fact that his dedication to his instrument and his craft really inspired me. He’s probably my ultimate hero!

Tony: Influences for me were vast and all over the place. What I mean is that not only did rock and roll hit me like a ton of bricks but other types of music got me as well. I’ll never forget traveling down the highway (in the backseat) with my parents hearing the am radio hits of the seventies. Anyone knows that I have listened to my share of Rush, Kiss, Iron Maiden, Jethro Tull, Blue Öyster Cult, Judas Priest and Black Sabbath, classical music… even The Doors! – I also loved what the 60’s offered. Good god, if I only could relive the seventies…well perhaps I wouldn’t be alive now to tell about it.

And why did you and Todd leave the band then?

Nino: Todd had gotten married in July of 1988 and in the middle of August he had called me and said he no longer wanted to play. So I think he felt he pull of domestic life at that point. As for me I didn’t want to carry on without Todd. We were close friends. So I opted to leave as well where I quickly joined another band. But Tony wanted to keep moving forward so he found two other musicians and carried onward for a couple of years.

Tony, you continued the band and reinforced with new people, right?

Tony: The only thing that I did was keeping on keeping on. Knowing that I was the voice, songwriter and vocalist of a group that people liked. I consider myself lucky to have good friends and musicians surrounding me to help this dream stay alive, however, I would like to say for the record, that this is the lineup that I would work with till the end.

Were the songs for your first full album on CD ‚Haunting Tales Of A Warriors Past‘ of co-written by the new band members?

Tony: First of all, ´Haunting Tales´ was our sophomore album released in 1991. We put out a self-titled debut album in 1987. ´Haunting Tales´ was the culmination of a lineup that consisted of myself, John Erkan on guitars and Jay Jordan on drums. We were also working closely with producer Peat Brock. It’s no surprise that this album was created as a true concept album, in that, telling a story or „tale“ from track to track. It was an ambitious effort made with a very small budget but I think we got the most bang for the buck that we could get. A lot of folks relate with this CD and many consider it our best work. So, with that in mind, we (Tony, Nino and Jami) do continue to play a few tracks from it to this day. It’s still fun to play and still tests our musical skill.

In which period was the album recorded?

Tony: It was recorded spring/summer 1991 and was released in Oct. 1991.

So your Debut was released in 1987. Can you tell us about the songs and the production; and why it was only released as a tape?

Nino: The first MATTHIAS STEELE album was actually recorded in November of 1986. We were so young at the time, 21, 22 years old. We had never been in a recording studio before so we got booked into Sonalyst Recording in Waterford Connecticut. At the time they were a very small facility that mostly did work for the government. And now they have a heavy metal band coming in and they had never done anything like this before. We just had a great time in there, thinking we were rock stars and having fun. We did all the tracks in that one night. I believe all but one were first takes. There may have been another time when there was a mixing session but the whole project was all done rather quickly. Listening to those tracks now you can feel the energy of these young guy’s. The performances are just explosive!!! But the production isn’t wonderful by any means! The mixes are harsh and the overall quality is nothing of what you would hear today. Being that it was 1987 when it was released I don’t think the technology really existed to have CD’s made for independent bands like they do now and beside compact discs were relatively new at the time. So cassette tapes were what all the bands were releasing back then. Or vinyl if they had the money to spend. When these CD’s of ours are released in the new year there will be three tracks from the original band as bonus tracks. “Minotauro Records“ wanted us to release as much history of this band as possible and I think we’re giving our fans the works!

Tony, you own a distinctively high-pitched voice. Are you a natural talent or did you also have singing lessons?

Tony: As I previously mentioned I never knew I was a vocalist until, by default, I took the plunge. Early on in I never considered it. I was always preoccupied with musical composition and arrangements. I love writing songs. And even now when I write material it’s always music first, getting a feel for what it’s asking for, then finish the song with the addition of vocals. But back to the subject of vocals – I never had any lessons. I knew what I was capable of, had a decent ear, and of course, listened closely to guys like Rob Halford, Bruce Dickinson, Eric Bloom, Geoff Tate, King Diamond, John Gallagher, Zeeb Parkes … you get the idea. I would also mention that I came from a family of musicians. My father was adept in piano and trumpet. My deceased brother Bob was a guitarist. My sister Candy sang opera and my sister Debbie was class musician in high school, playing a myriad of instruments! So when you consider that company i just had to find my niche in music.

The occupation carousel turned then diligently. Why did’t the band stay together after the release?

Tony: After ´Haunting Tales´ the band did stay together long enough to support that album as well as release two more tracks in 1992. ´Playing God´ and ´Question Of Divinity´ were included on a compilation CD called ´Digital Graffiti´ released by Big Noise Records out of Providence, RI in 1993. After that there was a hiatus until 1994 upon when Nino, Todd and I reunited – and that resulted in the release of yet another compilation release entitled ´Digital Mystery Tour´ in 1995 where we contributed with our song ´Cloud Cover´. There was a lot going on for MATTHIAS STEELE both on and off the scene in the 90’s. It wasn’t until the mid to late 90’s when we finally found ourselves again. I mean like found ourselves getting back to the basics, understanding our element and executing. I think in some ways we were blind-sided by the whole Seattle grunge attack that was taking over. FM radio had changed drastically and basically heavy metal, especially progressive metal took a back seat for a while. If you listen to the song ´Cloud Cover´ from that era I think you’d see what I mean. Heck, we even changed the band’s name briefly with the surname CHAINSAW SYMPHONY, a dreadful attempt on my part to convert our image to the changing times. Lol!

Nino: UGH!!! What were we thinking with that name??? CHAINSAW SYMPHONY? It was a laugh at the time and still is! Lol!

How did the first reunion in 1994 happen?

Nino: I think it was just the three of us wanting to play together again. We’ve ALWAYS been friends. There were never any ill feelings. We’ve grown up together so our friendships remained solid though we weren’t always in contact. But it just happened that we got things back together and it felt right at the time … the energy was still there and we were louder than ever!

Tony: 1994 was the year that Nino, Todd and I reunited after some 6 years. At the time, it was just what the doctor ordered. Todd is a great songwriter and guitarist. This was proven, tested. So when Nino and I got the word that he wanted to come back and give another go we welcomed it with open arms. Todd has always been welcome in this band in some shape or form. It almost seems that he is always aware of what is going on with the band. Whether he is playing with us or not, he is not that far away. I like that.

Two years later, Todd Gencarella finally threw the towel. What did he expect?

Tony: You can never predict people or what is going to happen in the future. Todd just happened to have a problem at that time with personal matters and who are we to get in between? That’s one thing with this band. If ever a mate gets himself into a quagmire the last thing any of us want to do is be a ball and chain. If they need the time off…well, we just understand that better than other bands I guess. The show must always go on. And we are true believers of that adage. But there just comes a time when family comes first.

Nino: Yes, Todd had decided to leave again but I didn’t want to leave as I did a few years before. Without getting too detailed he had some personal issues going on at the time that needed to be worked out. So Tony and I weren’t knocked down for too long. He actually ran into Jami (Blackwood) one day and they chatted about maybe wanting to jam. I knew the name but I didn’t know him personally. But Tony did know him – and invited him to come play with us one Sunday afternoon at my old apartment. I think the cops were even called on us because we so loud.

Tony, how did you found Jami Blackwood?

Tony: By the time 1996 rolled around Nino and myself wondered what would come next. We’ve had a great run for ten plus years now but were still left with yet another void. I must say we were almost at wits end. Then, one day I ran into Jami Blackwood at a local music store. Jami had been a friend AND a fan of the band for years. We talked about our need for a guitarist in the band. I already knew that Jami was a guitar player and had performed live with a local cover band in the area but I never really knew how good he was. Nonetheless I asked him to come over Nino’s house and try out with us. I immediately called Nino and told him that we just might have a brand new guy to fit the bill as the guitarist. Nino was warm to the idea so we contacted Jami, worked out a list of some random cover music to jam on, something we all might know just to see how we gelled. From that first „audition“ on it was clear that we had found who we were looking for. Jami exhibited a positive attitude toward his new role. There was no ego, in fact he was a bit timid at first just by the fact that here he was now in a local original band that he loved and followed. So the „new kid“ as we sometimes call him has now been in MATTHIAS STEELE for going on 20 years! lol!

Jami: Me being a longtime fan of MATTHIAS STEELE, I used to go to almost every show, watching from the sidelines. Finally in the summer of ’96 I contacted Tony and simply asked, „you want to jam?“ He said, „Sure.“ Our very first song ever played together was „Oh George“ by the Foo Fighters. First chord struck and we knew this was going to be fun!

16 years after ´Haunting Tales´, the fans were finally able to hear a new album (‚Resurrection‘). A long time! Were the songs all brand new?

Nino: When Jami came into the band it was a breath of fresh air! He was a great songwriter and soon began writing like crazy! Each time we got together he had a new song he was working on or was presenting to us. So Jami was making tremendous contributions to the band with his songs. And his style just seemed to gel with us! We weren’t looking for anyone with a lot of flash or „look how many notes I can fit into this solo.“ Jami played for the song and not his ego. So when we went into record the ´Resurrection´ album, a majority of what was written at the time was what we recorded.

Tony: What a lot of people didn’t know was that we were recording on and off for a few years. We have some sessions that were recorded in 1998 at Redbone Studios as well as some live gigs recorded through 2000. Some of these also contained John Erkan (guitarist from ´Haunting Tales´) along with Jami Blackwood, Nino and I. Some of these tracks weren’t bad. In fact a lot of these tracks can be heard on a 16 track compilation that I put together called ´Metal Be Thy Name´. But, eventually once again, we were back with the three piece so we re-recorded some of these tracks and took our time doing so. This resulted in the 2007 release of ´Resurrection´. So in summary, some of the songs on ´Resurrection´ were written some years previous, for example ´Subtle Thoughts´ was the first original song that Jami, Nino and I had learned when we first got together and some were quite new like ´Fallen Empire´ which was written just in time before recording. There’s even a re-recording of ´Supersonic Man´ from the 1987 debut!

Now we have 2015 and nobody expected your return. What songs you do have for the fans in the hindquarters?

Nino: Now that we’ve been signed on to “Minotauro Records”, we have some bigger things in store! They wanted us to re-release our back catalog of music so what that means is that they will re-release ´Haunting Tales Of A Warriors Past´ along with our ´Resurrection´ album as a Double-CD set. On top of that they will release a CD we’re calling ´Question Of Divinity´. This is a collection of songs we wrote and recorded before we split up in 2012. The question came up if we really want to release them as they were or do we go back and re-record the entire album. We figured that those songs captured a moment in time so let’s keep them as they are. The label seemed to really like what they heard and we’re hoping that our fans will enjoy these songs as well! The album is a little more „raw“ this time around, but it still sounds like „old school metal“ in our opinion! There will also be bonus tracks such as live recordings and a couple of songs from our very first album back in 1987 with Todd on guitar.

Tony: At this time we are polishing up everything that got us up to this point, getting re-familiarized with our entire catalogue. There were a couple of tunes that we were learning just before our last break and we are working on them. And of course there is new material that hasn’t even been introduced just yet. I, for one, have a couple of songs that I have been working on at home recently and will probably bring to the table soon. I always try to deviate and write something with a contrast difference over the last song I’ve written – so fans can anticipate that! I always get excited with new material!

What goals do you have – or is it only a Fun-Project now?

Tony: Well, one goal we already achieved just recently was the signing of us to “Minotauro Records” based out of Italy. That was big in that we finally have someone that will distribute and promote our music the right way. It has been a daunting task over the years to reproduce our music globally basically from our own home computers. This takes a lot of time, money and energy and we’re not really equipped to give the band the professional promotion it deserves. Marco Melzi and Glenn Wrigley at “Minotauro” are driven to help us get our music out there and accessible. For this we are extremely thankful! Another goal would be to get bigger venues, opening for larger or national or world acts to get noticed even more. We do hold down successful jobs here in the U.S. and we have mortgages to pay, families which require healthcare benefits, etc. so it would be a challenge to transfer into the rock and roll life 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. But we’ll see. One step at a time and yes, we will always find ways to have fun at it!

Jami: For me personally, my life goals have always been about family … family first! Then play time. Writing has always come naturally to me and it has to be fun. If the fun runs out … jump off that ship because it’s going to sink and fast! I’ve always dreamed of touring the world yet sometimes life just happens. Things change, people change, life changes and therefore… it’s just a way of life.

Nino: To be quite honest with you, I’m very driven to get this band somewhere after 30 years! I’ve always set my sights on something bigger and better… or die trying! Working with “Minotauro Records” is a big step for us and a very welcome advance in our long musical history! So my goals are much larger and more grandiose. But, I also know that at 50 years old I still have to keep my focus on my personal life. My home, my job, my cats, my mortgage … I have to keep it real as much as I want my fantasy of being a rock star to come true. But I will ALWAYS have fun at something I love to do!