MAD PAINTER have released their 2nd album Splashed. The album (reviewed elsewhere here) features 17 tracks, including the singles/videos “Illusion” and “Rock and Roll Samurai”, as well as a few covers, a diverse mix of classic rock, pop, and ballads. The band’s singer, keyboard player, and songwriter is Alex Gitlin, who I’ve known for many years. Alex is extremely knowledgeable about his ’70s classic rock, glam, and pop acts, And fashions! In this interview, Alex discusses the band’s history, the songs from Splashed, the band’s live show, and future. Enjoy the read. *Check out Splashed, as well as the links below.
Can you tell me a bit about the band (players), just how you connected and mutual influences?
The band’s been around since early 2016, but it was a totally different, and ever changing, line-up. We recorded our first album, which came out only digitally (YouTube, Spotify). For it, I gathered all the songs I’d written most recently and rehearsed with “embryonic” Painter in 2014-15, before Mad Painter Mk I even materialized. There were some ferocious rockers on it like Beware of the Dream, the title track, etc., which are still very much part of our live show. The aforementioned album was done in one weekend, then our producer took the tapes, drove back home and added his own guitar and production and mixing. We had no control over it at all. The result came out charmingly primitive, the sort of low-fi sound that our bassist Kenne Highland affectionately calls Garage Prog.
We went from strength to strength for a couple of years, playing shows as a trio, without a guitar, or hiring a guitar player for one gig. Those weren’t the happiest of times. Sometime before the lockdown of 2020, we got together with Kenne, Alan Hendry on drums and Al Naha on guitar, and jammed, getting a totally different and fresh vibe from it. We all felt enthused and encouraged and decided to continue as a unit. Alan and Al also play in Kenne Highland’s Airforce, an altogether different band, which Painter occasionally shares a bill with. It just felt right, and that’s how the patented Painter sound was born.
Kenne’s a big fan of late ’60s rock and blues, the fuzzier the better. He loves Vanilla Fudge, The Move and Small Faces. Psychedelic stuff. We all have our own influences and musical favorites, but we do converge somewhere in the middle, sort of overlapping on Mountain, Grand Funk, Spooky Tooth, Deep Purple, Uriah Heep, Procol Harum and Iron Butterfly. In a practice, you’ll often hear him say, “let’s do the Vanilla Fudge version”, that just means long, drawn-out, fuzz-drenched and with screaming organ and guitar.
The guys in my band are ’60s and ’70s punk fans, so anything from The Fugs, Blue Cheer and MC5 to Iggy Pop, you get the picture. Personally, I’m not big on punk, but Kenne started out his musical career in 1976 with the Gizmos in the MidWest. And he’s been rolling ever since. You can look him up on Discogs under Johnny & The Jumper Cables, The Gizmos, Afrika Corps, Hopelessly Obscure, etc.
Where did the songs from the new album come from — ie; time period, circumstances, etc…?
The lyrics to our two singles, “Illusion” and “Rock And Roll Samurai”, were written by my friend Dmitry M. Epstein, circa 2017. I rehearsed them with the first lineup but they didn’t make the cut for the album, as we just weren’t ready at the time it was recorded. We did have a second recording session a year later, but it was aborted. Luckily, it produced good quality demos, which this current lineup took as templates. Same can be said for The Moon and San Michel, completely different in style, but same time frame and trajectory. Whereas the two aforementioned singles are heavy rock in the Uriah Heep vein, San Michel is nostalgic ’70s pop with French flavor and The Moon is simply a Queen-lite pastiche. I’m not much of a singer, I have a limited vocal range, but I was thinking of Freddie, Brian, John and Roger when I wrote that number. It’s silly, whimsical and English, much like “Lazing on a Sunday Afternoon”. Julie Gee has provided the kind of background vocals that would emulate that style. Another couple of numbers, soft ballads, “I’ve Been A Fool” and “I Live For Love”, are once again leftovers from the prior lineup that were not captured on the first album. “Fool” was written after I watched “Jersey Boys”, a biopic about Frankie Valli & The Four Seasons, while “I Live For Love” was me trying to pay homage to my heroes Paul McCartney and Jeff Lynne (ELO). Both heavily orchestrated; since I didn’t have the luxury of an actual string orchestra, I had to do it all on my Juno synthesizer. I hated for so many songs, however disparate stylistically, to be languishing in the vaults and gathering dust. So we’ve revived them. Talk about reviving! Three more numbers had been waiting their turn for nigh on 25 years! Back in 1997, while I was in between bands, I recorded demos of “I Don’t Know”, “Lie To Me” and “A Friend In France”. And it wasn’t until the year 2021 that the right opportunity presented itself and we’ve collectively brought them back to life. It was a dream come true. While the original demo of “I Don’t Know” sounded a bit like Gilbert O’Sullivan, who I’ve always liked, the album version has that mid-70s disco feel a-la “I’m On Fire” by 5000 Volts. I’m really proud of this number, it’s the kind of a song I grew up listening to, and the string arrangement really gives it the most authentic of auras.
Both “Lie To Me” and another ballad, “Let Him Go”, despite being almost 25 years apart, are autobiographical. A lot of my lyrics are, actually. On “Let Him Go”, while recording vocals, I was thinking of Freddie Mercury, I could never match his greatness, EVER, but he inspired this number in a huge way. But also Frank Sinatra, especially “That’s Life”. The jazzy organ solo is very much of that “ilk”, although I’ve listened to Jimmy Smith and other Hammond greats before daring to record it.
The album has 17 tracks, so it’s very much a “kitchen sink” project. It’s quite diverse, and some people find the variety to be a good thing – a little bit of something for every taste. Others think it’s incredibly inconsistent (or schizo, as I would call it!) It’s like that by design. It’s a bit of a milestone, a roundup of everything I’d had to hold back prior to the recording sessions, which started in early 2021. There was this period of forced inactivity between the very last gig we played at the Jungle on March 8, 2020 and when we cautiously got back together again for a jam in Sept. 2020, right after my birthday. After sitting home for six months with absolutely nowhere to go, it felt so good to be jamming again, therapeutic even. And towards the end of that year, we landed in Peabody, at producer Tom Hamilton’s home studio, to lay down tracks for the Airforce. That was my introduction to Tom. He’s an ace and knows exactly what feels and sounds right for Painter. He’s the only producer I’d ever trust my music to. So during a break, I got on a zoom call with a few friends including John Lawton, who’s no longer with us. I remember that evening so well. John didn’t look or sound very cheerful, but then this was in the middle of the pandemic, a lot of people were affected emotionally. And on top of it, Ken Hensley had just recently passed. Little did I know this would be the last time I’d speak to John. His widow Iris says he’d have loved our CD. And when I’d quit music and felt uninspired, back in 2009, he encouraged me to get back into it, saying, “You don’t have to be rich to play.” He was so right. But with that said, when you’re doing it all yourself, promotions, recording, working with a producer, paying for the studio time, then mixing and mastering, it certainly adds up. I mean, when no management or record company would have your back. On the other hand, you live and die by your product, and there’s no one in the “biz” to screw you over.
Why the 2 covers? Stealin (IMO) gets done a lot, but the Randy Pie cover (Highway Driver) was an interesting choice.
Stealin’ was Kenne’s choice. We’ve always jammed on Heep covers, “Circle of Hands”, “Easy Livin'”, etc. And he called it Uriah Cheap. He’s been a Heep fan since 1973, when he first heard them. The first single he got may have been “Stealin'”, and I know for certain the following year’s Don Kirshner’s Rock Concert featuring UH made quite an impression on him. Then there’s Randy Pie… a German funk-disco combo from the mid-70s, starring the late Bernd Wippich. It was a hit in Austria and Germany at the time. We’ve jammed on this number with the prior line-up, but it took shape as a melodic hard rock number when the current lineup started running through it. It is still quite retro in sound, but a radical departure from the funky original. People reviewing our album usually don’t know this is a cover, so they think we’ve written a road trip song! But the proper credits are on the back of the CD.
Do you write All the songs, or are there co-credits and input from other band members?
I usually write the originals and, in some cases, co-write with Dmitry. He’s a poet and I’m a composer. We have Dmitry to thank for “Fool”, “Illusion” and “RnR Samurai”, with more to come in the near future! It’s the same dynamic as Elton John – Bernie Taupin or Gary Brooker – Keith Reid. But I usually listen to my guys when it comes to the arrangements – like why won’t we do a bridge here or a drum break there. Intros and outros, softer and harder bits, and so forth. They usually have good suggestions!
There is such a wide variety of tunes, from organ driven rockers, to ballads, to almost theatrical ‘show’ tunes. What gives?
(As previously stated), I’ve taken the kitchen sink approach. Open the vaults – empty the vaults. What have you got? Give me everything. This is what happens when you hold out for a quarter of a century. In my defense, I’m thinking Queen could have astonishingly heavy bits on albums like “A Night At The Opera”, for instance, sitting next to quaint, clever and whimsical little ditties like Seaside Rendezvous. But from the looks of it, judging by the critical and listener reaction, the listeners by far prefer our heavier side, so yes, the next one will be more consistent in terms of style. Let’s just say, I’ve gotten things like “You Nearly Stole My Heart Away” out of my system, time to move on. Speaking of which… this is one song on which I decided to take the “delicate whisper” approach, sort of borrowed from Colin Blunstone of the Zombies. I don’t normally sing like this, but it worked on this tune.
Can you tell me a bit about the John Sloman song (“Parting Line”), and how you ended up using the lyrics and putting them to a new song? (Was John cool with this? Any feedback?)
John… it’s a story onto itself. I came across his lyrics somewhere on the internet, and one song in particular, from his first solo album, ‘Disappearances Can Be Deceptive’, really touched me. It just sort of clicked in my brain. I heard the chugga-chugga Status Quo shuffle in my head to the tune of:
As the sun comes up to announce the day
The lights are coming down
On an allnight show starring you and me
The audience surrounds
And I thought, this could be something. It was a naughty thing to do, but luckily John was totally cool about it. He only asked to be credited on the CD and for a copy of the CD. He even added, “I wish I’d thought of that myself”. But his “Parting Line” is so different from ours – it’s a moody mid- 80s ballad.
What sort of gigs does Mad Painter play, and what does your set generally consist of?
We play locally here in the Boston area, sometimes venturing out of town for a festival. Our set usually contains upbeat rockers like “Barely Alive” and “The Letter” from the first album. Definitely both our current singles which now appear on Splashed. The guys are “gung ho” on going for the jugular, the 1-2-3 punch, wham bam thank you ma’am. I like to mix it up a bit on stage, so once in a while we do “Soldier Boy” (also from the first album), a somber ballad about the tragedy and horrors of the Vietnam war. Then we also play “Empty Bottles” and “Stand Your Ground”, the songs that haven’t yet appeared on record, although you can find “Empty Bottles” on YouTube if you search for it. “SYG” is the heaviest and the angriest song we’ve ever come up with, sort of Motorhead and Deep Purple in one flasket. Motorpurple.
I’ve always known you as a keyboard player, how do You feel doubling as lead singer? Is this natural for you, or something you had to adjust to?
My first love is the Hammond organ. As a kid, I was classically trained, between the ages of 5 and 8, but then I quit, so I never got proper classical piano education. And didn’t go back to playing keyboards until I was 19. But as early as 1994, I was in my first band Silver Star, playing keys and singing lead on some numbers. Sometimes stepping up to the mic with an acoustic guitar also. We did an EP CD back then called Foot Stomping Music, for which I wrote three numbers but only got to sing lead on one, “Kindness”. It’s still a very special track to me, one I’m really proud of. Being out of that band (I will omit the circumstances for now), thereafter, I entered a city studio and demoed the aforementioned three tracks which wound up on Splashed. This was in 1997. Throughout the ’90s, I played keyboards in a variety of bands, blues, heavy metal, funk, but those weren’t my projects and I didn’t feel like I truly belonged in any of them. I did not do much music-wise between 2000 and 2010 and all through that decade, I felt there was something missing in my life, this huge void inside. Then I tried myself out as a keyboard player in two tribute bands, Deep Purple (Stormbringer) and UFO (Lights Out), before finally getting around to create Mad Painter. So, as you can see, I’ve always
wanted to double as a keyboard player and a lead vocalist. My two main
heroes are Jon Lord and Ken Hensley, and neither one sang when they played the B3. So this to me was the biggest challenge. It takes a lot of energy to play “the beast”. I had to look to Billy Preston for that kind of inspiration.
Can you tell me a bit about the CD cover art? Is album art, in this
day & age, still important (or as important)?
The artwork on Splashed is a thing of beauty. It’s done the “old school” way. It was a real photo session with a real pro photographer, and we used real vinyl records, threw them randomly across the floor and then squeezed acrylic paint of different colors all over them. It was my idea, materialized by Dmitriy Gushchin (the photographer) under my supervision. And it worked wonderfully. Our guitarist Al donated the vinyl records that had been ruined by a flood. They weren’t playable anyway.
In this day and age, album or CD cover art may matter less, but when you set your mind on creating a 1973 or 1975 album instead of 2023, it is of paramount importance. We couldn’t do the vinyl LP format because it’s too expensive. But we have pressed a quantity of CDs housed in a wallet style foldout. Plus the album art is a striking visual online, websites and social media alike. It catches your eye immediately. This is the physical painting component to the Mad Painter experience. Our music is sonic painting. Or, to quote “Return to Fantasy”:
‘In another place
There’s a newer face
Like an unfinished painting
Your creator is waiting’
I know it’s early, but what might be expected on the next Mad Painter album, as far as direction, types of tracks, anything you’ve learned from making ?
Firstly, I must take into account what the entire band wants. My guys thrive on the heavy, rambunctious sounds of vintage hard rock. So when it comes to pop and balladry (some writers have called it “traditional songwriting”), I’m kind of on my own and they tend to refer to those numbers as “Alex’s solo material”. We are a unit, and I don’t want the next one to be “Alex’s solo” even in part. So for as long as this lineup sticks together, we’re going to go for the proverbial jugular. There will be some bluesy rock’n’roll numbers for sure, but the next album should be a lot more consistent in style. With “Illusion” and “Samurai”, we’ve sort of introduced and defined ourselves, our own sound. For better or for worse, this is Mad Painter.
Can you (a few) give us a ‘top 10’ of your favorite albums from your younger years?
Alex Gitlin, vocals and keyboards:
- Status Quo “Blue For You”
- Uriah Heep “Demons and Wizards”
- Nazareth “Razamanaz”
- Deep Purple “Machine Head”
- Rainbow “Rising”
- Black Sabbath “Sabbath Bloody Sabbath”
- The Sweet “Give Us A Wink”
- Slade “Slayed?”
- Smokie ‘Midnight Café’
- Queen “A Night At The Opera”
Alan Hendry, drums:
- Grand Funk Railroad – Live Album
- Yes – Yes
- Galactic – Already, Already, Already
- Tower of Power – Back to Oakland
- Porcupine Tree – Any Album
- Blind Faith – Blind Faith
- Tool – Lateralis
- King Crimson – In The Court of the Crimson King
- Genesis- Trick of the Tail
- Jethro Tull – Stand Up
Kenne Highland, bass:
- Stooges – The Stooges
- Stooges – Fun House
- Stooges – Raw Power
- MC5 – Kick Out the Jams
- MC5 – Back in the USA
- MC5 – High Time
- New York Dolls – Too Much Too Soon
- New York Dolls – New York Dolls
- Velvet Underground – White Light/White Heat
- The Velvet Underground – Velvet Underground & Nico