SKYSAW is the new project helmed by Jimmy Chamberlin, who wants to make one thing clear at the outset: “This project is not the vision of one person. It’s a band, a total collaboration. After being in the biz for 25 years, I know unity holds the power and gets the job done. Skysaw is a full democracy, the sum of all our personalities. If it becomes huge, great, but it’s really about creating an environment to grow some musical ideas. No matter what happens, I’m still happy to keep doing it. It feels good to be in a room with these guys on a purely musical level.”
The seeds of Skysaw were planted after Chamberlin left the Smashing Pumpkins in 2009. Sitting in his home studio, musical ideas began pouring out at a rapid pace. “I recorded 25 or 30 tunes, instrumentals without lyrics. One day I told Bill Thomas, who helped set up my home studio, ‘If I could find a songwriter with a great voice who lives in his studio, I’d do another band.’ He told me about Mike Reina.
“I got Mike on the phone and he sent me some tracks with a dark Beach Boys meets Tom Waits feel. I knew if we could combine what I know about rock dynamics and what he knows about melody and songwriting, we could do something original. I flew him to Chicago to record a song and get to know each other.” Chamberlin and Reina had similar ideas about blending progressive rock with cohesive melodies and simple vocal harmonies. They started writing the songs that became <i>Great Civilizations</i>.
“We worked on the album for a couple of months and Mike kept telling me about Anthony,” Chamberlin continues. “We finished a song called ‘They’re Watching’ and left a space for a guitar solo. We sent it to Anthony and what he sent back was blistering. I was sold. We invited him to join and he’s been a fantastic asset to the band.”
The music on <i>Great Civilizations</i> is full of the contradictions that make compelling music, at once light and densely layered, simple and progressive, expansive and down to earth. “Capsized Jackknifed Crisis” shifts between a dreamlike verse and a dramatic chorus, propelled by Chamberlin’s powerful drumming and Pirog’s icy guitar accents. “This song came about as a result of my Eno influence,” Reina says. “The band is named after the first track on Another Green World.” Chamberlin’s half time rhythm and Pirog’s aggressive, almost metallic guitar generate the overwhelming tension that makes “No One Can Tell” so compelling. “I layered loops, oscillating delays, backwards guitar parts and lap steel to fill out the sound,” Pirog says. Reina’s vocal captures the tension of a man watching his life fall apart, while pretending that everything is normal.
“<i>Great Civilizations</i>” has the anthemic feel of a U2 track, with an uplifting vocal from Reina, supported by Chamberlin’s emotive stick work and Pirog’s complex guitar pyrotechnics. “I used the Memory Man delay pedal for this one and added a 12 string guitar solo that incorported some open string country guitar scales that weren’t easy to play,” Pirog says. “My right had was really tired when we finished that track.” Reina blended keyboard and guitar sounds to create the ominous instrumental harmonies of “All I Hear Is Snow.” His vocals slip in and out of focus, to convey the late night struggle of a man trying to stay awake at the wheel as the weather, and his life, slowly turn to darkness.
<i>Great Civilizations</i> was created with the trio writing, playing and producing the music themselves. “We played the basic tracks live in Mike’s studio,” Chamberlin says. “Mike’s a great arranger, but we all had input into every song. We did a lot of self-policing as the album progressed. ‘Is it good enough?,’ is the question you have to ask yourself, but we’re all perfectionists. I’m always touching up my drum parts and Mike does and redoes his vocals till he’s satisfied. We think that care shows in the music.”
Skysaw recently played their debut gig at the Echo in Los Angeles with Paul Wood and Boris Skalsky of Dead Heart Bloom filling out the line up. “The players were fantastic. We were well rehearsed and, to get a crowd in LA to even clap, is amazing,” Chamberlin crows. “We got a great response. People saw we were a real band. Even the record company people, who thought the group only existed in my mind, were impressed. I can’t wait to get on the road and start playing for the rest of the country.”
Jimmy Chamberlin was born in Joliet, Illinois, the youngest of six children. His father worked on the railroad and played amateur clarinet, informed by artists like Artie Shaw and Pete Fountain. “My older brothers and sisters were into music and listened to Dylan, the Doors, Cream, Deep Purple, Led Zep. Everything from Duke Ellington to Jimi was coming out of the rooms in our house,” Chamberlin says. “My older brother Paul was a drummer. When I was 7, I’d play on his drum kit in the basement. I took lessons with Charlie Adams, who played for Yanni later on, until I turned pro at 15.”
Chamberlin played with local rap/rock bands, but his bread and butter was a gig in the polka band of Eddie Karosa, who hosted a weekly TV show called Polka Party on WCIU. “From there I played in any professional group I could find. I was making 200 bucks a week, enough to buy a car and not have to work a day job. I played in polka bands and cover bands doing everything from Broadway show tunes to the Beach Boys. When the Smashing Pumpkins came to see me, they rescued me from blue sport coat cover bands. I was into progressive jazz at the time – Tony Williams and Weather Report. In the Pumpkins, I found my own way to express myself. I could do anything I wanted in that band.”
After leaving the Pumpkins, Chamberlin joined Billy Corgan and Matt Sweeny in Zwan. They made one album and broke up. “Then I started The Jimmy Chamberlin Complex. From a musical standpoint, it was successful and continues to this day, but we haven’t released any music since our first album in 2005.” After rejoining and leaving the Pumpkins again, Chamberlin went home and started writing songs.
“I never wrote that much before and wondered where it was all coming from. I knew I needed someone who could sing and put lyrics to this stuff.
Mike Reina was born and raised in Norfolk, Virginia. “When I was a boy and up until high school, I only listened to The Beatles. I didn’t think much else qualified as music,” Reina says. “My father played piano, accordion and guitar. He had a nice Gibson nylon string that became my first guitar. I took piano lessons, but when I reached my teen rebel years, I stopped playing. In college, I got a Rhodes piano and formed Inches to Flood, a progressive rock band. I wasn’t the singer, but did most of the songwriting. That got me back into keys and led to synthesizers and an obsession with Roger Waters’ era Pink Floyd. I found a whole world inside my synthesizers; I’ve been mesmerized by them ever since.”
Reina was a fan of Phaser, another local outfit. After a conversation with band members Paul Wood and Boris Skalsky, he joined the band. “That was my first professional experience. When that came to an end, I built a studio and started a solo album. When I put together a band to do a one off gig to play some of the songs I’d been writing, it went so well I asked them to come in and add to the record.” Reina called the group The Jackfields. They became one of the top bands in the DC area. “I saw Anthony play one night and thought he was phenomenal. I asked him to join the band and he did. We were in the process of finishing The Jackfields album, when Jimmy called and I got sidetracked.”
Anthony Pirog grew up in the suburbs of Washington DC. His father played in surf bands in the 60s and bequeathed his son a 1963 Fender Jaguar. “I taught myself to play Roy Orbison’s ‘Pretty Woman’ from a video I got from the library,” Pirog says. “From then on, I played all the time. My dad listened to Howlin’ Wolf, Sonny Boy Williamson, surf and doo-wop. I took it all in. I was in at least 15 different bands during high school. By my junior year, I was into free jazz and experimental music.”
A week long trip to a summer session at Boston’s Berklee College of Music to study jazz guitar was a turning point. “I knew I wanted to be a musician, but wasn’t sure I could make it. Berklee was only offering 6 scholarships for enrollment at the college during the summer session. I decided I’d become a full time musician if I got a scholarship, which also meant that I would attend the college after high school. So the decision was made for me.” After high school, Pirog stayed at Berklee for two years and finished his degree in Jazz Performance at NYU.
Pirog moved back to DC and became known for his shredding style and an ability to play everything from outside jazz to freak folk. He played in jazz, blues, rockabilly, oldies and electronica bands as well as free form solo gigs that allowed him to explore the outer limits of his creativity. “I started a label called Sonic Mass Records to put out my first album, Beginning to End, solo improvisations for guitar. It is very experimental. A strong interest in that music led to Janel and Anthony, a cello and guitar duo that I have with my girlfriend Janel Leppin, which got us deeper into the experimental scene. About four years ago, Mike came to one of my shows and asked me to join The Jackfields. I stayed for two years before moving to New York with Janel to play jazz. When Mike started working with Jimmy, they asked me to add guitar on a song they were working on. That got me involved in the project. They’ve given me the opportunity to play rock without limitations, so it will be interesting to see how far we can go.”