Elefantes on Parade (1992)
Interviewed by Bruce Brown
Over the past ten years, John and Dino Elefante have become two of
the best-known and most respected producers in contemporary Christian
music. Guardian, Sweet Comfort Band, X-Sinner, Barren Cross, Rick
Cua--and of course, Petra--those are only a few of the artists whose
music has benefited from their production touch. The Elefantes also own
a successful record company and recording studio--both called Pakaderm,
and occasionally perform in their own band, Mastedon. In addition, John
is remembered for stepping behind the mic as lead singer for Kansas,
when the platinum band's original vocalist, Steve Walsh, departed in the
early 1980's. The Elefante brothers, now in their mid-30s' may not have
become partners in the first place, if it not for the insistence of
their mother. When we sat down for a lunchtime chat (the pair seem most
receptive when a meal is part of the deal), John & Dino reflected on how
their careers got started. (Ed: Like many close-knit siblings, the
Elefantes tend to finish each other's sentences.)
WHITE THRONE: Have you two always had a professional partnership as well
as being brothers by blood?
Dino: Our mom says we have to work together. And I'll tell ya man, she's
five foot and a hundred pounds. If we don't listen to her, she'll come
after us with a garlic masher!
John: With no insult intended, she's a Jewish mother--we have a Jewish
Dino: Yeah, certainly in the theatrical context.
WT: Have you two always been in bands together?
John: Yeah, with the exception of Kansas. I think we had our first band
when Dino was about nine and I was seven. Dino had a little purple amp,
and our mom bought me a little set of drums--I was always the drummer;
that is, until the singer would leave. Then I had to be the singer.
Dino: I was still in Little League at that point. The only thing we knew
then was emotional expression; we didn't know the mechanics, we didn't
know a lot of chords and we weren't into the technical aspects at all
yet. We would just strum the chords and shout what came to mind!
WT: When did you guys start getting interested in how the recording
John: I was still living at home. . .[Dino] John, remeber that cassette
deck mom returned to K-Mart for us saying dirty words on it? We were
recording our band on it; thats's why mom bought it. We were about ten
and eleven at the time. . .[John] We were experimenting with
over-dubbing. . .[Dino] We had a two-track reel-to-reel that we could
bounce to the cassette with. One night, our parents went out for just a
while, and a couple older kids from down the block came over to watch
us. We were taping dirty words and stuff, because they were gone. And
the tape deck broke. Mom told us that when she took it back, the guy
tested it and he plugged it into the p.a. at the store and played
it...(laughter) [John] Dino and I had planned on running away...[Dino]
We were going to run away to the local park. [John] We had it all
planned out, man. We could pitch the tent, we were packing bags...[Dino]
That was it man. We were going to take every cracker there was in the
cabinet. [John] But I think we started getting serious about
multi-track when my mom's mother died. She left our mom a little
settlement and mom said she'd help us out. So we went and bought some
eight-track gear, and converted our parents' garage into a studio. And
that was when it all...we just caught the bug at that point. [Dino]
Being able to double a vocal, hear what an acoustic guitar sounded like
mixed with an electric and putting reverb on drums--we just went, man,
this is what we want to do.
WT: Were you guys Christians at that time?
Dino: No, far from it.
John: Let's see, I became a Christian when I was 20. So that means we
must have started the studio when we were 17 and 19.
Dino: I remember, we were playing nightclubs and John had to get a
special permit from the Alcoholic Beverage Commission to play a club
where there was alcohol. John had to go sit in our van during set
John: But that was O.K., because I had my own bottle in the van anyway!
WT: So what prompted you guys to change your life-styles?
John: I don't really have any fire and brimstone testimony. I was
buddies with Mark Ambrose from Idle Cure. I was about twenty; we'd been
out of high school for a couple of years. He came over to our folks' and
I took him back in the studio. We spent about four hours just talking,
and he was witnessing to me really heavily. It was the change in his
life, and he had the ability to get to my heart for some reason. I think
I was ready; the Holy Spirit had set me up to make a decision. So back
in the studio with Mark, I accepted the Lord. Suddenly, everything had
new meaning. With music, it was suddenly, what am I gonna do? The first
thing you think is, maybe I need to get out of music; maybe it's wrong.
Dino: I think I was a believer before John. Even in junior high, I used
to go to these Bible studies this guy had. They were run by the dad of a
guy I played football with...[John] Yeah, but you weren't walking with
the Lord...[Dino] No, not at all. But I understood what it was to have
...I understood the person of Christ, It wasn't until I was getting
ready to get married, when I started going to church again and getting
serious about it. My wife's parents were heavily involved in the church,
and as my courtship started getting serious, I started going to church
on a social basis, and it re-kindled my spirit. I got my relationship
together about the same time as John.
WT: When did you guys start writing Christian material?
Dino: It probably wasn't until about a year and a half to two years
after John joined Kansas that we started writing music from a Christian
WT: John, your joining Kansas was really a kind of miracle. Tell us
John: Well, like I said, I was friends with Mark Ambrose. And Chuck King
too, one of the guys from Shout. I was still living at home, kind of
making a living installing stereos. Chuck was coming over to help me out
with something. He said, "Man, I heard on the radio the other day that
Kansas is auditioning singers because Steve Walsh was leaving." And I
just kinda went, wow, 'cause I knew that Kerry Livgren and Dave Hope
were Christians at that point. So I said,"Man, I wonder what I can do?"
So I got a hold of an attorney friend of mine, and I said, "How can I
get a hold of these guys in Kansas?" He said, "Well, it turns out that
my partner in the firm here represents Kansas." I said, "Great, man." So
I got the address of the band's manager, Budd Carr, and I sent in an
audition tape. You know, I thought to myself, it's never gonna happen.
You send in a tape, unsolicited, you know, here, I'm John Elefante,
listen to my tape. And lo and behold, a couple weeks later, the manager
calls me. He says, "Hey man, I liked the tape, I'd like to meet you." So
I drove up to North Hollywood and met him and everything went real well.
I guess he wanted to see that I didn't weigh 300 pounds and have a third
eye! [Dino] And I said, "Pack your bags man. There's nobody that can do
the gig better than you." Cause we had always been into Kansas, Yes,
Gentle Giant, all of those bands. [John] So, I met with the manager. It
was right around Christmas time. I think Christmas had passed; right
around the first of the year, Kerry Livgren called me. The phone rings
in my bedroom, and I hear, "Hi, this is Kerry Livgren"--My heart starts
pounding. They had basically decided that I was the front-runner--they
hadn't put me in the band yet, until I went to Atlanta to meet
everybody. But I was the front-runner at that point. About the last ten
seconds of the conversation, I said, "By the way Kerry, I'm a born-again
Christian. I really feel that this is miraculous how this happened. That
the guy you think is the front-runner happens to be a believer." There
was like a long pause in the conversation; he couldn't believe it. So I
flew to Atlanta. I remember, the first thing the band wanted to do was
to go over some of their early material. They'd been off the road for a
few months at that time, and I actually knew some of the songs better
than they did! But acording to Kerry, I beat out more than 200 people
for the gig. But I know it wasn't only on my abilities. The Lord did it.
WT: But Kerry actually didn't stay in the band for very long after you
joined, did he?
John: No, he had really come to a different place spiritually in his
life. He got tired of the write-tour-write grind. Struggling so hard for
commercial accessibility just didn't jive with his spiritual life
anymore. But when Kerry made the decision to leave, I wanted to leave
too. The band tried to take legal action against me near the end, but I
just said, "Guys, this isn't happening. There's nothing left for me
spiritually. And musically, I joined the band because I'm a fan of
Kerry's msic. And now that he's leaving, who's going to write the
songs?" Dino and I wrote seven songs on "Drastic Measures;" Kerry only
wrote three. I didn't like "Drastic Measures," and we even said to the
band, "Guys, this is almost an Elefante Brothers album. This isn't what
Kansas is all about."
WT: Is this when you guys started the label and the studio?
John: All we had was the eight-track...[Dino] But we were building the
studio...[John] We were working on it during "Drastic Measures."
WT: What was the first Christian project you guys worked on?
Dino: Sweet Comfort Band's "Perfect Timing." I did that while John was
still in Kansas. Sweet Comfort was actually in the midst of breaking up
while making the record. It was quite a way for us to get started in
John: See, I had no idea what contemporary Christian music was. When I
was in Kansas, I had no idea that Christian rock music existed...[Dino]
Yeah, it was funny. We had heard about this group Petra...[John] I came
home from a Kansas tour, and I had a tape that Greg Volz had given
Kerry. That was my first exposure to Christian rock. I said, "Dino,
these guys are expressing what they want to express, and it's really
happening lyrically"...[Dino] If anything, we felt it wasn't musically
up to snuff, and that's pretty much how we felt about the industry at
WT: So, around this time is when you finished the studio?
John: When I decided to leave Kansas, Dino and I made the decision that,
hey, we love recording and we feel like this is a great career move. My
accountant tried to talk me out of it. He said, "The studio business is
dead, dude. Don't do it." So I took that advice and chucked it, and we
did it. [Dino] We're still in the initial building that we built. [John]
How long has it been? Eight years? [Dino] Eight years, and we're still
in there. [John] We really have a great facility. I feel really
fortunate to have this facility. See, we just felt at one point, we
don't want to be at somebody else's mercy. When we want to go in and
express ourselves, we want to just go in and do it. We don't want to
have to get the money together to buy the studio time and be looking at
our watches. It's the best thing that ever happened to us.
WT: So you guys were getting a lot of requests for your production
services. But there were thousands of Kansas fans, disapointed by John's
departure from the band, that were demanding the release of a John
Elefante solo album. Is that what led to the birth of your infamous
studio creation, Mastedon?
John: We really must make a confession about Mastedon. The first
Mastedon record, I would say at least seven of the songs...when I first
left Kansas, I was out shopping a record deal. I went into the studio
that we had just finished and Dino and I did about five or six songs
with some great players--Mike Baird, the drummer for Journey at that
time; John Pearce, who gigged with Mick Jagger, among others; Dave
Amato, who recently toured with Richie Sambora--really hot players. So
we did a bunch of demos, but they pretty much ended up on the shelf...
Dino: No, you know what happened? Just let me interject real quick.
Regency Records had us produce this California Metal thing that they put
out, and we were a song short, and we didn't feel like cutting another
song. So we put "What About Love?" on there--we changed it to "Wasn't It
Love?", cause the song was written for Kansas. So they started getting a
bunch of letters from Kansas fans and different people saying "what
about a record?" ...[John] They said "think of a name" so we said
"elefant, Elefante, Pakaderm--Mastedon, perfect." So we had that song,
and then they approached us later and said, "Guys, why don't you give us
a record? You got all this stuff just sitting on the shelf." These were
demos that I had been shopping that had never gotten me signed--
"Islands In The Sky," "This Is The Day"--all that stuff was on the
shelf. So we re-mixed some of it, and we wrote three more...[Dino] We
wrote "It's A Jungle Out There," "Glory Bound" and "Shine On." We had
David Pack from Ambrosia sing "Shine On." We didn't want to be John out
there as an artist, in his entirety. Because then it would have been,
well here's John Elefante's career move, and we didn't want that to
happen. And as we look back on it, it was wise. So, it turned into a
WT: So, around the time the first Mastedon project was released, is when
you got a call from Bob Hartman of Petra?
John: Right. Bob Hartman called, and said the band was going through a
transition. Greg Volz was leaving, and they'd just gotten a new lead
singer, John Schlitt, from Head East...[Dino] Remember when we used to
sit in the van and get high, listening to their first album (laughs, as
John sings the chorus of Head East hit "Never Been Any
Reason")...anyway, I guess it was "Back To The Streets" that started it.
It really had a profound effect on me and Dino spiritually. As we got to
know the guys in Petra, we started to realize, man, this is way more
than music--this is a ministry. We started realizing the inner workings
of how this music translates to changing somebody's life.
WT: And then, about three years ago, the record company, also Pakaderm,
John: See, we never really wanted to start a record company; we just
wanted to be able to find bands that we wanted to produce...[Dino]
Instead of having to wait for the phone to ring ...[John] Instead of
having people say, would you produce this, would you produce that?, and
then you're subject to everything that they want to do. We just wanted
to hand-pick the bands and the ministries for ourselves.
WT: Let's talk about the thing you're both praised and criticized for
the most, the so-called Pakaderm Sound. People attribute that to these
really beefy, punchy drum mixes, heavily layered backround vocals, often
sung by John, and this sort-of ultra gloss on the entire mix. Is that a
fair criticism or observation? And how would you say you developed that
John: It probably goes back to Petra. Bob was looking for something
different, and that's why he came to us. So we just did whatever it is
we know how to do, and that's how "Back To The Streets" came out.
Dino: I think that sound goes back even to Mastedon. That album was just
coming out when Petra called. [John] Wow, time flies... [Dino] No, but
the Pakaderm sound--all of the records are so different. It really only
manifests itself in certain places. The Pakaderm sound-- is it on
X-Sinner? We produced that record from the first record button to the
last...[John] Yeah, but you can't deny...[Dino] We definitely have a
signature, like Mutt Lange does, like Bob Clearmountain does, like Butch
Vig (producer of Nirvana and Sonic Youth) does. When these guys come
into the studio, they want MORE! They say, "Oh, can we put another
guitar on? Can we put another keyboard on? Give us a huge backround
vocal." We're getting to the point now, where less is more is really
WT: Is that why you stepped away from mixing Petra's "Unseen Power?"
Dino: I think we've taken Petra to...what would do next time? I really
feel like "Unseen Power" was the pay-off record. I think it's the best
record we've ever made.
John: It was just as much our suggestion as theirs not to mix it. We
were too close by the end, and your'e just not objective. So we turned
it over to Neil Kernon.
WT: Do you think critics have been unkind or unfair to you guys over the
Dino: There's something that's "in" for critics. It's fashionable for
them to be into the aesthetics and poetic aspects of a record, and the
lyrical interpretations. For me personally, I feel that art comes in
many forms. We're into the art of making commercial music. And I think a
lot of the guys that call themselves alternative, if they could make
commercial music, they would. And a lot of people who make commercial
music, if they could make alternative music, they would. But as far as
the critics being fair, we have a saying at Pakaderm and we stand by it.
We want to sign great ministries, we don't want to sign great bands.
John: If we can have both, like Guardian, we'll take it!
Dino: And we've just released an album by a band called The Brave, who
are phenomenally talented. And they really love the Lord.
John: I think the only review that really got under my skin was one on
Halo, where they really criticized how overt they were, lyrically. I
don't know man, I don't think you can be too overt lyrically. Some
people think that you have to take it, and you gotta twist it around and
make it colorful and try to say it new ways. Maybe it's because I know
the hearts of these guys and they just keep it simple. I think overall,
the redeeming quality is, the kids are happy. Sometimes, like for
instance Halo, thats a band that we really had to develop. But by the
time the record gets to the public, I don't think the girl playing Halo
in her car on the way to work really cares how it was made; she doesn't
care that maybe John sang the backround vocals. All she knows is, she
puts in the tape and she's ministered to on her way to work. That's
really all that matters; the end result.
Dino: But to answer your question more directly, no, I don't think
anybody's been unfair to us. It upsets me when they get personal, when
they take personal shots. Get to know us, then if you still feel the
same way, fine.
WT: John, you've had tremendous mainstream success with Kansas. And with
both of you, there's been talk about several of the bands you've signed
or produced, such as X-Sinner, Guardian and Petra, making inroads in the
secular marketplace. There's even been rumors of a strictly-secular solo
deal for John. What do you two see as the future for the Elefantes and
John: I want to get back to Christ. That's where it all started and
that's where it has to go back. I mean, I've been on the "other side".
There's nothing over there that I want. It's nice to make money,
everybody wants to make a lot of money; that's fine. But those things
change you and success does weird things to people. I don't think most
Christians are made to be able to handle the exaltation, because that's
what happens when your'e a rock star--your'e exalted by man; people say,
whoa, look at this, look at that. We're making contemporary Christian
music because we want to minister. If we want to get into the secular
market, we'll go get in the secular market. I don't want to use this as
a platform to jump over. My hope is that Christian music will get closer
Dino: As far as John's solo album, it's gonna be a different deal than
you've ever seen; John's gonna be positioned in a different way. It's
funny, because the album's been put on hold several times, and it's
changed each time it's been delayed.
John: It's definitely not a critic's record, and it's not what people
will expect. It's a pop record, and we're not going to produce it.