Elefante Interviews

Here is a transcription of an interview with the 2 Elefante Bros. I doubt any of you have read this one, and I found it quite interesting when I found this oldie in my magazine collection. It is from White Throne which is a defunct Christian Metal mag. This was the final issue of this ill fated yet excellent magazine from 1992. Here Goes...

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 mother.

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 process worked?

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 breaks.

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 perspective.

WT: John, your joining Kansas was really a kind of miracle. Tell us about that.

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 Christian music.

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 the time.

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 project.

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, came along?

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 signature.

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 important.

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 years?

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 Pakaderm?

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 to Christ.

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.

Well as you see, many changes have taken place since this interview. Pakaderm is no longer in business, John's solo album was indeed changed again, and came out in 95, the content was changed to more openly Christian. They have a new studio in Nashville called "The Sound Kitchen". and other changes.