Cornelius the Colonel & the Hot Air Balloon Club
Face Like a Frog Records
by Todd K Smith

One of the most explosive bands to come out of northern Italy in the past few years has been Milan’s Electric 69. Their first album, Let’s Play Two (2006) arrived on the scene turbo charged with high-octane, twin-guitar mayhem that can only be described as glorious. The 2008 self-titled sophomore release won the praise of the international community receiving rave reviews in UK’s Classic Rock magazine. Two years later they have returned with the adventurous Cornelius the Colonel & The Hot Air Balloon Club, a record that expands the band’s sound and digs deeper into the mind of singer Maury Wood. With an opportunity to work in Steve Albini’s (Nirvana, Pixies, Cheap Trick) Chicago studio, the group pushed more complex arrangements to a new level of song crafting. The result is an album warm in mood, rich in lyrical content and elegantly musicality. It’s also a slight departure from their reckless abandon riff-fest but just as dangerous.

As a live band, Electric 69 is like uncorking a rattled bottle of vintage champagne. They run around the stage barely missing each other in the pandemonium only to find the microphone just in time for the chorus. Part punk, part classic rock and 100% pure testosterone, they feed off the crowd until they’re sweat soaked and properly exhausted. In Italy they are quickly becoming a major player on the rock circuit and according to vocalist and bandleader Maury Wood they are looking to break out across Europe and possibly the US. “In Italy we have loads of good bands but unfortunately they are in rival mode,” says Wood in his email to us. “It’s always a copy of something that comes from America - and sometimes that’s embarrassing. We have a high level of independent records and bands that have been making a big impact in Europe. There is still frustration with being isolated. We hope for a better future for younger bands which are stuck playing the same low-end clubs.”

Having been to the States a number of times, Wood brought Electric 69 to Chicago to record their third album Cornelius the Colonel & The Hot Air Balloon Club. “At first we wanted to go to the Levon Helm’s studio in New York,” says Wood. “Later, we decided to go to the Electrical Audio studios of Steve Albini for his unique analog recordings and vintage equipment. Plus we all wanted to visit Chicago.” Albini has an interesting philosophy that appealed to Electric 69. He believes bands should produce themselves and not rely on a “name” producer. He does not receive royalties and only charges a daily flat fee. The studio does provide a recording engineer to solve problems in capturing the sound of the musicians, but does not to threaten the artists over control of their product. “Steve didn’t actually work with us,” continues Wood. “All the production was done by Stevie Ross and me. Gregg Norman was our Sound engineer and he did a great job on our songs.”

The band was on a limited budget, which meant their time in Chicago was mostly recording. “We didn’t have enough time to visit many clubs in Chicago,” says Wood. “But we once saw the Pelican’s sound check. We did check out a few record stores and musical instrument shops. Chicago has these really amazing buildings with a very unique style. The architecture is much different from Italy. Every time I go into a new town, a new place, I try to look at all the positive things that this place could offer me. That’s why we decided to go to Electrical Audio studios. Their instruments and equipment are similar to ours and we were able to find, in the studio and on the final tape, our own original sound.”

The four-piece, consisting of Wood (vocals/guitar), Mauro Ramozzi (guitar), Simone Facchi (drums/piano) and Mauro Pittarello (bass) wrote and rehearsed the entire album before traveling to Chicago. This allowed the group to fine-tune individual songs creating music that is more internal and less external. Of the nine songs that made it on the record, there can be heard elements of The Beatles in “Magnolia,” Soul Asylum in “Bane Ambitious Times,” Nirvana in “Muddy Roots” and the Black Crowes in “Red Heart Procession.” Says Wood of the creative process, “I wrote songs with their own influence. I didn’t want to use the same old riff so I tried to look deep into my own music writing skills. I wanted loads of feelings. These songs were going to be used for my first solo album, but I used them for the Electric Sixty Nine. That’s why they sound totally different from the original sound of the band.”

Wood’s admiration for Bruce Springsteen as a storyteller and lyricist effected his own writing. “In 1985 I was in Long Island to spend my holidays with my relatives. Bruce Springsteen was at the top. His easy way to express and play, with all his power and intensity really spoke to me. From then on I started to get into music. I love all kinds from punk to jazz. It’s with this passion that I was able to discover that in the end, there’s always a good time to write a song.” When asked about the somber “Woohee” he says, “I wrote it from the outside looking in. A friend told me this story while traveling on a train, describing the things outside the window. I’m a laborer, so traveling each day by train and seeing all these “images” passing by the window are really evocative and you just need to use some fantasy. Things of life pass in front of us like a movie and sometimes they are so easy we can’t even see them.”

In the ballad “In the Heart of the Hurricane” the band use piano and acoustic guitar to create the mood. Wood’s lyrics describe a tumultuous relationship that builds suspense with the line “frightening events will soon take place.” Of this he says, “It describes the precise moment when I was younger playing in a hardcore/punk band and my future girlfriend Valentina was standing there in the crowd, looking me in the eyes and singing the words to all my songs. One morning, the band was at the studio and Simone, our drummer, started playing the piano from nowhere. It was sounding so good we decided to put it in the final version of the song.” Another moving melody is the Celtic lullaby “Northern Cross” an instrumental showcasing the band’s superb musicianship.

The name of the record, Cornelius the Colonel & The Hot Air Balloon Club, is an unusual title for a rock record. Wood explains, “Cornelius is a tale I invented for my son. The lyrics are really long and nearly impossible to sing. At first the song was over 10 minutes, but in the end was cut back to four. Cornelius is a Prussian colonel who flies over Europe on a hot air balloon with his Monkey. It’s the story my son goes to sleep with at night.” The song is one the hardest hitting tracks with a great rock and roll swagger and, combined with the Black Crowes-like “Red Heart Processions,” returns the band to its familiar guitar punch. “It’s just a way to keep out from the same old standards like skulls, flames and the whole classic concept of rock music, says Wood. “Since I do most of the songwriting, the real fingerprint of the band’s identity is mine. I love to write songs and try to give a good taste to my life through music.”

Website: Electric 69, Face Like A Frog Records