THE SMALL JACKETS
Words : TK Smith
Italy has a long history of quality hard rock bands. From the progressive roots of Le Orme and Il Balletto di Bronzo to the rash punk of Skiantos, the country has made its own mark on international rock music. Thrash, hardcore and metal each had Italian contributions, but it was after the turn of the century that heavy rock and roll found its footing. Leading the charge is the mighty Small Jackets, hailing from the Emilia-Romagna region of eastern Italy. Since 2004 they have released three critically acclaimed hard rock masterworks including Play at High Level, Walking The Boogie and Cheap Tequila. World-wide press outlets including StonerRock, Rockstar and Music Lava have praised the four-piece not only for their studio work, but their unforgettable, high-energy live shows. Through their nearly ten-year history, the Small Jackets have established themselves as true rock and roll pioneers touring through Europe including, the Netherlands and Spain, while sharing the stage with Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, Hardcore Superstars and Imperial State Electric to name but a few.
It’s been four years since The Small Jackets have recorded a new album. A lot has changed. The most notable change is the absence of lead singer Lu Silver. The second is the edition of guitarist Matt West and the third is their departure from Go Down Records, the label that first signed the energetic four-piece. “A separation is a separation,” lead guitarist Eddy Current told us after the band’s show in the Adriatic port town of Cesenatico. “When we decided to split from Lu Silver, we were quite nervous because we were taking on a new direction with the music. We weren’t sure if the old fans would accept the separation.” Granted, the band was known for their high-octane whiskey-stained rabble-rousing…frantic and furious. Most of which is still intact especially with West adding the essential twin-guitar fury. However, they’ve also added a more soulful element as bassist Mark Oak has stepped up to the microphone. “It takes time,” continues Current. “We feel if the songs are good and strong, it doesn’t matter who sings them, but Mark has such a tremendous voice, he’s done all the songs a great honor.”
One listen to IV and you’ll notice the music is more soul driven. West and Current bring a duel guitar reminiscent of the Allman Brothers, Lynyrd Skynyrd and Thin Lizzy while Oak’s primary influences are Paul Rodgers and David Coverdale. One can even detect a bit of Sammy Hagar in the mix especially in his long, drawn out howls during their live show. “It’s not too extreme of a departure for the band,” says Current. “Mark is very flexible in his range and how he approaches a song. He’s got a very dynamic presentation.” West also brings a different approach to the guitar with his metal roots and alternate picking, sweeps and progressions. “I try to bring a variation to the composition,” says West joining our conversation.” Oak steps in, “For me it was a hard thing to switch to the front man,” says the bassist/singer. “We were so used to having Lu up front. There is a lot of pressure that comes from fronting a band, but it is also a pleasure for me to play bass and sing in this band.” As a group, they wanted to improve their English accent and lyrics on the new album. “We hired my old English teacher from school to coach with the vocals,” laughs Current. “He would come into the studio and help correct our pronunciation. We also have a friend in Canada who helped with the lyrics. We felt it was important to get the right feel the right emotion and get that across to an English-speaking audience.”
We asked if the triple duty of being a front man, playing bass and lead singer were too much for Oak. “It’s a different situation,” says Oaks. “It’s different being the singer, a different emotion. I now have to think about working with the audience. Sometimes it’s very hard for me.” Current admits, “When Danny (drummer) and I talked about getting Mark to be the singer, we laughed and said, ‘He’s the only one crazy enough to do it!’ Now, sometimes he just closes his eyes and blocks the crowd out like he’s in his bedroom in front of the mirror singing at the top of his lungs.” Says drummer Danny Savanas joining in, “As the rhythm section, we work a lot together. We think about the rhythms and the groove. It took a lot of time to develop our style and how we react to each other’s playing. We change parts and try many other things until we find the right element that fits.” Oak’s ability to step up and handle his new position with great passion is reminiscent of Phil Lynott (Thin Lizzy), Lemmy Kilmister (Motörhead) and Jack Bruce (Cream).
“At the beginning, the band started with raw rock’n’roll and ‘70s attitude,” says Current. “Humble Pie, Nazareth, Rose Tattoo - simple power songs. Subsequently, we tried to write better compositions and started using a Hammond in some songs like ‘Leave Me Alone’ (from Walking The Boogie, 2008).” Over the years, the band have toured with several Scandinavian bands, yet they maintain their own individuality and classic rock sound. “We really love the Hellacopters and Gluecifer, but we take a different musical road. Our sound is unique to us - a mix of our influences, and with Matt West as our new second guitarist, we can do a broader range of things. Mark as vocalist also gives us the opportunity of exploring a different progression to our style. I have a diverse approach for every song, seeing the composition individually. It makes it possible for me to apply different styles to each song.”
The Small Jackets recorded IV between January and February 2013. The drums were tracked first, then each instrument was recorded separately to keep the correct ambiance. “It took time because we prepared the room for each song,” says Current. “We produced it ourselves and I’m really proud of the job we did in the studio. I took the risk of recording the album with my personal gear and we were able to make a record without compromise. The art of music, in my opinion, is the positive result of our errors.” Having left their old label, Go Down Records with the departure of vocalist Lu Silver, the band were on their own to finance the recording. “We paid the fee of the studio with the money from our gigs,” says the guitarist. “A true working class album!” During the spring of 2013, the band signed a multi-album deal with Transubstans Records in Sweden.
IV begins in a huge way with “Bridge Head” as an air-raid siren is followed by a frenzied minute-long instrumental - all guns blazing. “I’m a huge fan of war films,” says Current. “The sound of the siren takes your full attention, and that’s why we put it at the beginning of the album.” Immediately the crisp production amplifies the whole affair with a jolt of electricity as the band rumbles into “Ball ‘N Chain” a mid-tempo groove song with amazing vocals and funk guitars. The song is a dynamic breakthrough that has ‘classic’ written all over it. The mix between Thin Lizzy and The Hellacopters is stunning. “Wanderlust” resounds, as the guitars strum out the riff while the drum marks the beat with just enough boogie in the bass to keep it groovy. “It took a lot of time to get the arrangement of the middle part of that song,” says Current. “I’m a huge fan of structures between guitars, and if you listen close, you can hear five guitars on it!”
Additional texture is in the subtle hues of “Mama Said” with its shades of Frank Marino. “I like the vibe of that song,” continues Current. “The guitar sound and the atmosphere make it my personal vision of a common ballad.” The band’s humor shows through in “Uncharted Waters” which takes its cue from John Carpenter and his films like “They Live” with a spacey dark atmosphere. Following promptly is the metallic “Hellraiser”. Born as a jam song, it’s a cross between Sabbath and Nugent. “That’s the obscure part of the Small Jackets,” says Current. “Originally, we thought of using a synth but it sounded too progressive and out of style.” The first song the band composed with the new line up was “Black Beauty,” an open chord masterpiece that teams Current and West in a showdown of biblical proportions. As the two guitarists cut and slice their way through one mean lick after another, the bass and drums are beating the hell out of the backbeat. Oak’s Sammy Hagar-like vocals give true authenticity as he reaches ever higher with the shear momentum of the music. “We were really excited about the new line up when we wrote that song,” says Current. “It has so much energy and adrenaline.”
Midway through the record the band cover the obscure ZZ Top song, “Heard it on the X” from 1975’s Fandango! “We really love ZZ Top’s attitude and we usually play this song live,” says Current. “It also takes a lot of inspiration from Johnny Winter. We tried Led Zeppelin’s ‘Bring it on Home’, ‘Lift it Up’ by Ted Nugent and ‘American Ruse’ by the MC5, but ZZ Top fit the record.” Current told us the main riff of “Trouble Blues” was born studying Albert Lee. “We used more time to compose it,” says the guitarist. “There’s a lot of styles inside and chord progressions. Mark added his southern style ala Blackfoot and the result was Hard Country. That’s the main direction we wanted to take for the new album.” After seeing the band play live, “Black Beauty” and “Trouble Blues” are the most fun to watch because the audience feels the riff immediately.
The band has an uncanny ability to write instantly addictive hooks that have a knack for commercial appeal. “What We (Feel)”, written by West, leads the pack with a dynamic chorus and rockin’ dance beat. Guitarist Matt West comments, “The song’s about making music, good times and bad times with both music and bands. There’s also a bit of revenge in there against the folks that don't understand you and put you down. I was told once, ‘Don’t let anyone make you sad about who you are’.” When asked about their current path, drummer Danny Savanas says, “I am the oldest and first member of this band. I chose the members for this project and I think this music has more attitude than ever before. These guys are great players for hard rock and now we feel we are free to perform what we feel as a direction to go. We have a lot of passion and we love to entertain people.”
Amazon UK reviewer Marco Ubago Leardini calls IV a “well crafted album of hard rock that explores an impressive array of different styles throughout its ten tracks, yet they never stray from their classic hard rock/blues roots.” Taking over where Robin Trower, Ted Nugent and Montrose left off, the Small Jackets claim their place among the new breed of guitar gladiators as they plant hook-filled chorus, bombastic backbeats and searing solos deep into your sub-cortex never to be forgotten. “There’s a magic between our playing and the guy that stands in front of us,” says Current. “The audience is like a member of the band. When we do something new, we watch the crowd and see if they like it. Every gig is a different situation, but people like the improvisation we put in the set every night. The band is more united now. We are on the same road together.”
Photos by PhotoCuba
Website: The Small Jackets