If you ask people what’s the source of hope in their life, music will surely be one of the most frequent answers to this question. This proverbial light at the end of the tunnel is something the world needs especially now – in the face of the global pandemic affecting everyone of us, social distancing and uncertainty, our favourite tunes remain both our companion and consolation. And although the coronavirus hit the music industry particularly hard, there’s no better proof that the show must go on than the new albums in one’s record collection. One of them is Another Time And Place, the sophomore effort by Room Experience – a Melodic Rock band built around its mastermind, keyboard player and songwriter, Gianluca Firmo, and fronted by David Readman (Pink Cream 69, ex-Voodoo Circle). I caught up with Gianluca to get all the details behind the album, the band and his songwriting craft – and in conclusion, he adressed you readers as follows: if there’s a heaven for eager readers, you just earned your place in there…
Alexandra Mrozowska: Something I’ve never thought I’ll do is asking what actually the band’s plans were instead of what they are. Unfortunately, we can’t deny that the COVID-19 pandemic changed the state of affairs a lot. So what would be Room Experience doing now in terms of promoting the newly released album, if it wasn’t for the pandemic still going on?
Gianluca Firmo: Well… actually in this big mess Room Experience had at least one luck: being a studio project, the main focus has always been on writing and producing the songs and live shows have always been only an option. We would be very glad to bring the music on stage, but that’s a further step. The best chance would be some live appearance in a festival, while it’s harder to think of a proper tour since there are many musicians involved, they all live pretty far from each other and everyone has his own main band and in many cases, also a main job. So, at least we didn’t have to cancel any show or re-arrange any tour schedule. The sales promotions hasn’t changed much, apart from the fact that we released four singles in less than two months. How coronavirus will affect sales, however, it’s still to be seen: deliveries may be affected from security policies of each country and people are of course worried about the economy too, because at the moment is hard to tell what future can bring. Then again, even if we’re talking about a pandemic, not all the world has been affected the same way – so what is true for one country, might be different for another.
AM: An experienced musician that you are, how do you think the pandemic will affect the music industry in Italy – one of the worst-affected countries in Europe – and beyond?
GF: I’m afraid is not going to be a problem only in Italy, but I’m an optimistic guy, so I tend to see changes as opportunities. It “only” takes to find new ways to deal with new situations and who knows… it might even bring unexpected benefits. The hardest blow will be for the live industry and especially for small venues and small bands, at least until a vaccine can be found. I guess these past weeks will have a long aftermath because of course there are people who haven’t changed their habits a bit even in the middle of the crisis… but most people have learned to live in a different way. I wouldn’t say people will be ‘scared’, but surely they learned to be more ‘cautious’ and it will show even if and when everything will be back to normal. On the other hand, industry is not only made of live shows. If there will be less concerts, or less attendance, people may spend more money on buying music. Maybe if they have to stay home, they want to listen to music the best possible way and there might be a ‘new renaissance’. Having a clear picture of what will happen is very hard, because every single aspect of life will be involved: society, economy, fashion, trends… music is just one of the ways all these things show through. My hope for music is that people will have more time to really listen to it, not just hear it. And that will bring quality to a even higher level, and possibly will bring the industry back to its heyday.
AM: There are certain ideas of how to bring the live music events back, such as the drive-in concerts. Do you think they can really compensate for the possibilities that we had before the outbreak of the pandemic?
GF: Actually… it might work for a certain kind of music, where people just sit and listen to appreciate the quality of musicians or the subtle shades of a performance. Even for very big live events, like arena concerts and so on. It won’t be the same thing, of course, but if we have to learn to do things in the new ways, this might work for those cases. The 90% of live shows, though, are made by bands that play in small venues in front of a very small amount of people that are passionate for that band and just wanna have fun and dance to their music. Sometimes, in these cases, is not even important how good the band plays, but how much the band can get you involved in the mood of the show. You can’t have that kind of feeling if you’re locked inside a car, or if you have to stay six feet far from your friends, or your girlfriend or boyfriend. A big part of the fun would be taken away. On a positive note, though, if people will have to attend to live shows that way, they will be forced to focus on the quality of the perfomances and music and that could lead to a totally new scenario.
AM: Did the pandemic changed anything specifically for Room Experience if we talk about the recording process behind Another Time And Place, or was the material ready for release before the disease’s outbreak in Italy?
GF: Gosh! Another Time And Place was originally set to be released in the first half of 2018 (in fact, we shoot the video for Hear Another Song during the summer of 2017) but then life got in the way and work has slowed down, so plans changed. We ended recording in the very beginning of 2019 and we took the time to mix the record during the rest of the year. We wanted to go in a direction that I’ve already started with my solo album – to keep a warm sound and save the most of natural dynamics of the instruments without losing the power that is needed for a release like this one. So we went back and forth in the mix till we’ve found the right approach thanks to mister Alessandro Del Vecchio, whose talent and patience allowed us to find what we believe was the sound we were looking for. The only forced change of plans that has occurred was related to the final day of the mixing sessions: we delayed it many times to wait for Alessandro to be back from the USA (where he also works) just to be able to sit together in the same room and with the same speakers and technical gear to fine-tune the mix. The final day was then set for March the 8th, and around midnight on March 7th they suddenly announced a total lockdown for Lombardy (the area where Ale has his studio and we live). So we had to close the mix from the distance, each of us in his home studio, with a 8 hour long connection call, lots of file sharing, feedbacks going back and forth… but then again, given the name of the band, I guess it was the more appropriate ending for the works: each one in his room (laughs).
AM: Good point! (laughs) Room Experience is usually referred to as a project you’ve launched with Davide Barbieri and Pierpaolo Monti. However, with two albums under your belt and only minor line-up changes, do you think of it more as a regular band?
GF: Definitely yes! People tend to consider only those acts which are active live to be bands, which in a way makes sense. But to me, a band is an ensemble which makes music sound in a certain, peculiar way. Each of the members add his own ‘something’ to build the whole result and a make it, in a way, unique. If you work in that way, you discuss things, you look for new solutions together and you fight also (laughs). It’s not just five session men asked to play by the score. If you change any of the members, you would change the peculiar sound. That might happen by necessity or by choice, but either way you know you’re gonna face a change in the final result. And to me Room Experience wouldn’t be the same without, say, David Readman on vocals or Davide Barbieri and Pierpaolo as musicians and producers. I’m not saying this is the best possible combination, but this is definitely what makes Room Experience sound this way. If you have a steady core for the band, many people can be invited to work on the sound and it still would be recognizable. Instead, I know that big names in the business, sometimes, maintain the same name because is a trademark and helps with promotion and the fanbase, but don’t tell me you don’t have the feeling of listening to different bands when the line-up has gone through some major changes!
AM: Talk to me about it! And speaking of the line-up changes, was the fairly recent addition of Simon Dredo on bass significant in terms of Room Experience’s creative output?
GF: Yes, and that was something I was really looking for. I mean, Amos and Andrea did an awesome job on the first record and delivered wonderful bass parts, but having one only bass player, especially Simon, on board had two great benefits. First of all, it helped to give the record, and in particular the whole rhythmic session, a more compact sound. Secondly, Simon has the same background as we do, but he’s more oriented toward Sleaze/Glam, so he brought some ‘edge’ into the music, which I think it was very much needed for the sound we want to offer. But of course, he can be classy too: take a close listen to the bass part of “The Distance” played on a 5 string fretless bass. When I first heard it, I was in total awe! Last but not least, he’s a very cool guy, with a burning passion for rock music.
AM: Similarly to the previous self-titled album, the sophomore effort of Room Experience also features a handful of notable guests, including the aforementioned Alessandro Del Vecchio as well as Ivan Gonzales (91 Suite, Raintimes) or Sven Larsson (Street Talk, Raintimes) to name just a few. What was the motivation behind their participation – was it more on artistic or personal level?
GF: Both, for me. Through the years we became friends and it’s a pleasure and an honor to have them as guests on my record. But of course, along with Dave and Zorro, we thought their peculiar art was perfect for the songs where they played. Now, this might sound in contradiction with what I’ve said before about being a band, but if you think it over, it’s really not. They haven’t took part of the record as session men; instead, they brought their ideas in and they have been a plus factor for the songs. This also helps to give a twist to the sound and make it sound more varied.
AM: Watching the Italian melodic scene quite closely and for a prolonged period of time, it’s hard not to notice that all of you actually stick together and support each other in various studio and live settings. What could you attribute this tight relationship and support network to?
GF: Let’s say that you’re looking at the good part of the scene, but, like for everything else, there’s a dark side that it’s harder to see. Until now, I had the luck of working with good people who are ready to really cooperate to build something special together. In Italy, Rock has never been a mainstream genre and the scene had to be built from zero. Building a scene can’t be done alone, because no band in the world is a scene by itself. You need to stick together and support each other. It doesn’t mean that you all have to do the same things or agree on everything others do. It just means working together for a common result. And if this sounds hard, keeping a scene alive is even harder, because younger generations are less interested in, or at least are less aware of, our kind of music. That’s why I don’t understand why even very talented musicians sometimes choose to play the match by themselves, if not against others, like there was some kind of prize to win. So it happens that the worst critics of the Italian scene are… the Italians. Common critics is ‘Italian will never be able to make Rock’… or ‘you’ll never sound like Swedish or American bands’… And actually, why the hell the Italian approach to Rock should be the same as American or Swedish approach? You might like it or not, but it has to be peculiarly Italian. But, in other words, the tight relationship is given by the common aim that we all have and by the fact that we all are ready to sacrifice a bit of our needs to help each other chasing our dreams.
AM: What was the songwriting process for the album like?
GF: This is pretty easy. I usually just write songs without thinking too much if they’re gonna end on a particular record, because I usually tend to go where the song leads me. The only difference this time has been that, for the songs I knew were gonna be included in Another Time and Place, I tried to picture in my mind the voice of David on them. But then again, when you start working, it might very well happen that somebody suggests a new approach to a song and so your plans needs to be re-thought. That happened, for example, with “A Thousand Lies” which I originally wrote as a ballad. Dave and Zorro suggested to try to harden it a bit and slightly fasten it. I couldn’t really think of the song in that way, but it seemed fair enough to give it a try. And so now that same melody sounds wonderfully in its new arrangement. Also, some of the songs are older, but I thought they deserved a place in the album anyway, so they just needed a “refresh”.
AM: Does having David singing your songs change anything in terms of songwriting? I mean, do you tailor lyrics or music specifically to fit his singing style and range and also, his attitude and personal preferences?
GF: As I said, when I knew a song would be included in the album, I tried to paint David’s vocals on it, but for the most part I write focusing mainly on the song itself. Having David on board leaves me more relaxed when, say, my song reaches very high notes, because I know he can go there. But even when I write for myself I give myself a hard time… if I think the melody should reach some high notes, I’m not gonna compromise and find a different solution to “hide” the faults in my voice – more backing vocals, maybe, or some instruments playing the same part as the vocals… it differs from song to song. Lyrically, instead, it happened only once that David asked me to re-write part of the lyrics and that was with “Not Time Yet For A Lullaby” on the first record: I wrote lyrics that were meant to be more “rhytmic” than “melodic” and that probably was not fitting his singing style. If he needs small adjustments like changing a word or sing it with a different portamento or more fitting to his vocal style he doesn’t need to ask for anything and will do it on his own. After all, I asked David to sing because I wanted his trademark voice and not just David imitating me or whoever else.
AM: In the last few years, you’ve also contributed to various bands and projects (I.F.O.R, Lionville, Raintimes) penning songs for them. How important is this kind of experience for your further growth as a songwriter?
GF: It’s very important indeed. First of all, because you have to practice to improve and the only way to practice in this case is writing songs again and again. That, anyway, could be done even just writing for myself. Instead, when you write for others, you are forced to create something beautiful having a lot boundaries, given by their requests, their styles, their aims… which forces you to find new solutions. And when you gain back all your freedom, because you write for yourself, you have learned more solutions that you can use in your own songs. Anyway, it might sound strange but in general it’s easier for me to write for others than for myself, because when I write a song for my own records I need to hear it in my head as a whole thing, fully arranged. Sometimes I even see the video for that song (laughs) For others, I can focus on the sheer melody and the lyrics, because I won’t have to work on the arrangement. Sometimes, though, you have to confront with styles that are not really part of your main background, like when I penned songs for Stefano Lionetti and Lionville. I’ve found out that we have the same approach about why lyrics are important: we both focus on the vowels that must be paired with a certain notes. On the other hand, his melodies are so different than mine: lots of breaks, lots of changes and modulations and sometimes I have a hard time completing the sentences the way I would like to. Writing “Empty Days” for Raintimes, instead, was a piece of cake: they asked me for a mid-tempo and so I did. Then Michael Shotton, Dave and Zorro had the idea to slow it down and make it a ballad. I kept thinking for a while that it was too slow, but once it was completed I’ve deeply loved it.
AM: In general, do you personally see any difference between writing songs for your own projects and doing the same thing for somebody else?
GF: Kind of, yes. But mostly because when I write for myself I already know where the song is gonna lead me and I don’t mind if it’s gonna be hard rock, pop, AOR, country or whatever… I just go where the song goes and try my best to make it sound like it sounds in my mind. Unless you’re a part of the whole creative process, writing for someone else it’s just like, you know… building the backbone. You build the house, but others will choose the colours for the walls, the furniture… everything. You might be very proud of the house you built – or spend your life thinking “Okay… the house is nice… but that fluo purple isn’t really the colour I would choose for the outside walls”…
AM: One of the most interesting songs on the new album is the bonus track version of The Distance”, featuring you on vocals. With all due respect to David, the way you handled the song makes one wonder why aren’t you the lead singer in Room Experience?
GF: First of all, thank you very much! This made my day. But even if I appreciate a compliment like this, I’m very well aware of my own limits as a singer. First of all, my vocal range is limited and, second, my voice is not powerful enough to handle certain songs. I’ve never been a technically trained singer. I’ve never been interested in that, actually, because I prefer the emotional side of singing, and that’s why I try to stick to it when I sing. But of course, you also need the technique to be able to do what is needed and not just what you can. So, even if my voice could work for some of the songs, for sure it wouldn’t work for all of them. David, instead, has all the right skills to make every song work. Despite of my limits, though, I don’t dislike my singing voice and I have a lot of fun singing: that’s why I also started my solo project.
AM: More about it just in a while. But yet about “The Distance” – what did make you choose this particular song to sing on the album? Did you try any other, for example while demoing the material in the early stage of the recording process?
GF: Well… except for “Strangers In The Night” that has been co-written with my buddies and demoed by Dave Barbieri, I demoed all of the songs as part of the songwriting process. As I told you before, I need to at least try singing what I write because it helps me getting a clearer idea of where the songs want me to go to. So yes, all of them are also sung by me and for a couple of them we also finalized a proper mix (check the q-code in the booklet to find out more). I chose to sing “The Distance” because it’s a song that I wrote for someone very important to me in a time when she was even more important and it just felt “wrong” if I hadn’t sung it myself. Thank God, it is one of the songs that fit my vocal style.
AM: You’ve already mentioned your solo band Firmo, which is also the act when we can hear you singing lead way more often. How did it all start and when can we expect a follow-up to Rehab which saw the light of day in 2018?
GF: It was pretty natural to me to set up a band to sing all my songs, since it’s what I’ve always been doing since I started many years ago. The only difference is that, before the release of Room Experience in 2015, I only did it for my friends. But, given the chance, I wanted to try to professionally produce a record where I also sing, since I always have a lot of fun singing. So I’ve found the collaboration of Burning Minds, set up a band of friends which happen to be also great musicians, and asked for the “help” of other great musicians that I’ve got in touch with after I moved my first steps in the professional world of music. I’m speaking of Paul Laine, Mario Percudani, and many others. It’s been a one-year ride, almost all spent in the recording studio. And the record had, in general, a very good response from either the audience and the critics. Not as huge as Room Experience in terms of sales, but I had the same satisfaction in return. Don’t know exactly when we can expect a follow-up and not because I don’t have the songs: I have enough to fill more than one follow-up. It’s just because I don’t make a living out of music and I need to do everything only in my free time, which sometimes is not much. But there will definitely be a follow-up.
AM: Your singing style in Firmo earned you comparisons to no one else but Jon Bon Jovi – what do you think about that?
GF : Wait….what did you say before? To quote you: “with all the due respect” to Jon Bon Jovi, when he was younger he had the most incredible voice and is one of my favourite singers of all time. I think his timbre was one of a kind and he could deliver the most powerful songs and the sweetest love ballads with equal awesome results. That’s something I only find in Erik Grönwall from H.E.A.T when it comes to younger singers. So I guess Jon Bon Jovi has been my most important influence in terms of singing style. I actually try not to imitate anyone when I sing, but of course the songs and the singers you listened to the most show through in the way you perform. Anyway, while someone could consider the comparison offensive because might imply a lack of personality, I can only wish it really is like that, If it was, I’d be very happy. In the end, he only made rock history.
AM: No arguing on that from a fellow Bon Jovi fan! But anyway, speaking of you as a songwriter and a singer, we can’t forget you’re primarily a keyboard player. And speaking of them, I’ve heard quite a few complaining their instrument always has to compete with guitars for space and a listener’s attention – well, at least if they’re not the likes of Rick Wakeman for example… And what’s your opinion?
GF: All true, but no. I consider myself a keyboard player by necessity: I play keyboards because I need an instrument to start arranging my songs, but my love is definitely the singing. Nonetheless, keyboards (especially piano) are probably the most complete instrument, which allows you to play both the accompainement and the main melody at once, so as to get a sense of fullness when you listen to it. I agree that keyboards always compete with guitars (and vocals, I’d say) to gain the listener’s attention, but I love full arrangements and both keyboards and guitars for me are necessary parts of an arrangement. You know, after grunge changed the way we listen to music, there’s the idea that “less is more”. And it might work in some special songs, when you want the focus to be on vocals, or lyrics, or a special instruments. But most of times, to me, “less is just….less”. I hear holes in the arrangement and I’m disturbed by those. Of course, everything depends on what you want the music to be and what you like. Except very few things that are technical stuff-related and that I really think are unimportant, there’s no absolute truth when it comes to music. The only difference is made by personal taste. My personal taste says that guitars and keyboards need the same space. You just have to find the right way to make them work fine together!
AM: Now back to the current situation we’ve already discussed, what are the long-term plans for Room Experience and Firmo?
GF: At the moment, it’s very difficult to plan anything, really. In a long term, I know for sure there will be more songs for both bands, but that’s as far as my planning goes for now. At the moment I just want to enjoy the release of the new record while keeping my eyes peeled for any opportunity. And as soon as it is possible – I plan to travel to meet some of the friends I’ve made all over the world in these exciting five years. In the end, ain’t songs coming from the life we live?
AM: They certainly do. So, is there anything you’d like to add in the end?
GF: Sure! First of all, I want to thank you for your kind hospitality and the very interesting chat. Then I want to thank anyone who made it till the end: if there’s a heaven for eager readers, you’ve just earned your place in there! I wanna say anyone to stay healthy and keep on walking along the road of Rock and Roll. For sure, one day it will lead us to the same place and we’ll be able to meet!
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