Demetris "All Around" Katsikis
Is that true? A dreamy American-Idol voice singing some tricky prog music out there? Leslie Hunt, vocalist of proggers DISTRICT 97, hits our interview questions with prog stamina and unfolds her excellent background proving that music is naturally integrative. Sleep peacefully, all you prog kings of the past!
Well, Leslie, thanks a lot for your participation in this interview. It’s our honor to host your point-of-view in our radio!
Hello Leslie! Where are you now? Where this interview finds you exactly?!
I am on a plane to Las Vegas, on my way to sing at the Bellagio New Years Eve party! It's my fifth year in a row and it's a lot of fun.
Tell us some things about your career history as a vocalist. How did you decide to become a vocalist? Have you made any studies? Do you play any instruments?
I started singing when I was really little, at about four years old. My mom was a professional singer and studied/taught voice my whole life, so I was able to learn some things through her. I went to music school, but didn't study voice. I majored in music composition and minored in piano performance. I play the piano and guitar!
What are your influences as a vocalist? Vocalists that you have as role-models in your life?
I am influenced by Anita O'Day, Bjork, Stevie Wonder and Joni Mitchell, among many others.
How do you study for your voice to be in shape? What specific techniques do you use?
I make sure to drink a LOT of water and get plenty of sleep. I also eat exclusively gluten free and I have certain warm up exercises I do before a show.
What would you suggest to an aspiring vocalist, female or male? Also, to someone who desires to play some prog out there and has a voice in your range.
I think it really helps a vocalist to also play an instrument, even at a beginner's level. It helps to develop a good ear for harmony and it makes it easier to practice on your own, without the assistance of an accompanist. If you want to be in a prog band, find some other people who also enjoy the genre and start a band! Since prog demands a great deal of music theory knowledge, I suggest you start with jazz musicians, as they definitely have the chops to play prog.
Do you write lyrics? If yes, with what issues do you deal with?
I write all of my own lyrics for my solo project and many of the lyrics for District 97. I tend to write about what I'm going through in my life, which so far has been relationship trouble, someone else's relationship trouble, motherhood, the adverse effects of being overly optimistic, mind reading... Many things!
Tell us your experience from American Idol show! Are there any prons or/and any cons for your career till now?
Being on American Idol taught me a lot about myself, so I do not regret going on the show. It was a crash course in Hollywood and instant fame and it a unique thing I will (hopefully) never have to experience again! There are some pros, such as the fans that I made and still have, but this far there haven't very many cons. The only negative thing that has happened so far is that some people have written me off before they hear my music, based on their low opinion of the show.
What music do you listen to this period? What are your musical inspirations?
I listen to a super wide variety of music. Lately I find myself listening to the new Fiona Apple album quite a bit, and am also revisiting some Otis Redding. Oh, and I am enjoying reggae lately as well!
Tell us some things about DISTRICT 97. How did you find them (or find you?!). What did you think when you listened to their sound?
We all went to music school together so that's how we met initially, but the introduction to District 97 as an instrumental group happened after we all had graduated. When I cam back to Chicago after American Idol, Jonathan (the drummer/band leader) asked me to open for them with my solo material at a bar called Lily's. When I heard their music, my jaw hit the floor. I had no idea how they were able to retain music like that without reading it... I asked Jonathan if I could join the band and he thankfully obliged and started writing music with me in mind right away!
The sound of DISTRICT 97 is original and physical (it’s like playing in the next room!) but contemporary, catchy and avant-garde simultaneously. How do you accomplish this unending sound combination?
I think we got very lucky as a band, because we all come from slightly different musical backgrounds that happen to blend together in a really fresh, unique way. My dad exposed me to a lot of Frank Zappa, Led Zeppelin, The Beatles and Miles Davis when I was growing up, but I haven't actually listened to very much progressive rock other than that. I come from more of a jazz/pop/rock background, so I think I bring that sound to our music. Our guitarist, Jim Tashjian, also hasn't listened to as much prog as the other three (Rob Clearfield, Patrick Mulcahy and Jonathan Schang) but has more of a 90's rock background that gives us a lot of our contemporary edge, in my opinion. Everyone's writing chops are really honed as well, as we all have other projects that we compose music for, and they happen to come together beautifully.
And what about the writing process: are you the main composer of the band or the other members contribute equally?
The band started out with Jonathan being the primary composer, but it has evened out quite a bit over the past four years. I write most of the lyrics, but lately Patrick (bassist) has been bringing in complete songs and they are some of the strongest we have, in my opinion. I cannot wait until we record our next album so you can see what I mean!
Did you have a specific approach on the vocal parts on the two DISTRICT 97 records, or did you just naturally “go for it”?
The melodies are all written already, and the guys have a good knowledge of my range and which areas of my voice are the strongest, so it's a pretty smooth process when it comes time to add the vocals.
We believe your performance with DISTRICT 97 is astonishing, you really determine the result of your sound! How would you characterize the DISTRICT 97 sound? Is it progressive metal? Crossover prog is the (wide) term that describes your music on several websites…
Answer: Thank you. I really appreciate that. I would definitely consider us crossover prog-metal, as we have very strong melodies that get stuck in your head, but we are without a doubt prog with a definite metal edge. I hope to widen our audience beyond the prog community as I believe that there is something special about our music that appreciators of other genres could latch on to.
Following from the above, what is prog rock for you? And progressive music in general anyway? How do you see the future of prog rock and music in general?
This band is a very unique musical outlet for me in that I get to combine all of my favorite elements of music and performance. The music itself is very challenging so I feel that I get to grow and flex my muscles, all the while incorporating a theatrical flair that captures the listener and brings them in from start to finish. Prog is a very fragile genre, given that it's appreciators are of an older demographic, but they are some of the best people I have had the pleasure of meeting and I feel honored to be a part of such an amazing community of REAL music lovers.
What’s your personal philosophy in life? How do you cope with barriers? And, simultaneously, how do you build your strengths?
Wow, that's a big question! I am first and foremost a survivor and pride myself greatly on my ability to bounce back after tragedy, which I have had a lot of. I have no problem diving into the depths of pain during a performance because I know that I am strong enough to relive those moments again and again. I have taken ownership of my life and will never, ever allow myself to be victimized. I build my strengths by constantly growing and being wide open to ways in which I could stand to improve.
Does a female vocalist give another dimension to progressive rock? Some have argued that the female voice creates a more “pop” sound that derails the music from being progressive rock; what do you think of this?
I can see how that might be the case, but to those people, I say, "Come to a show." Our records and YouTube videso can not possibly capture what we do live. You gotta see it in person!
We think that the addition of Katinka Kleijn in cello expanded the musical palette of DISTRICT 97. Have you ever thought to play with a symphonic orchestra or to cover your songs with a more “classical music” style?
I think that could be really cool down the road but for now, we plan on sticking with what we're doing because I think we 're really on to something.
Tell us about your new album “Trouble With Machines”. We’d say that we like it equally as “Hybrid Child”.
I'm glad to hear that you like them both! "Trouble With Machines" obviously represents our current sound and the careful sound design that has organically taken shape over the course of touring and many, many shows. It's more collaborative and I think it sonically goes beyond what "Hybrid Child" accomplished.
What is the concept of the 10 part suite Mindscan and how did you come about with that?
Jonathan wrote that all by himself. It's about alien abduction from the viewpoint of the aliens as well as the abductee. It's a lot of fun to perform!
In your last CD, you collaborated with John Wetton, one of the leading figures in the prog rock scene. What’s your experience working with him?
John is a very talented individual whom we are beyond honored to have worked with. We also have some European shows booked with him in May, so we're very excited for those. He sang the part of H.H. Holmes, the serial killer in our song Perfect Young Man and he did an amazing job. He also added some great background vocals in other parts of the song that we were pleased to discover!
Could you give us a review of your musical collaborations beyond DISTRICT 97?
I started out my career as a songwriter in high school and was extremely privileged to work with songwriting legend Jim Peterik (Survivor, Ides of March). He mentored me for years, and I will always be grateful for that experience as I feel it really gave me the skills and confidence to pursue this life and never change courses. My last two solo albums were produced by Grammy-nominated producer/songwriter Rick Chudacoff (Smokey Robinson, Alison Krauss) and I had the pleasure of working with Vinnie Colaiuta who is arguably one of the best living drummers in the world.
How were the live experiences you already had with DISTRICT 97. What are the reactions of the people who come to your live shows?
It's going to be hard to sound humble in answering this question, but I honestly have yet to walk off the stage and hear anything less than that we blew people's minds. I pour at least 100% of my heart and soul onto that stage, night after night, and I make it a priority to connect with my audience, which I think people appreciate. I'm not sitting there with my eyes closed, getting my rocks off, oblivious to the listeners, which can tend to happen with music in this genre, due to the sheer complexity.
You released two excellent live shows on CD, “Live at Calprog” (2010) and “Live at WFPK FM” (2012). How were those two live experiences for all of you? Any DVDs in the future?
Those two experiences were very different as one was in a theater and one was at a public radio station. They were both during the day, though! I think they are great representations of where we were as a band at the time but we keep getting better and more seasoned (we're still all quite young!) so I am always the most into the latest recording, to be honest.
What are the DISTRICT 97 plans for the future?
We hope to play all over the world and keep making records! We're constantly writing and bringing new ideas in, so there is absolutely no "resting on our laurels" as some might say.
Is there any possibility to see you playing with DISTRICT 97 in Greece? Greece is not a prog band's paradise, so actually what should a Greek organizer do so that DISTRICT 97 could ground in Greece for a live performance? (maybe JustIn Case Prog Radio could mediate about that! It’s in our future plans, actually!)
We'd love to! Email Jonathan if you have an idea as to how that might happen! He's the genius behind the scenes.
A message from your part for the listeners of JustIn Case Prog Radio and all the prog’n’rollers out there is…
Thanks for listening and for supporting us. It's a HUGE world out there so we need help spreading the word so we can come to your city! It's almost impossible these days to make a living with original music so every little bit really helps and we're so, so grateful. Also, thanks for reading all of these questions!
Anything that you might want to add?
Please visit my website and join my mailing list - you get a free song! www.lesliehunt.net
Dear Leslie, thanks a lot for your time in answering those few (lol) questions!
Demetris “All Around” Katsikis
JustIn Case Radio Founder and Progducer
JustIn Case Radio Progducer and Progressive Metal collaborator in www.progarchives.com