Guest Star: it’s business time with John Sabal

For the first Musician Spotlight of 2011 we took the opportunity to learn a bit more about John Sabal, the guitarist and vocalist in the Stitely Orchestra. John gave us some great insight into his inspirations and musical tastes. We also got to see John in action by watching him perform during his regular Friday gig at Beviamo Wine Bar! He played a wide variety of music including songs by Bob Dylan, Sublime, Neutral Milk Hotel, Billy Joel and he even threw in some comedy relief by playing songs by Tenacious D and Flight of the Conchords. We were able to capture some video to share with you below from his Beviamo set on Friday, March 25th. Make sure you come back to read John’s guest star blog on Friday, April 1st!

Stitely Entertainment (SE): What are the five songs you’re listening to the most right now?
John Sabal (JS):

  • “Indian Red” – Daniel Lanois – Still listening to this weeks after the Mardi Gras celebration. A Traditional New Orleans Indian chant, interpreted by a modern recording master.
  • “Still Sound” by Toro Y Moi – The propulsive bass line, and relaxed delivery of this tune has me simultaneously dancing and relaxing.
  • “Arrest Yourself” – Dozens – A Chicago band featuring Stitely Orchestra’s Vince Naples. “Arrest Yourself” flies at you fast, oscillating between speedy double time and fractured half time funk. Kyle Mann’s voice soars over intriguing soundscapes. One of the most interesting bands around.
  • “Ridin’ In My Car” by NRBQ – A sunny melody about a unrequited crush from last summer. The drums push this tune in a perfect urgent way. An insanely likable tune. She & Him (Zooey Deschanel and M. Ward) made a great version of this too.
  • “Silas the Magic Car” by Mew – Weird that I list another “car” song. As an avid bicyclist, I pretty much loathe automobiles, and barely tolerate them as a modern necessity. Anyways…. this tune is dreamlike. Named after Mew’s drummer “Silas”, it features a sublime drum part.

SE: Who or what inspired you to be a professional musician?
JS: There was no who or what, there was only one choice: to make music. Music is the only thing that holds my attention. I feel lucky that I’ve known this for so long, as it makes many decisions easier. It gave me confidence that I was doing the right thing when others gave no support or disapproved, and things were going badly. Music is the only thing that has consistently improved the quality of my life.

SE: Do you have any regular gigs?
JS: Every Friday at Beviamo Wine Bar 1358 W. Taylor St. in Chicago!

SE: How did you become involved with music?
JS: Part one: “The influences”: I took piano lessons for a few years in my pre-teen years, and every summer I attended Camp Pioneer’s “Music Week” program. Growing up, our home had an piano and an acoustic guitar. My Mom was a school teacher and used guitar songs as part of her curriculum. When my Dad immigrated to the US in his teens, he was on a boat full of musicians and orchestra members. I recall him occasionally sitting at the piano and playing Glen Miller’s “In the Mood”. All these things factored into my future, but it wasn’t until 1983 that I pursued music on my own terms, for my own purposes.
Part Two: “actualization”
Enchanted with the music of Rush, especially the drumming of Neil Peart, I fashioned home made drum pads with pizza boxes filled with books, and duct tape. Disassembled wooden coat hangers became my sticks, and I drummed along to my favorite records. A noticed a magazine called “Guitar For the Practicing Musician” had guitar “tablature” for the Def Leppard song “Foolin'”. Tablature or “tabs” combined standard musical notation with a visual representation of the fretboard, and made it much easier for a beginner to approach, if the reader was already somewhat familiar with the tune. Since a guitar was already around the house, I gave it a try out of sheer curiosity. I’ll never forget that moment when I heard those intro notes to “Foolin'” ring out. I was amazed how I was suddenly playing this tune that I had heard 100 times in the last month. In addition to Rush and Def Leppard, I was also crazy for the music of Van Halen. At that time, guitar master Eddie Van Halen was incorporating keyboards into his sound. Controversial to some, I thought it was the coolest thing ever to branch out to another instrument. I went to work on the relatively simple (compared to his groundbreaking masterful guitar parts) keyboard parts of Eddie Van Halen, on the house piano. In a way, drums, guitar, and keyboards seemed like the same thing to me. They were all parts of the band, and I wanted to know how it all worked together. A year later I started at a new High School where I knew almost no one. I quickly met 3 other musicians and we formed a band. The next year I purchased a cassette multi-track recorder, and started making my first home recordings. I never looked back. To this day, the thrill of all those elements combined, could never be matched. In my teens, music began to open doors for me socially, and as my skills grew, I became amazingly happy.

Click here for more Stitely photos

SE: What was your first concert?
JS: In August of 1983, my Dad took me to see Men At Work, at Blossom Music Center in Cuyahoga Falls, OH. The Australian band was massively popular in the summer of 1983, and had some of the best videos on MTV.  It was a sold out show, but my Dad reassured me we could find tickets in the parking lot, as we had been attending “Cleveland Barons” hockey games together and buying premium scalper seats. “There’s always a way in.” Sure enough, Dad scored 3rd row center seats. I’ll never forget the amazed feeling, as the usher kept walking us further and further down the pavilion seats, closer to the stage. “What ?! we are that close? look at all those people behind us!”  I had never seen a show, so I was unfamiliar with the concept of opening bands / support acts. Fellow Australian band INXS walked out on the stage. I immediately recognized them from MTV, and was in full joyful freak-out mode. They were relatively unknown at the time, and would go on to eclipse Men At Work’s popularity, but I loved their 2 videos and knew most of the words. So… INXS was the first band I ever witnessed live. From like 15 feet away from me. Both bands were excellent. It was a perfect August summer night, and Blossom is a stunningly beautiful outdoor amphitheater made of 90% wood, and surrounded by rolling hills and forest. I’ll never forget that awesome night of music with my Dad.

SE: If you could share the stage with any musician, dead or alive, who would it be?
JS: Any of the 3 members of Rush. Neil Peart, Alex Lifeson, and Geddy Lee have influenced me in endless ways. Their band embodies skillful musicianship, artistic integrity, keen humor, longevity, and a deep friendship unified by music. I have seen them in concert 13 times, and I’m going to see them again in 3 weeks!

SE: Beatles or Stones?
JS: A classic question, with no easy answer. When I was 9 or 10 years old, my best friend Fred had an older brother (Diego) that was a music fanatic. We had access to his awesome record collection and general music guidance. The Beatles and the Rolling Stones were treated as equals, two sides of the same coin, the very top 2 seats of the rock hierarchy. (In a year or two, Rush would knock them down a notch) There is so much that I love about both bands, I don’t want to pick a favorite. Years ago I would have quickly picked the Beatles for their amazing songwriting and studio experimentation. But as I’ve grown older I have a deeper appreciation for the subtleties of groove and intention within a group performance. The Stones “feel” on an album like “Exile On Main Street” cannot be matched. The Beatles couldn’t play together like that, whereas the Stones were limited in their melodic scope. ….Oh, what’s that? I HAVE to pick one…?  …Beatles!

John performing “What I Got” by Sublime and “In the Aeroplane Over the Sea” by Neutral Milk Hotel

John performing an original song “Impossible Directions”


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