Interview: MusicInABox

Chris Rundle Band: “playing in front of a live audience, that is when we experience our music most intensely”

The Chris Rundle Band was founded in Bologna by Chris Rundle, an English blues-folk singer and guitarist, and Enrico Pitaro, a jazz guitarist from the region of Calabria, in Italy; and they are joined by the bassist Giannicola Spezzigu and the drummer Marco Raimondi. Although they come from quite different musical backgrounds and traditions, Chris and Enrico have together developed their own highly original musical language: an elegant blues with jazz inflections.

MIAB: Your new album is called Pianura Blues. How did you choose this title?

Chris: The idea of the album is to use the language of the blues to narrate the plains of Emilia-Romagna [the region where we live]. The lyrics of this narrative are inspired by the poems of one of Italy’s most important dialect poets, Giovanni Nadiani – who wrote in Romagnolo and passed away in 2016. The album is dedicated to him and in particular our first single, “Johnny’s Blues”.

I collaborated with Giovanni for many years, performing poetry and music together all over Romagna; so even though I am English, this is an area where I feel a sense of belonging. This is reinforced by the fact that I have worked there for 30 years as a university lecturer, at the Department of Interpretation and Translation of the University of Bologna, Forlì campus. Living in Bologna and commuting to Forlì, I have spent much of my working life crossing the plains of Romagna along the A14 motorway – a journey that is evoked in the song “Return Journey.”

There is also the experience that Enrico Pitaro has had of this area, as someone from down south in Calabria. For both of us, Emilia Romagna is an adopted land characterized in our eyes mainly by its plains – a landscape that is so different from our homelands, with its own distinctive melancholic and poetic atmosphere.

MIAB: How did you begin collaborating with Enrico Pitaro?

Chris: Enrico and I met in Bologna in 2014. Initially, I went to have lessons on improvising on guitar; but we soon realized that there was a great musical understanding between us, and so we decided to start a band.

We started as a trio, with Giannicola Spezzigu on double bass, and recorded a first EP called Cave Sessions (2015). After a few months Marco Raimondi joined us on drums; and that was our lineup until this year when Giannicola decided to return to Sardinia and Paolo Ferrari stepped in on bass.

At the beginning we mainly performed songs from the American roots tradition, while trying to choose ones that were not too obvious or particularly well-known. But gradually, as our understanding improved, Enrico and I began to add original songs to our set. We had the idea for the Pianura Blues album early on, so almost all the new songs we composed were intended for this project.

The most interesting thing, from my point of view, is how our playing and composing have evolved since we began. We started from very different backgrounds and traditions: I was immersed in folk-blues and Enrico in jazz; but as our collaboration intensified, we drew closer stylistically. In particular, I think Enrico plays the blues in a very original way, with an intense, melodic style that is different to that used by most blues guitarists. And I feel that my way of singing doesn’t fit into the typical style of most blues singers. In my opinion, one can play the blues in essentially two ways: by aiming for a style that is within the blues tradition, while perhaps including contaminations from other genres; or by simply aiming for an emotion that is blues – where you try to move listeners with your music, which is always our goal.

MIAB: Have you ever been so discouraged that you’ve wanted to quit?

Chris: I always enjoy the process of songwriting and recording records. Although it is very disappointing to see how the economic value of music has fallen in the last 20 years, and how little financial return there is for an album, it is still very satisfying artistically.

With live performances, on the other hand, the situation is really difficult and it is easy to feel discouraged. But we want to play in front of an audience, that is the moment you experience your music most intensely, so I don’t think about quitting.

MIAB: Do you prefer synths and sampled sounds or a more authentic and natural sound?

Chris: For our type of music, an authentic and natural sound is essential: it is more natural because it is more unpredictable; the instruments come alive and respond to the musician’s touch, each time in a subtly different way. And then real instruments can produce such a beautiful sound. Speaking of the guitar, which is the instrument I know well: I play a 1960s Gibson ES 125 with a Fender Blues Jr amplifier, as well as an acoustic Gibson J45; and Enrico plays a custom thinline Telecaster with a Mesa Boogie amplifier. These are instruments where even just a simple chord can move you; and that emotion inspires you as you play.

Also, for the kind of music we play, it is crucial to record the songs live, without over-dubbing – except for the vocals, which we had to over-dub since I also play guitar. Ours are relatively simple songs, which come to life with the tension and interaction between the musicians as they play together, listening to each other. Whereas I think that the kind of ‘perfection’ that can be achieved using sampling techniques, repetition of hooks and layers of over-dubbed tracks would completely deflate these songs and the emotion they convey.

Here I must say that our sound engineer, Domenico Meggiato, played a crucial role. He immediately understood the kind of sound we were looking for and found a perfect balance, in my opinion, between retaining some of the imperfections of a live performance and implementing the kind of technical corrections that are the standard in any recording made with the tools that are available these days.

MIAB: Who would you like as a Feat. in your next work?

Chris: Actually, we already have plans to do a new version of the song “Return Journey” with the Bolognese singer Eloisa Atti. She has a beautiful voice that is reminiscent of Billie Holiday and is completely at home with both jazz songs and the American roots tradition, which many of her own compositions are inspired by (see her album Edges).

Apart from that, for our next album we are planning to add an instrument, such as a piano or maybe a clarinet – we haven’t decided yet. We want to expand the sound we already have without changing it too much.

MIAB: What do you think of the Italian music scene in general?

Chris: I think it is great that an Englishman can come to Italy and sing his songs in English, with an Anglo-American style, and be accepted and listened to. It might seem an obvious thing but it isn’t; and the reverse would be almost unthinkable. An Italian musician who wants to make their way in the Anglo-American world must align themselves with the local musical culture. This is not only due to the fact that popular music is dominated by English; it is a difference that holds true in so many cultural areas where the dominance of English is not so clear-cut. Italians are simply much more open to foreign cultures than the English are.

Another thing I really appreciate is that Italians don’t have any difficulty in showing enthusiasm for something. They are not an envious people, and they don’t feel diminished by other people’s success. This is a quality that I really admire and it is harder to find where I come from.

One thing I don’t appreciate is the tendency of audiences here in Italy not to listen, to always be noisy and to have little respect for those who are playing. I am not just talking about my personal experience; it is a problem I have seen in concerts with world-famous artists. Which makes those venues where they cultivate a genuine listening culture all the more valuable.

Finally, referring to the Italian music scene in general, I think that people give too much importance to technical ability at the expense of originality. It is common, for example, to hear people speak admiringly of the ‘incredible’ voice of a singer or the ‘mind-blowing’ technique of a guitarist, without considering that the material they are performing has been heard a thousand times, and without realizing that all this showboating of their technique does not actually convey any emotion. In my opinion, people should try to see the value of less is more in music. But clearly, the conventions of the Sanremo music festival and the dominance of talent shows do not help.

Note: This is an English translation of this interview in Italian (translation by Chris Rundle).