interview by Steve Mecca
Past The Mark is a transatlantic collaboration between Vince Pastano (guitar player, singer, composer producer and arranger based in Italy) and Marc Urselli (New York-based 3-time Grammy award winning producer/engineer/composer). The project started as long-distance collaborative-composing experiment back in 2003, but unfortunately due to their insanely busy schedules, it took a little over 7 years for them to write enough material for a full album. However, in the meantime, Pastano released at least 5 other records of his own and Urselli recorded and/or mixed around 100 records in that timeframe. As you probably know, Marc Urselli is also the co-founder of Chain D.L.K., along with Maurizio Pustianaz.
Musically, Past The Mark is a mixture of the composers’ backgrounds in electronic music and rock. The production is entirely electronic-based and mixes drum ‘n bass, ambient, world music and downtempo into a unique blend of sampled acoustic and electronic sounds. All the melodies, riffs and counterparts are played by the electric guitar, which is turn is treated, effected, sliced and diced digitally. The compositional process always started with an idea of either one of the musicians, who then would send it to the other to continue writing on and around the original idea. The result is an eclectic mix of influences, styles and moods with deep roots in the rock traditions and the evolutions of electronic music. Particularly noteworthy is the fact that in spite of all those influences and the fact that they’ve been writing together for 7 years, the songs on the album sound quite homogeneous. For more information visit their websites- www.pastthemark.com, www.marcurselli.com, and you can purchase the album directly from their website as well as through CD Baby at www.cdbaby.com/cd/pastanourselli
I was given the opportunity to review their CD, titled ‘Hakhel Tribulation’ here at Chain D.L.K. (posted May 16, 2011). Marc Urselli has graciously consented to take a little time out of his busy schedule to further elaborate on the project in this interview.
Chain D.L.K.: Let’s start with a little background on how the ‘Past The Mark’ project came into being. Although you are both of Italian descent (Marc born in Switzerland, raised in Italy, Vincenzo native Italian), your geographical locations – (U. S. for Marc, Italy for Vince) would seem a major roadblock to a musical collaboration without spending a lot of time together. How did you two become acquainted, and was the driving force that kept this project alive over the seven years that it took to complete?
Marc Urselli: Vince and I go waaaaaaay back in the way back machine 😉 The story goes that I was about 10-11 years old, a cocky, crazy on my bike, new in the neighborhood… I ran into him on the street, and he and his friends had just built some kind of street cart with wheels and I dared them to race me in it. Later we went to school together for 3 years and then we started playing in bands together. We then lost track of each other for a year of two and finally reconnected for good. We are basically brothers from another mother. As for the collaboration, It started as an idea: can we write one song together in spite of the distance, record it separately, work on each other’s tracks until we have a finished song? It was an experiment… these things today are the norm, but keep in mind, this was 8 years ago now… We were so excited by the result that we decided to do an EP, which then turned into a full album. Unfortunately (or fortunately) we are both very busy with our music careers, so it took us 7 years to have enough songs for an album, but we are glad it is finished and very happy with the result! To answer your question the geographical location wasn’t a roadblock, but rather the very reason we decided to do this! It might have taken a bit less time if we were in the same city, but we really wanted to see how long-distance collaboration would work out.
Chain D.L.K.: Both of you have a dual interest in commercial, closer to mainstream music, and the fringe, darker area music from the numerous people high-profile you have worked with in sessions, to some of your own releases (Marc’s ME.M.O.R.Y. LAB industrial project, Vince’s “Compro Verita” dark-wave solo CD). In what way do you think that ‘Hakhel Tribulation’ reconciles these two divergent directions?
Marc Urselli: We both make a living with music so invariably we work in, with and across multiple genres of music. We both grew up on massive doses of rock and metal. Later Vince had several periods of infatuation with ’70s rock ‘n’ roll and of course guitar-driven music, while I got into electronic/industrial music. Now it is coming full circle. Vince is getting into dark things and opening up to more experimental things he wouldn’t listen to years ago and I’m getting back to basics, while keeping a firm foot in the experimental / avant-garde / electronic/world that I do so much with and like. “Hakhel Tribulation” represents a cross section of what we have listened to in the last 7 years. It’s got a bit of everything- electronica, rock, ambient, world etc.
Chain D.L.K.: Who do you believe Past The Mark’s core audience is, and what is your marketing strategy to reach that audience?
Marc Urselli: I think this CD would potentially appeal to open-minded electronic music fans as well as rock lovers and music in general. There’s a certain nu-jazz angle to it too, so our label is trying to reach out to all these audiences to make sure the CD is heard because we really believe that there is something for almost every one in there. As long as you like music you’ll find something on the album to enjoy… heck even my mom liked a song or two!
Chain D.L.K.: Was it a conscious decision to cover such a variety of material on the album, or did it just turn out that way? Also, how did the music evolve over a seven year span and still come off as fresh, when musical taste and popular musical expression and studio techniques are constantly changing?
Marc Urselli: It wasn’t a conscious decision at all, it’s just what we’ve been listening to throughout these years… Our influences spilled over into our writing, naturally, and if you knew when each song was written you might even be able to trace our listening habits. We consciously decided not to add composition dates in the liner notes because we didn’t want that to influence people. We believe that in spite of the fact the compositions go as far back as 7 years ago, the songs from back then stand the test of time and don’t sound old when compared to the latest ones. We were surprised how current the older songs were sounding.
Chain D.L.K.: hear a lot of different influences on the album, especially in Vince’s guitar playing. (Allan Holdsworth in particular, on some of the heavier tracks.) Can you cite some of the artists you may have been inspired by for this collaboration?
Marc Urselli: One of Vince’s favorite guitar players is Jeff Beck but great players such as Marc Ribot, Jimi Hendrix, David Torn, David Gilmour, Mike Stern, Stef Burns and so many others are all on his playlist. As for me, I am all over the map really. I listen to a lot of things he does, because we always send and recommend music to each other. I grew up listening to rock, then I got into metal (all different types of metal), later I got into industrial/electronic music. Now I listen to all of the above but I also cultivate a vast interest in world music, experimental music, new music, avant-garde and darker stuff that Vince is less interested in. I recently discovered Ben Frost and love his stuff, I also enjoy my doses of slow sludge/doom-metal stuff like Sunn O))), Boris, Sleep etc., but I am also very much into the New York downtown music scene (all the stuff around John Zorn -whom I work with-, his Tzadik label, his Stone venue) and I still listen to electronic music, industrial etc. When all or more of the above genres are mixed, that’s when I really feel at home!
Chain D.L.K.: Let’s talk a bit of tech. This was a transatlantic collaboration without either of you having been together in the same studio. What platforms, software and equipment did you use to achieve that? Also, for the guitar enthusiasts out there, what axes did Vincezo use on the album, and processing gear?
Marc Urselli: The file exchange was via Pro Tools. I have huge sound libraries, but the software libraries I use the most are IK Multimedia’s and Reason’s. I also use other soft synths, but those are my main ones. Vince uses a lot of guitars but he’s mostly a Fender guy (strat, tele, jaguar) and of course he has a lot of stomp boxes but often I altered his sounds or used his DI signal through an amp simulation plugin like IK Multimedia’s AmpliTube. Other than processing his guitar with that plugin, I used a lot of other plugins in Pro Tools for reverbs, flangers, EQing, compression and other crazy effects. Vince is very analog in his signal chain and I added the digital element. I also often cut up his performances or did other processing in creative or new ways, which was part of the type of collaboration we had in mind.
Chain D.L.K.: Yes, there is quite a bit of sonic manipulation on the album, often making the guitar sound like anything but a guitar! In the actual music creation process, would you say the Vince was more the ‘melody man’ and Marc the ‘arranger guy’ or was it a more complex writing situation?
Marc Urselli: We both did a little bit of both but I’d say more often than not Vince was the melody guy and I’d build everything else around his melody lines. Sometimes I’d send him a riff and we’d write something to it, other times he’d send me an idea for A and B parts, and I’d turn those into a song. In general I’d say he’s definitely more of a song writer in the “conventional” sense while I am more of a “producer”.
Chain D.L.K.: What about the rhythm/percussion tracks- were they all programmed, or were any played live (even if resampled into loops)?
Marc Urselli: Everything was programmed on my end. There are some beats that were played by someone live, but I didn’t record them, I just used loop libraries and altered the loops to my liking.
Chain D.L.K.: There has to be a story behind the telephone answering machine message that opens the album on the first track, “Oz on the Moon”. Can you elaborate on that a bit?
Marc Urselli: There is a story but if I told you I’d have to kill you… 😉
Let’s just say that story sums up an old relationship from its beginning to its end. It’s an old story, an old relationship and one of the first songs we wrote.
Chain D.L.K.: How have the critical reviews been so far for the album? (Aside from mine here at Chain D.L.K.)
Marc Urselli: The reviews are rolling in following the promotional effort of our record label Nu Jazz records in Glasgow. So far they all have been very positive and we hope that continues! Thanks for your support too!
Chain D.L.K.: Is there any possibility that Past The Mark might consider live performance or a tour, or is this strictly a studio project?
Marc Urselli: There absolutely is, in fact we are actively trying to organize a tour. The problem with this project is that one person is in the US and one is in Europe so wherever we play there is an international airfare to cover and it’s getting harder and harder to get gigs around the world. But if you want us to play in your city go to your local concert promoters or venues and ask them to call us up. We’ll come play!
Chain D.L.K.: You’re right; the logistics of playing live require substantial financial support for such a venture to keep an artist, band or project from going broke, let alone make any money on it, but what about a video? YouTube seems to be the next best thing to “being there”. Any possibility of Past The Mark doing a video version of any of the album tracks?
Marc Urselli: Yeah we are thinking about that but we don’t really know any video artists personally, so if whoever is reading this interview does video and would like to collaborate please get in touch with us!
Chain D.L.K.: I actually saw Vince’s promo video for “Invisibili Distanze”; scary good in the most primal sort of way. Is that him singing? The noise and doom metal records you’re working on- what name will it be under, and is it strictly solo, or who would you be working with?
Marc Urselli: Yes Vince is amazing, didn’t I say that? It’s him singing, his new thing.
I don’t have a name for my new records yet, I will surprise you all 😉
Chain D.L.K.: What are the chances for a follow-up album, and if so, what direction might it take? Would you consider adding guest artists? Maybe vocalists?
Marc Urselli: Vince and I will most certainly work together again, whether it is under the moniker Past The Mark or not we don’t know. I’d like to do another record at some point, but for now we are both working on new projects. Vince just released his new solo record “Invisibili Distanze” which is like an alternative-dark-rock record with great sounds and some vocals. I am working on a noise record and a doom metal record, as well as other side projects and ideas that we are developing.
Chain D.L.K.: Looking forward to it. Thanks so much for your time, and I wish you both all success with the project and album.