Amy Denio is one of the most talented multi instrumentalists and creatively charged persons I have ever encountered. I will not attempt to run through all of her projects and achievements over the years.You can see for yourself
What I do know is the joy, amazement and pleasure I have had from hearing her music and upon a couple of occasions meeting her in person. First in the late 1980s with her band, The Tone Dogs, in Berkeley where she played bass and sang some complex and rocking material. Then, at a small club in San Francisco in the mid 1990’s where she played solo with a number of instruments and sang like a possessed spirit. My wife and I also saw The Tiptons tear up a club in Berkeley in the early 2000s.
I was lucky to have her also appear on my 2005 double CD, “Pen Pals 3” where she sang over one of my backing tracks and also provided one for me to sing to.
Recently, I also was able to meet and visit with her in 2008 when she toured Northern California with The Monsters Of Accordion Tour. One thing is certain: I am always touched by her music and presence. To say she is also a delightful and charming person would be a big understatement.
Above, the first tape I ever received of Amy Denio’s music was also issued on The Sound Of Pig label from New York. This 1986 cassette was broken into two sections: “Boneless Pork Butts” and “Half Bone In Hams”. Filled with unbelievably gratifying tunes of mirth and personal essence, this was the beginning of a huge love for her music which has only become stronger over time.
Above, her “Greatest Hits” CD which compiled songs from earlier tapes and various projects from 1987-1999.
Above, a cassette single featuring the songs “F.B.I.” and “Birthing Chair Blues” released in 1988. Amy endows her music with a soulful gutsiness that inspires me.
One of my favorite all time releases, “Tongues”, her first CD that was released in 1993 on the FOT records label from Illinois.
You just returned from an extended trip to Europe with the Kultur Shock band. You have toured many places in the past with different ensembles (and solo) but this tour seemed to be supercharged and intense. What made this so?
We had incredible volume on stage! At least 120 db! 2 hours worth, every night! I sweat probably a liter every concert. It was also a joyful reunion for me, I played and toured with Kultur Shock from 1999 to 2004, then I moved to Italy & did other projects for a while. Gino asked me back in January, 2009, to record on ‘Integration’ the new CD, and I was really happy to re-join such excellent musicians! Now there’s more grrl power, with Paris Hurley on violin (all the men are in love…), and also we have some beautiful, inventive girls from Ljubljana Slovenia creating & selling our merch.
That tour was the longest I’ve ever done – 40 concerts in 54 days, from Switzerland to Copenhagen to London through everywhere else to Athens, Thessaloniki and Istanbul… All in a damp, leaking yellow 9-passenger van, with a yellow plastic duck stuck in the metal caged window. We were supercharged by the huge effort to endure it all. The last 3 weeks were in the Balkans, complete overload of great food & emotion & seeing friends & playing amazing shows (Sofia Bulgaria – maybe 3,500), and of course local liquors.-
I always assume you started playing an instrument early in life. Is this true? Were you in any school bands or even rock bands at that time?
I imagine I was already improvising in the womb, since my mother played upright bass, symphonic and jazz. Great music at my father’s elementary school, so singing and recorder are early memories, then the luscious pleasure of Orff instruments you bang on, in which I excelled. By 5th grade I was in the performing Orff ensemble, we played in other schools & at conferences & such. Meanwhile boring piano lessons (improvising was always more interesting than practicing) from age 6-12.
I turned 12 & decided music was definitely my language, and that I wanted to follow my own route, definitely not towards ‘normality’. I quit piano lessons & took up the classical guitar my sister left behind when she went to college. A Beatles book lying around showed me the basic chords, which were soon boring, so I began finding new fingerings and making songs on guitar & voice.
Did so throughout high school, bringing my guitar everywhere. After my sister’s classical guitar, I bought a Guild T-50 acoustic electric from my first boyfriend (which got stolen, and he died on his motorcycle), then an Ibanez 12-string. Now I play mostly Stratocaster, which I’ve had since 1981. Sometimes I pluck away on a Dan Electro baritone. And on bass – still have my G&L 1000 & my custom fretless made by Chip Doring.
So mostly I played parties in high school, but when I was in 10th grade (1976) I joined Elysian Fields, a rock band covering Hendrix and Clapton, and we played at the Festival of the Sun, on the steps of the Cranbrook Art Academy. The system wasn’t grounded, and I was seated on a folding metal chair, quite a charge when I sang!-
Do you remember when you got your own recording equipment? What’s the first thing you did? How did it make you feel?
My dad used a reel-to-reel deck to archive his jazz records, and I would type the play lists on shirt cardboards as a kid. He liked putting long tapes on, and just dreaming. I lived in Ireland when I was 16, and came home & remember recording songs on that reel-to-reel in our living room. It just felt like the right thing to do, archive the music I was making. When I was in college, I bought my own reel-to-reel with a sound-on-sound adaptor so I could record & overdub. I made piles of messy pieces, sometimes really cool, always in mono.
I graduated college in 1983, and moved to Northampton, worked as a waitress & played sax in a funk band called the Bounce. Not long after I started earning money, I bought a 4-track, and the rest is history.
I first heard your music when Al Margolis sent me “No Bones” in about 1986 or so. I was totally floored. Your musical prowess, the humorous elements and the personal nature of the music was exhilarating. How did Al come to distribute your tape on Sound Of Pig?
I guess I saw his name in some zines at the time, and sent him a tape – maybe you’d better ask him. Anyhoo, he took a shine to No Bones & sent it to the coolest people on the planet, great distribution, which I couldn’t imagine doing. He’s pretty much my Patron Saint Al.
You also have your own label, Spoot Music. What’s a spoot? Did you start this just to house your own work or did you plan on releasing other artists?
It’s a long story. Some context: I was living in Colorado Springs in 1981-82, and came across the amazing Bob Tudor, who played music for dance classes at Colorado College, which I was then attending. He suggested we play together, and I’d just started renting a saxophone. He improvised, a concept I’d never really come across. My parents played & loved jazz music, but there was always a structure. In Bob’s world, anything was fine. Expression was everything, so I taught myself sax in a wonderful environment. There’s no wrong or bad sound, as long as there’s intention behind it.
One day a few of us were over at Bob’s log cabin in the Black Forest, just north of Colorado Springs. I picked up a Band-Aid box, and was singing: ‘Absorbs wound fluids. Absorbs wound fluids. Wound fluids. Wooden flutes.’ Then everyone in the cabin was improvising on that, until there was a sudden silence, and Michael Maison-Pierre said ‘spoot’. That was it! The perfect word!
I returned to Amherst MA to finish my B.A. at Hampshire College, and wrote a rambling paper on spoot being a general concept about the political economy of the music industry, as well as a musical philosophy about empathetic listening.
When I released my first cassette, naturally I chose Spoot Music to be my label. I designed a sax turned upside down with spit coming out. Later, I learned that sputare is Italian for ‘to spit’.
I was never too interested in releasing other peoples’ music – it takes all my time and energy just to do my own!-
Did you feel part of the home taping “cassette culture” at the time? Did you actively trade many tapes with others?
It’s funny, I remember thinking in 1986 ‘oh, it’s way too late to join this cassette revolution, but I might as well release something anway.’ Thanks to Al’s great address book & motivation to send ‘No Bones’ around, I got wonderful random letters coming in from all corners of the globe, making me realize I was indeed part of the culture. –
Over the years you have worked in many styles on several different instruments. How do projects come about now? Do you generate them or do most of them just come your way from all the associations you have made?
More often than not, people ask me, and I most likely say yes. For example, my newest collaboration is with Dan Froot, an old friend I met at Coney Island (literally dancing while hanging upside down off another dancer, playing saxophone) on the beach (a festival called ‘Sax on the Beach’), One of Dan’s many hats is that of puppeteer, and yesterday we sent in a grant for a project using the stories of the food-insecure folk of Santa Monica to make puppet shows…
You do so many different things. How do you keep the complex details straight? Have you ever considered getting a manager?
oh, to sleep in!
I try to avoid multi-tasking, but it’s nearly impossible. A manager would probably be driven insane. I’ve never found anyone who could do it – though I did have an intern last year named Siddhartha!
You have done a lot of world music inspired recordings including a lot of Central European material. What is it about this music that speaks to you?
Balkan music has that amazing heart-rending minor/major conundrum. The music can be so deeply sorroful, and then a glimmer of a major chord shows up for a second. Plus, the more I know Serbian, the more I understands the words are brilliant, metaphorical, funny, (and very tragic).-
There is no lack of women involved independent music now but in the 80s and early 90s cassette scene there seemed very few. However, maybe I only saw the very tip of the iceberg. There were notable exceptions of course: yourself, Robin O’Brien, Heather Perkins, Debbie Jaffe, Sue Ann Harkey to name a few. However, it appeared to be a Caucasian boys club for the most part. Was this your experience? And if so, why do you think that was? And what changed?
I didn’t really care. It was never a problem for me, personally, but it’s been nice to see that more and more females started to get creative over the years! I’d say that the availability of simple and inexpensive recording technology has opened the field up quite a bit.-
Have you ever thought about compiling or documenting your own history or even writing your memoirs? Is it too early for that?
I’ve written a bunch of short stories – even read them live last spring in New York with writer Rick Moody improvising, and, well, it turns out I really enjoy writing. I’ve also become quite dedicated to photography and now video editing, and have made quite a few ‘action documentaries’ using imovie, editing together photos & videos from my various tours. You can see the movies at http://www.youtube.com/deniaural
What are some musical things you’d like to do that you haven’t yet?
I’ve written a 5-minute orchestra – and it’d be da bomb to write a longer work.
Also, when I get old, I want to live with other musicians, in a warm place, like Sicily, and still tend our gardens, and keep on playing, as long as possible.
What keeps you interested now?
Photography – capturing a perfect moment (when it works right).
Do you think cassette culture has any lasting legacy?
Hmmm, makes me think of the final line of The Butter Battle Book by Dr. Seuss, a book of absurdly escalating warfare (where the Yooks eat their bread with the butter side up, but the Zooks eat their bread with the butter side down!), and the boy asks his grandpa ‘Gradpa, what will be, what will be? And grandfather says ‘we’ll see, we’ll see…’
Thanks for your time Amy. Good luck with everything.
Great questions, Don! Thanks for posting this!