Photos by Randy Jarosz
The 40 ft. Lady Pneumatica greeted festival goers near the Dollar Bank Mainstage at Three Rivers Arts Festival. Some had no clue what was in store. Those who did catch the “Squonk Opera,” perform Pneumatica were not disappointed. We caught up with co-artistic director, composer, pianist, keyboardist and accordionist Jackie Dempsey for an interview. Other Squonkers include Kevin Kornicki on drums and electronics, Steve O’Hearn on bagpipes and flute, David Wallace on electric guitar and Nathan Wilson on bass. You can catch the Squonk Opera this Tuesday the 29th at Braddock Community Day!
Sound Scene Express: What genre of music do you consider your work to be? Who are your major influences?
Jackie Dempsey: I’m not sure what genre our music would be a part of. I guess I never really worry about that – the categories don’t really say much unless you’re clearly writing in a particular style – like blues or jazz or classical. Nowadays, it seems that more bands are hybrids of many styles. I think that Squonk sounds the way it does because of the many different influences and the varied musical backgrounds of each member of the group. So although I’m the main writer and I may have certain influences I’m working closely with each of my band members and they all come from different backgrounds and influences – some very different from mine. And everyone is a major contributor to the sound of the music. I may start a tune but many times by the end of the compositional process there is only the original kernel there – everything else has morphed and expanded due to the creative input of my fellow bandmates. It’s really what makes writing for Squonk fun and gratifying for me – it’s that group dynamic. And if you put our CD collections next to each other you might not find much overlap. Except for Radiohead. I would say they are the common thread that joins our musical tastes. As for me personally, some of my faves are Elbow, The Decemberists, ‘70s Elton John, Meredith Monk, Philip Glass, Rufus Wainwright, Jack White, Yann Tiersen, Thomas Newman, The Beatles, Michael Nyman, Daryl Hall & John Oates, J.S. Bach, Claude Debussy, The Staple Singers, Andrew Bird, The Doobie Brothers, Seal, Sigur Ros, Cocteau Twins, My Bloody Valentine, Prince and Carole King.
SSE: What is the origin of the name Squonk Opera?
JD: We considered ourselves an opera company of sorts, back in the beginning, because we combine all of the art forms in much the same way that “real” opera does. But we wanted a fun word out front so people would get that the opera reference was a bit of a joke. We heard someone describe an experimental sax player’s music as a real “Squonkfest” and fell in love with the word Squonk.
SSE: How long have you all known each other?
JD: Steve, my fellow Squonky Artistic Director, and I have been working together since 1992. Kevin has been working with us since 1995. Nathan joined in 2004 and David joined in 2005.
SSE: When did you form your band? How did you meet? What inspired you to make music together?
JD: We didn’t come together in the usual manner – we weren’t friends beforehand. In 1992, Steve and I met because his sister and I were friends and she took me to see him perform at the old Metropol in the Strip where he was doing a small multimedia performance with a singer. I was mesmerized by the visuals (Steve’s an artist and designer and I had never seen anything like what he was creating) and asked if they were interested in having more music incorporated into the show. They were and so the 3 of us started working together. We decided to form a full band and started holding auditions. Kevin moved from Philadelphia to Pittsburgh in 1995 to join us – his brother had come to Pittsburgh and had seen us perform, heard we were auditioning and told Kevin we were right up his alley. So he made the trip and has been playing with us ever since. He has been living in Florida for the past 10 years but our musical bond with him is strong and so we fly him in for gigs. Nathan had been toying with the idea of auditioning for Squonk for several years – many of his musician friends had been encouraging him to do it, feeling our musical styles would blend nicely. And they were right. When David joined, he and I had already been a couple for 5 years and had played in a few other local bands together. Squonk had vowed to never have a guitar player but David’s textural playing was just what we needed to expand our sound. So we’ve come together bit-by-bit and we’ve had many other wonderful, amazingly talented musicians and singers join us along the way – each one influencing our sound and dynamic in different ways. This latest show, Pneumatica, has been a real joy to create. It’s our very first show in 22 years that is purely instrumental and the process of writing without a vocalist was liberating in a completely unexpected way. I feel so lucky to have this batch of gents in my band.
SSE: What are your rehearsals generally like? Do you have a set time each week in which you practice or are rehearsals more spontaneous?
JD: When we are creating a new production, which we generally do every other year, we have intensive music and staging rehearsals. I will start many tunes (several of which get thrown on the “use it on your solo album, Jackie” pile, as Kevin likes to say), record myself, send to everyone and then they will start working on their parts and rehearse with me individually. Eventually we have a week of full band rehearsal where the music is reshaped and new tunes are also started in this group setting. The visuals and design and staging are also being worked out at the same time, each art form influencing the other, as the show slowly comes together. It usually takes us 6 months to a year to complete the creation process (and the year before that we are writing grant proposals and fundraising for the creation budget). We probably have about 3 different group rehearsal periods throughout the final 2 or 3 months. But once everyone knows what they’re doing and we premiere the show, we don’t really rehearse anymore. Everyone’s responsible for being ready when they show up for the gig.
SSE: What inspired Pneumatica?
JD: We wanted to embrace being outside in the open air and looking at the empty space between things, and people: Pneuma means air, spirit, breath.
SSE: Who came up with the concept of Pneumatica? Is it a collaboration?
JD: Steve and I develop initial design and music ideas and then bring in the whole Squonk team of a dozen or so artists and technicians to get feedback and ideas.
SSE: What is the creative process for such an elaborate stage performance?
JD: We develop music and staging design at the same time, trying them together as we go, working with storyboard and sketches of the music.
SSE: Where do you rehearse for something so large scale?
JD: Steve and his wife live out in the country on a beautiful farm and that’s where we build our sets and rehearse, weather permitting.
SSE: Who designed the set for Pneumatica?
JD: My illustrious Co-Artistic Director, Mr. Steve O’Hearn.
SSE: What is your favorite opera to date?
JD: I don’t really like opera. But if you’re asking which of the “operas” we’ve created is my favorite, that’s a tough question to answer. Usually the one we’ve just finished creating is my favorite. But I have both fond and harrowing memories of them all.
SSE: When is your next show?
JD: We’ll be performing Pneumatica in Braddock, PA (on Braddock Ave between 6th and 7th Streets) for a community day event on Tuesday, July 29. Shows are at 5.30 and 7.30 pm. Our hope is to do several more local and regional events this summer. In September we’re heading to Ottawa, Ontario with our truck show – GO Roadshow –and then next spring and summer we’ll start touring Pneumatica across the country and hopefully make it back overseas.
SSE: How can fans-to-be gain access to your music? Do you have a website with sample songs or a demo CD?
JD: Yes we have a website with music and videos and photos of our current and past shows. The home page is… http://www.squonkopera.org/ There is also a music page… http://www.squonkopera.org/store/ …with links to our CD baby page where you can hear samples and purchase CDs and downloads.