INTERVIEW: JOIE MASTROKALOS, CIRCLE OF SOUL

Hollywood Records have been picking up some class acts in America; CIRCLE OF SOUL being one of them. Their debut album Hands of Faith has brought then almost immediate recognition, but they aren[t into being categorized as Dirk Gently found out.

Joie Mastrokalos (right) keeping the funk at arm's length.


WHO YOU CALLIN' FUNK?


It's evening time in the UK, belting it down rain and particularly unpleasant. Joie Mastrakalos, joint vocalist and guitarist with CIRCLE OF SOUL is, however, sitting in an expensive hotel on the beautiful Catalina Island just a few miles off the Los Angeles shoreline, having a damn fine time by all accounts, and spilling the beans down the phone on his new baby, the intriguingly monickered CIRCLE OF SOUL. Quelling my feelings that perhaps I was in the wrong end of this business, it was time to get the tape rolling.

With a deluge of cliched, pretty, and pretty crap rock bands still spewing forth from the City of the Angels with great gusto, CIRCLE OF SOUL are one of those unusual entities who have managed to escape the formulation indigenous to L.A. The collision of different personalities, experiences, and ideas has brought forth a sound on their debut album Hands of Faith that, with its roots firmly based in the hotbed of rock, fuses serious R n' B overtones.

Unsurprising really, when you take into account the background of this multi-racial band. Originally from Yonkers in New York, Joie Mastrokalos moved to San Francisco when he was fifteen years old, and proceeded to battle it out in punk rock bands for about five years. Also in a SF punk band at the time was one singer/ guitarist Granville 'Granny' Cleveland. After an unusual meeting in which Mastrokalos ended up pursuing Cleveland down the street brandishing a butcher's knife in his general direction and demanding payment for an amp bought previously, all disputes were put aside and a firm friendship was cemented with the duo becoming the core of CIRCLE OF SOUL.
"Me and Granny met a long time ago," states Joie, "and we started the band just between me and him. It started out as an acoustic setup. We wrote a bunch of good songs and it went on from there."
A move to LA was made and the line-up of the band was finalised with the inclusion of three other muscicians, Brian 'Spang' Spengenberg on bass, Aaron Brooks on drums, and Newt Cole on percussion – none of whom were originally from LA, but were from another part of California, San Francisco, and Detroit respectively.

With the unusual aspect of having both a drummer and a percussionist in the band, and all the members having very different cultural and musical backgrounds, another twist was added into their unique sound.

Within a short time, CIRCLE OF SOUL were picked up by Capitol Records for a development deal and dropped a short time later (along with about thirteen other bands!) when their A and R man was fired. Hollywood Records then quickly moved in and picked up the band for their newly launched label, adding yet another class act to their already highly credible, quickly expanding roster.

The recording of the debut Hands of Faith was started in LA's Music Grinder Studio with Frankie Sullivan producing. But with a desire to get out of the LA smog, the band moved out to Lake Geneva in Wisconsin where they completed work in the Royal Recorder Studios.

With the diversity and unusual grooves of the music in such abundance, producer Waddy Watchel (THE CHURCH, LINDA RONSTADT, THE CRUZADOES) was brought in to co-produce the album with Mastrokalos.

Trying to avoid pigeon-holing this band is awkward, and mentioning the F-word (Funk) to Joie is like waving a red flag under the nose of a big, bad, and highly irate bull!
"People try to peg us and that really fucks me off. I don't like being pegged, and it's like, I don't like funk metal! I feel like I'm at the supermarket – a piece of meat....if you listen to Hot Stuff by THE STONES, it's a really funky song, but no one ever called them a funk metal band. The same with Saturday Night Special by SKYNYRD, it has some really funky riffs on it but no one called them a funk band."
Oops. I stand corrected.
"We're a rock and roll band. That's it. A rock and roll band and we have an R and B flavour to it."
And a pretty fine one at that. Moving on to the songs, there is a good mixture of both hard-hitting and softer edged tracks, War (a tale of the battle against racism and sexism) and Hard In The City and prime examples of the more aggressive, almost bitter edge in the band, and the delightful One Kiss and Long Arm of the Law, the best of the latter. When asked what his personal favourite was Stone in my Shoe, which is going to be the second single released in the States, was Joie's immediate answer.
"I love the words a lot to Stone in my Shoe, and it's like it jumps in your face real quick with the guitar riff and stuff...if it's got to be narrowed down to what's a great representation of the band in one song. I'd have to say this song. Don't fix it if it's not broken. If you've got a stone in your shoe, you've got to take it out before you can walk. If you have a problem, get over it but don't talk about it. It works in relationships, jobs, everything."
In the songs, Mastrokalos and Cleveland share both guitar and vocal duties, another unusual habit that seems to work exceptionally well.
"Me and Gran, we write a song and later on we sit down and figure out which one's voice is going to be perfect for this song."
The lack of egos in this band is one of their many highly appealing factors. With all of the members having come up the hard way with absolutely nothing having been handed to them on a silver platter, they are a bunch of very down-to-earth, wackily humorous guys who are prepared to work together without the usual inflated heads getting in the way.

With the record now out, they are currently touring the States hard, promoting it. With some sparkling accounts of their live shows now filtering in from the US, this is an area where CIRCLE OF SOUL are at their strongest, and completely in their element. They have just finished dates supporting WINGER, and on each date managed to win over crowds probably not best suited for their slightly off-the-wall kind of rock n' roll.
"It was a really different crowd for us to play. We were surprised because we don't fall into that mainstream cock rock and roll. It went over really good! Like I put the microphone out in the crowd in the last song and got like 3,000 people singing '99 pounds of pure cane blues.'"
He is quick to stress the importance of live shows for the band.
"A lot of people listen to our record and go 'yeah, it's really good,' and then they come and see us live and get blown away. It's more in your face live. That's where we really win our crowds over."
On touring the UK, Joie is very keen to come over as soon as possible, and excited at the prospect.
"With the States' press, everyone's slowly coming around. It's been a slow process. England's a little more advanced. If they see something they like, they go right to it. They pick up on off-the-wall bands. That's cool because I like the idea of not playing it safe. Everybody likes to play it safe."
I'm sure if they came over, they could play it as unsafe as they wanted to and it would go down a storm over here. In fact, the more the better! This is an exceedingly talented young band with their heart in their music and their success in our hands. Standing head and shoulders above the new rock and roll bands coming out of the States at the moment bar none, they should be seen as well as heard, and with a bit of luck and record company push, should be hitting the headlines your way very soon.


Dirk Gently
Riff Raff
October, 1991
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