Interview with JOE VANA (MECCA)

MECCA - Undeniable

Mecca’s brainchild Joe Vana chatted with Mick Burgess about the making of their new album and his plans to take the band out on the road.

MER: You’re latest album, Undeniable has just been released. Are you pleased with how it turned out?

JOE: I’m indeed so pleased with it. I spent six years working on the album. It cost me a lot of money and an awful amount on a personal level to do it, but for me I wanted to prove that what I heard in my head was better than my first album. I really worked hard to do that and I didn’t want to disrespect Jim Peterik and the other guys who worked on the first album, but I knew I could do better than that and I really think I have achieved what I set out to do.

MER: It’s incredible to think that it’s been nearly 10 years since the first Mecca album hit the streets. Why has it taken that long to write the follow up?

JOE: After the first Mecca album came out I worked on the Khymera album with Steve Walsh, Kelly Keagey’s Time Passes album, and a bunch of other stuff and I was very happy to be doing that, but I decided in about 2002 that I was going to do a second Mecca album. I started writing with Christian Wolf. Those songs were good but basic and straightforward and sounded like they belonged on the first Mecca album. I then started writing with Tommy back in 2005 and everything changed. There was such chemistry between me and Tommy writing-wise. Everything that we wrote together ended up on the album. He took the songs I wrote with Christian, “Ten Lifetimes” and “I Know”, and Tommy completely rearranged them to fit what Tommy and I were doing.

Undeniable was re-recorded three times. My co-producer, Bryan Mitchell, died and I decided that I wasn’t going to use anything that we did together out of respect to him. I just didn’t want to finish the album without him so we re-recorded the entire album in about six months.

MER: Would you make those original versions available at some point for the hard core fans to listen to?

JOE: That’s a good idea, I’ll talk to my son about it as he’s the computer guy. We may put them up on YouTube so people can hear them. It would be good to take a little bit of one version then another version then another and finish up with the finished song just so you can hear how it developed over time. There’s enough stuff from the cutting room floor to make two world class albums sitting on my computer. “Ten Life Times” has nine versions and they are all different and each has different musicians playing on them. It just took a little while getting the right guys together to get the right sound.

MER: On your debut album you featured an extremely strong cast of big named AOR guests, including Fergie Frederikson (Toto/Le Roux), Jim Peterik (Survivor), David Hungate (Toto), and Thom Griffin (Trillion), but this time you seem to be focusing more on your own performances. Were you not tempted to bring in some of those guys again or did you want to do this more on your own?

JOE: We won’t use outside writers again. Mecca will only be Tommy and me. If you’re in the band, you’re writing for the band. I love Fergie and all those guys, they all did a great job on the first album, but this time it’s more of a band album. Each of the guys is committed to get up and go if he decides to head out on tour. We all played together. Tommy sent his stuff in, but we did the bass, drums, and guitar overdubs all live in the room together. Bands just don’t do that anymore. We used a real drummer and he played grooves and he grooved into the songs. We used some samples to the kick or the snare to beef up the sound but the playing that you hear is Rick Vitek and it’s his soul in the tracks. I hate the way they make records these days, I hate the way they’re produced, and I hate the way they’re put together. It’s sterile, cheap, and lazy and that’s why it took me 6 years to make this record. I don’t have the experience Jim Peterik has. He can put out an album every 6 months or so. It takes me a long time to get down what I hear, but once I get there this is what you get.

MER: You have done all the vocals yourself this time. Do you feel that you’ve grown in confidence since the first recording?

JOE: Nobody knew who I was at the time; I was just Jim Peterik’s demo singer. I was a nobody outside of Chicago and the people in the band World Stage. It was a logical step to bring in Fergie and he did a great job. I was more than happy to share the album with him. I could have done the album on my own, but it would never have made it. This time, however, I feel I can make it on my own without any other singers coming in.

MER: You wrote extensively with Jim Petrik on your debut album. He’s renowned as one of the leading songwriters in the business. What did you learn from him when you wrote together?

JOE: I learned everything from Jim. He showed me techniques for writing lyrics. I took a step further as I like to be more of a deep writer. Jim is an amazing Pop writer, Jim can be deep if he wants to be, but he doesn’t write that kind of music. Everything I learned melodically and harmonically was from him. I took that when making this record and I expanded on it and I learned more by talking to everyone. I’m like a sponge and soak everything up. Then I worked with Tommy, and he’s totally from another planet. I put all that together and it worked. I’ve been very fortunate in my life that my two main songwriting partners have been Jim Peterik and Tommy Denander, so I’ve learned so much from both of them.

MER: How do Tommy and Jim differ as songwriters?

JOE: I’d say that Tommy thinks more outside of the box whereas Jim has been writing songs for so long that there’s kind of a template. He knows before he puts his hands on the piano where the song is going to go. With Tommy and me, we have no freakin’ idea where the song is going to go until we get there. When you hear a Jim Peterik song you know he wrote it.

MER: How did you actually sit down and write the material for the album? Do you come up with the lyrics and does your writing partner come up with the melodies, or do you all chip in with ideas?

JOE: The best songs on the album “Undeniable”, “Did It For Love”, and “As I Walk Alone” were written by Tommy and me when we were sitting in a room together in Chicago, and get this — it took an hour for all three!

MER: Tommy Denadner is a highly respected musician, writer, and producer. What did Tommy bring to the album?

JOE: The album would never have happened without him, he’s such a talented man. Tommy and I put a lot of blood, sweat, and tears into this album. Tommy really should have been credited as a producer on this album due to the way he laid everything out when we were doing the final cutting of the tracks. He laid out everything on these tracks; the guitars and keyboards. Then we went in and recut stuff. We used most of his guitar parts that were from his demos. We had one of the best guitar players on the planet (I’m not saying who it was as he’s one of my very favorite players) play a solo on the album and I pulled him off that when I heard Tommy play it. That’s how good Tommy is. Tommy is a great writer, producer, and is in my Top 10 for guitar players too. As a songwriter, a co-write, he’s the best there is.

MER: You’ve also managed to get Tony Levin from King Crimson on board for a couple of tracks. How did you get him involved?

JOE: He became involved because of Pat Mastelotto, who was in King Crimson with him. Pat played on the whole album originally, but when we recut it we went in a different direction — in a more Pop direction whereas Pat played an amazing Rock role. The stuff he played was amazing and my son is still pissed at me for pulling Pat off some of the final tracks. Rick is more of a Jazz Fusion type player like Jeff Pocaro, and he came in and played on nine of the songs, but I kept three with Pat as there isn’t a player in the world who could have touched what he did on those tracks. We had Pat and Tony together, so there was that King Crimson vibe going on and it worked out so well. With “Life’s Too Short”, we wanted a Peter Gabriel type of thing. When Tommy sent this over, I nearly fell off my chair. We wanted Tony Levin to come in and play the Chapman Stick, which he played on “Sledgehammer”. I got Tony Levin because I had Pat and it was such a great fit. You know it’s him as soon as you hear the first note — he has such a unique style.

MER: You’ve also got a very special guest on the album: your son Joey. What has his contribution been to the album?

JOE: Yes, my son plays on “W2W” or “Wire To Wire”. He plays all the guitars on that except the solo, which Tommy Denander plays. My son actually plays on the whole album, but it’s pretty much just the two of us on that one song. He plays really modern — he’s only 20 and I wanted that heavy guitar sound that he brought to the song. He played through a full Marshall cabinet and set it on blast. It ended up loud, raunchy, and raw. It was just what I was looking for on that track and there’s no overdubs. It’s just so vibrant, lively, and bouncy. It just ended up so cool. I’m so pleased with his contribution to the album.

MER: You must be a very proud Dad …

JOE: At the beginning he was just hanging out around the studio, seeing how things are done as he’s been working on his own stuff for a while now. I told him he could hang out as long as he stayed out of the way … ha!! I was working with a lot of great professionals and I didn’t want him to be intimidated … and I didn’t want the others to feel that just because my son was there that they had to act or talk a certain way. As we got more into the process, my son was helping the engineer by setting up the mics, doing the tracking, and everything. After a while, he was playing some stuff and my bass player, Wally, came up to me and told me to go and listen to my son playing “Wire To Wire”. Wally said I should have him play on the album and I wasn’t too sure at first, but he laid it down and it was just perfect. He played on another five or six tracks, including the end solo on “Undeniable”. I love that track … it’s the full band on there and that’ll be the band you hear when we head out on the road. I’m very proud of the work that he’s done on the album. He’s a talented kid.

MER: The first Mecca album released in 2002 was your first recording experience. How differently have you done things this time around?

JOE: We really paid attention to the sonics, and the production is done completely differently. On the first album we used huge harmony vocals on the chorus like Journey, but on this one we wanted to space them out a little more. If we only needed me doubling up on the part, maybe doing a third above or a third below, then that’s all we did. We didn’t do a triad if it wasn’t needed. I wanted to be open enough that you hear every little part on the album. Sonically, it sounds great — it sounds expensive and sounds like it should and it sounds right.

MER: Now that you have your second album finished, do you look back on the recording of your first and think that you’d have done something differently in hindsight?

JOE: No, because with everything that happened on the first album, I learned from it. If all the good things and all the bad things didn’t happen on the first album, then the second wouldn’t have turned out as it did.

MER: What makes the whole story of Mecca incredible is that you didn’t start writing songs until you were in your 30’s. What made you start writing music at that age?

JOE: I started writing with Jim when I was 31. I just started because I felt like it. I was just a guy doing album covers and graphics and I’d known Jim since I was a kid, and I’d only ever sung behind a piano. I went from never singing behind a microphone to singing with Fergie and Jim two weeks later, singing on a demo for the Beach Boys. It’s all because of Jim. I will always say that everything I have musically is because of Jim Peterik.

MER: Will you be playing any live shows?

JOE: I want to play Firefest next year — it’s the perfect fit for our band. It’ll be me, Tommy, and Eric Ragno … and my son and my bass player, Wally Hustin, and drummer Rick Vitek. We’ll bring the full band over who plays on the album. Everyone you hear on the album will come out. There are other festivals I’d like to do too, but I honed in on that one as to me those guys just get it and promote the music that I love.

MER: Do you think your third album might come along a little quicker than the second one?

JOE: For the next one we’ll write some of it separately — I’ll come up with lyrics that I’ll send to Tommy, and for some I’ll put lyrics to his music, then we’ll come together in January or February and we’ll do a final writing of the album together in my studio with Eric Ragno as well. We’re looking forward to this one being done by the end of 2012.

MER: Now that you have two albums under your belt and you have worked with some of the best in the business, can you see yourself writing and producing for other people now.

JOE: I would and I could, but it’s hard when you produce someone else as you want to hear it a certain way and they want to hear it a certain way … and which way is right? The only way I could produce if I asked them if they liked the work that I’ve done and if they did, then I would give them the benefit of my experience and the way I hear it, but I would need to be able to do it the way that I hear it. I actually think I’d like to work with other bands.

MER: Now the album is out, what have you got lined up next?

JOE: I’m going to take a break for a couple of months. Tommy has already started to write for the next album, but I’m taking some time off and just hanging out … then I’ll put pen to paper and will start work on the next album, which will hopefully be out late next year.


  • Mick Burgess

    Mick is a reviewer and photographer here at Metal Express Radio, based in the North-East of England. He first fell in love with music after hearing Jeff Wayne's spectacular The War of the Worlds in the cold winter of 1978. Then in the summer of '79 he discovered a copy of Kiss Alive II amongst his sister’s record collection, which literally blew him away! He then quickly found Van Halen I and Rainbow's Down To Earth, and he was well on the way to being rescued from Top 40 radio hell!   Over the ensuing years, he's enjoyed the Classic Rock music of Rush, Blue Oyster Cult, and Deep Purple; the AOR of Journey and Foreigner; the Pomp of Styx and Kansas; the Progressive Metal of Dream Theater, Queensrÿche, and Symphony X; the Goth Metal of Nightwish, Within Temptation, and Epica, and a whole host of other great bands that are too numerous to mention. When he's not listening to music, he watches Sunderland lose more football (soccer) matches than they win, and occasionally, if he has to, he goes to work as a property lawyer.

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