A talk with
JOHN TZANTIS (Guitars)
(Questionnaire by Stefan)
People who know me can testify that I have a special bond with US Metal music since the early 80s basically. Together with some old friends named Rico and Patrick we set up Metal To Infinity webzine to support mainly, and as much as possible, US Metal releases. Last week I received the new album from a band out of Brooklyn called Gothic Knights, started back in 1990 and I’ll be a pleasure to ask founder & original guitarist John Tzantis some questions about all those years with Gothic Knights.
Q: Hi John, Metal To Infinity welcomes you from the heart – to start and especially for all those never heard of Gothic Knights I’d like to ask for a background history regarding how the band has started.
A: Hello Stefan, this question requires a long answer as we have been around for over 20 years. It all started back in the summer 1989. Once I finished high school, I started looking into forming an original band. And by March 1990, Gothic Knights played its first show. During the first few years, we played out live a lot as there was still a metal scene in NYC. The whole band had a lot fun back then, especially because the scene was still lively and we all got along real well. In 1993, we had a couple of line up changes. The first incarnation of the band included vocalist George Tsalikis, who is now the vocalist and mainman of Zandelle. We parted amicably with him in 1993 as he needed to focus on college studies. By the Fall of 1993, the lineup consisted of myself, bassist Mario Cosentino, vocalist Rick Sanchez, and drummer Brian Dispost.
This lineup recorded a demo in early 1994, which caught the attention of Denis Gulbey of Sentinel Steel. After a year and of writing and demoing some additional material, we went into the studio to record what would be come the band’s self titled debut CD, which was released in 1996. Rick however parted ways with us that year as he became a born again Christian. In his mind, the music clashed with his beliefs. He even had difficulty signing his own lyrics. It was unfortunate for the band because we were offered a contract with Noise Records, which we couldn’t move forward with. By the end of the summer of 1996, we found another singer named Bryan Avatar.
1998 is in my opinion the most difficult year the band in its history. Friend and drummer Brian Dispost was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis, and by the end of the year, the disease seriously affected his ability to play drums. I actually remember the first time he ever complained about feeling something unusual. I remember him telling me that he had some tingling in his fingers after a show in December 1997, which we opened up for Manowar. At first we all thought it was tendonitis, but after he started dealing some more serious physical problems, he got checked out and was diagnosed with MS. Brian actually recovered enough to play one more show with us in the Fall of 1998. But soon afterwards, the disease continued to progress. In early 1999, drummer Kevin Myers came on board as the band’s new drummer. The band released its sophomore effort “Kingdom of the Knights” in the summer of 1999 on Sentinel Steel Records.
The year 2000 was in some ways a very pivotal year for me personally. I went to Europe for about a month and I got to witness first hand the metal scene over there. I got to see Kamelot and Gamma Ray in Greece, and went to see Sonata Arctica, Rhapsody, and Stratovarius in France. These shows in many ways were a kick in the ass and very much reignited my focus and desire for my band to succeed. And although Gothic Knights successfully released a Kingdom the year before, I felt for some time that the band became stagnant and wasn’t putting forth the effort. So by the end of 2000, we parted ways with Bryan Avatar and Kevin Myers.
As a result, we ended up reuniting with our previous vocalist Rick Sanchez. And after a few years, we ended up releasing our 3rd CD Up From the Ashes in 2003 on Limb Music. The CD featured the session drum work of Frank Gilchriest of Virgin Steele and keyboardist Vlado Kormos. The recording of this CD was a huge learning experience for all of us. We recorded the majority of the tracks with producer Eric Rachel at Trax East Studios. He, in many ways raised the bar when it came to the band performing at its best during the recording sessions. We also for the first time ended up recording guitar solos/harmonies and keyboard parts at home. This was the first time the band had the opportunity to take its time in creating and recording guitar and keyboard parts. This experience brought to us the realization that the band would benefit if it brought more of the recording in house for the future CDs. So over the next several years, the band went through a transformation. We ended up purchasing high-end recording gear and a state of the art Pro Tools studio. It took a few years to really learn how to use all this gear and develop a new process for writing and recording. There were some growing pains, but in the end, we all felt that it was worth it.
Because the music on Up from the Ashes had many more guitar harmonies and of band’s continual musical growth, the band realized that it needed a second guitarist. Guitarist Dan Castro came on board as the second guitarist in 2003. He played with us for a few years before he went off and started his own band Castrofate in 1997. Guitarist and long time friend Dave Seligman joined soon after. After the release of Up From the Ashes, we also began looking for a permanent drummer as Frank had too many other commitments. As a result, drummer Kevin DeDario joined the group in 2003.
Now after several years, the band has released is 4th CD “Reflections from the Other Side”!
Q: You as founder of the band – whence came the idea to set up a Metal band and what were the ambitions?
A: Although, I was practicing guitar for 10 -12 hours a day back in high school, the idea of starting a band began 1988. My old high school had an extra curricular program called the Rock-A-Thon, which I wanted to be part of. It was then when I started my first band with a bunch of high school friends. We learned and played a couple of shows at our high school auditorium and in that really started it all and fuelled the fire to take thing further. This experience and my love for heavy metal sparked the desire to form an original band. The bands that I was into back then were Iron Maiden, Judas Priest, Manowar, Ozzy, old Metallica, Yngwie, Savatage…and really all the power metal bands. I had a dream, a vision of putting a band together and writing music in the epic power metal style but with our own originality. So once I finished high school, I started looking to forming an original band and by March 1990, Gothic Knights played its first show.
Q: Why did you choose Gothic Knights as name of the band?
A: I remember writing down a page full of names back in early 1990. I always liked the word “Knights” as it is symbolic of a warrior, a soldier, someone who fights for something greater than himself. To me it was always the perfect word to have in the name of a metal band because of the imagery. The word “Gothic” came up when I asked the singer of my high school band, who at the time was in college majoring in English, for a synonym for the word Medieval. I didn’t like the ring of Medieval Knights but I wanted something some like that. My friend actually uttered the words Gothic Knights when we were brainstorming. As soon as I heard him say the words “Gothic Knights”, I felt like a light bulb went off!
Q: Active as guitar player, I also want to know where your own inspirations came from and what made them so attractive?
A: When I got metal into as a teenager back in the 80’s, I was listening to bands such as Iron Maiden, Judas Priest, Ozzy, Old Metallica, Yngwie, Savatage. And I can keep naming them….Manowar, Wasp, Dio, Testament, AC DC, Black Sabbath. I grew up in the glory days of metal! The heaviness of the music and the imagery was really appealing and I simply became a huge metal fan. As a fan I then started having the dream of playing guitar. There was something about the guitar and the distortion that really captivated me. The music became my outlet. And once I started practicing guitar, it kept me out of trouble because I was practicing so much!
Q: US Metal lived a strong live back in the 80s era – I think we should be grateful to Mike Varney and his legendary US Metal compilations through own label Shrapnel Records. When I heard these albums myself back in the days, I was astonished and I knew that I won’t let go that feeling again. Bands like The Rods, Culprit, Wild Dogs, Virgin Steele, Exciter, Hawaii, Manilla Road, TKO, Le Mans, and many more contributed and started from there, they found their own ways in the world of US Metal... nothing but great memories that will haunt me forever. Gothic Knights was formed in 1990 – how strong was the US Metal that moment John?
A: The scene was still very strong in 1990. In fact, we played a ton of shows during the first 4 to 5 years of the bands existence. The successful metal bands of that time were selling out arenas. If I remember correctly, it was 1992 when the scene started to change. By 1995, the US metal scene entered what I call the dark ages. Metal was alive but it became very much an underground scene. Even our home base, the legendary rock club L’amours, Brooklyn had shut down. Luckily for us, we were working with Denis Gulbey of Sentinel Steel who was distributing a lot of the cutting edge power metal music that was still popular in Europe. He turned me on to the new underground and euro power metal bands such as Stratovarius, Iced Earth, Angra, and Helloween. I remember him bringing and playing Rhapsody’s demo to the recording studio while we were mixing our debut album in 1996.
Q: In the 90s, many True Metal bands perished with the emergence of Grunge music, a style I still hate massively! Are you agree with me that Grunge destroyed Metal back then? How did Gothic Knights experienced those days actually?
A: The Grunge scene in essence killed of the US metal scene. But in many ways, it also cleaned out the commercial metal bands that seemed to have come on to the scene simply capitalize and make money. But by the early 90’s there were too many commercial metal bands that were playing music that didn’t feel fresh and original. The writing was on the wall that the scene was going to eventually fall apart. As far as Gothic Knights, we were really in our own bubble. We were having a lot of fun creating music and at that stage, learning our craft. For me, success was not as important as staying true to our artistry. In fact that is why we still exist today. The roots of the band back then grew and stayed strong.
Q: With head held high we’re proud to tell that Metal has won the battle in style! No more Grunge and I’m very happy with that. Please tell me about your first demo which was actually the start of the next following future, right?
A: Our first demo to “Hell and Back” was a 4-song demo that we finished recording at Electric Plant Studios in Brooklyn in March 1994. It was our first demo with Rick, who was only in the band for about 6 months. After first hearing the demo once it was finished, it struck me right away that the band had something very special. There was something very captivating and mystical to me as to how the vocals sounded over the music. Our demo gave us the opportunity to finally shop our music to labels and promoters.
Q: CEO Dennis Gulbey & Sentinel Steel appeared to be interested and offered GK a deal – how it went and under which conditions the contract was signed.
A: The deals with Denis always went very smooth. There was no hidden language in his contracts, which I appreciated. His ultimate goal was to help jump start bands and not tie bands to his label long term. Denis, I have to say he has always been and still is a very strong supporter of the band. He still offers great advice as to how we should promote and move forward. But back in the day, when we were looking to get our first CD out, Denis believed in us and saw our potential. In fact, that is why he created a label and signed us. And we thank him for that!
Q: With the release of your debut album, can we speak of a real success?
A: We’ll, I wouldn’t necessarily use the word success because to me it implies that we received some sort of financial gain, which is not the case. Me personally, I would use the word accomplishment. For us the release of our first was a tremendous accomplishment. After the first 3 years of getting past our initial growing pains and dealing with several lineup changes, we finally found our sound. And then for us finally release our first CD in a very non-metal climate, it was a very big achievement. We were fortunate that it was well received by the metal press and that got some really great reviews.
Q: Also second album “Kingdom Of The Knights” came out through Sentinel Steel Records so I conclude that the label must be pleased with a band like GK, right? Are both Sentinel Steel releases still available? If so, an address where to purchase would be good to know.
A: As I mentioned Denis was always a true supporter of the band. We did put a our limited reissue of Kingdom of the Knights through Sentinel Steel a few years ago, but the stock has since sold out. You can still find Kingdom of the Knights online through some of the metal distributors, and I see it available for sale EBay from time to time. With regards to the debut CD, it has been out of print for a long time and we never reissued it. We have plans on re-mixing and re-mastering the CD, which will also include an additional song we recorded but ran out of funds when it came to mixing it. We are also going to include our 1994 “To Hell and Back” as bonus tracks. All I can say is the reissue is going to sound very professional, polished, and huge sounding.
Q: A was quite surprised when I saw that Gothic Knights’ third album “Up From The Ashes” came out via Limb Music. What happened with the collaboration with Sentinel Steel?
A: With Denis, we always had struck one album deals. Denis would tell you himself that he never wanted to hold a band back and he always encouraged us to try and sign with a bigger label. If I recall correctly, we shopped a demo back in 2000 to a bunch of labels and Limb was one of the labels that was interested. The fact that Rhapsody was signed to then was a huge indicator that the label was most likely doing well and attracting up and coming artists.
Q: Limb Music is a well known label who released many promising albums up to date so releasing an album through this European company must been a great gift from heaven for a US Metal act like yours. What’s your point of view about your experience with Limb Music John?
A: We were fortunate to release our “Up From the Ashes” CD with Limb. Our release with Limb helped further establish the band’s reputation in the metal scene. Limb also put a great package together for us. The digipak version of our CD included bonus tracks, a poster, a sticker, and an extended booklet. However after we released the CD, there was an opportunity for us to part ways with Limb. And because the music industry was changing drastically, I decided to that it would be best for us to do that. I wanted to reassess the band’s label situation at a future time.
Q: Three albums were released and I’d like to know which one you like the most of all? Feel free to let me know what makes this particular effort so special to you.
A: It’s funny you ask this question. Because the first CD that comes to mind when it comes to the first three is Kingdom of the Knights. Now of course, I like all our CDs but the one thing that I really like about Kingdom is that the feel and the aura of that album was consistent from beginning to end. I also feel that it contains some very inventive songwriting and like way the guitars sound of the CD.
With regard to Reflections from the Other Side, which is our fourth CD, one of our goals when writing and selecting songs was to make sure that the aura of the CD was consistent from beginning to end. After we put the CD together, we felt that we achieved this to a large degree again. Because Reflections is our latest release, it is also culmination of the band’s long experience of writing and recording. But the answer to your question is that there is not one CD I like most of all. Each CD is special as they all represent the growth and a chapter of the band.
Q: Have Gothic Knights have been a strong live reputation in The US and the rest of the world? I can’t remember you guys ever played on European ground, am I right?
A: Although we have been invited to play some of the festivals, we have never played in Europe. The primary reason behind this was that that the airfare and hotel expenses were simply unaffordable to us. We were also not as business minded as we are now. We didn’t push to see if we could negotiate something with the festival organizers and also see how merchandise could benefit us. As far as the US metal scene, although t is better than it was in the 90’s, it is still in many ways underground. There are very few venues in NYC tri state area. And promoters for the good shows are requiring bands to sell tickets in order to play, which no band likes. However, we are looking to start playing more shows to support our CD both here and overseas.
Q: As for me, Gothic Knights would be the perfect match for German festivals like Keep It True, Headbangers Open Air or Swordbrothers. What about the contacts with foreign concert organizations?
A: I agree. We are long over due when it comes to going out and playing in Europe. On the same token, this is where we need some guidance and advice help from organizers of these events. We are looking to build our contacts with the foreign concert promoters.
Q: Now it’s time to talk about your brand new album “Reflections From The Other Side” which is a great product to me man. First, it would be good to know something more about the new members. Who are they and what kept them musically busy before entering the GK camp?
A: Since 2003, we had a member changes but also what I consider permanent additions to our lineup. Drummer Kevin DeDario joined Gothic Knights back in mid 2003. He has played with the Great Kat and Joey Belladonna’s solo band. The two positions that grew out of our Up From the Ashes CD is the addition of a second guitarist and a keyboardist. David Seligman, who I known since high school, was always musically active and had a couple of original bands that I remember. Keyboardist Jared Sloan who is from CT has played and recorded with in several different bands during in his career. He recorded a CD and toured with The Breathing Process.
Q: What’s your impression on the end result – are you fully pleased John?
A: I feel that we achieved a new lever of professionalism and creativity with our new CD “Reflections from the Other Side” and feel that it is our finest achievement to date. The band in many ways reinvented itself over the past several years. Our investment in a recording studio has allowed us to develop and cultivate more intricate song arrangements. We recorded and captured each individual band member’s best performances. And finally, we were able to build and also selectively choose how we wanted to build the CD’s wall of sound. Sonically, I am very happy with the sound of this CD. I feel that we captured what we were aiming for. From a creative and a production standpoint, I also feel that we reached a new level. The song arrangements on this CD are more sophisticated that our material in the past. Also the aura of this CD from beginning to end is consistently dark and heavy.
Q: New album, new musicians on board and a new label named InnerSphere – Because I’ve never heard of before, I feel the urge to ask what kinda record company is it and if possible, give an overview on their other releases.
A: InnerSphere Music is the band’s self-created label. The idea of starting our own label has been on the table for a few years. There have been so many ongoing changes in the music industry that we didn’t want to get tied down to a long-term deal that would financially stagnate the band. Last thing we want to do is sign with a label would hold us to a long-term commitment with out a real financial return. The band feels that we have made enough inroads and developed enough contacts in the metal scene that it would be to our benefit at this point to self release our music. We in fact did shop our CD around and were offered a few deals from some of the metal labels out there. But after doing the math, we realized that would sell the same amount of CDs or more and basically make all of the money.
Q: Based on the musical arrangements only, my inner feelings tell me that you have gone a step further with this album. US Power Metal still reigns supreme but there is obviously also space for more dark, progressive passages on the new album. Last track called ‘The Omen’ is a good example to reflect what I mean. Are you agree with me John?
A: If you ask the guys, they would tell you that I went above and beyond. Not only did I coordinate the recording of this CD, I also spent many nights till 2 AM reviewing, comping, and editing the tracks. Each band member paid a lot of attention to detail during the recording of his tracks. Everything we recorded mattered. The notes, the drum hits, the lyrics, everything! We really wanted everything to sound perfect. I do agree and I feel that The Omen is a testament to our musical growth and our reinvention. The Omen and if you include the intro instrumental “Ave Satani” is our 11 plus minute epic. The operatic choruses are some 30 recorded voices all layered as a large choir. Music wise, we wanted to take everything a step further with the arrangements. Because we were able to record songs on our own and come back to them at any time, we were able to spend more time and nurture them. We treated the songs like fine wine!
Q: Can you give an address where the rest of the world can order “Reflections From The Other Side”.
A: The CD is available though the band’s website and our online distributors include Sentinel Steel Music, Century Media Distro, Nightmare Records, CDInzane, Omega Records, and Underground Power in Germany. It is also available digitally via iTunes, AmazonMP3, CDBaby.
Q: What’s the meaning behind this title, who wrote the songs and were are these based on?
A: I wrote the majority of riffs and the lyrics for the songs on this CD. Lyrically, most of the songs on this album are short stories and some of them touch on some very personal matter. It was important to me that the lyrics had depth and would take the listener on a journey. Although, I write songs in the epic power metal style, I do have a side of me that also likes to write in darker and heavier thrash style, which is what this CD is all about. Rick, who is also capable songwriter, tends to write in the more power metal style and not really in the heavier thrash style.
So from a creative standpoint he wasn’t as involved as he was on Up From the Ashes. Mario and Kevin deserve a lot of credit as the intensity of the riffing and what we kept was a direct result as to how the drums and bass sounded over the guitar riffs. Mario also contributed some key riffs throughout the CD. Mario came up with the title of the CD and the concept for the artwork. He one day started to describe a vision for the CD artwork during a band rehearsal, and it immediately connected with all of us. I think on that same day, he spoke out the title “Reflections from the Other Side” and it really connected with me.
Q: During my review I was comparing with other US acts like Held Under, Lethal, Syris, Antithesis, Mystic Force, Lethal and stuff. What do you have to say about that?
A: To be honest, I really don’t know the music of these bands but now that you mentioned them, I will check them out. In fact, I appreciate the fact that you mentioned them to me because I am curious to see who is out there in the US metal scene. In my opinion, the one way to develop a strong music scene is to network and get together with bands who are similar in style to do shows. I have heard of the band Mystic Force years ago. I believe that I have met one of the band members at a festival back in the day. But to be honest, for many years Gothic Knights has always been in its own bubble. Back in the early 90s, we were compared to bands like Helloween and Warlord.
I actually remember the band Warlord from back in the day as a friend of mine actually owned their record, but they never were an influence on our style. The same thing with Helloween. When we released our first CD, everyone was comparing us to them and I had no idea who they were. But because of the comparison, I started listening to them and I was immediately hooked! In fact, I consider them now a big influence. The album “The Dark Ride” is a CD that very much inspires me…and of course Keepers Part 1 and 2!
Q: According to myself, this is one of your strongest, most mature album to date but the question is… will the rest of the Metal community share that conclusion. I know that only time will tell to give the right answer but what are the your own expectations ?
A: I also believe that it our most mature CD. Time and experience tends to be the major reason why that is. The arrangements on this CD are more complex than say our 1996 debut and Up From the Ashes. Those 2 CDs have arrangements where there was a lot of focus on the choruses, while this CD focuses more on the story/lyrical content. The one other CD where I felt we had some really creative arrangements is Kingdom of the Knights. Songs like At Dawn You Die and Keeper of the Gate had some really good and inventive arrangements in my opinion. We have already been getting a lot of overwhelming positive reviews of our new CD from the music press, which we very much appreciate. A lot of those reviews are now linked to our website.
Q: Since a couple of years the European Power Metal makes a very strong impression. Some bands I really like while some others absolutely doesn’t. Following my own heart and for some reasons, I prefer US Metal above Euro Metal. One has nothing to do with the other, there is a huge difference between both types of Metal to me John. What’s your opinion?
A: There are some major differences in the styles, I agree. I think that the guitar riffing in US metal is more aggressive on average, while Euro Metal riffing is more melodic in nature. The other thing is that keyboards are more prominent in the Euro metal style. And not that there is nothing wrong with keyboards because I do love the dimension keys add to the music. In fact keys, are used to as the tool to incorporate the sounds of stringed instruments such as violins and violas and voice choirs. I think the issue with keys that some musicians and listeners have is that sometimes the melodies that are created by keyboard players are actually impossible to be performed by a real orchestra or vocal choir. So for people who expect the more organic/natural sound, to them the keys make the music sound artificial.
However, people who like the more avant-garde sound would appreciate keyboard melodies that cross these boundaries. A band that I really enjoy listening that breaks these boundaries is Dream Theater. So in my opinion, there is no right or wrong. It is simply the individual’s preference. For example, some people only love classical, some only love jazz. Some like both. I remember one telling me that jazz is the poor man’s classical music. Me, I like both US and Euro metal. With regards to my band, I will be the first one to say that Gothic Knights is not for everyone. We have a style and sound that is precious to us and don’t expect everyone to like us. However, on the flipside we very much appreciate the support of the people who do enjoy our music.
Q: Before we close this interview, will you promote the new Gothic Knights album yourself? Let your heart speak and to whom you would recommend “Reflections From The Other Side”.
A: I would recommend our CD to anyone who has a really great stereo system! And I mean that because we spent a great deal of effort to make a CD that would be a really awesome sonic experience. From a stylistic perspective, I think our CD music would be appreciated by the fans of 80’s power metal especially bands like Mercyful Fate, King Diamond, Savatage, Judas Priest, and Old Metallica. But I also think that it would be appreciated by fans of some of the newer bands such as Nightwish, Iced Earth, and even Dimmu Borgir.
Q: Thanks for your precious time giving answers to me questions. I wish you all the very best of luck with the new CD – any last words before leaving, go for it brother!
A: Well, Gothic Knights are back and we are very excited about the future!! And although it took us several years to put out this CD, we now plan to release CDs more often. Please check out our website at www.gothicknights.com and www.facebook.com/gothicknights for updates! And for those of you who are sitting at home surfing the net and playing video games in your mother’s basement all day and night, get up and walk out that door! Get a job, make some friends, go to shows, and live life! If you don’t embrace what the world has to offer, life will pass you by and you will end up being a total loser!