Bob Cillo, Italian songsmith of raunchy garage rock and alternative blues duo Dirty Trainload, would like to welcome you to a place called Trashtown with his second and latest full-length release. Trashtown, the album’s title, is an impressive work of art, with a theme that runs the course of its thirteen original tracks–“stories of a town built on top of a dump: some people run it, some people run from it.”
Dirty Trainload has seen a few lineup changes since it began in 2006, Cillo being the only constant. On Trashtown, which is considered some of the band’s finest material to date, Cillo worked with the one and only Italo-American artist Livia Monteleone (a.k.a. Noisance), who provided vocals, percussion, banjo, baritone guitar and penny whistle. Cillo, on the other hand, provided guitars, analog rhythm boxes and bass loops, and foot tambourine. In Trashtown’s liner notes there is one “guest Trainloader” mentioned, Marco Del Noce, who contributed blues harp, jaw harp and washboard. Joe Leali, Martino Palmisano, Alexander De Large, and Antonio Marino are also credited with having assisted the project in the past. And Zuerich-based visual artist Benjamin Guedel contributed some truly superb artwork to both Trashtown and Dirty Trainload’s debut album Rising Rust.
As I have pointed out a handful of times in my reviews and other articles, the two-man band is one that is rarely successful. Only a select few have pulled off, but they have done so exceptionally well. I am talking about Left Lane Cruiser, Two Gallants, Restavrant, Uncle Scratch’s Gospel Revival, Henry’s Funeral Shoe, Black Diamond Heavies, and Those Poor Bastards. Dirty Trainload can be counted among them, of course, with a sound that is marked by strong rhythms, plenty of distortion, bluesy six-string work, jingly tambourine stomps, lung-emptying harmonica bits, and slightly high-pitched, dirty and naturally resonant female vocals.
Since I began covering the obscure and independent music world in a journalistic capacity some years ago, I have come across a rather large number of unusually great bands and singer/songwriters from Italy. Mr. Occhio, Blues Against Youth, El Bastardo, Big Sound of Country Music, Movie Star Junkies, Love Boat, Vermillion Sands, and Wasted Pido are just a few of the notable artists. And now that I have been introduced to Dirty Trainload, there is yet another to add to the ever-growing list.
So call ’em what you like — alternative blues, nu blooz, dissident blues, or any of the other terms associated with their sound. You will get Dirty Trainload either way.
Recently I had both the opportunity and pleasure of interviewing Dirty Trainload’s Bob Cillo. What follows is the content from that interview in its entirety.
For starters, how about a brief history of Dirty Trainload and its members?
Even with a skinny two-piece band, lineup instability appears to be a remarkable feature, myself being the only constant “Trainloader.” That is not quite a choice but rather a mere turn of events: looks much the same each time, as all my band mates tend to run away from me after a while…but I swear that I’m a mellow guy!
We released our debut album Rising Rust back in 2007 with singer and harp player Marco Del Noce. He could not continue much longer so I ended up with different band mates until Livia “Noisance” committed herself to the Dirty Trainload back in 2008. This newly established lineup lasted until this year. We toured quite a bit, both in Europe and in the States, and released our second album Trashtown in the beginning of 2011. Past member Marco appears as a guest with his harp and washboard.
Essentially, Dirty Trainload is a two-piece band in a way similar to outfits such as Restavrant, Uncle Scratch’s Gospel Revival, and The Juke Joint Pimps. Of course, it is common knowledge among your fans that you bring in fellow artists here and there, or “guest Trainloaders” as you refer to them. But…were you inspired by other such duos, or did it simply just end up that way by chance?
When I started out with the Dirty Trainload, back in 2006, I felt quite frustrated collaborating with most musicians in my town and was trying to find a way to do it all by myself. I bought a loop station without even knowing what to do with it. Back then, I was not quite happy with my vocals and used to dub myself a “half-band man.” When my former fellow musician Marco, singer and harp player, moved back from Rome, down in Apulia, I proposed he join my project, and he showed much interest and enthusiasm. That’s how we became a two-piece band. As far as “guest Trainloaders” are concerned, we did a number of gigs this last winter with a three-piece lineup featuring Joe Leali, a double bass player.
To continue on the subject of the two-piece band… Being a duo, you two apparently have to act as multi-instrumentalists to compose and execute your songs. What instruments do each of you contribute to your sound?
I love when things happen live during a show, so my main concern is trying to keep the pre-recorded stuff to the essential. I work in the rehearsing room on these skinny loops made with old analog rhythm boxes from the ‘70s… they sound so cool! Sometimes I overdub very basic bass lines, I would not want that the audience could notice the absence of a bass player. During shows or recordings I add live guitar loops and lead guitar while my band mate, whoever he or she is, adds vocals, percussion and occasionally more instruments ranging from banjo to organ or harp. We are usually open to whatever sounds or noises come to our mind that might contribute. I also use a foot tambourine, which every band mate I had hates… a possible cause for their defection.
Speaking of your sound… the power blues, blues trash, primitive rock’n’roll and roots rock styles of music have seen a considerable increase in recent years. It’s a blues revival, only in a hybrid sense of the genre, combining Delta and/or North Mississippi hill country blues with punk, rock’n’roll, trash, and/or other such styles of modern noise. And, not surprisingly, it has found quite a dedicated audience. What sonic materials do you consciously build your sound out of? And…have blues and other areas of roots music always been points of great interest for you?
I had a blues imprinting. When I was a child, my senior brother brought home, among dozens, a cassette with an old recording by Big Bill Broonzy. He was protective of his stuff and I was not allowed to play his tapes. I used to secretly “borrow” and play that one, as I really loved the guitar playing. Eventually my brother would realize that the tape was rewound on a different side and beat me. My love for music exploded a few years later when I discovered another cassette, Lou Reed and the Velvet Underground. I think that I always tried to bring those two far apart worlds together and play the blues my own way; a way that no one would have ever heard before.
On the “blues side” I was struck by the recordings of John Lee Hooker, Lightnin’ Hopkins, Hound Dog Taylor, Mississippi Fred McDowell, Howlin’ Wolf and Hubert Sumlin’; Tony T.S. McPhee – Groundhogs, and years later by Jessie Mae Hemphill, such Fat Possum releases as R.L. Burnside, Junior Kimbrough, and T-Model Ford.
My rock’n’roll heart was beating for the Velvet Underground, as mentioned above, Alan Vega and Suicide, MC5, Stooges, Johnny Thunders’ Heartbreakers, and New York Dolls…Syd’s Pink Floyd, early Rolling Stones, Count V, Link Wray, Blue Cheer. In the ‘80s, when I was in my teens, I was fond of Jeffrey Lee Pierce and the Gun Club, X, Cramps, Blurt, Australian band Scientists, Italian band Not Moving.
In 1986, I saw in my town a great concert by Alan Vega, he could play the greatest rock’n’roll you’ve ever heard and he was only sided by a killer guitar player and a basic drum machine. Time to time, between the songs, some early rudimental loops appeared. I think that show has been much influential on what I’m doing now.
Also I saw a great concert by Hugo Race solo in 1994 and that was the first time I saw a loop station… and it was blues! Hugo played the blues his own way, with a new attitude and a quite different approach from whatever else you could hear around back then. That was a quite influential show as well.
How did you come up with the band name Dirty Trainload?
The society that thrives in the myth of efficiency and productivity fears old rusty and dirty junk so a “Dirty Trainload” sounds as threatening as a declaration of war.
It seemed a good match to our sound, a name that could promptly recall our cultural background. We don’t want to sound anything like a clean mainstream band. Also the train is a recurring topic in the blues history, so I thought it was a proper choice to give an idea of what we are trying to do.
It also turned out to be a lucky intuition, as if you Google our name you most certainly end up with something related to our band, which doesn’t happen that easily.
What have been some of your most memorable touring/gig moments to date?
We toured most major European cities, and all of those gigs helped to renew enthusiasm in our project. I can’t forget to mention Berlin, Zuerich, Paris, London, Rome, Milano and lovely Palermo. Nevertheless, my favorite highlight is definitely the Deep Blues Festival in 2009 in Minneapolis where, thanks to the promoter Chris Johnson, a rich lineup of musicians with similar artistic views and intents could gather together as friends in the spirit of some sort of “family reunion.”
In 2010 I had the chance to help to put up something similar, though way smaller, in the airport of Bari, my hometown in the south of Italy. Having all those friends and great musicians around was also a blast.
Over the years I have come across a good number of exceptional artists from Italy – like Movie Star Junkies, Blues Against Youth, and Wasted Pido, for instance –, with you guys, Dirty Trainload, being the most recent. I have noticed that most of these bands, especially the roots-based ones, sing strictly in English as opposed to their native language. Does English suit your sound better than Italian? Why exactly do you make the choice to sing in English?
English suits better our sound since, as mentioned above, it developed after a cultural background deeply rooted into blues and rock’n’roll. That’s almost the same that happened with opera in former times: musicians from all over the world referred to Italian as a language for their compositions and writings.
Anyway, I never tried to emulate anybody, and I have never consciously thought that my music was “American.” I always felt that whatever music I always loved and played is a “universal idiom” that could put together people from different cultures and countries.
A universal language, such as English is today, is a perfect match to a universal sound, helping to express and communicate with potentially no borderlines.
It is also noticeable that Livia Noisance is Italian-American, she lives in California for more than twenty years and has always played in American bands and sang in English so often we even happen to speak English during the sound check.
Dirty Trainload’s latest release, Trashtown, is a concept album of sorts – “Stories of a town built on top of a dump: some people run it, some people run from it.” How about a little insight on why you chose that subject matter? And…what is the story of Trashtown?
Yes, Trashtown is a concept album, although not didactic. Trashtown is a town that, like many cities where we live all over the world, was built on top of a garbage dump. The garbage is not only actual trash, as happens in some cities in the south of Italy. This dump mainly represents the errors done in the past years in terms of social, economic and environmental politics, urban planning and development; errors often determining conflicts and low quality of life.
Many things in our cities are arranged to show or to exercise power over a part of the citizens, which should be considered a paradox.
Livia, with some of her lyrics, introduced the subject of escape: running away from the style of life you lead in your typical “Trashtown”.
It is worth mentioning that right after the recording session of Trashtown, Livia got back to her hometown in California and was seriously injured in a terrific motorcycle accident. Her lyrics “Mad Ride” sound a bit prophetic… This delayed one year the release of the album and cancelled our gigs together all through 2010.
Is there anything of note coming up in the near future for Dirty Trainload? Tours? Special performances? Recording projects? Etc?
The Trainload keeps rolling on! I just made the debut gig of a one-man band version of the Dirty Trainload and I’m quite happy with what came out.
I’m not sure how long the collaboration with Livia Noisance can go on, we live too far one from each other, so probably has come the time for another change. I’m now working on this new one man arrangement, looking forward to new material, more gigs and a possible tour next winter. I’ve been asked to release a song for a tribute compilation. I’m planning to launch soon a website that could properly represent our music and the music scene we feel part of. I’d like to come out with a new album in a reasonably short time. I’m likely doing it alone or sided by a creative drummer/percussionist, I might do that with Noisance, or I might meet some other interesting musician along the way who would welcome the chance to jump on the train.
Lastly, if there’s anything I failed to cover, or if there’s anything you would like to discuss or express, please feel free to do so now. The floor is all yours, Trainloaders.
Aside all the “Trainloaders” who shared with me a segment of the railway, I want to thank my producer friend Fabio Magistrali. Fabio is often called “the Italian Steve Albini”, although he’s not much happy about that; he recorded our albums and almost became a third established member of the Trainload. I’d also like to thank Franco Muciaccia, who runs of our label Otium Records and the outstanding artist and illustrator Benjamin Guedel from Zürich who gave us the artwork for both our albums, I think of him as an extra member of the band as well.