If you’ve seen former Styx frontman Dennis DeYoung live in the past decade, then you’ve seen his amazing guitarist August Zadra live. August recently released his debut solo record, Guiding Star, under the moniker Zadra. While we were chatting about it, we had a surprise visit from his close friend, Jeff Scott Soto.
Please press the PLAY icon below for the MisplacedStraws.com conversation with August Zadra and Jeff Scott Soto –
On transitioning from his band Waiting for Monday to Zadra – Great question. Jeff Scott Soto is a very dear friend of mine, and I’ve known him for a long time, and he was doing some A&R type of work for Frontiers, a talent scout kind of thing, and he said, “We can probably do something with you”. They already know my work with Dennis (DeYoung), so it’s an easy kind of segue. I said, “I don’t wanna do a solo album. I don’t wanna be that guy that has to write all the songs, play all the guitars, do all the singing”. I’m more of a tribal guy, I like to be in a band with my friends and make noise together and work through things. So he said, “Well, what would you like to work with?” We both knew Rudy Cardenas, he and I had been in a Journey tribute band before. He’s a marvelous vocalist, as his evidence on the record in spades. He and I decided to put something together, our first choice was Walter Ino, a brilliant multi-instrumentalist and it formed the core of the band right there, and then Eric Banes on bass was a friend of Rudy’s he’s known for years, and Joe Travers came in and just slayed on the drums. Super happy with that record. One quick funny story is that Frontiers really didn’t get involved. We didn’t have to send any demos or anything, they like to check in on the writing sometimes. We turned everything in at the end, and the first response was, “This is a lot more ’70s than we thought it was going to be”. I said, “I hope that’s a good thing”. I thought it helped differentiate us from a lot of (other bands). ‘m not judging by any means, I’m a huge ’80s guy, but it was different from a lot of their fair. Shortly after that record, of course, the world went sideways and there was no chance to support it really. During the pandemic, it kinda came back around and said, “Well, what about now? Would you like to do something?” I said, “You know, yes. Let’s run with the ball”. One of the reasons for that was, again, it goes back to me not having confidence as a singer. I’ll pick up a guitar and play right now for anybody anywhere, but I’m not saying I’m great as a guitarist, but I’m comfortable as a guitarist. Singing is so much more personal and as you said, I’m most well-known for being in Dennis’ band and singing the Tommy Shaw songs. I was in a Styx tribute band years ago, and that the impetus for that was just that being a kid and singing along I thought, “I have a voice similar to that guy, I’ll sing those songs”. But never really studying singing or working on singing per se, just, “Hey, someone has to sing this song”, so in typical cover band kind of thing, and just someone to take the ball. So even getting the gig with Dennis, it was really just reproducing that voice of Tommy’s, which I love and admire and respect greatly, but I still didn’t feel (like a singer) I knew I could hit the notes, and for me, that’s always been the distinction, there’s guys who can get the notes, and the guys that really sing and make your hair stand up on your arm, we all know when we hear it. So on the Waiting for Monday record, I wanted to have somebody like Rudy to be the star. I liken it to Loverboy or early Journ. With Loverboy, you had Mike Reno, an amazing vocalist, and then no disrespect to Paul Dean, but they’d say “Oh Paul, sing a song here” or even Mick Jones singing one song on a Foreigner record. It gives the listener a different texture, gives the lead singer a break, so I sang one song, which I wasn’t supposed to. “Inside Her Head”, I wasn’t supposed to sing that song. The day before, Rudy says, “I think you should sing this one”. I almost lost my voice the day before, which is fairly common for me, unfortunately, so that was a really raspy song. I feel like really that Waiting for Monday album didn’t represent me as a vocalist, that was one of the reasons behind saying, “Yeah, let me do this and try to do me on this record”. :53
On writing with Alessandro DelVecchio on Guiding Star –I will always tell people that I rarely will write a song from soup-to-nuts and here it is done. I gave Alessandro a few songs that were done that way, but instrumentally, they didn’t have lyrics or vocal melodies. I gave him a boat load of, “Okay, here’s two chords that sound nice together, I don’t know where it goes after that”. Your typical guitar player thinks, “I got this cool riff, and then what I supposed to sing over that?” There are guys much more skilled songwriters than me, that’s easy to say. I gave him a lot of things and Alessandro, he has all my respect and I can’t say enough high, good things about him, I hold him in the highest regard as a human being and as a musician. He excelled at putting others’ ideas together. He has a knack for writing for a particular artist, he knows what their strengths are, and so he took a lot of my things and wove them together with other parts of mine, parts of his, presented things to me in their entirety that we had to make some changes to. He put no limitations on my input, so changing lyrics (was ok). It was a great experience working with him. 7:00
On Jeff singing background vocals on nearly every song – Jeff – It wasn’t even meant to be that. For starters, as August was just saying, there were some songs that had to be changed or were changed, especially lyrical content. Now, as he said, Alessandro does the same with me. He’ll send a complete idea with backing vocals, even sometimes lead vocals, not with actual lyrics, but I’ll give you a lot of “La, la, la, la”. He also, again, there’s no limitation to our input. Alessandro wants us to create, he wants us to elaborate, he wants is to take what he’s given and put our own spin on it. That being said, there were a few things where August said, “That’s cool, but it’s not me”, and if it’s not you, especially in an album like this is so important, and if you’re doing an album with a band or another friend or something like that, then it’s okay to kind of explore the territories and creative sides, but this is August’s debut. This is something that he has his 100% stamp on, and it has to represent him in every sense, in every way. So that being said, some of the songs that Alessandro sent with lyrics and vocal parts already done, August would change them, and they say, ” I changed a lot of this, the backing vocals need some work, the lyrics need some work”, I would just pop them in the Pro Tools, I knocked him out. There was no need for Alessandro, he’s as busy as James Brown was when he was alive, to then go back and redo what he’s already done with the new lyrics, because it was already done. We wanted to finish the idea before we presented it to Alessandro, whatever the changes, whatever the ideas were. That just goes to show how much August actually did go into and change and rearrange it and kind of put his own spin, both lyrically, melodically, just different things of altered along the way, and I assisted him with the presentation of that back to Alessandro so he can say, “That sounds great. Let’s move on”. That again, as I just said, there was no need for Alessandro to plug the mic back in and then now to sing over what I did, or I add what to I did because everything worked and sounded so well as is. 8:35
On who else plays on the record – There’s my buddy from the Dennis DeYoung Band, Jimmy Lehay, a great guitar player, and a friend of mine, he plays a wonderful guitar, acoustic guitars on the song “A Matter of Yesterday”. I send him, “Here’s my cowboy chords kind of thing. Here’s what the song sounds like”. He says, “I’ll get back to you in couple of days, I give you my ideas”. He comes back, he said, “I really like the song, I came up with my own tuning for part”. He gave three tracks of acoustic. One is in Nashville tuning, One’s in his Jimmy Lehey tuning. He took a simple idea and really fleshed it out. It’s beautiful what he added to the track. Then on the song, “Take My Hand”, there’s some hack that played keyboards on it, Dennis DeYoung came in and played a beautiful solo. So that’s kind of a funny story on that one too. That’s actually the song where I had written that in its entirety, minus the keyboard solo on the primitive recording gear I had for years and I had no lyrics or melody. Alessandro came back, he turned into a song by adding the lyrics, melody, but it was something in D minor, the saddest of all keys, but it minor doesn’t have to be evil. It can just be thoughtful or sad. It’s called Lick My Love Pump. This is not a diss toward Alessandro, it’s what he heard from music and on to present me with something,. There was a line about, “Now the devil knows my name, this dark path I walk”, or something, and I thought, “I am not singing. that. That is not me”. I’ve always been, I’m Triumph, Boston, Journey, positivity. I was telling Jeff, Jeff’s known and worked with Alessandro for years. He goes, “Don’t worry bro, I got you”. Literally the next day, he sends over this, the new lyrics, and it was so much better. It fit me, Jeff knows who I am, we’re friends for years, and to have come up with that overnight was just brilliant, and then I took chunks of it. As with Alessandro, Jeff said, “Here’s what I sent. If you like it, great. If you don’t like it, change it. Whatever you wanna do”. I made some changes, he’s cool with that. Then it became something that I could sing. 10:53
That’s a funny story behind that song. It’s funny, I was actually gonna bring it up, but you kind of segued, I was picking up my step-daughter from work, and I was an hour early. She told me the time that she was supposed to get out, but I thought she was done in 8:00, she was actually done at 9:00. So I’m like, I’m not gonna drive all the way home and then all it all the way back. So I literally sat for an hour in the parking lot with that song, and I started thinking about exactly what August was saying, the positivity, the things that are important to him in life, the happiness, the things that make him and his family happy, and that was the key thing was family. So I started with the idea of even starting from his father and down the generations of what he learned and what he’s not passing on to his own children, and then again, it’s very enlightening. I put a little bit of even myself behind it. Anybody that’s a dad, anybody that’s a family man knows how important it is for people to know how important it is to you. So that’s what I wanted to put in that particular song lyrically. As August said, he got it and, “Okay, this I like this. I see what you’re going with here, but I wanna even really personalize it even more”, and that the process is so easy. It was so incredible. I should have started with this, but I’ll say it now, I’m beyond proud of how this record came out and beyond proud of how August excelled in all of this, because this is his first outing, but his first outing alone. He never really ran Pro Tools or Logic or any of those kind of home studio things. He never even had a proper home microphone. Forget about this driving to 40 minutes each way, back and forth to record all your parts, your vocals, and guitars. He’d still be working on the album now if he was doing it the way he was doing it. I literally had to convince him, you can do this. Buy your own mic, buy your own recording gear, buy a laptop or a computer that can handle the levels that you need to do your stuff. Learn it, do it all at home, you have all the time in the world to just really hone in on it, you can change things on the fly. You can wake up the next day, go, “I don’t like that”, and change. And he did that, he dove in and he mastered it, and he got into the point when I was receiving his recording like, “Oh my God”. My recordings, the things I was doing the first two years, weren’t as solid as the performances he was sending me. I’m serious, I’m so proud in that sense. I basically said, “Yyou gotta do it this way. The productivity and the creativity is gonna excel if you can do it this way and it did”. 13:30
I gotta quickly add to this. At one point, I was always calling Jeff for sending him things with it, and at one point, I said, “I was killing this one vocal part, but then the neighbor’s gardener came over and I had to wait it out a half-hour and lost the vibe”. He’s like, “Man, you’re very particular about that, more so than me”, he said, my albums had Ele yelling at the dogs, neighbors going, kids yelling.”
If you solo my vocal tracks, you would be mortified. You would go, “What the hell is going on when he’s recording these vocals?” I’ve been recording my own home vocals since the ’90s, so you can imagine pretty much 97% of my career since the ’90s has been done my home remote studios. Some of it’s not that great, but some of it as I went along, got better at better technology, etcetera. The fact is, the earlier version, when I was living in London, for instance, with my, she was my then-girlfriend, with my wife, we lived in, they call them council homes, it’s kind of like an apartment setting, but they’re actually small homes. It’s walls, walls, walls. If you ever seen an English neighborhood, you see a row of, it looks like homes, but they’re all connected to one another, like an apartment, and paper thin walls and you got kids crying and dogs barking. The whole W.E.T. album, the first W.E.T. album, if you solo those vocals, I’m sure when Erik was mixing it, he was probably going ,”What? I hope I can mute that or get rid of that because there’s all kinds of stuff going on”, but I didn’t have the luxury of going to a real studio until now. So yeah, the learning curves came along, exactly what August is saying. All the things you have to adapt to, and learning how to do everything at home, and then it’s trial by fire, you basically try it, and if you get a complaint from an engineer or somebody else you learn from it. Next time I’ll do this way, next time I set my mic that way, next time I use less compression or more. Whatever, you learn. August just stepped up big time based on the outcome of this record.
On the possibility of a solo tour – I would say this, that I would really, really love the opportunity to perform this material live and put a band together with the landscape changing so quickly and it had been changing so much, or even before the pandemic, and the opportunities are fewer and farther between. Frontiers, God bless him, for carrying the torch for all of us and then giving us an outlet, but a lot of their MO is to put these bands together, and then we just kind of try to see what might get any traction and then put some resources behind it. There’s a lot of factors involved that are beyond my control. But would I like to? Yes. 19:12
On if Dennis DeYoung will perform again – I wish I could give you a definite answer on that. All I can say is, I hope so. He’s been kind of on the fence about it. He’s talked a lot about doing a victory lap kind of tour over the years, but right now he’s working on another Hunchback theatrical show in Milwaukee. I’m glad he’s got a creative outlet and he’s busy putting this energy into that, but hey, “I didn’t write “Come Sail Away”, I need to work.
I’ll add to that, that’s kind of one of the reasons, I mean August is one of my best friends. It’s no secret now, you just have to look at my socials and we’ve done so many hangs in so many collabs and played together, blah, blah, blah. I loved him before I met him in terms of his talent and what he has to offer, but I kind of felt it’s my responsibility not only as his friend but as his comrade to keep pushing him. I was like, “Dude, God bless Denis, God bless what Dennis has done and given you, but there will be a point where he’s gonna put that to bed, and I need and want you to just start excelling, start pushing the August Zadra agenda because you already have a name from this, you already have an established name from what you’ve done with Dennis. Now it’s time to elaborate on it, that’s the same way anybody else that would be involved with a classic band from Boston or Journey, etc. You can take this and start launching it into your own thing. To be honest with you, this should have happened before Waiting for Monday. Waiting for Monday kind of accidentally happened when I was introducing Rudy to the label and getting that all started. He kind of, not dragged August into it, but he kind of asked August to be along for the ride, where I was already thinking and trying to get in August to do his own thing at the time. So this kind of postponed the Zadra thing. I’m kinda glad it worked out the way it did, because the Waiting for Monday thing was kind of the first steps, it was kind of getting your feet wet, this was like pushing him into the pool. 20:17
Jeff has been a very dear friend for years, as well as a cheerleader coach, mentor. The way I remember it you came to me in an A&R type of capacity saying, “Would you like to do something as a solo artist?” I said, “No”, I remember because I didn’t have the confidence still. It’s funny.
In just a few years, the whole level is really shifted, and now he’s really stepping forward into his own. I love seeing it because he so deserves it, number one, he’s too talented to just be seen as a side guy, and now he can finally start establishing something. We’re not expecting him to be a household name in to be on heavy rotation on MTV. When you have expectations, that’s when you have disappointments. But generally, it’s all about pushing him forth and getting his name out there as August Zadra, not as “Appearing With” or “Formally Of” or “Currently With”. I want August Zadra to now have his own name and his own legs, basically.
On their favorite part of the record – I love the opening. It really establishes that ’70s (feel), when melodic rock was blowing up and it was so exciting when Kansas was breaking, when Styx was breaking, that sound and that vibe really encapsulates that. All the backing vocals are back and forth, and then August singing on top of that. To me, it’s one of the greatest things I’ve been a part of, and it was so much fun singing all those different parts, especially the end. It was so fun I could do a whole record and stuff like that. 24:00
We had my record lunch release party a couple, two days ago, and at one point we’re playing that song, I’m looking at everyone around, I thought it reminded me, especially the vocal breakdown at the end, I could see that being something happening in a tribe hundreds of years ago. People are dancing and the way the parts break out and have this big thing and it’s joyful. I wrote that music, a couple of years back, when Dennis was looking for a new intro for the show to replace, he was starting to using “Grand Illusion”, which is a great song, of course, but he wanted something in that vibe and I wanted to write something triumphant sounding. It’s very short, in a major key, there were these big guitar harmonies in the beginning, but they’re in there, but you can’t hear him because we decided the backing vocals were more important. I had given it to Dennis at one point, and I think I just got him at the wrong time and he was like, “Meh”, so I’m gonna keep that idea around. Jeff, you may remember I found it. I have the video, you, me and Sturm in the kitchen, it’s called “Three Amigos” that’s the first time we sang that.
I think we recorded it on, it was like a Garage Band version on the iPhone, and it was so bad. We didn’t know how to do overdub, like, this is terrible. What do we do? We came over to drink and hang out, and we ended up writing a skeleton idea of a song, but we couldn’t demo it properly, and it just kind of sat there and I wondered what happened to that thing.
Like Jeff said, I never had a proper microphone at home. As a guitar player, what I tend to do , I would get a couple of chords together and then I’d say, “I don’t have a vocal”, so I keep adding more guitars to it. Well, what’s the vocal supposed to do? Now I had a three-part guitar that was supposed to be vocal, but to hear it done and fully fleshed out. This is another one where the lyrics were fine, but two days before I went to sing it, I read a news story some place, and the phrase ‘come together’ was used, and I thought a friend of mine had just been telling me, “You need to have a cover tune on the record. Every debut album needs a cover song so that people have something they’re familiar with. I thought, “Come Together”, people will think it’s the Beatles song, right? “. I really have a deep faith in the healing power of music, and I thought this is an opportunity… You know the lyrics, “Music will heal what isolation has destroyed, come together”. So the album started with this big glorious vocal with Jeff, Alessandro, and myself singing and it talks about bringing everyone together and then the ending track, “Rise From the Fire”, it again, kinda comes full circle with, this pandemic isn’t gonna last forever and we’re gonna come back.