Interview: Like being in front of a thousand psychologists – Big Man James (Giacomo Cassoni) on performing in Italy and abroad, the Italian blues scene, Step Into The Real Life and the urgency to speak his own truth in music

Five years ago, Italian songwriter, vocalist and guitarist Giacomo Cassoni created Big Man James, a blues-rock project that originated from “an urgent motivation to explain my own concept, my own music and my own emotions.” Initially a trio, featuring Michele Zanoni on bass and Emanuele Corbellini on drums, the Codogno-based band later expanded to include Nicolò Moschera on organ and piano. In April 2022, they released their new EP, Step Into The Real Life, an album the bandleader calls “key to our project.”

I caught up with Giacomo to talk about the album, their creative process, performing abroad, the Italian blues scene and their upcoming concert in my hometown, Timișoara (Romania). The interview was conducted in Italian and subsequently translated to English.

On February 4, 2023 you will be playing at Casa Tineretului Timișoara (Timișoara Youth Center). Tell me a bit about the concert and how it came to be.

The first concert we had in Romania was at the Blues in the Garden festival in August. It was our first time playing in Romania and it was an amazing experience. We got to meet a lot of wonderful people.

That’s when we met Emil Biebel. He told us he enjoyed our performance and wanted to organize a concert with us. He is a very kind person; he had many beautiful words for us.

You know, we play music out of passion. We just love to play music and we love playing together. We live for the music. It’s always beautiful to meet a person who understands our motivation.

How did the Big Man James project get started?

It was an idea that started five years ago. I’ve played in many different bands, for many different reasons but I felt an urgent motivation to explain my own concept, my own music and my own emotions.

I met Michele Zanoni, my bassist and we formed a trio alongside a friend who played the drums. As the music continued to grow and the project continued to evolve our drummer found it difficult to adapt. Eventually, he left the band. We looked for another drummer and found Federica Rossi, who plays very well but who came from a hard rock background and didn’t really identify with the type of music we were playing.

We recorded an album, had a tour in Italy and made a lot of fans. People seemed to be connecting with our style, although, to tell you the truth, I’m not sure what our style was at that time. (laughs) We just wanted to play our songs and bring our message to the people. And it was working, but not at a hundred percent. Something was still missing at a musical level.

After about a year, we still weren’t managing to find our direction. Federica left the band and we brought in Emanuele Corbellini, who is the glue that holds the band together. He is a great guy with a really fun personality. With him, it clicked immediately. We do clash a lot – especially me and him, because we both have very powerful personalities – but the beautiful thing is that it always leads to a result that we’re passionate about.

We especially feel this passion on stage. When we are on stage, there is this desire – this urgency – to play and play well because people are honoring us by coming to our concert. So this is the trio that recorded the last album, Step Into The Real Life, which is the one we are bringing to Timișoara.

Let’s talk about Step Into The Real Life. How did the album originate?

It’s an album that was born from our different tastes in music. Our music includes a lot of funk, which I listen to, a lot of punk, which Emanuele listens to and also a lot of jazz, because Michele listens to jazz. Our common interest is Ben Harper. When we talk about the type of music we play, we can reference him.

He is an artist we all adore because of his varied approach to music. If you listen to his records, you can hear that he switches from very soft, pop-style songs, to folk, then directly to blues and sometimes even punk rock. Often times, he unites all of these genres in just one album. We love this! It’s what we try to do on our own records.

Because if there is one thing I truly find boring it’s listening to a concert where, after the fourth or fifth song, you realize that the sounds are always the same, the dynamic is always the same and the lyrics are pretty much talking about the same thing. I don’t like this at all.

I am a person who tries to speak their own truth in music. I try to live my own life within the songs. It’s not always easy, because sometimes you bare your soul and playing certain songs repeatedly becomes difficult. But, in the end, it’s also the thing that makes you feel more alive. It’s like going to a psychologist, except that you’re in front of a thousand psychologists. (laughs)  

There are a lot of influences in your music but the foundation seems to be the blues. Is there a big audience for blues in Italy? 

In Italy it’s difficult because the blues is very closed-off niche. We are fortunate because, although we offer a type of blues that is not entirely traditional, so to speak, we still manage to find concerts and space at any festival. But a lot of festivals only play old-school blues and many bands like us don’t manage to break through. That is because, in Italy, blues is still seen as a genre that, like jazz, is still in its own bubble. It’s static. This is the biggest mistake we make in Italy. Because blues and jazz are adventurous genres. They give you space to be yourself within the genre.  

This was also the reason why I started trying to play abroad. I wanted to see if people abroad were more receptive to this style of music. And the concert we did at Blues in the Garden in Dărmănești was a confirmation of the fact that, in Italy, we are overwhelmed by so much radio music that we don’t even have the ears to appreciate live music anymore.

We play everything live. Everything you hear on stage is played by someone at that exact moment. In Italy, however, eighty or ninety percent of concerts are practically quasi-prerecorded. This cancels any sense of unpredictability.  The mindset is that if you have a lot of people paying to see a concert, that concert has to be “perfect.” Having prerecorded tracks that nobody can screw up because they are “perfect” is of enormous help.  

I hate this! I believe that perfection is found precisely in the error – in understanding how much of that moment is true and to what extent the musician is telling his own truth. I always try to make music which someone on stage will be genuinely playing for you, the listener.  

Unfortunately, this is the Italian situation and it is not easy to deal with. But we are in Italy and we have to deal with it. The blues was born to fight the system. (laughs)

How is the audience abroad compared to the Italian audience?

The audience is different. In Italy, as in all Italian things, we are very passionate – often right from the get go. It’s a very warm audience, though unfortunately not a very big one. When you play in clubs, maybe you play in front of twenty or thirty people – if you’re lucky. The audience usually doesn’t increase until you play festivals.

For example, we often play the Malcesine Blues Festival, which takes place in August. It’s very beautiful. Very poor, quote-unquote, but very beautiful. The good thing is that Malcesine is a very touristy place, so you get to play in front of big crowds of different nationalities from all over Europe. When you play on that stage and in front of a lot of people who are there to have fun and you can make them dance… Well, you know what artists are like. If they see people having fun, you have to force them off that stage. That’s certainly the case for me. (laughs)

I live for those moments, you know? And playing abroad has had this effect on me. The few times I was lucky enough to play abroad, it’s always been like this. The audience is initially a bit colder because they have to get familiarized with you, but when they loosen up, they truly enjoy every single moment.

Let’s talk a bit about the creative process behind Step Into The Real Life.

Step into the Real Life is an album that, in my opinion, is key to our project. It’s a point of departure but also, in a way, it’s about our arrival. I mean that in the sense that it took a long time for us to arrive at this sound. It was very important for us to get the right sound for the record. My teacher always told me that it’s not about how well you play, but how captivating and beautiful and warm your sound is. And the sound of this album was reached after many tests. You know: buy an amp, sell it, buy a guitar, sell it – all in order to get the right sound. And I always say there’s no perfection in life, but when I listen to this record, I feel about ninety percent happy. (laughs)  

The creative process often goes as follows: I write a lot of tunes. For me, writing a song means investing four minutes of my life, in the sense that I am a person who writes on instinct. I write anywhere – in the car, at the end of a lesson with one of my students, any time, anywhere. Sometimes I just need one word or one concept to make an idea click. The difficulty is choosing the songs that have a greater value and whose message is more important.

Ho do you choose them?

I choose them based on the emotions I get when we play them. I write the lyrics and then usually create a temporary arrangement. I often write on the bass, not on guitar. Don’t ask me why because I have no idea. That’s how it’s always been. Whenever I write a song, I write the bass line first. In fact, for me the bass is the most important instrument in a band.

Then I take the song to the other guys and we work together based on how that song sounds to all of us at that moment. You can quickly tell when a song hits everyone the same way. If it also gets them emotionally invested, we decide that we have to develop it further. Then we begin to unite our visions.

Another way I choose is based on the song’s message because I believe that the work we do is a responsibility as well as an honor. There’s a responsibility in having so many people in front of you listening to what you have to say. Every now and then – I’m not saying always, I’m saying every now and then – you have to try to bring some awareness about the topics you think are important.

In Step Into The Real Life, I decided to insert two tracks that are somewhat political, to put it that way. For example, “Trash It All,” which is the last track on the record. I pushed hard to place that track there even though, at a sound-level, the placement wasn’t necessarily correct. Perhaps it would have worked better in another position. But I wanted to place it there because it’s a song that talks about atmospheric pollution. I wanted that to be the album’s final message. I wanted people to stop and reflect on what I say in that song, which is a call to try to change this exaggerated exploitation of our planet. It’s something I care about very deeply. My creativity in the lyrics comes from these kinds of things.

The album’s opening track talks about racism and gender difference and violence. I try to make the audience reflect on the fact that, in the year 2023 (almost) to choose violence, even if only at the level of words, is simply not right. It was never right and it will never be right.

These are the kinds of themes I look to confront in my own little way because I believe they are never spoken about enough. If I have the possibility to bring these messages in front of a greater number of people, then I will have done everything in my power to fight the system. See? How very rock and roll of me. (laughs)

You mentioned that you write a lot of songs. Why did you feature only five tracks on the album?

I think it was mostly because of an urgency to speak about these things. In fact, the tracks on the disc would have been seven or maybe eight. Our idea was always to make an LP but placing songs in the correct sequence to make them sound good on vinyl is not a very precise process. 

Some of the songs we’d planned to include on the disc we ended up using in different ways. One of them is “Be Yourself,” which is a single. We decided to put it out as a single because there was the pandemic and this song has a strong message, in our opinion.  It’s about deciding to be yourself, to believe in yourself, in who and what you are. So, we decided to put it out then. We made a video in the recording studio where, if you’re careful – because we weren’t careful – you can still see some masks lying around. (laughs) We are always a bit playful – it’s part of our way of life.

Then, we recorded a funky piece – very funky, very seventies – that we enjoyed a lot.  We recorded it in a famous studio in Milan. Fortunately for us, a dear friend who is a sound engineer needed to test some equipment so he invited us to do a day of recording where he could try some particular and innovative techniques. An amazing track came out of it. Once it was mixed and mastered, our friend decided to ask me if he could buy the rights to it. (laughs) He fell in love with it. He wanted to use it for his website. For us it was a great honor because he is a very accomplished sound engineer who has worked with great artists in Italy that fill any stadium. Knowing that one of our songs would be the soundtrack to one of his sites was great. It was a pleasure to be able to grant it to him but it also meant we couldn’t use it on our record. Finally, we ended up with six tracks.

Five of them are on the album. There is one song that unfortunately did not fit on vinyl because it would have made the rest sound a little bit “off.” We decided to put it on a can of beer instead. We had a brewery brew some craft beer for us and we placed a QR code on them and sold it as a beer-can single. You can only find it on our Bandcamp page, though we do play it live. It would have worked nicely on the LP, but since it was the sixth track it would have been more difficult to place. Instead, we decided to come out with a record and a beer. (laughs)

What do you have in mind for the future? Are you already planning your next record?

We are already working on the next album. It is a record that, in my opinion, will be the bomb. (laughs) I always try to think positively in life.

For this record, we’ll be accompanied by two other singers and another guitarist. We are already doing the first rehearsals of the songs – all seven of us. I have to say, sometimes I almost feel like not even playing the guitar because it is so beautiful to do vocals for these songs with such a full sound. I almost feel like saying, “Nah, you go ahead and play!” (laughs) I hope we’ll be able to put the record out in the near future. For now, the idea is to come out with a single in this new, extended format and see if there is any interest from those who already follow us and even those who don’t follow us yet. We’ll see what the future holds.

For Timișoara, we will probably be able to bring some edits that have never been played live. In fact, to tell you the truth, I am a bit undecided. At the beginning, we were supposed to come as a trio – the way Emil heard us in Dărmănești. Subsequently, I asked him if there is a possibility to come as a quartet, with Nicolò Moschera on organ and piano. He was very kind and said yes, so right now that’s the idea. Bringing the whole septet would be difficult because of the logistics involved.

How much time will you spend in Timișoara?

Only one evening. But we will probably be playing in Slovenia, either the night before, or two nights before. And I have an agency in Budapest that’s working on helping us find other gigs for a complete tour. We’ll see what happens. As of today, the only one I have confirmed is the one in Timișoara and that’s the one that interests me primarily. The fact that Emil had so much praise for our music has made this date very important to us. Our goal is to go out there and do our best to rise to the audience’s expectations.


BandCamp: Big Man James – BandCamp
YouTube: Big Man James Youtube
Instagram: big_man_james_trio

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