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Interview with Producer of new Chicago Album

September 1, 2010

John Van Eps, longtime composer for the Manchester Music Library  has been working on a new project for the band Chicago.  You can here some of his music here.

Luminous Muse – John, Tell me how you got involved with this project.

John Van Eps – The band Maroon Five had done Latin versions of some of their hits. It was relatively successful. Chicago is represented by the same company – Primary Wave. Chicago decided to do a bunch of their own hits with a Latin feel. They put the word out and got some demos. The liked the three I did so they hired me to produce the project.

LM –You have a longstanding connection with Robert Lamm.

JVE – I met Robert and Jason Scheff, the bass player, through a great singer/writer, Gerard McMann. I would do preproduction for them so they would sound like Chicago, so when they submitted the demos to David Foster they wouldn’t just be piano demos. Robert liked them so much that he asked me to do a solo record with him. I’ve done three so far.

LM – Did the connection with Robert Lamm lead to this?

JVE –Yes, he’s been pushing me for a while. But the band works all the time – It’s hard to get them all in the same place at the same time.

LM – So this is an official Chicago project

JVE Yes.. And they wanted it to be truly Latin – no loops or machines

LM And so you hired live players.

JVE All the Latin players and they’re great. I wish everyone understood that if you hire great players its going to sound great (laughing.) as opposed to spending all your time  sitting in your room trying to get something that’s really not that great to sound better by using your computer.

LM Tell me about some of the players

JVE – There are two piano players on it. Oscar Hernandez, very well known, who has the group Spanish Harlem Orchestra, they’ve been around forever, he’s based out of LA nd he’s a salsa star. Then we used this Columbian composer/ piano player Hector Martin Young who just was unbelievable.  It’s a rhythmic feel you have to have played since you were 2 years old.

LM – You did some of the arrangements?

JVE –I hired my friend David Samuels who has Caribbean Jazz Project the Grammy winning Latin Jazz band. He has all great Latin players in the band. I started with him as my  conduit to what is truly Latin rhythm, as opposed to Americans banging away on conga drums. Dave was my rhythm and concept arranger. His job was to make sure it stayed Latin, so that people didn’t play back beats, or fusion, or incorrect claves like unknowledgeable people do all the time. This is pretty codified music and you don’t get to mess with it.

I did three arrangements on my own, and we collaborated on a lot of it. I ran everything I did by him to make sure it passed the Latin test. I did a Meringue. He sent me this CD by this guy Uribe who’s got all these audio examples of all the different grooves and how they work.

LM You did a lot of homework.

JVE Yeah.

LM What are some of the songs?

JVE – Saturday in the Park, Making Smiles, Beginnings, You’re my inspiration, anything pre-David Foster/ Peter Cetera.

LM –This is a wise thing for them because the Latin market is exploding.

JVE – Yeah, but what amazed me is that no one had actually addressed it. Why did it take so long for someone to actually do it?

LM You were surprised that a lot of Salsa players knew the songs.

JVE They knew them and they were thrilled to play them. They were like – I can’t believe I love this tune.

LM They’re sung in Spanish.

JVE That was the biggest problem with the whole thing. Salsa singing is a style that’s sung over 2 chord changes. It’s a plaintive style of singing over one and five, and trumpet players, what’s know as the chora, play, then put their horns down and sing in this nasal loud sound behind the guy in the front. That was the original concept but we couldn’t do it with the Chicago songs because the chord changes are too intense, harmonically interesting, there’s too much going on.  I would call it more Latin pop with salsa underpinnings. I ended up using my old friend Eddie Gantz, who’s a tremendous Cuban singer. He’s the voice of the project.

LM Who did you use for background singers?

JVE –I used Russell Velasquez, and the American singer Eric Troyer,

LM Who I’ve worked with

JVE He made sure everything was in tune, has great ideas, takes care of all the blends.

LM Tell me about this super auto-tune.

JVE-Mellodyn, which I hadn’t worked with in a couple of years. It’s completely changed. It works as a plug-in within the program. It analyses transients, pitch, volume and length of sound – displays it on a keyboard scroll grid. At that point it’s drag and move. It shows you where the pitch would be if you want it perfect. And it doesn’t sound affected, like auto-tune.

LM How is Chicago going to market this?

JVE I don’t know. Any ideas? (Laugher.) At this point they’ve been on the road, working so hard, they’re going to Nashville to do their 2nd Christmas record, then they go to Southeast Asia. There are many ideas. My best would be to have them tour with an actual salsa band that opens for them, then would join them onstage for some numbers. You have a salsa band on their own, almost a tribute band.

LM They’re going to have this on their website – is it their record company?

JVE Yes, Chicago Records 2, distributed by Rhino. They wanted to do their own thing first, prove success, it gives you much more leverage when you go to someone.

LM Tell me about this interactive thing with their website.

JVE It started with Robert Lamm’s site, Blue Infinity. Trent Gardner and Jason Scheff  had this interactive community concept where you post songs the band has done, in progress on the website. And people can comment, kind of A & R it, even chime in with their own ideas for chord progressions. They’ll post a horn idea. Here’s a jam we had going after the gig one night. Jason’s idea is not just to come up with the best tune, but multiple tunes, that every version has a value. It’s very forward thinking. Then the tunes are posted on the website and people can download their versions. There’s legal stuff involved – it’s clear that you don’t own a piece of this. It’s cool hearing how the band is doing, how their tunes come together, immediate feedback from fans. Chicago is moving in that direction.

LM Want to say anything more?

JVE I hope I passed the audition.

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4 Comments
  1. You say, “So this is an official Chicago project” and JVE says “yes.” But, it sounds more like a studio project with very little band involvement. This isn’t really a Chicago album. It’s just on their label. Am I right???

  2. Very interesting. I noticed Van Eps had the song titles not quite right– but is that more a Spanish/English translation issue? Making Smiles instead of Make Me Smile, You’re My Inspiration instead of You’re The Inspiration… Having taken Spanish in high school I do recall their rules of grammar are such that coming up with Spanish lyrics that catch not only the meaning but also the sentiment of the English lyrics might take a bit of creativity…

    I noticed he mentioned both a Cuban and English singer… Will some songs be in Spanish others in English or will both Spanish and English be interspersed in all of the songs?

    • I hope John doesn’t mind that I explain that he’s quite a bit…dislexic. I should have known to check those titles, and will correct when I get a moment. (Moments just keep getting harder to find, like kicks I suppose.)

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