MODEST MIDGET
The Great Prophesy Of A Small Man
(Multi-Polar Records)

 

Is it pop, prog or a techno-pop hybrid? Either or, the 2011 CD from Modest Midget is a sonic blast of sizable proportions. Appropriately entitled The Great Prophesy Of A Small Man, the 13 track album features the multitalented Israeli - Argentinean singer songwriter Lionel "Lonny" Ziblat, who while backed up by several players, takes on the lion's share of the musicianship. Recorded in Amsterdam between 2006 and 2009 and produced, mixed and mastered by Ziblat, the 2010 Modest Midget CD contains some of the most arresting prog-rock made in the past decade. Track nine, an instrumental "Jorge Knows" is reminiscent of instro rock pioneer Pekka Pohjola while for various reasons, some of the Lonny's vocals evoke a kind of full-bodied, early '70s Canterbury era sound of Hatfield and Caravan, and how about the Richard Sinclair inspired track three “Troubles In Heaven”. A more recent comparison would be to Israeli band Rockfour. Ziblat’s sense of vocal dynamics are quite kindred in spirit to Rockfour. With just a touch of accent in his vocal delivery, Ziblat’s offbeat English lyrics add fun to the international sound of the album. Also recent from the gifted Ziblat is his 2011 solo project Songs From The Drawer, featuring a surprisingly full bodied, one man band effort from Lonny with his all original songs evoking the early D.I.Y. spirit of McCartney and the sorely underrated Emitt Rhodes. Lonny's latest masterpiece, Songs From The Drawer finds him again incredibly performing all guitars, keyboards, percussion and vocals, topped off by his memorable cover (with excellent drums too) of a rarely heard (though, way back when, immensely influential and critically acclaimed) Wings Wild Life track from 1971 called “Tomorrow”. www.ModestMidget.com


mwe3.com presents an interview with
LIONEL "LONNY" ZIBLAT of Modest Midget

mwe3: Lionel, tell us where you were born, something about the Israeli and Argentinean connection and how you ended up in Amsterdam. Also do you prefer Lonny or Lionel?

LZ: I was born in Buenos Aires. My parents moved to Israel when I was very young, in a time when Israel seemed to be thriving. I was just a baby. We used to travel often to the Netherlands for family vacations and it always left a positive impression on me. When I went abroad to expand my knowledge and experiences it seemed like a natural choice. My friends call me Lonny. If a piece of mine is being performed in a classically oriented concert they seem to feel more comfortable presenting me as Lionel.

mwe3: Why do you call the band Modest Midget, what is the hisory of the band and who is playing on the recently released album The Great Prophesy Of A Small Man and who is playing in Modest Midget now?

LZ: The band was actually just a dream of mine, a place where all poles and hooks of music can meet. I loved certain rock acts as well as certain hooks in the classical world, in South American folklore (which I grew up listening to), blues, jazz and other folklore oriented music. Well, I think that a lot of who I am as a musician is now in the repertoire of the band and you will not find us sitting around planning how to mix a certain sub-Saharan percussive style with Bartok. I simply write what I think I would enjoy listening to. I find it important that the music will flow naturally, but I also think you should have something to say. I never pretended it to belong to any specific genre, whether it be a “World-music” oriented band or a “Progressive-Rock” band. It just is.

Another aspect is the fact that I believe that a musician always comes to a point in which he has to choose between making music straight from the heart, or from the brain. I’m dead greedy so I went for both. I think that this is the most important aspect of this band, its challenge, the difficulty selling it, but also its strongest feature.

The name ‘Modest Midget ‘ was just a joke, referring to Gentle Giant. I was thinking about how good their name was and I was wondering if I could find something similar but that wouldn’t sound too pretentious.

Through the years I a weird collection of songs I wrote was piling up, that wouldn’t fit in any particular hook. I started recording them on my own with the help of friends and musicians I knew, some of them were jazz musicians like viola player Oene van Geel but there were people like Bas Wiegers who’s passion is – I think – mainly contemporary classical music (Xenakis, Kagel etc.).

Emiel de Jong has worked a lot with me then and when it was time to go on the road it was obvious that he was part of the gang. I consider him a full member of the original band. The names of musicians that I can reveal that participated in the album are clarinetist Ilse Eijsink and violin and viola player Vera van der Bie.

We played a couple of try out shows in 2008 where Emiel and I were joined by drummer Artis Orubs and keyboardist / pianist Tristan Hupe who’s been working with me ever since.

Emiel’s life has eventually taken him to a different direction and he realized he couldn’t commit to the touring life with us. For the 2009 tour we had Richard Zoer on bass, who also played with Kayak on a couple of tours.

The guys in the current lineup are Tristan Hupe on keyboards and vocals, Willem Smid on drums, and Maarten Bakker on bass guitar. Yours humbly sings and plays guitars.

mwe3: What came first, writing and recording wise: The Great Prophesy Modest Midget album or your new solo CD Songs From The Drawer? And when and where was the music on both albums written and recorded?

LZ: They were both recorded during the same period, although I ended up finishing the solo album later. They both had songs that were written specifically for them, the most recent ones being “Contemporary Ache” and “Buy Me” in the case of the Modest Midget album, and “How Much” in the case of the solo album. There were also a couple of very old tunes of mine that I resurrected for these sessions. “Here I Go” (The Great Prophecy) was written just after high-school. “Black Hill” (on Songs From The Drawer) was written when I was traveling in Chile, about 15 years ago. I wrote it in a small village at the foot of a smoking volcano. It happens to be the same one who has erupted just about the time that I published the album. A mere coincidence? Who knows… (maybe Jorge!...)

mwe3: I've seen your video for "Contemporary Ache" which is excellent. Can you say something about that track and where and when was the video made?

LZ: The video was shot during a show in Riga, Latvia, at the beginning of a tour through the Baltic states. It was August 2010. It’s been filmed and recorded with slightly old-fashioned equipment, which gave it a special 70’s sound. The band is playing rather well, with a local bass player taking Richard’s place for the tour (Oskar Sprogis), although for some reason the studio didn’t allow us to perform on the full volume we are used to. I tell you, singing a heavy rock song on t.v. with your drummer holding brushes in his hands makes you feel pretty darn ridiculous.

This track was the first one where I consciously integrated certain hooks, making an ode to Bach, the Beatles and Contemporary classical music. The lyric is very general on one hand, but it also specifically addresses the absurdity of humans being able on one hand to develop their art and open-mindedness, but on the other they’re also committing huge mistakes.

mwe3: How about the song "Troubles In Heaven"? What's the sentiment behind that track and is there a little Israeli music influence in that track too?

LZ: I don’t know if I can describe a specific sentiment behind the song. There’s something to it of course which I feel every time we perform it, but I couldn’t put my finger on it. The song is more or less about the fact that technology is evolving and although we seem to have more means of communication at our disposal, we actually seem to be growing distant from each other, at least in certain personal aspects of social life.

There is absolutely no Israeli influence on this song as far as I can tell. It’s almost a joke in this sense really. It seems to be enough to lower the 6th grade of a major scale and everybody thinks its an “oriental song”. And because I’m from Israel everybody thinks “Hey! There’s his Israeli background coming out!” whereas in fact nothing I ever heard in my youth in Israel had ever used such scales. I personally think it is one of those superficial stereotype-myths. In fact I, honest to god, when I took that particular note on the scale I actually thought “there you go, now you’re doing World Music! And people are going to put that sticker on you forever”. I didn’t mind. I just went for it.

mwe3: The Modest Midget sound also incorporates a new kind of instrumental jazz fusion as evidenced on the track “Coffee From Yesterday” and also on the track “Jorge”. How big an influence is that classic ‘60s and ‘70s Euro sound on your sound, especially when you consider your base of operations Holland has some of the greatest classic Euro-rock and instro rock bands in history. Now that I think about it, some of your music sounds very Focus like!

LZ: I used to like Focus a lot. I don’t know about musical terms like ‘Euro sound’. I’ve always perceived the music that’s made in Holland as very “clean”. Don’t ask me to explain it because its purely a subjective impression. I don’t know if “Coffee From Yesterday” has any jazz in it. I see it as a straightforward rock piece with a harmony that is slightly more adventurous than an average rock song would be. “Jorge Knows” is almost an “accident”. I was practically getting up and walking from the living-room to the kitchen and when I got there I already had the “A” theme in my head. For a while there I had a short struggle between my head and my stomach because I was hungry, but in the end I thought it was worth walking back to my desk to write it down before I forgot it. By the time I arrived at my desk I had the second theme ready. The next day I completed it by adding a bridge. It felt natural to add a solo section too. These two themes are two of the quickest compositions that ever came out of me.

“Jorge Knows” is all based on Argentinean music. More specifically the Chacarera and the Chamame. Two styles that are played a lot in the heartland. I performed it in 1999 with a “jazz” combo in the conservatory for the first time. Later I wrote an arrangement of it, orchestrated for chamber orchestra, and later on I made a 9 minute version for symphonic band and another 5 minute score for a fanfare orchestra. It sounds quite different but pretty interesting.

mwe3: How about my favorite Great Prophesy track, the amazing instrumental “I Came I Saw I Left” which sounds to me very influenced by Pekka Pohjola and even Lasse Hollmer, two artists many of today’s listeners don’t recognize I might add! What’s your influence coming out there and any story on that track?

LZ: I don’t really know what influenced me to write it. I just wrote it. Honestly! I started it a long time ago when I was sharing an apartment with my good friend Amit Poznansky (currently an accomplished film composer). I had no idea what to do with it then. It was one of those pieces that didn’t really fit with anything else I was doing at the time. In the end I realized it would be perfect for The Great Prophecy album.

mwe3: What guitars are you featuring on your new CDs? What are some of your favorite amps and other guitar enhancing devices and do you follow all the wild technological leaps in the guitar world and the gear world?

LZ: I was never too much into the ‘guitars and amps thing‘. My guitar does great, is quite versatile in sound and handy to play and that’s enough for me. Of course after all those years my Yamaha SG1000S is very dear to me. I used to think in terms of writing a song and ‘making it happen’ when recording it, either myself or with a band. Nowadays I think in terms of production and orchestration. This means that all sounds, contrasts, tempo’s, voicings, rhythm etc. are all just techniques that are available at my disposal in order to serve one simple purpose: the music. And what ‘The Music’ might be depends on what tune we’re dealing with. Some are straightforward numbers where the arrangement and sound are a secondary thing. Others are based on a written score, where each instrument has a written part, conceived as a part of a whole picture. In this case you also think of a lot of the sounds and the textures already when writing. I like sound manipulations, but merely as tools. I used to be very attracted to them when I was young. At some point I realized they can easily distract you from what’s really important, and that is concentrating on what the song or piece needs.

mwe3: What are the challenges of recording the solo album all alone compared with working with in a band with Modest Midget?

LZ: Well, I wrote and produced both albums on my own actually. So in that sense there wasn’t too much difference. I did have to rediscover however how delicate it is to perform a “naked” song, with only a voice accompanied by a guitar.

mwe3: Looking back on music history it seems to me like you would rather have been making music during the time of the first Wings album. Interesting your choice of covering McCartney on your new solo album. How about choosing the Macca track "Tomorrow" and the Beatles influence on your work and also what are some of the other musical influences on your writing and recording? Also who are your big guitar influences worldwide?

LZ: I didn’t as much choose “Tomorrow” as I just did it for testing some new equipment that I bought for my humble studio. It ended up sounding pretty good and I found myself thinking of releasing it in the album. Quite frankly I would have preferred to avoid all the hassle around arranging the rights to release a cover of a McCartney song, but I think in the end it was worth it. I like the song because I always thought it was charming, and because it’s so old. I’m not sure I would have fitted in that period myself, although I did like a lot of music and films from that era. So.. maybe you’re on to something there. Talking about influences and inspirations, my biggest, and maybe my only real idol ever has always been Chico Buarque, the Brazilian singer and poet. He also works with some of the most brilliant arrangers I’ve ever heard. Particularly Francis Hime. Another idol is George Martin, the man who actually “packed” and presented the Beatles musically. Cuchi Leguizamon, Ravel, Beethoven and Varese were huge influences, as well as Zappa, particularly his courage as a musician and an artist, and just as Chico is a pure true artist who expresses the most personal stories, a trait which I tend to think is a must for an artist, so are Woody Allen and John Lennon. McCartney is a great perfectionist and a fantastic writer and bass musician (note that I regard it as something else than just being a bass-player). When I was younger I listened a lot to Jimi Hendrix, Led Zeppelin, Yes and Deep Purple. Mind you: It was never “the guitarist” that attracted me. It was the whole vibe, the band. The rawness in Hendrix’s recordings, the feel and freedom in Zeppelin’s, and the tight grooves of Deep Purple. In that fantastic whole I was very aware of what each instrument was doing, and because I was the handiest with the guitar, that’s the part I picked up the easiest. I taught myself to play tight and worked on my sound in those years. Later, I learned some jazz and started writing complex compositions for classical performers, chamber and orchestral. When I started writing this way for Modest Midget I found I had to study and practice those weird new parts. That’s when I really learned to play guitar.

mwe3: How about future plans, writing and recording solo and with Modest Midget too?

LZ: I don’t have any specific plans on a solo album yet. Time will tell. I am however already working on new music for the Modest Midget album and we’re slowly discussing the shape it will take. I think it will be very different in sound, but just as exciting. There’s already some written music piling up for it on top of my piano.

Thank you to Lonny Ziblat @ www.ModestMidget.com

 

 
   
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