Unconventional. That is the best word to describe The Count (aka Cole Gentles), a solo musician from NYC who goes out of his way to present his music in a unique fashion. For an example, look no further than The Count's debut album, Catatonic State of Mind, an overblown and dramatic masterpiece that revives the conceptual art rock of the 60s and 70s and adds a new millennium flourish. Some songs, like My World use the simple stirrings of The Count and his solo piano, while others utilize a full assortment of live strings and horns, as in the "Dorothy reflects" epic, After Oz.
There is never a dull moment, rising and descending with creative dynamics and always avoiding the standard pop music structure. There is a definite classical feel that carries through each tune, as if each one were a separate movement. To say this is a breath of fresh air would be too cliche. It is more than that. It is downright breathtaking.
Where does he get that kind of inspiration? Let's find out...
MISH MASH: Where did the "The Count" image come from?
The Count: It just sort of came together slowly. Actually, now that I think about it, my wife is to blame. I used to look like Sid Vicious, and then my wife started to buy me all these black antique clothes. I'm too lazy, or at least don't care enough to go out and do my own shopping, so I'd just wear what she bought me. The final touch was when she came home with an antique, beaver skin, top hat. I had other top hats; a pop-up, a felt one, but never one like that. That became my favorite hat and I've been wearing it for a good 5 or 6 years now. At the time, I was going by Cole (my first name) but then I found out that another band on a label named "Cole" had just released a CD so I had to change my name. I was never very into using my last name, and one day the name The Count just came to me, so I stuck with it. I have a whole little story for it, but let's not go there just now.
MISH MASH: Your musical themes are theatrical in nature, how does this manifest itself in your live performances?
The Count: For awhile I was just playing shows with just me and the piano, but recently I've been doing shows with a full band of piano, bass, drums, guitar, and a string quartet. People usually flip when they see it because it's very different than what they're use to seeing in the clubs. It's pretty dramatic live, too. I come from a very hard rock background so despite being tied down to the piano, I get pretty animated up there. I bang on the keyboard really hard because I like to let out all my aggression on stage and it's resulted in me cracking the tips of my fingures on several occasions when playing on a real piano.
MISH MASH: You are highly vocal about your use of orchestration with live instruments on your album--is there any significance to this? Why not sampled sounds? Also--have you performed these songs live with the full ensemble? If so, how hard is it to pull off?
The Count: Yes, I'm very proud of the live orchestration bit, because you don't hear it much on the indie level. It's hard to pull of on a large scale without a lot of money, but I've found ways to manage as best I can. Why not sampled sounds? For the simple reason: they're sampled. They aren't being played live by another human being. There is an amazing rush that comes from writing down a bunch of dots and lines on a piece of paper and then hearing someone play that back for you on a real insturment. I've tried to come to terms with the synth thing, and even bought a bunch of equipment to try and make synth orchestrations and see how it came out. Let me tell you, once you've been spoiled with working with live orchestrations, I don't see how you could ever go back. I use it now and then for my own personal use, to hear what different instruments might sound like on top of each other (for coloring) but that's about it. It just has to be played by real musicians. Otherwise, it's just not worth doing. You know, I'm usually much better at explaining this, but it doesn't seem to be coming out too well now. Sorry. I think I already answered the live question, but as far as how hard it is to put on? It's very hard. I use an 8 piece band (once I used horns, trumpet and trombone, sounded great, but it was a nightmare to get together) and they're all professional musicians who go on tours and the such, so it's really difficult to get everyone's schedules straight. It can be pretty frustrating, and very expensive (I believe in paying my people as much as I can) but once it's all together and we hit the first couple of notes on stage, it's magic, and somehow it feels worth the trouble (please do me a favor and email me to remind me of that next time I'm putting a show together!).
MISH MASH: What is your songwriting process?
The Count: Hmmmm. I don't really have one, I don't think. Usually ideas start to come to me, melodically, then I end up putting lyrics on top when the music is done. The orchestrations are usually manifesting themselves in my head the whole time I'm writing the song, and often even are the basis for the music itself.
MISH MASH: What is your musical background? Were you trained in classical music?
The Count: I played piano since I was 5 but didn't learn much because I didn't want to. I sucked. I played clarinet for about 2 or 3 years when I was like 10, and violin for about 6 years when I was 8, but I don't remember a note of them now. When I was 15, I convinced my parents to let me quit the piano and take up the guitar. Soon I decided I wanted to sing instead and only used the guitar to write songs. I was pretty much a hard rock singer, sort of Steven Tyler/Axl Rose type, and by the time I was 21 I was drifting into punk, but then I had sort of a musical epiphany, and I decided to relearn the piano. I took about 3 lessons a week for about 6 months, and it didn't cost me much because the guy just wanted to teach me. I just wanted to be good enough to write and play my own songs. I still suck, just not as much as I used too, and I can pull it off enough so that people seem to think I'm actually a good piano player! That part amazes me! I suck at the piano, yet people come up to me after a show, or after hearing the CD, and one of the first things they always say is how great my piano playing was! That makes me feel really good being that it's one of the things I'm most self conscious about. I'm not really classically trained unless you consider the lessons as a kid, but none of that stuck with me. I've taught myself composition up to this point, but I'm thinking about possibly trying to get a teacher if I can afford it. I'm not sure yet though.
MISH MASH: I would have to say that my favorite song on the record is After Oz--what is the story behind that one? Was it inspired by the original book or the movie--or something else?
The Count: It's all about my friend Dorothy, who did the cover art for the CD. I like the movie a lot, having scene it a million times as a kid, so I basically paralelled different things in her life with parts of the movie. OZ is NYC. The Lion, Scarecrow and Tin Man, were ex-boyfriends of hers. And blah blah blah. Some people have compained that it doesn't make sense to them and that the OZ thing is so overused, but I could care less. She likes it, and it definitely hit home for her, so that's what I really care about.
MISH MASH: I only see your name in the vocal credits--did you do all the voices for Insomnia?
The Count: Yep. Much to some people's horror, that's 16 tracks of me! It was fun to do, because I had it all in my head for a couple of months, and then just went into the studio and cut it. Unlike my other stuff where I already have it written down and rehearsed well before hand, this one was very fresh to my ears when I finished it, so that was very cool.
MISH MASH: What's next for the Count?
The Count: I'm going to eat dinner. I think a bowl of Cheerios is on the menu tonight. I've also recently begun work on a rock opera. People have been telling me I should I need to right a musical or rock opera for quite some time now, but I didn't think it was something I was at all interested in. People kept comparing me to a young Andrew Lloyd Webber. I kept thinking Cats??? And they'd say "No, Jesus Christ Superstar". Eventually, I decided I was ready to take on the challenge of a rock opera. In doing the research, I bought Superstar, and needless to say, that was about all I listened to for 2 months. I'm sure it will take me at least a year to write, then who knows how long to get recorded, and then I plan on trying to get it performed, so we're talking a good few years or more of my life tied up in this nonsense! Help.