HIT CHANNEL EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW: March 2015. We had the great honour to talk with Franz Di Cioccio, drummer, vocalist and original member of the legendary Premiata Forneria Marconi (also known as PFM). PFM is the most successful band of the amazing Italian progressive rock scene. They have recorded some excellent albums like “Storia di un Minuto”, “Per un amico”, “L’isola di niente” and “Chocolate Kings”. Also, they were signed to the label of Emerson, Lake & Palmer, Manticore Records and have collaborated with Peter Sinfield (King Crimson lyricist), Peter Hammill (Van der Graaf Generator) and Ian Anderson (Jethro Tull). PFM are still active and touring across Italy and abroad. Their latest release is the live album “Un’ Isola”. Read below the very interesting things Franz told us:
Yes, of course. I’m very proud of that album because my idea was to make today a live version of the first five albums. Because I like how people react now when we play the music the way we played it in the past and maybe better. This story is like “Star Wars”, you know… We recorded it in Tokyo in two nights. We recorded all the gigs and the gigs have exactly, exactly the same tracklist as the albums. We didn’t make any overdubbing. We played straight the tracklist of the album: the first one, the second one and so on. We did the first three albums in the first day, and the other three albums in the second one. I say three albums because we played in our show some extra stuff. The gigs were the albums plus some special part that was called “The best of rest”. So, in two gigs we played all the albums plus some tunes that people like very much from other albums.
What are the latest news of Premiata Forneria Marconi? I saw that Franco Mussida (guitar/vocals) left PFM.
We didn’t have any problems together or arguing or fighting and things like that. The problem with Franco was that he is very busy with other projects. He has a music school and he has other projects. He likes contemporary art. We have a band meeting every year where we decide what the band is going to do during the year. We decide what is very important. This year we have a big tour in the United States and we will do a gig at Cruise to the Edge because we did it last year and we did it very well and so we confirmed for this year, too. We are in the bill and the organizers of the cruise said: “We would like to have you again this year”. We have a big tour in the United States and we will also go to Chile, Argentina, Brazil, and Puerto Rico. We will go to Canada. We have 4 gigs in Canada and 5-6 gigs in the United States. We will play in New York and Los Angeles. For us, it’s very important to do the US tour and also be back again at Cruise to the Edge. This kind of work takes a lot of time rehearsing and revising the material. Marco hasn’t enough time to dedicate to these things. So, we go one way and he goes another. But this doesn’t hurt our friendship. We are still friends. We have four gigs to do together until 29th April. And on 1st May we play with the new line up. I want to say to fans what I’m very happy that on 1st May we will have a new line up. Powerful and very strong.
Did you enjoy playing last year at Cruise to the Edge with Yes and other great musicians?
I enjoyed it very much because it was a very strange experience. The ship was very big and fantastic. She was called MSC Divina and she carried 4.000 fans. There were a lot of concerts because bands were always playing. The great thing about the cruise was that you were seeing all the other bands and all the other bands were coming to see you. You got to talk to people. You were meeting them in the swimming pool or elsewhere. The gig went very well and people enjoyed it. It was also a chance to see some old friends like Steve Hackett, Armando Gallo who wrote a book about Genesis and Three Friends with Gary Green (ed: Gentle Giant guitarist). He plays the music of Gentle Giant and now they are called Three Friends. So, it was a chance to see the whole prog family and that is very enjoyable. We will play again this year. There will also be some other bands. There will be Marillion and Allan Holdsworth. You can find more things on Facebook or on the Internet (http://cruisetotheedge.com). You can see the line up there.
How important was the success of the single “Impressioni di Settembre”/ “La carrozza di Hans” to the career of PFM?
It was important because that particular song, “Impressioni di Settembre” it’s a nice song, but the most important thing is that the musical phrases sound very strange and its sensation is like being in another world. The sound of organ and the sound of phrases were very strange and it captures all the people. It’s very different from the other bands. We are very proud of this sound. It’s a great song. We recorded it in 1970. The “Celebration”, “È Festa” is a great song too, because it has been influenced by the music of Southern Italy, tarantella, and that makes people very happy. It’s very similar to Ceilidh in England or square dances or popular dances in other countries. The song has very successful guitar arrangements and it is also mixed very naturally.
Yes, of course. Because that album made the difference from what was going on in Italy, in music. And outside Italy. Because that album brought to us a lot of popularity in other countries. The next album “Per Un Amico” (1972) and its English version, “Photos of Ghosts”, with lyrics by Peter Sinfield (ed: King Crimson and ELP lyricist) became very successful and it entered the Billboard charts. It was the first and only time that an Italian band was on a Billboard chart. I’m very proud of this. We showed that we weren’t successful only in Italy, but in the whole world.
In your opinion, what made PFM the most successful Italian progressive rock band?
Because we were the first who tried to go out of Italy and made musical choices that were successful. Also, because we had already played too much. We were session players and we played for 5 years. We were very experienced and very ready to do albums and tours. In our early days we used to play covers and among these covers there were a couple of King Crimson songs. Peter Sinfield heard that cassette and he was surprised that some other band played King Crimson songs so well. So, they invited us in London to a sort of showcase. And in that showcase we played all the cover tunes we did. He didn’t write lyrics only for King Crimson, but also worked with Greg Lake and Emerson, Lake & Palmer. And we started working together. Peter Sinfield liked what we did and he produced “Photos of Ghosts”. The album was successful because the lyrics by Peter Sinfield were very fantastic. He was able to write very heartfelt lyrics but with Italian flavor, Italian heart. That’s why the album was successful. Because the lyrics were fantastic. “Mr. 9 ‘till 5” was an instrumental song. In Italian was called “Generale”. He wrote fantastic lyrics.
Were you surprised when Greg Lake asked you to sign to the label of Emerson, Lake & Palmer, Manticore Records?
We were not surprised because we were sponsored by Peter Sinfield. It was great that we were signed to Manticore Records. They were looking for new talents, for new men. Peter Sinfield liked our music very much, he loved the band and later he asked us to produce the band. But when we did the showcase, Island, Vertigo, and all the best English labels were also in the showcase.
How did you feel when you played on “Midnight Special” TV show and millions of Americans were watching you?
We never really cared about playing on TV, because in England we played on The Old Grey Whistle Test. We always preferred to play live than making records. Because we were making records the whole of our life. We were doing session work. We wanted to take off the advantages of the studio, the pressure of the time. We liked improvisation a lot. The reason that people love us, is that we don’t play our stuff exactly as the record. We like to extend the songs, like the improvisation in jazz. This is something that some other bands have done it too, like The Grateful Dead. People love the improvisation very much. In America and England, on TV shows, except of Top of the Pops, bands always play live. Because that makes people more involved. They can see the band play live and the capacity of the band. It’s very different listening to a playback than a band playing live. I really enjoyed playing there. This is one of the best things I can do: playing live.
I remember everything. We played with very different kind of bands like Santana and The Beach Boys. We were changing crowd all the time. It was a surprise to us to discover a crowd watching our shows. That happened because we crossed America from East to West. We didn’t play in clubs only, we also played big shows with big audiences. We played in Texas with ZZ Top and with Santana in other cities. Every part of America was different than the other. I’ll tell you a story: we played in Texas with ZZ Top and ZZ Top and the people were wearing hats like the cowboys and they liked our tunes. That was very strange. I remember playing in Savannah, Georgia and a lot of black people were coming to our show. Savannah is in the South of America. I was surprised that many different people liked the music of our band. Because in America they don’t care about your nationality or the colour of your skin, etc. The only thing they care about, is if you play well and can give them an emotion and I am happy that other things mean nothing to them.
Do you think Internet has helped younger listeners to learn the music of PFM?
Sure. It’s a new kind of approach with people. The physical record seems to be lost in the near future. Now, people can be more familiar to your work and also it can be reached by people all over the world at the same time. In the past, you had to get in the bus and travel, and you couldn’t go everywhere. Then, people had to go to your show to see you live. Now, you can be wherever people love you. They can go on Facebook and watch you and read an interview you did. It’s very different today. It makes things easier.
Did you feel comfortable when you played with popular Italian singers as Lucio Battisti, Fabrizio De André and Piero Pelù ?
Everyone you mentioned is different. We played with the greatest Italian singers from 1967 until 1971. We were session players in their records. With Fabrizio we did a tour in 1979 and it was one the best things I have done in Italy. And with Piero we played at Piazza Del Campo (ed: Siena). He is a very nice guy and a good boy.
Did you enjoy working with Peter Hammill (Van der Graaf Generator) in 2003?
Sure, because he is one of the people I most admire, along with Peter Gabriel, Ian Anderson, Phil Collins and some others. He’s a nice guy. We talked and he wrote lyrics and sings in one song. We played two shows together in Italy and in Tokyo. People enjoyed it very much. And then he invited us to go to England and we did a show with him in London.
It was a great experience because I was a big fan of Jethro Tull and we covered their songs before we write our own material. PFM covered Jethro Tull songs before we do our first album. Jethro Tull were one of our first influences along with King Crimson, Ekseption, Chicago and others. That sort of stuff was the inspiration for us during our first days. In 2010, a big festival, Prog Exhibition took place, and all the great Italian bands were there. We played some songs together: “La Carrozza di Hans”, “Bouree” and “My God” and he really enjoyed it. He was a very nice, nice guy.
You wrote the great song “Maestro Della Voce” about Demetrio Stratos (singer of Area, died in 1979) in 1980. Can you tell a few things about this song and about Demetrio Stratos?
We were friends, we were very close together. We played together in bands before PFM. We used to play in clubs in Italy. In one day, one hour. The other day, another hour. We played from 9 o’clock to 3 every night. We were changing one each other. We were very close together. After his career was on, he was away but for other reasons. And with Area, we played together, in clubs, in open air concerts. The day before he entered the hospital, we had a meal together. He talked about doing an examination of his blood. That was the last time I saw him because then he entered the hospital in Milan. Later he was transferred to America and one day, one of the managers of his record company, Cramps, said: “Demetrio needs some special treatment in the hospital and it needs money because it’s very expensive”. With my manager, Franco Mamone, PFM and Area organised a concert to earn money for his treatment, but the night before the gig, he died. So, we did the gig as a sort of tribute. I remember, some time later, I was in my home in the country and I went to his funeral. I carried his coffin on my shoulders, with other friends. Being friends with him, it gave me the idea to write a song with the lyrics: “You are the master of the voice, teach me how to sing a song”. This is a song that many people love.
You met Fish (ex-singer of Marillion) -who is a huge PFM fan- in Milan some years ago and you talked about playing live together and singing “Chocolate Kings”. What really happened?
Fish is a great singer. I like him very much and we are friends. He has a great voice. We have to find the time to do it. Perhaps, this will happen by coincidence. We have talked many times about playing some songs live together. We both want to do it, but we have very different schedules. I think it will happen some time.
Do you think concerts are more important than studio albums?
For me, for sure. I love the lives. I prefer a live album than a studio album. Because in a live album, there are people, there is more emotion and passion. I love the risk.
No. We are in different ways. He now does soundtracks. We do different things.
Why do you always have so many drumsticks in your belt during concerts?
Because I don’t want to lose the time if a drumstick falls from my hands. So, I had all the sticks in my back and I can take one off immediately in a fraction of a second without losing the time in a song. You can see that in “PFM Live in Japan” in 2002. In the song “La Luna Nuova”, I lose my stick and I take off from my back another one. It’s something like circus. Also, because I did karate, tai chi and a couple of other things, a long time ago. In Japan, in Tokyo, they love the band very much. There is an opera by Puccini, “Madame Butterfly”.In Japanese is called Cho-Cho-San. My name is Di Cioccio and they call me Cho-Cho-San.
Did you like other Italian bands of your era like Le Orme, Banco del Mutuo Soccorso and Goblin?
Yes, of course. We did very different types of music, but they all are great bands. They do other things. They are so different. Orme had their own style, Banco had their own and Goblin too. We all played at Prog Exhibition in 2010. I was the musical director of the festival. Sometimes people say: “this band is better than the other one”. No-one is better than the other one. One goes this way, and the other one goes other way.
I have met Peter Gabriel when we started and when Genesis started to play in Italy. We played together. Genesis weren’t famous in England then. We became friends with Peter Gabriel. When I was going to England, friends of mine would say: “Hey, say hello to Peter”. Remember that Phil Collins, once said in an interview with Corriere Della Sera, the newspaper: “Without PFM, I don’t think we would be so successful in Italy. Because they made that kind of music very popular”. I was very happy when I learned what Phil Collins said. I haven’t met Robert Fripp. Of course, I know very well his work with King Crimson. We played in the same studio, Command Studios, when we were recording “Photos of Ghosts”. He was in another studio, maybe upstairs, recording “Larks’ Tongues in Aspic” (1973). We never met, but King Crimson was a very big influence to us.
How possible is to play in Greece?
I would like to play in Greece. I love Greece. We didn’t have a chance to play in Greece. Hope we will have a chance. You can make a referendum (laughs). Also, because Patrick (ed: Djivas –bass. He also played on the first Area album, “Arbeit Macht Frei” -1973) is half-Greek.
I didn’t know that! I thought only Demetrio Stratos was Greek.
You didn’t know that?! Demetrio Stratos was Greek and Patrick founded Area with Demetrio, because they were very close together. Patrick is half-Greek, half-French. His name is Djivas. He is half-Greek but he speaks Greek –not so well. But he feels very Greek.
A huge “THANK YOU” to Franz Di Cioccio for his time and to Laura for her valuable help.
Official PFM website: www.pfmworld.com
Official PFM Facebook page: www.facebook.com/premiataforneriamarconiofficial