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Eric Ragno (China Blue)

Interview with Eric Ragno from China Blue
by Grigoris Chronis at 06 January 2009, 12:08 PM

Our appointment with Eric Ragno was set in a blink of an eye. What more should we need? A fine CHINA BLUE debut CD, some intriguing collaborations with none other than Tony Mills and Josh Ramos and - most of all - a superior blend of AOR/Melodic Rock music aiming high.

Hi Eric, greetings from!

Hey Greg!  Thanks for talking to me about the new album!

Well, Twilight Of Destiny is soon to hit the stores and, by reading the Press Release, I found out that the basis for Twilight Of Destiny's songs was built years ago, right? What's the story for CHINA BLUE?

Hahaha, well some of them are from that era, but a lot of them are new. Like many musicians I was tired of having yet another great band implode on me unexpectedly. In the late 80's everything was about image, big hair, etc. I felt disillusioned by the music industry and wanted to start my own thing. I got back to basics, made it all about songwriting and having fun with my friends. I called it CHINA BLUE and from then on whenever the music business let me down, I would go back to that CHINA BLUE mindset. It's an amazing feeling to write a great song with your buddies.  

What do you now consider CHINA BLUE is all about? Is it a normal band? Is it a project?

There is nothing normal about us! We are spread across different cities, but these are my friends and this is where we all live. Unlike some anonymous project situations, we all speak often and everyone contributed heavily to this record. Everyone is well-respected at their instrument, and we're dying to tour together - especially Josh & Tony. It's a special group of guys.

Tom Gasbarro was an initial partner of you in CHINA BLUE. What's his story?

Tom is an awesome Metal singer, and we became great friends in CRUCIBLE. When that band fell apart, Tom & I formed CHINA BLUE. We were outcasts and chose to build our own thing. We abandoned all the Metal conventions and started writing songs about the human condition. We had this synergy going and brought in guys like Al Ciminata on drums, friends of ours who we knew could play. It was all about good times and good music, and our rehearsals became these big infectious parties where people could rock out, get drunk and fall in love. It was this infectious vibe that eventually caught the attention of some friends at CBS, but soon after Tommy fell in love with a great girl we knew, and started a family. I was thrilled for him, it was the ultimate culmination of this thing we had built - but now this big part of my life was over and I didn't know what to do! I finally decided to start over in Los Angeles.

Moving on to other bands in your post-80s career (VOX TEMPUS, TAKARA etc), how deep did you have in mind the wish to finally release - some time - the CHINA BLUE songs in a normal album? How did it all begin to start rehearsing/recording for Twilight Of Destiny?

It was always in the back of my mind, but the time was never right. It's a LOT of work putting together your own album! My career started perking up, and I was contributing songs to some well-known artists. This gave me the confidence and the connections I needed to take the next step.

TAKARA went on hiatus for nearly a decade, and VOX TEMPUS fell apart right after the release of our debut album. I already started writing for a follow-up record, but I had no band. I was ranting to my friend Michael Riesenbeck about it - we had worked together on his solo album and had built a good rapport. Mike liked my demos and really pushed me to do this album together as CHINA BLUE. I felt determined to finally do this record, and on my own terms.

Did you have a clear vision on the aim regarding Twilight Of Destiny or things did 'shake' a little bit until the recordings were over?

Michael lives in Holland & we started collaborating online. Our songs started getting some attention as the album took shape. I had some friends in the business that wanted to participate, but their schedules were pretty intense. We had no real deadlines, so we would often wait weeks or even months for a guy to get off tour to finish up his tracks! I let this go a lot longer than I should have - but these are friends and so what if it took an extra 1 or 2 or 6 months, right? Hahaha! As time went on, some of the guys moved on - and sadly Michael's family obligations forced him to move on as well.

So I had these great tracks but no real plan…and I was constantly waiting for one guy or another to finish up his parts or learn his gear. During this downtime I started doing work for Frontiers Records and their artists. I became fast friends with Fabrizio Grossi, who heard the finished tracks and showed me what I needed to do to finish this record.  From there we finished the record within six months.

Regarding the lineup: I would not deny I was pleased to see my beloved Tony Mills singing in this CHINA BLUE album. I really love his SHY works and - even if the last couple of TNT albums are far from being excellent for my taste - it's obvious the man still has this splendid performance when it comes to heavy rock/AOR songs. Tell us a few things regarding your cooperation, will you?

Tony came to us through Andrew McNiece. Tony is always looking to work with new artists and Andrew knew we were looking for a singer.  I'm ashamed to say I wasn't familiar with Tony's work, so I went out and got every SHY record I could find. His work with SHY blew me away, and I wrote I Feel Like Dying that week to see what he would do on it - a simple track with an open chorus. Man, he blew me away! It was so obvious that he was the guy. His performances raised the bar on this album and also raised our profile considerably! So I really had to pull this all together.

Another favorite musician, Josh Ramos, is credited in the album. A brilliant guitarist whose works with THE STORM and HARDLINE I like very much. How did you get in touch with him? Via your common label, let's say?

Josh contacted me to write for his solo album, which evolved into the Ramos/Hugo record. I really like working with Josh - his playing is incredibly soulful, you find yourself humming along to his solos! During that time I had played the CHINA BLUE demos for Josh and he really liked what we had been doing with Tony. So when Michael dropped out of CHINA BLUE, Josh was more than ready to come on board.  

So, how would you describe - in brief - Twilight Of Destiny? You've long completed the works for this album so I guess you now have a more calm aspect, right?

I love this album, and I'm so happy that it's finally out. The music is diverse, the players are solid and everyone really shines.  

The album's a good blend of AOR, melodic Rock and symphonic/pomp Rock kind of music, to my ears. Did you want Twilight Of Destiny to be that full of melodies? Would you think of including some more rocker style of songs (OK, I know you're a keyboard player, haha!!!) in the CD?

This album is full of rockers, but as you say it is also packed with melody. I'm a keyboard player and a huge AOR fan, and I picked the guys that I felt could add the most melody to the album. I even invited Ronny Smith from XENON to play rhythm guitars because his power chords have more melody than most. Now if you're looking for something a little more Metal with Tony & I, check out his solo album Vital Designs - it is slammin!  I still do Metal - I'm working again with our drummer Pete Newdeck on our second record with Steve Grimmett (GRIM REAPER) and Jack Frost is talking to me about coming back out with the reunited SEVEN WITCHES next year. Everything I work on has its own identity, and for CHINA BLUE it's about melody and color.  

How much did you experiment with sounds in keyboards, in this album? What Do You Need But Love has this trademark AOR sound in the keys while in songs like Passions the atmosphere you created is kinda spiritual. How did you balance your personal artistic research and the equilibrium needed for full complete songs to be presented?

A part of me lives in that spiritual place…it's a very personal space and it took me years to feel comfortable with expressing that in my music. But the more it comes through, the more encouragement I've received to keep on doing it! So I totally opened up on this record. If you could hear songs like What Do You Need But Love without vocals, you would hear all these soundscapes that take you to another place. Music has the power to do that and I'd like to take you there! I don't always do this on other records, but this was my open canvas and I took advantage of that.

Really, which keyboards masters you think made you decide the keys is your weapon? Are you fond of both the British and the American 'school'?

I listened to a lot of 70's and 80's Rock and I wanted to be the guy that used those cool sounds to take you to another place. I'm a big fan of Jonathan Cain, Geoff Downes and Kevin Moore, as well as Gary Wright - I met him at an early age and we're still friends. Most of those guys are American, but I love British rock as well. You can learn something from everything.

Twilight Of Destiny will feature some bonus songs for special editions. What should we expect from these non-standard presses?

Ronny Smith put together this great acoustic rearrangement of Don't Be a Stranger with just acoustic guitar and piano - it's not synth-heavy and is a breath of fresh air. I also put together a special arrangement of Passions, which is more of a reprise I guess. It has that 'spiritual' vibe you were talking about - lots of ethereal work by Josh & myself, and a delicate Tony Mills choir. I love it. I really wish all of the songs could appear on the same pressing, as the bonus tracks are some of my favorite songs on the album.

Really, are you getting along well with the Frontiers label so far? Truth is Frontiers seems to be the perfect shelter for the majority of the bands/artists dealing with melody in Rock.

I've always admired Frontiers - they are great at what they do, and always deliver what their audience wants. They brought me in to co-write half of this years' FROM THE INSIDE album with Danny Vaughn, and a lot of the new Ramos/Hugo album as well.  For the AOR work that I do, Frontiers is a great outlet for me. We've had a great year together and I look forward to more in the coming year.  

Even of the 80s was the epitome for classic Heavy Metal music, truth is keyboards - somehow rejected by Metal fans in the 80s - are in excessive use the last years, even in more'extreme' fields. Did you ever consider writing some more heavy stuff?

It's a matter of pairing up with the right people. When I worked with Neil Hibbs on Tony's solo record, he put together a very Metal album - it sounds nothing like CHINA BLUE!  When Metal Temple interviewed me about Vox Tempus awhile back, that record was very prog with lots of keyboard solos.  There are different facets to what I do, and I'm always looking to work with new people to explore those avenues. Right now I'm working on the first SAVAGE PARADISE album with Mario Parga, Tony Martin, Tim Luce and Kevin Valentine, and Mario's vision is heavier than anything I've done yet! But the CHINA BLUE album has something for everybody, and I hope you check it out.

Erik, really thanx a lot for your spare time to answer our questions. Really wish we'll hear from CHINA BLUE again in the future!

Thanks Greg! Until next time, rock on! - Eric.


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