Billy Amendola: Pitching demos to John Lennon and playing punk rock with Mantus
In the first part of this two-episode series, we hear from Billy Amendola, musician and editor at large of Modern Drummer Magazine, and his life as a drummer from Brooklyn. Billy tells us all about his life and his personal development, as well as the development of his band, Mantus. How did a Brooklyn-born band go from playing Punk Rock at CBGB to making Disco hits that become wildly successful in Canada? Where did they go from there? Tune in to find out more about being a studio musician, the music industry, and living life in full effect as a drummer.
What you'll hear about in this episode:
- How Billy and David first met (1:56)
- All about Billy (5:19)
- Billy's songwriting process (8:30)
- History and development of Mantus (Billy's band) (13:45)
- Hard times for the band (22:14)
- Billy as a studio artist (28:30)
- Getting into the music world and networking (38:04)
- The importance of Brooklyn in shaping Billy (43:21)
- The music business today (52:42)
Mentioned on the show:
- CBGB - the New York Club where Mantus used to play: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/CBGB
- Modern Drummer Magazine: https://www.moderndrummer.com/
Learn more about Billy Amendola:
- LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/billyamendola/
- His band, Mantus: https://www.mantusonline.com/
Learn more about David Frangioni:
Learn more about Justin Leigh:
Justin Leigh 0:33
Welcome, everybody, to Life with David and Justin. That's L.I.F.E. Luxury in Full Effect. David, I'm really excited for our guest today because I know that you guys know each other and you know a lot of his backstory which I'm getting to know at the moment. He's got such a colorful, cool Brooklyn music background which I can't wait to dive into. So David - tell me a little bit about Billy from your perspective.
David Frangioni 1:03
Well, Billy has had a very interesting life (like many of us) - he just went for his dreams as early as he could by following his passion and taking a real full-on approach to it. He's a great guy - I've known him for what feels like a lifetime, and I'm still finding out cool new things about him. He's lived a really interesting and really impactful life. Everything he's done, he's done really well. He's made a difference in a lot of other people's lives, and he's wonderful.
Justin Leigh 1:47
I know - he grabbed me, and we all had dinner together. He's such a sweet guy, and it was great to get to know him. How did you guys meet?
David Frangioni 1:56
We met in New York in the 80s, and then we reconnected years later just through having so many mutual friends and so many mutual experiences. It was one of those things that was almost inevitable - both of us being drummers, being studio rats, being electronic guys, being Italian. There's so many things we have in common that it was like a brotherhood. Justin, he's kind of you but on the East Coast and with the Brooklyn accent.
Justin Leigh 2:32
I love it. "He's the Italian version of you, Justin."
David Frangioni 2:36
In some ways. Didn't you get that? Because you spent time with him.
Justin Leigh 2:39
You have this way, David, because you're so great - I'm going to blow smoke up your butt - but you're so great that you pull in such great like-minded people. It's so nice that the people you bring on to the show and the ones that we know are all good people. They all have interesting stories, and through it all, the core of it is that they're nice people. His wife was so sweet, and he was such a nice guy. That was the first time I met him - a few weeks ago. I do feel that we all have our parallel stories, but our lives went in totally different ways - me, being out here in Beverly Hills, and you guys, being on the east coast. You know my life better than anybody else, and it's so interesting to see how it all ended up and how we came into the same place.
David Frangioni 3:38
You've had an extraordinary life, too, to say the least. I've got to talk to our producer, but someday I want to find out if I can host you on our show.
Justin Leigh 3:49
I'll hook you back!
David Frangioni 3:50
Billy Amendola is a great guy, and a lot of people know him from Modern Drummer, which is going to be a significant portion of one of the segments that we have with him. There's his whole story of origin - growing up in a musical family, staying true to his roots in Brooklyn, and being part of a musical family that became much like his with his son. It's great. There's a lot to learn from Billy. There's a segment of it that's very entertaining as well.
Justin Leigh 4:30
Yeah, that's great. I can't wait to do that. This is going to be a fun one with Billy. I'm looking forward to it.
David Frangioni 4:38
Yes, it is. Billy Amendola - I love the sound of that. Maybe it's because I'm Italian. The sound "Amendola" has great rhythm to it. Alright, so stay tuned for L.I.F.E. Luxury in Full Effect. Billy Amendola - welcome, my brother. How are you?
Billy Amendola 5:00
I'm good, thank you. Thank you for having me.
David Frangioni 5:02
It's great to have you here. We'll call this part one because there's so much to cover. We're going to start at the beginning. For the listeners, let's start with your life growing up in a musical family.
Billy Amendola 5:19
Going back to the beginning - my dad played trombone in the Big Band when he was in the Navy, so he was very into music. Both my parents were very supportive when I saw The Beatles on Ed Sullivan (like so many people of my generation) and decided that it looked like a pretty cool job - it looked like something that I would want to do forever. I went through a phase where, after seeing that, I wanted to be every one of The Beatles at one point. Then the drums interested me for some reason. When I was around ten years old, there was a band which used to practice around the corner. I used to beg my mom to walk around that way so that I could stop by the front of the house and just listen. Eventually they invited me inside. That was the first time I sat behind a set of drums. Then my buddy Neil, who lived across the street from me at the time, had a set of drums he was selling, but at first my parents wouldn't get them for me at first my dad wanted me to take drum lessons to prove I was serious. It just evolved from there. I did start to take lessons learning on a pad. That's how you learned back in the day - on a little practice pad. Also, it wasn't a drum teacher; it was a music teacher. I really wanted to play on actual drums. Little by little, with the support of my parents, I did eventually get a set of drums, and I started taking real lessons. From there, I went on to start playing. That was the beginning part. Then I played along to records like we all did. Hal Blaine, of course, was twenty of my favorite drummers - as everyone used to say - because those were the records during the 60s and 70s that I played along to while growing up. That was it. That was the beginning of me playing the drums.
Justin Leigh 7:13
How old were you when you were playing the drums to full effect after the lessons?
Billy Amendola 7:18
At twelve years old, I put a band together, and then, at fourteen, I went on the road. I was the youngest of the crew. The crew was Mikey Riddle and a bunch of popular musicians in the neighborhood. I used to hang out with them, watch them practice and rehearse, and sit in as much as possible. I wound up connecting with Frank DeCrescenzo, their main singer at the time who was leaving. He and I started this band called Uncle Sam. From Uncle Sam, we got a couple of different guys into the band's revival - Jimi Braffett and John Kaz - and then we changed the band to Gypsy. From Gypsy, we brought on Jimmy Maer, and we changed the name of the band to Mantus in 1976.
Justin Leigh 8:18
What is your process for writing a song? As the drummer, when working with the guitarist or someone else, what is your favorite way to contribute to writing a song, and what is your process?
Billy Amendola 8:30
My main thing is the hook - the chorus. Most of the time, I'll come up with the chorus, and then, on top of the melody, I'll need words to convey my idea. Once I have the hook, that's 90% of the song to me.
David Frangioni 8:49
Are you writing the music and the lyrics?
Billy Amendola 8:52
I write the lyrics first, and then I write the feeling of them. Once I get that, I'm able to write bass lines. I drive Jimmy crazy. I'll try to convey to him what chords I'm imagining or I'll play something similar to the feeling that I want, and he'll try a certain chord until it matches what I hear in my head. Since I don't play multiple instruments, that's how I always do it. I'll write lyrics for verses, but my main thing is to get the chorus and the hook. Once we have the chorus and the hook, everything else (such as the story line) is written around that.
David Frangioni 9:35
The chorus and the hook for you are a combination of coming up with the lyric of the hook as well as the melody of the hook, right?
Billy Amendola 9:45
Exactly. I'll sing it into a tape so I won't forget it. Then, with my voice, I'll put a baseline to it. Let's say I come up with a line - for example, "Hey, David, I love you today." Then I'll go, "[Singing beats] Hey, David, I love you today. [Singing beats]." I'll copy that baseline, and, of course, the band will refine it. We'll figure out what key to use because Frank has to sing it. Sometimes everybody jumps in - they'll have a line, I'll have another line to reverse another line. That's basically how we write; we write together. Sometimes one of us will have the majority of a song, but most of the time, when we do something as Mantus, it will be the four of us locked in a room. Because we've done it for so long, we can finish each other's sentences.
Justin Leigh 10:36
Even before the process, when you're writing a new song, do you go in with any inspiration? What's your usual starting point? Would it start off with a lyric, a concept, or a melody? Say you're starting a new song today - how do you decide where you're going to go with it?
Billy Amendola 10:56
It's always different. Most of the time, it will start with something that I sang into a tape recorder with the actual words and the chorus 80% there. When Jimmy brings us a song, he'll have the chords written already because he's a guitar and keyboard player. Then we might suggest, "Instead of saying it that way, why don't you try saying it this way? Or why don't you try slowing it down? Or let's try this tempo instead of that tempo?" We do something to that effect. Of course, to me, the drums are the foundation of the building. Once the drums are down and once you have the feel, you know which way the song is going to go. Let's face it - there are only so many beats and so many chords. People don't realize this is why a lot of producers start as drummers and seem to go on to become great producers. It's a sense of rhythm. They're always sitting there, listening to the guys writing songs, and they're learning to know how the song has to go. It's not rocket science. I don't believe in classes where people say you can learn how to write songs. You don't learn how to write songs. You can get better at writing songs, but first you've got to know how to write a song.
Justin Leigh 12:14
It's so interesting to hear everybody's process of writing a song. There are so many different versions of it, but everyone ends up at the same place.
Billy Amendola 12:24
Well, you're a songwriter, so you understand.
Justin Leigh 12:27
Yes, exactly. My process is totally different. It's fascinating because, even though everybody's process is different, everybody gets to the same place at the end of the day.
Billy Amendola 12:43
That's right. Any songwriter will tell you that the best songs sometimes just come out. Some of the songs we did for the new album just fell into place. We started to play with a basic idea, and fifteen minutes later, the song was unchanged. That was the song. Something flowed through all of us, we were all on the same page, and it just worked. Other times, we can beat a song to death and it just doesn't work. We get too close to it. Somebody else has to tell us, "That's not that great. You spent too much time on it."
David Frangioni 13:25
You guys started learning about writing songs, and, whether you realized it or not, defining your style - transitioning from rock funk to eventually what sounded like disco. Let's go to the rock funk time. What time frame was this?
Billy Amendola 13:45
It was 1977. We were playing CBGB with Blondie, the Ramones, Television, and all of those bands.
David Frangioni 13:54
That's big stuff!
Billy Amendola 13:56
Oh, it was major! We were playing rock, but we were a little bit heavier than all of those bands. Those bands were a bit more punk, while we were still a little bit more into Queen and Uriah, who was a big influence. John Rockwell was at one of those shows as a New York Times critic. The next day, after the festival that they had at CBGB in 1977, he said that he wasn't sure Matches, one of the best rock bands that had come around in a long time, belonged in this setting. In a way, that made us think about our direction because we knew we didn't sound like any of those bands. Some of them we liked, but some of them we didn't. Then, not even a year later, we were playing around the city at all the popular places at the time. One night, we were at Trudie Hellas, which I don't even think is there anymore. It was one o'clock in the morning, we were all on stage, and there was nobody in the club. You know what that's like - you stop fooling around. We remember that night well because we had bought new shirts to wear - we all wore the same clothes to look like a band - and Jimmy's shirt still had its tags. We actually didn't realize until we finished playing that Jimmy had never taken the tags off his shirt. Anyway, long story short, we were playing in this club, nobody was there, it was one o'clock in the morning, and we were thinking, "This sucks. This is a waste of time." So we started going into "Brick House" for about half an hour, funking it up and playing off funk stuff. When we finished, we actually got yelled at by the club owner for doing that. We said, "There's nobody here. What's the difference?" and he said, "Well, you never know who's there." Then, as he walked away, this gentleman approached us, and he said, "I really like the funk stuff that you guys were doing." He was African American with five white guys from Brooklyn with really long hair, all of whom looking like a typical rock band. The gentleman said, "I have a small independent label. Do you think you guys could come into the studio and write a disco song?" We all looked at each other and laughed as if it were a joke, but we said, "Yeah, of course." A week later, we met with him - he did have a small independent label, and he had one record that was actually out and being played on the dance station. At that, we thought, "Oh, this guy might know what he's doing." He was connected to a female manager whom he shared an office with. The plan was for her to manage us and for him to put us in the studio, but she tragically got hit by a bus and became crippled. Things work out the way they work out. Nobody knows why things happen. Before that, she put us in suits had us playing The Hiltons in the Playboy Clubs. We'd play those kinds of gigs. That wasn't really where we wanted to go, but disco was getting popular and the clubs were where all the disco music was being played. We started to write some disco songs for a while. Then he took us into the studio, and we recorded one song called "Turn Around, Boogie Down." He was playing with Diana Ross at the time - he came in to arrange everything and play keyboards on that - so as a producer, he did hire great additional musicians for us. We wrote and played what we thought was a disco song which came out in Canada. It got very little attention, but it made him enough money to ask us to do another song. Then she got into that accident, and she disappeared from the scene. She never recovered, and a year later, she passed away. Then he was our manager, and we did the typical thing that any band would have done. We were popular in Canada, so we planned to do a new record. We went into the studio and signed papers, but we didn't realize that we were paying for everything. In those days, studios costed two hundred dollars an hour, and we would be in the studio for months. We were recording and playing what we thought was disco, even though we still had that heavy edge making us stand out from the regular, light, fluffy disco records in bands already out. Most warm-up bands were just studio projects with singers, but we were a full band. Long story short, we created our next record, and it became a huge hit. It stayed on a major New York radio station for eight weeks at number two; afterwards, it did really well everywhere.
David Frangioni 18:56
It did well in Canada, too. You were still big there.
Billy Amendola 18:58
We were huge. When that record hit number one in Canada, we went there to do TV shows, including their version of American Bandstand. Things were starting to happen. Then we did the album, and we had a second hit off the album - the song was "Rocket to the Top." Then we got bigger and bigger with DJs. So, we went from playing CBGB to playing at Studio 54 and The Fun House. John "Jellybean" Benitez came in the studio for the first time ever when we mixed our first record dancer freestyle. Everything evolved from there. All of a sudden, we were these five white guys from Brooklyn, we had two huge disco hits out, and we were showing up to gigs. Everybody thought that we were a black band; nobody believed that we were white punks from Brooklyn. It was funny sometimes when we would show up at places. We played in Harlem at this big club I forgot the name of. When he introduced us, we walked out, and you could see the expression on his face - I wish I had it on film. He looked like he was thinking, "Who the hell are these guys?" We would also show up for radio interviews and...
David Frangioni 20:10
This was obviously before MTV and YouTube, right?
Billy Amendola 20:13
Oh, it was way before that. We would show up at radio stations and do live interviews on air. As we walked in, we could tell how astonished everybody was. They wouldn't even let us put our picture on the cover. We were so huge in those markets, but they said that there was still a little prejudice going on, which we never believed. We didn't think about that. They told us that if they put our picture on the cover, then the radio stations wouldn't play our music. As a matter of fact, Frankie Crocker did pull us when he found out that we were all white. It felt like a slap to the face, and we realized that the world was a still little backwards. We had never experienced prejudice at all. We loved so much R&B music that, when Frankie Crocker pulled the record, we thought, "Wow, are you kidding me?" But he had to come around and play it later because it became a huge dance hit.
David Frangioni 21:17
Let's capture this for a second: you've gotten the record out, and it's on the New York radio, which Justin and I know are both huge milestones. Obviously, it's a hit - things are cooking, things are going great, and you can have a career in Canada, even without the States, if you get big enough and if things are being done right. All of these great things are happening. So what happened with Mantus when you reached the next step? Obviously after this, Mantus could be a warm-up band for an arena act or play at bigger clubs, and you could keep with the ascension that bands, especially at the time, took to go through the ranks. What happened with Mantus?
Billy Amendola 22:02
What happened was that we were mismanaged. It was nobody's fault and everybody's fault. Our manager wasn't meant to be our manager. We were mismanaged, and we were young and naive.
David Frangioni 22:14
Were you mismanaged or un-managed? Because if you have the wrong manager (or someone who's not really a manager but managing), then it's everybody's fault for putting the wrong guy in the wrong role - or maybe for putting the right guy in the wrong role. In hindsight, what was your big takeaway from that?
Billy Amendola 22:37
The big takeaway was that we really needed somebody on our side who knew how to be a manager and who would guide us, protect us, and get us the right deals when those records started taking off. We had a number one record in Italy, so we went to Europe to do a whole bunch of television shows, and again, we didn't realize that we were paying for all of it. I was only nineteen or twenty years old. None of us knew anything about the business. We had songs on the radio, and we were on television everywhere, so we figured, "There's money coming in, right? Where's the money? There's no money coming in." Then we realized we were paying for everything - for flying first class and living the life. We almost crossed over to pop at one point on our third single. That was around the time when the "disco sucks" movement began. So, we missed that opportunity to cross over, even though we always wanted to change and become a pop band. We didn't want to keep writing disco songs because disco songs only played in the clubs and on the dance station. When we had the third single, "Boogie to the Bop," that one was almost ready to cross over, but we didn't realize that he was making deals without us knowing. We were signed to Atlantic in Europe, and we didn't even know we were on Atlantic Records. Later, we found out that he had sold our catalog to a company putting out old music - we didn't know anything about that. I called the company, we had lawyers call, but to this day they're still ripping us off. You know what it's like to be in litigation and going back and forth with lawyers. I don't think there would be enough money to warrant paying a lawyer's fee to find out what's going on. Well, there could be - we really don't know because we never really knew how many records we sold. We just saw that we were all over the charts. From that point on, I think we learned our lesson. Plus, it was happening to every single band in the world with the record companies. That's why they're out of business these days because they've been ripping off people since the 50s. That taught us to realize that this is a music business and that maybe we should be paying attention to the business aspect. After that happened, the disco scene came back. We were frustrated, and we said, "Okay, we're leaving this guy, we're leaving the labels and contracts, and we're doing our own thing. We're going back to playing rock."
David Frangioni 25:08
If I understand this correctly, your manager and your record label were the same person, right?
Billy Amendola 25:16
Yes, that's right.
David Frangioni 25:17
That's the biggest problem. Nowadays, it's a little different because you don't need a big label necessarily. Even when you do need a big label, it's much more partner-driven than it was back then. In the 70s and 80s, a manager and a label were on different sides of the table.
Billy Amendola 25:39
Exactly. Our manager was really looking out for himself. He added his name as a songwriter, even though he did not write one thing in any of the songs.
Justin Leigh 25:51
Did he collect royalties, too?
Billy Amendola 25:53
Yes, he collected royalties. We still get sound exchange checks sometimes because Studio 54 and a lot of dance stations still play the song. The checks are not big, but the songs are forty years old. If it had been managed properly, it probably would have been different. "Live and learn," as they say - that's how we lived and learned.
Justin Leigh 26:19
From that period, you started to work and write with other artists, right?
Billy Amendola 26:29
At the time, our manager had a couple of other people on his label whom we wrote songs for. One was Kenny B, who was a great R&B singer with records from around the 60s, and when he signed on to the label, we wrote a song for him. We also wrote songs for a couple of other people who were on the label, but none of those were as popular.
Justin Leigh 26:49
Didn't you go on to work with some other big artists as well? For example, you worked with Debbie Gibson.
Billy Amendola 26:55
Around 1981-1982, we went back to playing rock, and we didn't change the name of the band. We played at all the clubs we used to play at, and we went back to playing CBGB. People were confused because they expected us to play the dance records, and we didn't acknowledge those in our gigs. People either didn't realize we were the same band, or if they did, they just wanted to hear the disco songs. But we didn't want to play disco songs. Instead, we played two complete demos of brand new pop songs and pop rock, and we went with that whole scene for another two years. Afterwards, we went through the typical band problems over who was still wanting to play, who was getting older, who needed to start making more money, who was getting married, and who was having a family. As we started to become adults, we had this sense of not knowing what was going to happen. We never officially broke up, but everybody started to do their own little thing. I happened to be involved with the other fours' projects; whatever they did, I would play drums or we would go on the road together. Basically, we all stayed friends, and we did things for each other and recommended each other. In the early 80s I got electronic drums, and around 1984 I started doing tons of studio work. David and I met on the Debbie Gibson record when I worked on "Only in My Dreams" and "Shake Your Love."
Justin Leigh 28:41
How did doing that compare to working at the studio when you were nineteen years old? Did you feel any difference in the times, the way people worked, or in how things unfolded?
Billy Amendola 28:59
No, people were still working the same way. I had experience in the studio, so I knew how to be a studio musician - how to make records and how to play on records. I knew how to act with producers in the studio and how to get hired - by giving them what they wanted. Early on as a studio musician, I learned that sometimes (similar to what we were saying about songwriting) somebody would already have a piece of a song and musicians would start adding their parts. You could end up writing the song for the person without getting any credit. I learned that pretty quick, but I would just do my job. A lot of time, the people I worked for were well established, so I would just play what they told me told me to play. That was my job. For a good number of years, I did that kind of work. I also got into electronics with a set of Simmons and was learning how to program the drums. After a while, I didn't have to audition for work because I already had records out. Everybody has a team they call producers, so I worked with mine. We were popular. I was doing jingles, a couple of movies, and records. For every ten records, about two would get on the radio and make a lot of noise, but it was a job. I did that for maybe five years before the business and the studios started to change. There were no budgets anymore. Nobody was hiring studio musicians, because everybody thought that they could program a drum machine by themselves. Anybody can hold a button down and get a loop going. That's when things completely changed. At that point, I had my son Maddie, and I didn't want to tour anymore. I was in my thirties, and I'd done touring already. I stayed home and did sessions. Before I turned forty, I would freelance for Modern Drummers. I was the artist liaison for the annual Modern Drummers Festival.
David Frangioni 31:11
Before we get into the festival, I have a question. When you did the sessions at the beginning of your career, you were doing straightforward acoustic drum sessions, right? They would need a drummer on their track, so you would go in and do it.
Billy Amendola 31:24
I did both. I did acoustic for rock music, but even though disco had gotten a bad name, dance music never really went away. Electronic music is still one of the biggest types of music there is, so I did a lot of electronic work, too. I programmed the drum machine, or I played on top of the drum machine to make it sound as though they were real drums. Sometimes I would just play hi-hat cymbals and a couple of fills. Sometimes I would just play hi-hat to make the drum machine move more.
David Frangioni 32:03
Did you have your own setup for electronics? Or were you using other people's setup?
Billy Amendola 32:09
I had my complete setup: a DMX drum machine, a full Simmons kit, Syndrums...
David Frangioni 32:20
That's basically a Rolls-Royce rig.
Billy Amendola 32:25
Absolutely. That's what got me work because I already had what I needed.
David Frangioni 32:30
You had the best of the best, and you knew how to use it. Plus, you were musical and a great drummer. That combination was rare, at that time especially, right?
Billy Amendola 32:42
Jimmy Bralower was the king of that. He got the most work. I learned from from Jimmy actually. We rose around the same time, but he was a little bit older and a little bit ahead of me. Jimmy wasn't working on dance stuff as much. He was doing more of the big name stuff, whereas I was doing a lot of the twelve-inch dance remixes because that's where I was known. I shone through playing Simmons drums and Tom Rolls. With Mantus, I used Syndrums, which became a popular part of our sound. Everybody wanted me to do that sound on their records. I would show them my Syndrums, and they would say, "Piss all over this track." So I would play drum solo on some things with the Simmons or with the Syndrums.
David Frangioni 33:41
You have to love the elegance of how producers will describe what they want done to a music track in the studio - right, Justin? That's pretty classic. Anyway, you had all these electronics, and you had invested a lot into this room. This was the luxury set of electronic drums. Did you did you think twice about it? I know Mantus made money and was successful, but anybody might second-guess how much money to put into this - which makes sense because electronics were the price of a car back then.
Billy Amendola 34:20
I was a typical musician; I didn't think about where the money would come from. I gave lessons at the time, and I was given lessons. At the time, if I wasn't playing my Simmons, I rented them out because I was one of the first to have them in the States. I rented them to studios and to people, and I would just be there to tell the drummer, "I wouldn't hit the drums too hard if I were you." Back in the day, hitting those drums was like hitting a Formica table. I think that's why I have back and neck problems, on top of carrying the drums. You can't lay into the Simmons the same way that you can lay into your drum set. There were a couple of big name drummers, whom I won't identify, who would come in, and I would say, "Here's your setup, and here are the sounds." Whatever sound they wanted, I would turn the knob for them. Then they would lay into the drums and, afterwards, complain that their wrists hurt, and I wouldn't be surprised. There's a certain way to use those drums that you have to learn. Anyway, to answer your question, I didn't think about the money. Like every musician, you always want the next piece of gear; you feel that you just have to have it. Plus, you need to keep on the cutting edge. If you don't have the gear, somebody else is going to have it, and that's who will get the call. So I didn't really think about it.
Justin Leigh 35:45
You and David are the aficionados, but for the people who don't know, what does a rig like that cost?
Billy Amendola 35:59
Back then, I think the Simmons was six or seven thousand dollars, which was closer to twenty grand in the 80s. Roland has a beautiful electronic set that I have my eye on, which is close to seven grand. That's how Dave and I met on the sessions. Then Dave really got into MIDI.
David Frangioni 36:26
Yes, those were the days. I started as a drummer and didn't exactly plan to go into the technological MIDI world. Without realizing, our paths overlapped for a time before we met. I was a drummer who wanted to learn electronics, and I integrated and implemented sounds into my palette. It was really hard, especially in the mid-80s, to play certain sounds on acoustic drums without any kind of electronic supplement. Whether you were triggering, using a drum machine, or even just triggering a kick or snare - whether you could get a couple of pads for your next year's setup - if you had nothing, it started becoming almost impossible to compete as an acoustic drummer in the popular music world. That's what got me into electronics originally. Then I ended up falling in love with it and realizing that I loved it as much as or even more than playing. That's when I immersed myself into all the MIDI stuff you're referring to. Even to this day, I never stop learning about it and understanding enough to apply to projects, music, studios, and anything else. Anyway, you had this rig, you were doing your studio work, and music was flying through the 80s. Now explain what Modern Drummer Magazine had you doing at these festivals.
Billy Amendola 38:04
Because I've been in the business since I was fourteen, I've met and hung out with so many musicians and am friends with a lot of them. Just this past weekend, the producer Jack Douglas and I were reminiscing about our life in the 70s. Shelley Yakus was the main engineer up at the Record Plant where I would go to play hooky. By the way, kids, if you're listening, don't play hooky; go to school. At fifteen years old, school was just my way of going into the city and standing in front of the Record Plant. I would wait to see somebody, and then I'd try to befriend them. Little by little, Shelley took me under his wing. He used to say, "Go sit in the corner and don't say a word. If you say a word, you're out of here." I used to watch him make records with Rick Derringer, Dan Hartman, and Peter Frampton. I always looked for John Lennon, whom I didn't meet until later on, but I never saw him, even though I knew he was always at the Record Plant. Still, I watched a lot of records being made. I sat in the corner and stayed quiet, and that started the spark of my love for being in the studio.
David Frangioni 39:23
At fourteen or fifteen years old, you were basically networking by getting to know people in the industry and showing a true genuine passion for music and the music-making process. That's a parallel life to how Justin and I grew up. We also started really early and were exposed to all kinds of different environments and a lot of really interesting people who were doing big things. Seeing things at such a young age definitely changes the trajectory of how a person thinks. It puts you into a place of knowing where you want to go from a very young age while other kids are still figuring it out. It's a blessing that way.
Billy Amendola 40:09
Yes, it is. The best thing is that you don't even realize what's going on. When I was doing it, I wasn't even thinking about it. I wasn't starstruck. There was nobody that I wanted to meet just because they were a star. I wanted to play with these people. I wanted to learn from these people. I felt that I belonged with these people. I was either stupid or crazy enough to think that I should be hanging out with these people and that I was just as good as these people. I probably wasn't anywhere near what the singers, songwriters, and everyone were capable of doing, but I felt that someday I could do that and that I would do that.
David Frangioni 40:45
You are courageous, right? Whether you realize it or not, it takes a lot of courage to go into that environment. The famous saying by Wayne Dyer, "Jump and the net will appear" - that's basically what you were doing.
Billy Amendola 40:59
Well, my mom was very personable; she talked to everybody. With the way I was raised, I wasn't afraid to talk to people or approach people, even now. I love everybody. To me, everybody is the same; nobody is better than anybody. If somebody has an ego, I find out the hard way, but then I just get pissed and avoid the person. Thankfully, I've come across people who have taken me under their wing and seen that I was being true and honest. I guess I had stars in my eyes, but meeting somebody wasn't a big thing. When I met John Lennon, I wanted to give him my demo tape. Now I think of how naive I was in going to give my demo tape to John Lennon. It was a heavy metal tape that Mantus had been doing at the time. There was no way John Lennon was going to like it. When I think about it now, I know he'd be wondering what he was supposed to do with it because it was so far removed - no one would know that I was influenced by The Beatles for that project. At the time, it didn't matter to me. I was just another person doing what I wanted to do. I also met Steve Ferrone when I was fourteen years old and known him ever since, and I watched average white bands make records at Atlantic.
Justin Leigh 42:12
Everything in Brooklyn was just a stone's throw from where you lived.
Billy Amendola 42:18
Yes, it was. Let me tell you a funny story. I lived on 48th Street in Brooklyn. In Manhattan, 48th Street was Music Row. I used to live in Manny's and Sam Ash. If I wasn't in the studios, I was playing hooky and going to the city all the time. My mom would ask where I was, and I'd say, "I'm on 48th Street." She would always think that I was in the schoolyard or at a friend's house on the block, but I really wasn't lying. I was on 48th Street.
Justin Leigh 42:54
Wow, that's amazing. Let me use this as a segue because I definitely want to talk about this, too. Since you grew up in Brooklyn and lived a stone's throw from Manhattan, how has the area changed? Also, how has that been beneficial to you in terms of owning in Brooklyn between how it was then and how it is now? How do you feel about all that, and what's your take on it?
Billy Amendola 43:21
I was always proud that I came from Brooklyn. While some disagreed, others were fascinated and would assume being from Brooklyn was a cool thing. Some people looked down on me for being Italian and from Brooklyn. People stereotyped my whole family as mobsters. I still live in Brooklyn, and I've seen it change. One time Brooklyn was cool, and then it became uncool. Now you can't touch the real estate or afford to live in Brooklyn because it's cool and hip again.
David Frangioni 43:57
How much has the price gone up? Since you lived in Brooklyn all your life, you must have watched the market change and probably take some huge leaps multiple times.
Billy Amendola 44:12
Yes, I've seen Brooklyn real estate change. In my neighborhood - I don't want to say exactly where I live - I've seen houses go from forty thousand to a million dollars. At one point, they couldn't sell buildings (ones with stores underneath them and apartments on top), but twenty years ago, they were practically giving those same buildings away. Then all of a sudden, my area became a Chinatown. Chinese people moved in and brought the neighborhood back to life. Now you can't touch those buildings for less than a million dollars.
David Frangioni 44:50
Twenty years isn't a very long period of time to see an investment like that.
Billy Amendola 44:54
I know. If I would have been more into business -
David Frangioni 44:59
If you had not been a musician!
Billy Amendola 45:01
Yes, if I had not been a musician, I might have had a little more money to take the chance and invest. I could have bought three of those buildings, and now? Forget it.
Justin Leigh 45:11
Your money went into other places, and you created music that people will still be listening to forty years later.
Billy Amendola 45:20
I have no regrets. I always feel as though I've been blessed in life, and I try to give back as much as I possibly. I have no regrets over anything and everything I've done.
Justin Leigh 45:33
That's amazing. Your son is into music, too.
Billy Amendola 45:36
Yes, my son, both fortunately and unfortunately, is into music. Luckily, he does pretty well. He learned the business just as much as he learned his instruments, and he plays every single instrument. He's multi-talented, and you can't tell what his main instrument is anymore. He writes great songs, and he knows the business. He learned from all of my mistakes which is a good thing.
Justin Leigh 46:04
How does that make you feel? How does that resonate with you to know everything that you did and everything you are has become an extension in your son? I think it's the coolest thing ever. I don't know if my son is going to go in the same direction I did, but I think it would be the coolest thing to have a 2.0 version mini-self.
Billy Amendola 46:27
Well, it's bittersweet. It's both good and bad because sometimes I'm his dad but sometimes we're working on something together. For example, he produced that Mantus Album, the new one. If we're working together, it's a little different because I'm still Dad, but I'm also not Dad. There's a balance that needs to be met. I'm still proud of him. I'm happy he's doing what he loves because he does love it. He didn't do it because he was forced into it. When he was little, I felt bad sometimes because I had to go into his room and tell him, "Enough with the drums. Enough." Sometimes when his mama and I were trying to watch television, he'd be in his room, blasting away and playing along with the music. He couldn't go down into the basement because he was too young and too afraid. He wanted his drums in his room, which was only a couple rooms down the hallway from us.
David Frangioni 47:20
It's called payback, my friend.
Billy Amendola 47:22
Yes, I know! I remember going to his room, opening his door, and saying, "Enough with the drums. That's it. You've been playing the drums for an hour. Enough with the drums. That's it." Then I would close the door and walk away, and I'd think, "Oh my god, what did I just do?"
Justin Leigh 47:38
"Out of all people, I'm telling my son not to play drums right now" - that's unbelievable. Listen - how would you have felt if your fourteen-year-old son was hanging out in studios like you were at his age? It's a different time now, but it's still pretty progressive to do what you did - and very ballsy.
David Frangioni 48:01
Justin, I want to jump in for a second because that couldn't be more profoundly on point. I had the exact same kind of upbringing, but I played at clubs before going into the studio. All of my friends are the age of parents, and they are shocked to hear that I was in a nightclub from eleven years old to twelve, thirteen, and fourteen. When I think back, it's mind-boggling. It wasn't a long time ago, but back then it was a lot safer. Well, it wasn't actually safe. I still think my parents were borderline crazy to be so generous and supportive. Of course, I'm grateful for that craziness. Billy, what was it like for you? When I think back, I can't believe it. I know Justin wouldn't let his son inside any of the places I played at, even if they offered a million dollars, and believe me - at the time, I was lucky to get a glass of water.
Billy Amendola 49:06
When I was young, sometimes they would only let me go inside those places to play and wouldn't let me stay because I was underage. Still, I was in the clubs and experienced adult things at a very young age, not realizing that I was maybe growing up a little too fast. There's a certain mentality and attitude about Brooklyn, which is that you learn to be street-smart quickly. I didn't realize what was happening at the time, but it helped to mold me and shape me. As a dad, I would take Maddie with me to the studio starting when he turned five years old. He would always be inside the studio with me, including the studio at my house. He used to stay up at night - he never cried, he was a great baby, but he just didn't require any sleep - so I'd bring him inside the studio with me at all hours of the night. He got so used to that environment. Then when he was seven or eight years old, I would take him to the mall, which was a very popular rock club back in the day, and at two o'clock in the morning, he'd be sitting on a speaker on the side of the stage watching a band play.
Justin Leigh 50:26
Wow, that's very interesting. It makes me wonder if he'd be here today without experiencing that.
David Frangioni 50:33
He probably wouldn't in the same way. Maddie is so talented. Billy loves his son and says amazing things about him, but as someone who is not **his father, I want to say that he is an extraordinarily talented multi-instrumentalist, songwriter, and producer. It's incredible. I think it's been a combination - of the upbringing with Billy and [Chris], the exposure to music and musicians, the lifestyle, the live music in the studio - which has turned him into a very unique and extremely talented artist. It definitely paid off, but what a way to get there.
Billy Amendola 51:20
Being his dad also has its pitfalls because growing up he had a lot to live up to. After hearing his name, the first thing people would say to him was, "Oh, you're related to Billy." After a while, he tried to make a name for himself, and he would get frustrated sometimes because while it was good in a way, it also made it harder for him. That's just the way it is. His mom always said to him, "Your father came first, so you're going to have to learn how to live with it and accept it" - but when you're a kid, you don't think, "My father is opening doors for me." I did open doors for him, but if you don't have the talent and what it takes to stay behind that door, you're not going to be able to stay behind that door. I was able to get him opportunities he might not have had otherwise, but as much as it probably helped him, it probably hurt him, too.
Justin Leigh 52:16
Oh, I know. I always say two things: one, cream rises to the top, and two, when you have a big name behind you, sometimes you have to work two times harder to prove yourself. I'm familiar with that concept myself, and it's definitely not as easy as people think it is. Regardless of opportunity, you have to have the talent, first and foremost. That's it. If you don't have the talent, it doesn't matter how big the name behind you is.
Billy Amendola 52:42
That's right. Unfortunately, with the way of business, it's really hard for this generation. I feel bad for his generation. The generation after him is going to have it really tough if things don't start to change. No one really has any answers. Everybody always asks for my advice on music, and there are no answers because that's the way of the world. Music became free - whoever thought that music would be free one day? It would have sounded as crazy as the idea of food being free. Honestly, there are people starving in the world, so why shouldn't food be free? I'm not saying gourmet food should be free, but if you're starving and poor, you should be able to have food. The fact that this country still has people who are starving is absurd to me. For people who are starving, food should be free.
Justin Leigh 53:32
You're right, and it's what the music business had to do. It's not a complete fix, but now we know that music is a vehicle of advertisement for all the other things that you can create as a musician or as an artist. The money is made through the tours, the endorsed merchandise, and the other low-hanging fruit. They're just giving music away now, which is terrible.
Billy Amendola 54:03
It's like handing out a business card.
Justin Leigh 54:04
Exactly. The expensive, painstaking, labor-loving experience has completely changed. It's interesting to see the road an artist has to take and all the different things an artist has to do now. It's also really hard for people who are not already pop stars with a lot of different avenues available to them. When you're super talented and a real musician, you have to find the avenues that can make you money.
Billy Amendola 54:36
That's right. Everybody has to find their niche. You have to find out what you're actually good at and concentrate on that. It's impossible to be everything to everybody. Instead, you have to hone in on your best qualities and concentrate on them. Being an artist or a musician, you'll do it for free because you love it, but like you said, it costs money. If you can make records without spending a penny, then that's great! Give it away! But that's that's not how it works. You pour your heart and soul into into what you're doing because you're so passionate about it. That's different from manufacturing a song. Somebody could come to me tomorrow and say, "I need a song that sounds like this. Can you bang it out?" If the four of us got into a room, we could probably bang out three versions of what that person needs. That's manufacturing a song. Does that make a song great? Sometimes it does, but not usually.
Justin Leigh 55:59
If you happen to have captured lightning in a bottle that day, then it would be great.
Billy Amendola 56:04
That's exactly right. True music comes from your heart. It's a lot of blood, sweat, and tears.
Justin Leigh 56:12
Billy, we are going to wrap up part one. It was so great talking to you, and we can't wait to dive into part two. This was really awesome, and we have a thousand more questions we want to ask you. Hopefully we'll get through everything. Your story is so incredible, inspiring, and interesting.
David Frangioni 56:39
It will get even more interesting in part two, when we get into Modern Drummer and all of Billy's other experiences with the things that he created and did for the industry. It will be great. Thank you so much for being here with us today, Billy.
Billy Amendola 56:56
It is absolutely my pleasure. Thank you both.