The Joe Deninzon Interview (2023)

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Photo: Joel Barrios
By Ralph Greco, Jr.

Pretty much known through the pro-rock community for his wild flights of violin mastery, Joe Deninzon has been making his way solo, as well as with his band Stratospheerius though the prog-rock firmament.

Stepping into Kansas in 2023 as David Ragsdale’s replacement, Deninzon has added a new trajectory to his popularity, one that he tells us about in the following interview, with a whole bunch of other tidbits on what it’s like being such a hard-working, in-demand musician.

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So where are you now?

Arizona, Tucson. Kansas is playing here tonight; we are on the three-week West Coast tour.

Kansas just recently extended the 50th anniversary tour, and I know from speaking to Richard Williams (original Kansas guitarist) just before the tour started that this was a possibility.  

They just keep going. They just love to work. They’re hard-working band, you know, they like to keep everybody into it. I spend a lot of time with Richard in the car, and yeah, he just wants to keep playing. There’s no concept of retirement for him. This is what he sustains him, you know. So, that’s very inspiring. I look across stage at these 70-year olds and I think, I have to keep going!

I know the story has been told a bit, but we want to hear it from you; How did it happen that you joined Kansas, stepped in for David Ragsdale? Obviously, you can play, but not every player can step into Kansas or is even asked to join. 

It’s kind of a culmination of years of just working hard, making music that I love, writing, you know, releasing videos and albums and kind of being on the scene. I’ve had Stratospheerius for 20 odd years now or more and around 2015, we started getting more known in the prog world. We played the ProgStocks, and I also sat in with different bands, doing “Cruise To The Edge” also. My band became more known and you know, I got to talk to lots of the other players, we would see each other ‘s performances and I became kind of the violinist, you would always see a prog events. And what happened was, after COVID, when bands started touring again, when members of bands got sick and shows had to be canceled, bands lost a lot of money. So, as an insurance policy, lots of bands made a rule that everybody had to have an understudy, so they wouldn’t have to cancel shows.

Oh, interesting, I had no idea about that. 

eah, hopefully, you know, everyone stays healthy. But if, God forbid, Richard doesn’t feel well, he has someone who could step in and play the show. But Kansas never had that for David Ragsdale. So, initially, Tom Brislin (Kansas keyboardist and musical director) asked me to look at the music and learn it in case something happened with David. And then I spoke with Phil (Ehart, Kansas drummer) and I got the sense that there were some issues with David, health related, and they just weren’t sure if he’d continue touring. They weren’t specific about what it was, and it wasn’t my place to ask exactly. I learned about this was back in February, so I started, you know, I was sent all the stuff for the set list for the 50th anniversary tour and I started working my ass off on it, transcribing the music, memorizing, studying the tracks. For all I knew, I would never get to play it on stage, I was just supposed to be ready.

But then, obviously…

Well, a few weeks went by, April went by, and all of a sudden in May I get a call saying that David does not seem like he’s gonna be able to do the 50th anniversary tour. So, they asked me to send in some video clips of me playing the songs, then Phil offered me the gig and I did my first show with them on June 2nd and I’ve been on this tour ever since. It’s been an amazing ride, an amazing experience.

How does your approach to the music differ from Robby’s (Steinhardt, original Kansas violinist) and from David’s? Do you or do you not even think about that?  

Well, one of the things is, my first point of departure was to honor the parts that those guys created in the songs. I really learned a lot of their solos and you know, note for note, and the playing, studied the playing style. They were all playing four and five string violins, and mostly with a clean sound. When I play with Stratospheerius, I use effects; I love my pedal board. I’m into sounds, right? I approach it like a guitarist or keyboard player. And I wanted to sprinkle that in, but mostly stay true to what the fans were used to hearing and honoring the years of history that this band has, right? I didn’t want to mess with that.

And you don’t exactly play just a plain old violin. 

Right, I play a seven-string electric Viper and I was trying to see if they would be open to that; I wasn’t sure if they would be.

That’s the big violin that you get to rest on your chest, right?

Yeah, it’s dark red, it’s the main one I play, a seven-string Mark Wood fretted Viper violin. I’ve been playing that instrument for a long time. It’s the main ax I use for Stratospheerius. Kansas were into it, and they also like the fact that I can double Richard’s guitar parts on the low strings and kick the distortion pedal and kind of switch off into guitar territory but holding the violin. you know? So that’s a fun element, a new element that wasn’t there before. And I’ll throw in a little, a little bit of phaser and delay here and there and incorporate some of my personality into it. But ultimately, you know, I respect the fans. I don’t want to mess with the formula too much.

The thing with David Ragsdale and something Richard mentioned and is evident, is that he and now you, sometimes double the guitar parts. 

I did talk to Richard about the fact that David was doubling a lot, and maybe doubling isn’t the right word, but, you know, playing a good amount of guitar and how I was going to fit into that. People don’t readily know, but I have been playing guitar since I was fourteen. I’m not like a Steve Vai, a flashy kind of player, but I can play both rhythm and lead. So, I defer to Tom, as he’s the music director. And he was telling me, you know, use violin here, use guitar here. So, I’m just kind of doing what he wants me to do.

And, as I saw, sometimes doing double-duty, by wearing both the violin and the guitar at the same time…and singing!  

Some of the more challenging songs, yeah, I’m wearing both instruments, which the other guys didn’t do because the Viper has that chest attachment, so I’m able to hold both guitar and violin at the same time, which looks kind of cool, in my opinion. Plus, I don’t have to do a fast change and pick one up and put one down. It saves time and it’s fun to walk around and frankly, some of those songs, the changes are so fast between instruments, there’s not enough time. And David used a headset microphone, so he was able to keep singing. But I’m not a big fan of headset mics. I like being up against the mic. I like the way it sounds better.

Obviously, “Icarus,” those guitar parts are really fun to play. “Hold On,” too. Originally, they played that with David on violin. The whole time they wanted me to play rhythm guitar. OK, but I’m still playing violin and the intro and the outro, so that’s one way I’m wearing both instruments. We could have gone either way. They just made that choice for whatever reason, you know, and I’m happy to do it.

Photo: Amanda Kaye

You mentioned Stratospheerius. In listening to the new live album (Joe Deninzon & Stratospheerius Behind The Curtain, Live At ProgStock) beyond the musicianship of that band, I love the way you touch on a lot of stuff and you know, at times you sound like Nine Inch Nails, other times like Yes.  

Wow, thank you.

But what I noticed beyond the stellar playing, is the lyrical content. There’s a lot of, I don’t know, I don’t know if I’m right about this, but there’s a lot of that, ‘You better pay attention to what the hell’s going on around you’ feel to the words. Am I right about that? 

Umm, well I write all the lyrics. Some of it is personal, psychological things inspired by my personal life. Others are maybe political, you know? I’m passionate about some topics, but I don’t like to get too specific. I like to be cryptic, and I like the listener to make their own interpretation of the music, you know, based on lyrics. So that’s my approach.

There’s just seems to be lot of championing the individual, striving to cut through the B.S. of what we are hearing around us daily, in your lyric. 

Well, thank you. I put a lot effort into writing lyrics, scrutinize over every word. I’m a big fan of Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell — you know, artists who are great lyricists. A big fan of literature. I take lyrics seriously and I think a lot of instrumentalists don’t pay attention to the lyrics in the song, kind of write it off. So, even though I’m a prog guy, I grew up listening to a lot of, you know, three-chord rock and roll. And I appreciate good storytelling; you know, it’s a different skill set.

A lot of my colleagues, you know, just listen to music for hip chord changes or hip time signature changes and it’s about so much more than that for me. I try to tell a story and write compelling words. I’m into word play and yeah and all of that. I mean, I have my personal opinions. I try not to alienate the public that we have. I have a new song that’s kind of raging against cancel culture and it’s more a little more obvious It’s gonna be coming out with a new album, comes out next year. We’re very proud of that one. I appreciate you saying that cause a lot of people haven’t mentioned I’ve talked about the lyrics.

So, you’re coming in for Prog Rock in New Jersey, right? And by the time this posts you will have made a few other one-off appearances with Stratospheerius. So, being as busy as you are how do you set your priorities? Is it simply, ‘Well, I’m in Kansas, this is what I’m doing, all that other stuff, if I can get to it, I will.’  

Easy answer. Kansas is my priority number one. That’s my job, what’s paying my bills. And I’m good with that, really good with it, actually. Stratospheerius will continue because I love, you know, writing my own music. I love working with the guys and we have a following and we have a good momentum. So, you know, we’re gonna keep recording, putting out albums, Yeah, we’re gonna play shows. We’re not gonna tour, you know, for weeks on end. We’ll probably play more regional shows whenever, I’m not playing with Kansas, right.

As best I can I will keep it all rolling just because it’s fun and hopefully we get some new people in the audience who Kansas fans. We have that new studio album coming out next year and we’ll see what happens beyond that, you know? So that that’s where I’m at right now.

Well, you know, look, it’s not a terrible thing that to be in Kansas. I could think of worse things, you know?  

This is prog, my music, the music I love. What I grew listening to. So, my gig is playing that music every night for thousands of people. Man, I’m on cloud nine.

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