I enjoyed speaking with Paul “Sky” Armento, Keyboards and Musical Director of Jessie’s Girl, a popular 80’s cover band. I found it interesting that he truly embraced the part of his job where he chooses the songs and has taken it to another level by becoming an electronic dance music DJ. I also think he downplays his talents, but maybe it’s because he compares himself to Keith Emerson, his self-proclaimed idol. His love of Emerson shows in his work as he uses sounds and visuals to add excitement by combining electronic lights and effects with the music as a DJ and in the Jessie’s Girl shows. Wellmont Theater is letting him pull out all the stops on June 7th for Jessie’s Girl’s performance and I’m sure that’s going to be a super-fun show!
Fredda Gordon: In addition to performing, you have been a musical director for many musicians including for Jessie’s Girl. What actually does a music director do?
Sky: It’s so funny because my first experience with that term was with Debbie Gibson. She asked me if I wanted to be “MD” of her band. I’m like ‘I’m not a doctor, what is she talking about?’ I learned pretty quickly. Musical director is the one on top of all things musical. This band is really solid, so in this particular job it’s not as hard as others because people come in prepared. But inevitably someone is playing the wrong note, or the wrong chord, or the wrong rhythm, and it falls on me to hear that. My ears are very strong and I correct them.
Also I develop the set lists so for each show, which is kind of like DJ-ing a band in a way. Figuring out what dynamic is going to work, what song to go to to get the audience most excited. In addition to that there’s things that I have to do with other people. Like if we ever have a sub come in it falls on me to train them and get them ready to replace someone in the band.
In a different context, in Debbie Gibson’s band I also prepared all the tracks for her and I ran the computer. I’ve done that a little bit with Jessie’s Girl but we really are more of a live band and we don’t really play with tracks that often.
FG: You make it sound simple.
S: It’s simple but it takes a lot of time.
FG: There are tons of song titles you could have chosen for the band, why Jessie’s Girl?
S: I’ll credit our management/booking guy. A lot of names came up but he felt that was friendly to women, which [is] great because we have six guys and one girl. He wanted to draw attention to the fact that we have this beautiful, wonderful young woman singing for us. It was a good choice because its not gender specific but it does open the doors to a lot of bachelorette parties and a lot of women and that, in fact, draws a great mixed crowd. It was his choice but we all agreed to it. It also seems to be one of the most well known 80s songs.
FG: What draws you to 80’s music?
S: The band grew up in the 80’s. So, it was really the music of our youth. The female singer is a little bit younger than the rest of us, but most of us are in our 40’s and 50’s and these are the songs we played and learned our instruments on back in the 80’s. So, it’s not a question of being drawn to it, it’s what we were born into. Like it, or not.
FG: What’s your favorite memory from the 80’s?
S: That’s so long ago. My best memories of the 80’s are probably what most people’s memories are, things I did with my friends. Driving around and doing crazy stuff in my… I was the one with the car. I had a ’76 Chevy Nova. It was a monstrous car and my memories have to do with that. Taking my friends and having great times in my Chevy Nova. That’s the 80’s for me, blasting the songs that I now play for a living.
FG: Would you have been surprised back then?
S: I would be shocked if someone told me I’d be playing “Jump” every week. I remember figuring that song out in high school saying ‘Oh, I got this.’ If someone said “Hey! You’re going to be doing that in your 50’s for a living,” I’d be ‘Get the hell out of here!’
FG: What’s your favorite thing about Jessie’s Girl?
S: Our chemistry! I think that’s what people may not realize. That’s what makes us such a strong band. Every member is extremely strong in their area. For example, there’s better keyboard players out there, there’s better bass players, there’s better guitarists, there’s better everything. I don’t know if there’s better singers. Although there’s a lot of guys who can play better then me, not only have I never heard anyone program sounds better, I also went to the Korg factory and I was programming better than their newest synth. That’s my strength.
The drummer is a monstrous feel player. When he starts playing those drums, you feel it in your heart and a lot of drummers are very technical, Mike is very ‘feel’ playing and the bass player is the same way. He is so solid you wouldn’t realize it. You wouldn’t realize that these are components. It’s almost like a Big Mac. If you ripped apart a Big Mac you got some wishy washy pickles, some soggy lettuce, but when you put the whole thing together its magic. And that’s what this band is, it’s our chemistry. Although we are better elements than a Big Mac. We are bigger than the sum of our parts.
FG: You have a lot of costume changes.
S: We do. It’s not every song. Early on we started looking for two singers, a male and a female. And then we got Chris. Chris is a unique individual. He’s a tall guy and he’s gay and loves to play with that onstage. So he created a middle character that we never even thought of before. We do amazing harmonies because we literally have 7 people in the band who can sing. And we wound up with three front people and it immediately opened doors.
The costume changes with two people in the previous version of this band were very difficult. A lot of pauses in between songs and you could only have one person on stage at a time. But with three people we do duets, even trios. It opened the door to all sorts of costume changes. Three people on stage allowed us more flexibility. I would say about 70% of the songs have specific costumes. Some are more generic costumes. The singers primarily change. The band changes on [about] 3 songs.
FG: Have you had any issues with it or does it interfere with the performance?
S: We have to wait occasionally but it’s rare because everyone has been doing this for so long and they know how to change.
FG: The audience gets into it! What is the craziest thing you’ve seen from the audience?
S: On the 80’s cruise, somebody was inside a full body, over the top Gumby costume, walking around in the hot sun. I like to see people dress up as the 80’s rockers with the hair, like metal heads. That happens a lot. Also, a lot of girls in leg warmers.
FG: Was there music around your house when you were a kid?
S: I grew up with a lot of 70s music and jazz. I wound up first falling in love with 70s progressive rock. In high school that was predominantly what I listened to. Bands like Emerson, Lake and Palmer, God rest his soul, and Yes and Rush. That was my love in the 80s, although we also liked the new stuff that was coming out.
FG: Do you play music in your house now?
S: I do. I’m probably more enamored of music now than I’ve been since high school. I am all into electronic dance music. I listen to it incessantly. Which is crazy because I had not listened to music for probably 25 years. I’ve not been somebody who pops in a cd and now, my new project, I’m DJ-ing. I actually got a great little gig on the shores of Lake Hopatcong. I’ll be doing a residency every week and I’m bringing all my lights that I use for Jessie’s Girl into this little club and it’s going to be amazing! [www.skyedmdj.com] So, I love music again.
FG: How about any other kind of music you’d like to perform?
S: That’s it, the EDN thing is the only place that as a writer in this stage of my life will be able to expose people to my music. If you’re an original band, you really have to play original music. If you’re a cover band, you’re expected to play covers. But if you’re DJ-ing you could throw in one or two of your own, or a bunch of your own, and eventually people start to like your own mixes. It’s probably the only platform I can see for me to be creative with music. That was one of the things that drew me to it.
FG: Do you still practice piano?
S: I should – I occasionally will jump on there for periods and work on my classical repertoire, which has kind of gone by the wayside. But I don’t play as much as I should. A lot of the songs in Jessie’s Girl are so ingrained that I don’t have to. I know the drummer practices in our band, the drummer’s very passionate about his instrument and I believe the guitarist also. I think he’s in the same place as me, he kind of practices what he needs to. I do play the piano for joy sometimes but mostly improvisation. I’m not actually practicing, just messing around and writing.
FG: Are there other instruments you’d like to play?
S: I do play some other instruments. I play bass guitar. I was in a Rush tribute for awhile, I don’t know if I’m going to do that again though. It’s just so much work. My wish list, I would love to play saxophone. They didn’t let me play it in grade school because I had a speech impediment.
S: I couldn’t say saxophone so I couldn’t play it. If you can’t say saxophone…
S: Nope. They wouldn’t let me play it. They made me play trumpet. It sucks. I got rid of my speech impediment. That was just for a few years in grade school. My teeth were too big. What can I say. Now they’re good. I could learn saxophone if I had to.
FG: What do you do for relaxation or fun?
S: I have a boat that I take out. I haven’t been out too often but I go out and I blast around Lake Hopatcong and the boat goes 55 miles an hour so. Its’ one of the fastest boats. It’s a little boat but its insanely fast. And I lay with my cat and listen to EDM.
FG: What was your first meaningful musical experience?
S: In freshman year in high school I saw a talent show and I had never seen live music before. There was a trio playing Freebird and it was so exhilarating that I just knew right then and there that I needed to be performing music live. A follow up to that was when MTV came on and I saw the Us festival and Rick Emmet came on and sang this song “Never Surrender.” Fast forward 35 years, a few years back, my friend booked Rick Emmet from Triumph to play in his living room and I got to sing that song while Rick Emmet played guitar and backed me up on it. I play with a lot of celebrities with this band. I play with a lot of 80s people, but for me Rick Emmet was a guy that I first saw on a big stage and said ‘I have to do that.’
FG: Is there anyone who would make you nervous to play in front of?
S: If Keith Emerson was alive I wouldn’t even want to go near a keyboard. For Emerson, Lake and Palmer I would just say ‘Yeah, I play bass’ [laughter]. I miss him. He just recently passed and he was my keyboard idol and always will be.
FG: I just interviewed Robert Berry who played with him.
S: Oh my God! I saw that tour! It was called “3.” I saw “3,” front and center at the Trocadero in Philly in 1989. When Emerson jumped on his Hammond at the end of the show and fell to the ground wrestling it while playing Bach, I literally could reach out and touch him. Maybe as a keyboard player, THAT should be my favorite memory of the 80s. Yeah, why not?!
FG: What happened [to Emerson], it’s so unbelievable, You can’t understand it.
S: I don’t understand it. There are a lot of guitar heroes, a lot of bass heroes, a lot of people that have really excelled at their instrument but no-one was even in the ballpark of what he did. There was him and then there’s… it’s kind of like watching what’s his name swim, what’s that olympic swimmer, everybody else is like somewhere a mile behind him. That’s what Emerson was in keyboards. It’s tough to be that far ahead and have to watch people creeping up on you and watch your own skills slip. I felt horrible for him.
I credit him. He’s probably my biggest influence on keyboards. Probably one of the reasons I play the way I play on keyboard. I do some weird stuff. I mention before about the sounds but I put little sounds all over, I have 2 keyboards and they’re all over the place and Emerson, if you remember, had like 8 keyboards all around him or 9 or 10, so he used to jump around between keyboards. I kind of do that on 2 keyboards because I have little parts of sounds. If another keyboard player started playing my keyboards they’d be like “What is this?,” because it wouldn’t be a straight sound. I kind of took what Emerson did and threw it on 2 keyboards. That’s my homage to him. Like I’m playing a million different parts in a song.
FG: Is there anything else you would like to add?
S: First and foremost I want to push the chemistry of the band and how important every person is. Over the years I’ve become less involved. I used to put myself out front a little bit more, I used to sing some songs, I used to do a little more but I’m more content to let the band just be what it is and my passion has actually flowed into production. The last few years I’ve been collecting a van full of stage things including big video screens, and lasers, fog machines, and all this stuff and I discovered it all through my EDM and see what they do on stage. The Wellmont lets me do almost everything! They let me bring in lasers, they let me bring in sparks that go like 25′ in the air. The Wellmont show is probably the most visual Jessie’s Girl show you can experience because they let me bring in all my toys.
Interview by Fredda Gordon.
Photo courtesy of Jessie’s Girl/ML Presents.
Eighties Tribute Group, Jessie’s Girl, to Rock Wellmont Theater on June 7
Exhilarating rock/pop appreciation band set to take concertgoers ‘Back to the Eighties’ at North Jersey’s premier concert venue!
There’s no decade like the ’80s and no party like “Back to the Eighties” with the band, Jessie’s Girl. Be sure to catch a night of neon spandex, extra hair spray and great tunes. The group, covering hit machines like Bon Jovi, Cyndi Lauper, Prince, Madonna and others, features a stacked lineup – rock/pop vocalist and emerging superstar Jenna O’Gara, Off-Broadway’s Chris Hall and Sting impersonator Mark Rinzel. The lineup has been bolstered by Broadway’s own Constantine Maroulis – and includes one of the tightest bands in the area: Eric Presti on guitar, Sky on keys, Drew Mortali on bass and Michael Maenza on drums. It’s a night you won’t forget!
Friday, June 7, 2019, 8 p.m. EST
Wellmont Theater, 5 Seymour St., Montclair, N.J., 07042