Michael Cartellone of Lynyrd Skynyrd – Interview

What can I not say about this amazing gentleman?  Drummer… Artist… Musician… Jack of all trades… When Michael sets out to do something it gets done – period.  He has such an amazing drive and an even more amazing talent when it comes to his very diverse art. I hope you enjoy this interview as much as I did.  He is engaging – he loves his music as much as his art and you will love him just as much!

Also, if you want to check out his paintings, they will be at the Philip DeAngelo Studio and Gallery in Asheville, NC from May 25th to June 8th. You can also meet him at the opening. See flyer below for more information. 

Interview by Nica Strong. Photos courtesy of Michael Cartellone.


Nica Strong:  So, let us start off with when you started drumming?  You were nine years old?  I wish I could play, but I can not play to save my life (laughs).

Michael Cartellone: Drumming is a wonderful thing and everyone should do it.  You are correct – I did begin at 9 years old. I had an older cousin named Bert who was a great drummer and every time we would visit his family I would beg him to let me play his drums.  My parents saw how fixated how I was so they arranged for me to start taking drum lessons with his same teacher and I’ve never looked back since.

NS: Did you find that it was natural for you or did you struggle with it?

MC: I took to it very naturally, but I had a great teacher who helped mold the play-doh, as it were.

Nica: Then you had your first gig at 11 at a bar, already the rising star. How was that experience?

MC: It was pretty cool. It was my drum teacher who had a band on the side. One of the things he would dangle as a golden carrot to his students was: “When you have developed enough you can come and sit in with my band”. So I had been studying with him for two years, and when I was 11 years old I sat in with his band. My first professional gig, in Cleveland Ohio, and I was paid $3 that night. I will tell you that I have worked for less since. (laughs)

Nica: When you went to NY – was that a conscious decision?

MC: The short story is that I had started corresponding with a British progressive rock musician named Eddie Jobson (Roxy Music).  In the late 70’s he formed a band called UK and that was one of my favorite bands and I arranged to work with him.  So I started corresponding with him, arranged an audition, went up to NY, auditioned for him, we hit it off and then I moved there when I was 22 to work with Ed.

But during that time, it was just a rehearsal and recording project – we were not doing any live performances so consequently it was not a money paying gig, however I made my living with my fine arts skills because I worked in the garment district at a children’s clothing company in the art department.

NS: You mean on top of art, you sew or something?

MC: (laughs) No, no no. I was just hand painting the designs for this children’s clothing company. It was actually a fun job.

NS:  That is so amazing!  We will get back to that, but back to the music.  I love the fact that you have been with many different groups and have such a fluidity and diversity to your range. Where does that comfort or confidence come from where you can do that?

MC: I think that most musicians have a well rounded vocabulary and have worked at playing different styles just to grow and I;ve had the good fortune to play with a lot of different people and a lot of different styles.  Admittedly, I am a rock drummer, but I have worked enough to be able to play some other styles and have the good fortune to do so be it live or in the studio. At the end of the day, my comfort zone is rock and roll.

NS: Is there a particular drummer whose has a style that you admire or that you aspire to?

MC: I am life-long Beatles fan so Ringo Starr is absolutely one of my favorite drummers. Also, UK drummers Bill Bruford and Terry Bozzio are absolutely favorite drummers of mine.  I would put Stewart Copeland from The Police in that list as well.  If I were to go back in my history as a musician and listen to recordings over the years, I think you would hear elements and influences from every one of those drummers pop up here and there.

NS: I have. I think Ringo definitely pops in there a lot.  Is there a favorite performance that you have done for yourself?

MC: I would say the debut Damn Yankees album that came out in 1990. 

NS: Why that particular one?

MC: A few reasons.  That album was the launchpad for my career so it was a very magical time.  Also, I am very proud of the music on that album – I think it is great music.  I think that my drumming for it was what it exactly needed to be and it kind of was my introduction to the music business on a grand scale. So there a lot of reasons why that record is very important to me 34 years later.

NS: Have you written any of your music for yourself or for another artist?

MC: I am a dabbler, I’ll put it that way.  No, songwriting is not my first and foremost skill.  But it is something that I enjoy and I experiment with and I think what is important about that is that it enables you as an instrumentalist to understand better the roles better within the framework of the song.

NS: Yes.  Also, are there any other instruments that you play?

MC: I can play a little bit of piano, a little guitar, a little bit of bass.  I took xylophone lessons when I was in school so, yeah, jack of all trades put it that way.

NS: And why do I believe that (laughs).  One last thing and then we are going to move on to the painting.  What would you give as advice to someone who is struggling as a drummer and wants to give up or feel they are not good enough?

MC: My first bit of advice is if they have not worked with a drum instructor, that’s what I recommend. A lot of people have taught themselves how to play and some of them very successfully so but what I have found because of my experiences it was very important to study with a teacher and learn the nuts and bolts – let’s call it to really have an understanding of the theory and the foundation of drumming.  Because the fact that I was taught how to read music gave me a knowledge I then applied to the drum set.  I understand what the cake was before I had the frosting.

Bronte

NS:  We have to get into this painting.  At age 4, you went to an institute to study?

MC: I had what turned out to be the coolest kindergarten teacher ever because this lady had seen my interest in painting and told my parents that they may want to encourage it. So the summer in between kindergarten and first grade, my parents enrolled me for a course at the Cleveland Institute of Art in Cleveland Ohio where I’m from.  I basically spent the summer (not unlike what I was talking about with the drum instructor) in a very formal environment where they were teaching the proper theory and techniques – light, shadow, etc. of painting. Which of course for a four year old likely went right over my head (both laugh).  I was certainly the youngest person in the room, I will tell you that!  But perhaps some of it stuck with me and some of those techniques I am still using.  I still have a painting I did at that art school and it is the Planter’s peanuts guy with the monocle. Considering it’s a four year old, it’s not that bad…

NS: You have to put that up one day and show that.  I am torn between two of your paintings – one is the Carousel. I think it is absolutely beautiful.  The other is Carnavale de Venezia.  It reminds of an artist that I like who is kind of a dark artist which is

MC and NS (said simultaneously): Carravaggio

NS: Yes, I love his work because I love his use of color.

Carousel

MC: Thank you.  You have a very good eye, Nica.  Let me tell you about the Carousel first. You will be happy to that the carousel that is modeled from is in… Central Park.

I had this idea for many years to paint this carousel frozen in this kind of winter tundra and I spent many years as I was traveling around touring because of my night job – I was constantly on the go. I spent many years taking photographs of carousels because I knew in my mind the kind of carusel I was looking for.  I did not want something with these kind of molded fiberglass – I wanted something wooden and aged and maybe even cracked surface a little bit. I found the one in Central Park and I thought this is perfect. So I went down there and I took a bunch of photos of the carousel – close ups of the horses, close ups of the mechanical works of the above with all the pulleys and the gears.  In essence I just removed the roof because the carousel in Central Park is in that kind of gazebo but I removed it so you could see the sky and I could make it a dark kind of foreboding kind of scene. I am happy that you like that painting and I am proud of that one and I will tell you that I carried that canvas on tour and I had a little collapsible easel and a toolbox full of paints and I would work on that in hotel rooms during the course of summer tour.

Carnevale do Venezia

So then the other painting, Carnavale de Venezia, which translation is Carnival of Venice, my wife (Nancy) and I went to Venice on our honeymoon.  They are very famous for their carnival that they have every year and all throughout Venice there are these really cool mask stores. I bought a mask there and it happens to be in the painting a central figure he’s holding a skull.  The mask that that figure is wearing is the mask that I bought in Venice and it is called ‘Bauta’. It is a traditional Venetian carnivale mask. I bought that mask because I thought it was cool and I also thought it would be fun to one day work that mask into a painting somehow and as you mentioned, I also am a huge admirer of Carravaggio.

He is one of my favorite painters. Nancy and I were luck to see a retrospective of his work on a trip to Rome once – which that was amazing! Although they are not always on display, there a couple of photo modules at The Met. Basically, I had this mask for about 7 years, and I could not think about how I wanted to put it into a painting and then one day I was just looking through one of my Carravaggio books and I found this painting that you are very familiar with  – The Meditation of St. Matthew –

NS: Yes, I am!

MC: I saw that figure is a monk and he is hunched over and he is hold a skull and I thought what if I take idea and then I stand him up then I put the Bauta mask so that was the germ of the idea for the painting and then it just grew from there.

NS: There was a familiarity and my brain kept trying to figure out where was it coming from!  I know that some people are little squeamish with his work and I think people should look at all because it helps you face the dark.  I like it because of that as well as because I love his use of color, which is why I love that painting of yours in particular – your use of color is phenomenal!

MC: Thank you.  I should mention that not only that painting but any other Italian and/or Sicilian themed painting that I’ve done have all been from personal experience. I’ve only painted things where I actually stood in the spot.  So in the case of the Carnavale De Venezia, the vantage point which is at San Marco Square (Piazza San Marco), I’ve stood in that spot. So I have painted from my life experiences with the locations I just paint.

NS: Oh, so I am thinking about another painting that you did and I am butchering the name again.

Gondoliere

MC: Oh, Carnale Veneziano (the Venice Canal)! Yes, that is another painting that… it was actually on that same trip.  We were in Venice and I bought the mask and we just happened to walk over the little footbridge and I took that photo. This ties together nicely for this art show that I have coming up in a few weeks in Asheville, NC on May 25th for two weeks.  Have you been to Ashville by any chance?

NS: I have not.

MC: Asheville is a really, really hip arts community and there is an area called the River Arts District that has hundreds of artists and dozens upon dozens of really cool galleries.  I am doing a show there with another artist named Philip DeAngelo. Philip owns his own gallery and a very successful and popular painter in the Ashville area.  He and I met and hit it off and realized we both have Sicilian ancestry so the show we are doing is going to be a joint show.  It is called Bella Italia (which translates to Beautiful Italy) and that show is basically going to be comprised of the Sicilian and Italian paintings that Philip and I have both done because of this shared history that we both have.

I will be in residence on May 25th, to meet and greet. There is one painting in particular that is the cornerstone of the event.  We have decided to paint the exact same subject and that is this ancient Greek theater built in 300 AD in a town called Taormina. Philip and I will both be doing a painting of this theater and those two paintings will hang side by side right in the center of the gallery as the focal point. What is interesting about this event is that Phil and I have very different styles in the way we paint which I think is going to make these two paintings even more interesting because they show that vantage point from two different sets of eyes.

NS: I am going to try and get down there because I would like to see this. I love art and I love to see different mediums. I love to see oil and acrylic and whatever people use.

MC: I paint predominantly in acrylic and have for many years. The main reason is they dry so quickly. Specifically, as I mentioned, bringing canvases on tour, they needed to be dry to pack back into the tour bus. However, in art school, I studied in every medium.

NS: Some of your work looks like a photograph. Like the one on Ringo looks like a picture.

MC: That picture took me a full year to do because I just went so crazy with the detail. Not only the look of the drum head, where they are kind of beaten up and they’re scuffed to the point of researching the brick and mortar patterns of the buildings across the street.  Also that is a large painting – 5 feet across.

Fifty

NS: What about the one that says Fifty?

MC: Fifty is a tribute to the seven original members of Lynrd Skynrd that recorded the debut album in 1973. Those paintings will be represented at the show in Asheville.  In addition to the Italian and Sicilian work, the work is going to be rounded out by both myself and Phil with some of our other works just to show a little more vocabulary.

NS: You mentioned that you took pictures of the carousel to paint… do you dabble in photography?

MC: Only as it serves the fine art. I only use it for reference because I am not in any way a spontaneous painter. I plan, I research, I sketch, and then I do more planning and more researching and more sketching (both laugh).  I am not start with a blank canvas where will it take me today?  That’s not me… hats off to the people that can do that, but that is not the way my brain is wired.

Nica: Is there a particular theme when you paint, or is it what you just happen to be feeling at that moment?

MC: It’s whatever I happen to be feeling. I purposely have not stayed with one subject or one look or one painting technique. I push myself to try and paint as many different things as I can. Even regarding the subjects, I have a list on my phone that I keep adding to of ideas to paint and I never really know what I am going to do next until I look at that list and see what moves me from an idea that might have been sitting there from for four years (laughs). So it’s been fun not to have any boundaries regarding visual art and just paint what I feel.

NS: I am so in awe right now. I am just asking for 1/5 of 1/10 of something from you and I will just run with it.  I have canvases in my room right now that if I paint something on it, it would be horrifying (both laugh).

MC: You know what, Nica, it is just about creative expression. It doesn’t matter if anyone ever sees it, it does doesn’t matter if its good or bad, what matters is just releasing the creative expression.

NS: (looking at work online) This one reminds me of Van Gogh and this one reminds me of Andy Warhol.

The Four Davids

MC: You are looking at the Four Davids…

NS: Yes!

MC: In a nutshell, that was my tribute to the David and Michaelangelo statue and I thought I would paint him in four different ways and then the idea grew into celebrating 100 years of art history and showing how art had changed between 1889 and 1984 – that was the period I chose. I painted the David is four very identifiable styles.

NS: How did you do Jagger because that looks so difficult…

MC: Thank you for bringing that up.  That was a fun painting to do. If you were to look at fifty, that is more a photo realism painting whereas the Jagger painting is a much looser hand and almost painted like I was holding a piece of charcoal and it was much faster and little looser in the hand and not much detailed type edges. I worked from a few different photographs of Mick and I kind of created my own composite and the one thing that was really fun about that I limited the color palette to just red, black and white. I painted it quickly.  That’s one of the faster paintings that I’ve completed.

NS: It actually looks like he is in motion…

MC: Hmmm… I think that is because I made the edges have that rough fast swipe to it as opposed to that clean type graphic line like that piece of charcoal that would be breaking apart and be a little gritty and that seem to fit the vibe of the Mick painting.

NS:  I see painting here that I think is Chaplain, but it looks like a pixel?

MC: Yes, I did a series of paintings called pixelism.  I did a variety of artists, cartoon characters, Mona Lisa, movie stars.

NS: Your paintings really show your diversity because you really go from this to that and it is a testament to your amazing talent.  For example, there was one that I was like this is so interesting – the Purple Series…

MC: Yes, the ones you are referring to I call the Road Series and those are about life on the road during the Lynrd Skynrd tour.  Each painting had one color and basically followed the color spectrum – Red, Yellow, Green and Purple.