Allow us to introduce Graztopia, the solitary musical marvel of New York City, an authentic embodiment of the city’s music scene. With a personality as complex as his compositions, Graztopia combines wit, intellect, and a touch of enigma. Picture the offspring of a ’60s beatnik and a ’90s grunge icon, raised on the stages of Lollapalooza – that’s Graztopia for you.
As a lifelong musician and a virtuoso of multiple instruments, Graztopia’s songs are intricate mosaics of sound and storytelling. His genre-blurring style seamlessly merges elements of rock, folk, and jazz blues into a truly unique auditory experience. When he graces the stage, each performance is a one-of-a-kind journey through spontaneous jams, soulful solos, and seamless transitions, all guided by his trusty “Mothership Pedalboard” and loop pedal.
Graztopia’s impact extends beyond the realms of live performances and recording studios. He’s a man on a mission, consistently lending his musical talents to charitable causes. In collaboration with The Touhy Foundation, he’s contributed to events supporting veterans and service dogs, including Project Koda. He’s also shared his music with the Challenger Baseball league, an initiative for children with special needs. Mark your calendar for his upcoming performance at a Project Koda event on November 4th at Sand City South Brewery in Lindenhurst, NY.
And when it comes to venues, Graztopia’s music resonates with a wide audience. His melodies find a home in the cannabis and craft beer scenes, adding a psychedelic layer to pro-cannabis gatherings and brewery gigs. His acoustic stylings make him a perfect fit for coffeehouses, capturing the timeless beatnik vibe of Greenwich Village.
His latest creation, “Beatnik Serenade at The Cup Coffeehouse,” released in September 2023, stands as a testament to his versatility. Graztopia takes the spotlight, demonstrating his mastery of every instrument, with guest musicians Dom Barranco on percussion and Jess DeBellis on accordion. The album is a genre-blurring feast for the ears, blending acoustic and synthesized sounds into a rich, ambient tapestry.
We caught up with Graztopia, below.
Can you tell us about your musical journey and what initially inspired you to become a one-man band and live looping artist?
My musical journey started when I was very young child. I’ve been obsessed with music probably since hearing it for the first time. Insofar as songwriting goes, I was always writing in some way, shape or form, even at a young age. My parents gave me a hand held tape recorder and a bunch of blank tapes, to which I would sing and play my toy instruments, making up songs on the spot. So in my younger-self fantasy, my room became a recording studio and I was recording music like The Beatles did. Fast Forward to many years later not much has changed other than now there’s actual instruments being used, professional recording gear is capturing the music, and hopefully the songwriting has gotten better/matured since I was five. There wasn’t an inspiration per se on becoming a one-man band/live-looping artist, it kind of just happened. I thoroughly enjoy playing in bands/ensembles it’s great fun. Also, collaborating with other like-minded musical people is great fun too, getting to write with other folks as well can produce a very special creativity that one person could not come up with on their own. But, as much fun as bands can be there are some hang ups, whatever it may be pending on the group that prevents the group from progressing. So about 14-15 years ago the band I was playing in broke up and around that time I bought a Boss R-20 loop station to use for practicing guitar and for songwriting. After, getting the hang of the looper and seeing what could be done with it musically, especially with layering overdubbing of parts/counterpart harmony, and being able to segue songs together with improvisation. This realization came over me, I could be like a one-man jamband solo artist. Since then it’s been the most constant thing music-wise that I’ve done insofar as even if I was playing in a group/band, the solo shows were always happening coinciding with all other projects. When I first started looping, my set up was fairly basic, I would run my acoustic guitar through a tuner pedal, volume pedal (to raise guitar volume for soloing), and the loop pedal. Eventually I added a delay pedal to my signal chain to add some more sounds over the solo sections or loops. That became the impetus to begin the never ending ever evolving experiment/process by adding other effects pedals to my signal chain to have more sounds use. Kind of like an artist using a variety of different colors on a pallet to paint with. Over time, more pedals would get added, sometimes subtracted or most likely swapped out for a different one and my pedal boards grew in size. But it’s a forever evolving process of searching for sound and especially when guitar effects/pedal companies innovate new pedals/sounds/and ways to create sounds/noises. On a side note, I’ve also changed loop pedals a few times over the last couple of years and each one of those loop pedals has its own idiosyncrasies which changes the way I’ve looped over time. And it’s fun making the guitar sound like a completely different instrument. I’m forever a “gear-head” and I love effects pedals, simply put they’re cool tools/toys that help bring the sound in a musician’s head to fruition or might inspire other creativity that would not normally happen without them.
You play a wide range of instruments, from guitar to vibraphone. How do you manage to incorporate such diverse elements into your music, and do you have a favorite instrument to play?
Whatever the music calls for is the simple answer for how any type of instrumentation gets incorporated into a particular recording of a song. Musicians have the responsibility of serving the music to the best of their ability. So depending on the style, subject matter, arrangement, etc…of a song determines what gets used. Though on the other side of the coin sometimes just experimenting around with sounds and/or playing an instrument not in it’s traditional way can also be a factor in determining instrumentation on a recording too. Just the process of finding the correct instrument or sound for a song is great fun. And out of all of the instruments I can competently play, my favorite is without question, without a doubt, without hesitation is, the guitar. The guitar is the best instrument in the universe in my humble opinion but I may be bias in regard to that. Playing guitar gives me the best feeling ever and all of my guitars acoustic or electric are like old best friends.
Your songs are described as having poignant, poetic, and storyteller-like lyrics. Can you share some insights into your songwriting process and the themes that inspire your music?
Songwriting or the songwriting process has always seemed to me like the songs get sent from wherever they originate to the songwriter who is like the lucky antenna so to speak. Inspiration can happen or be anywhere, so mainly just trying to stay open to any possibilities of inspiration and to be ready to capture the fleeting sonic moment/idea, preferably getting it written down, recorded, or both. For me the music most of the time comes first and the lyrics are second in the songwriting process. But there have been times where lyrics were written before or separately from the song and either was added to or had the music put to them but that’s a rare occurrence. Usually a song gets born while I’m playing around on the guitar and if a new musical idea/phrase/chord progression/riff whathaveyou sticks out and there’s potential for a song, then usually the creative seed is planted at that moment. Insofar as lyrics go, I do my best to think what does this music mean? What emotions do these sounds convey? What images/imagery do these sounds make me think of? And I try to capture that lyrically in the most poetically palatable way possible were it makes the listeners feel something, think, or preferably come up with their own meaning of a song and what it means to them. In other cases, sometimes lyrics might pop out of nowhere as the music is getting written and might happen to really gel well with the music. Then if those happenstance lyrics are good, have a cool phrasing, an interesting play on words, have something to say and provide a good direction to go in then I’ll roll with those initial words for subject matter. And other times, I might be sitting on a song for a period of time whether it be having all of the music to a song, the arrangement and all or having a partially completed song lyric wise and then out of nowhere what I call “The Dewey Cox Effect” happens. Where someone says something, points something out, and/or provides some type of inspiration completely out of the blue that provides the spark to somehow finish the lyrics and/or fill in the gaps to complete an unfinished song. Lastly one other way of lyrical composition because there’s some many ways to write, I’ll make up a fictional character (s), and kind of write a story about said character in the song. Writing songs is the best and there’s nothing better than writing a song. For me songwriting is one of the most enjoyable things in life to be able to do. Songwriting is a part of my life like breathing is in way.
Live performances are a significant part of your musical career. How do you create the multi-layered sonic landscapes that define your live shows, and what can audiences expect from one of your performances?
Yes they are, they are my “bread and butter” Plus if were up to me I’d have a calendar filled with gigs each month because like songwriting there’s nothing better than playing live music. For the live shows as the multi-layered sonic soundscapes and improvised jams go, that’s definitely a big part of the shows but the songs are the real meat in that sandwich. But there is a healthy amount of improvisation/jammin’/ambient soundscapes that happen in segue-improvised jams that either tie two songs or many songs of a set together or to stretch out and take a new to some new sonic territories with an improvised jam within’ the song. And the way those sounds get created is basically from whatever pedals happen to be in my signal chain for a given show. I use various pedals on my pedalboard pending on the show, that each does various things, kind of like a Swiss army knife of sounds. At the present moment, my current pedal board “The Mothership” houses a bakers dozen worth of effects pedals in my signal chain plus midi foot pad for some other sounds. And I use pedals by Electro Harmonix, Fishman, Alexander Pedals, Boss, Keeley Electronics, Earthquaker Devices, Empress, Gamechanger Audio, Hologram Electronics, and Pigtonix. And I can say my favorite, which always gets quite a bit of use during a live show, and definitely can take an audience to outer space/make them feel like there hallucinating is the Hologram Electronics pedal the Microcosm. That one plays a huge part in always making the live soundscapes very unique. Music is a movable art form in the sense that you change the sound, change the key of song, change the chords/melody of a song, whathaveyou and in a world of musical improvisation you can take the music new places by doing so. And what can an audience expect from one of my performances? Expect the unexpected, to have fun, make new friends, go on a music journey, dance, sing-along if you know the words, and to experience something different than the status quo, yet enchantingly unique.
Your music spans various genres, from rock ‘n’ roll to folk rock and psychedelic. How do you navigate these genre boundaries while maintaining a distinctive Graztopia sound?
Every musician has their “sound” that makes them who they are and hopefully that sound is unique enough to be recognizable in the ears of the people. Like many musicians, I enjoy listening to all types of music, bands, and artist’s from all time periods. So naturally, I enjoy playing various styles and genres of music to which gets incorporated into my music in some way, shape, or form. Though that process usually happens in an organic way insofar as whether a song is in the vein of a particular genre or multi genres quilted together within a song, that’s how it was played when the song was written. I’d like to think I have somewhat of distinctive “Graztopia” sound that threads through all of my music while hopefully blending well with other styles.
Each Graztopia show is unique. Could you elaborate on how you craft your setlists and what motivates you to make every show a distinct experience?
Cool question(s), and yes I really don’t do the typical showbiz thing whereas an artist or band plays the same show/setlist night after night, show after show, for a set period of time. For myself, I never repeat the same setlist twice meaning if you see me 10, 25, or a 100 times you’ll never hear the same show thus, making each show it’s own unique experience for the audiences. By doing that it keeps me on my toes as a performer and makes it interesting for all parties involved. In a way it’s a nod or continuation of the tradition jambands like Grateful Dead, moe. Phish, Widespread Panic, Umphrey’s McGee, Pearl Jam, etc…do with their setlists, they never played the same show twice. By seeing those bands or types of bands live for many years, that definitely has made an impact on why I like to mix up the song selection and improvise/jam during my shows. There’s various ways in which songs get selected for a particular show pending song rotation. Also, the improvised jams/segues that happen within a show can factor into making every show unique. I have about a 100 or so original songs in my current live rotation and at least 150-200 cover songs that make appearances in shows. So there’s quite a large repretiore of songs to choose from with lot’s of options and sonic areas to go in. And new songs are constantly being written and usually debuted at a show somewhat close to the completion date of the song. The way I plan out a setlist is I’ll usually look at what was played at the previous show and try not repeating too many songs from the previous show while selecting some others that might not have been played in a while. But sometimes pending song rotation and/or if I’m really enjoying playing a particular song(s) they might get more play than others in a given period of time. And if it’s a venue that I play very regularly like every month or two, then I’ll look back at the setlist from the previous time I played there and try to write out a set with no repeats from the last time I played there. Insofar as seguing songs together I usually try to pick song combinations in which songs have a similar key or a key that is easily modulated to from the previous song. There are some combinations that get paired often together but I also I try to attempt to segue songs that have never been paired together before. Though the setlist for a show is never set in stone, sometimes throughout a show an audible will get called and songs get swapped out for others, maybe if the music in a particular jam starts going in a different direction or just simply reading an audience. Basically when penning a setlist I try to go with my gut instincts mixed with what will be enjoyable to play and for the people to hear.
Your recent releases include “Summer Rain,” “El Bohemian,” and “Bare Bones In The Attic.” Can you tell us about the creative process behind these projects and the significance of the EP’s stripped-down sound?
Yes, for “Bare Bones in The Attic” EP and the single versions of “Summer Rain” and “ El Bohemian” had a stripped down kind of raw tone to it. That record was supposed to be album of about 9-12 songs with mostly just an acoustic guitar and vocals recorded live with very minimal overdubs. Obviously the end result was very far from the original idea but it still maintained a stripped down raw sound even with drums being added and all of the other bells and whistles. Also, because none of the basic tracks of the songs were recorded to a click track, when the drums were added it gave more a loose feel to the songs. For the single version of “Summer Rain” and it’s B-side “El Bohemian” even though they’re featured on the EP, the single versions do not have the extend outros which are on the EP versions. My M.O. for releasing singles/E.P./Albums usually goes as follows, the single versions are always different then the version on an EP or Album. That way the same version of a song is not put out twice and the listener can choose which version they want to hear. Also, even though the music is put out on a digital platform there is the intention for any release to be put out on vinyl and made into a physical copy in the future. So all singles must have a B-side right? As for the fate of the songs that didn’t make the cut for that record, most of those are going to be re-recorded and put out on future releases down the road.
“Nocturnal Lullaby” and “Theta Wave Machine” are your latest releases. What inspired these acoustic and instrumental tracks, and how do they fit into your evolving musical journey?
“Nocturnal Lullaby” was written on a very rainy winter night after hearing the news that a friend had just passed away. The song isn’t necessarily about my friend but the lyrics reflect/mention the events that were happening while the song was being written as I was processing the loss of a friend. I was lying in bed playing a very simple chord/riff which became the music to the verses and started reflecting on the sad news, some words came fairly quickly and before I knew it there was a brand new song. Kind of like a gift from the afterlife from my late friend. The single version of “Nocturnal Lullaby” is also a little different than the version on “Beatnik Serenade at The Cup Coffeehouse” insofar as the single version has a much shorter and different intro/outro than the version on the album. Also, these are the acoustic versions of “Nocturnal Lullaby” because there are plans to record an electric version of the song as well as other electric full band versions of other songs previously released and upcoming acoustic releases. For the instrumental B-side “Theta Wave Machine” is a very psychedelic ambient sounding little ditty of which I played all of the instruments on. The song kind of gives a little taste of what some of the ambient jams at a show might sound like when it’s fully orchestrated. The song was selected because theta waves are the brain waves happening in your noggin when you’re sleeping. So pairing it with “Nocturnal Lullaby” title-wise seemed very apropos. Also, that title has some artistic foreshadowing to it, because my next release is going to be an all instrumental album of songs that are designed to help someone relax, calm down, mellow out, come up/down or during a psychedelic experience and aid in falling asleep, the said record will have the title “Theta Wave Machine” So be on the lookout for that down the road.
“Beatnik Serenade at The Cup Coffeehouse” is your latest album. Could you share some insights into the making of this album, including your role in playing all the instruments and collaborating with fellow musicians?
For the making of “Beatnik Serenade at The Cup Coffeehouse” the approach was still to do acoustic versions of certain songs because in the future most of the songs if not all, will get recorded again to produce an electric full band version. Also, the intention was to build a song up from the basic tracks ex. the rhythm guitar and vocals tracks. So all of the overdubs were done individually after the basic tracks had been laid down. To keep the tempo tight for each song and to make overdubbing the other instruments easier, especially the percussion. Each song was recorded to a click track. Another thing that was different to the approach of this record as opposed to previous record is I played 90 percent of the instruments on the record and did all of the vocals. Normally, for my recordings I’ll handle all of the guitars, bass, lead vocals parts and maybe any additional instrumentation if needed for a song providing I can play said instruments, as well as doing the recording/mixing all of the songs. But I usually prefer to have my musician friends to lend their talents to a recording especially if it’s for an instrument I cannot play or not play well at all, and add harmonies to the vocals. Having another very talented creative musician(s) to play on a song makes it better. Other musicians can make the songs unique and can take the music to different places because of the musical touch another musician can put on a song. For the drums/percussion I always enlist long time friend and drummer extraordinaire Dom Barranco to handle all of those parts for my recordings. Meaning if you hear a recording of a Graztopia song that has drums/percussion on it, then it’s almost always Dom Barranco playing on it because he is the perfect drummer for my music. But due to some things out of our control during the recording process for this record I had to handle the majority of the percussion parts on most of the songs. Another first for this record is I used all digital percussion sounds via the Roland Octa-Pad for this album. And for a couple of songs it’s Dom and I doing the percussion parts. As always Dom did a great job with his rhythmic contributions he made which helped enhance the music. I wish he could have played on everything but there’s always the next record. For keyboards, piano, or anything keys related I always enlist friend and piano player extraordinaire Jess DeBellis to handle the keyboard duties for my recordings. But due to some scheduling conflicts during the recording process Jess, was only able to add accordion to the songs “Nocturnal Lullaby” and “Submarine Sea Shanty” but what he did add really rounded out those songs in the perfect way by truly capturing the feel of them. Being that Jess, wasn’t around to do the rest of the keyboard parts I ended up doing all of the synthesizer parts, which usually can be heard in the very psychedelic sounding extended intros/outros of most of the songs on the record. Speaking of extended intros/outros that was yet another first for one of my records. For the previous EP “Bare Bones In the Attic” each song had a bit of an odd sounding outro to them that were about 30-45 seconds in duration. For “Beatnik Serenade at The Cup Coffeehouse” the intention was to sort of add in a little taste of the ambient trippy sounding jams that sometimes happen in the live shows to blur the lines a bit between the songs on the record by adding extended intros and outros. The title of the record came from an actual place called The Cup Coffeehouse, where I used to gig at regularly, host there open mic, and hang out at for many years. So the place had a special significance to my life, which is why it was chosen to be included in the title. It was also a way to pay a little homage to that period of my life where I really cut my teeth as a live looping artist.
What can listeners expect from your new album in terms of musical style and themes, and do you have any future plans or projects you’d like to tease for your fans?
Fans can expect to hear 6 songs that are made up of or blended different styles/sounds/genres of music yet have a constant sonic thread that ties them together in such a way. They can expect to go on some type of journey wherever their minds and feelings take them for the duration of the record. Ideally, the listeners can hopefully hear something new or feel something every time they listen. Insofar as future releases, there’s always quite a few things in the pipeline getting prepared to be unleashed on the ears on the people. And with the large repertoire of unrecorded songs, most of which are having acoustic and electric versions recorded, so there’s quite a bit of material that will be put out in the future. As was previously said, I’m planning on releasing an all-instrumental album called “Theta Wave Machine” which should be released in the coming months. And work has already gotten started on the next Graztopia album, which should hopefully be released during the upcoming summer of 2024. Lastly, because I record all of my live shows and have a massed quite a large archive of live recordings after all of these years. I’m going to be releasing a couple of different live-bootleg recordings of archived live versions of my original songs. Those official live bootlegs will be made available exclusively through my Bandcamp page. Please be on the lookout for any and all future releases.