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Secret Smile - 2003 Interview with Ken Barbiero and T.J Gabriele

INTERVIEW: Secret Smile (Jul 2003)
GDAZE talks to Ken Barbiero and TJ Gabriele.
Secret Smile's Ken Barbiero and T.J Gabriele hop out of the drivers seat, and talk retro with Glory Daze's Gdazegod..

WRITTEN BY: Gdazegod

'Today's music does absolutely nothing for me. When I put a CD on, I want to feel something besides wanting to kill myself listening to grunge or alternative. No offense to Pearl Jam or Dave Mathews, but I just don't get any of it. If the stuff I love is retro now, I'll take retro any day!' Strong words indeed, from a man who believes today's popular music is nothing more than an indictment. And that man is Ken Barbiero, guitarist with Connecticut based melodic rockers Secret Smile.

The band are topical quite now, riding on the back of their latest 2003 album release 'The Road Less Traveled', released in May on the Metal Mayhem label. An unusual release for that label, perhaps the only true AOR band among the plethora of glam and metal oriented outfits that label head Ryan Northrop has collected over the last few years.

Lets meet the current band. Ken plays guitars and handles keyboards too, TJ (Anthony) Gabriele is the lead singer, we've got the Wilson brothers; Scott on guitars, Todd on bass, plus drummer Bobby Ventresca.

The origins of the band go back to around 1987-1988, when Ken and TJ first met. 'We had a cover band named Jump Start but when we got our first gig we changed the name to Secret Smile' says Ken. Since that point, Secret Smile have been writing and performing for over ten years. The nineties is when things started happening for the band according to TJ. 'We opened for acts like Meatloaf, Steelheart, Rick Springfield, Starship, Ratt, and The Rembrandts.' An impressive list for this Connecticut born and bred quintet.

'Yes, all five members are Connecticut born and bred' confirms Ken. 'In fact, everyone except TJ grew up in the same small town of Monroe, and Scott and I graduated high school together. TJ grew up in the next town over, Trumbull.'

As Ken hinted in the opening paragraph, the band make no apology for keeping to the tried and true formula of eighties melodic rock/AOR. In fact, they've been compared favorably to Journey, Survivor and REO Speedwagon. It seems like the guys are well settled into the eighties decade. 'I loved all three of those bands growing up, so to be compared to them is awesome' he says. 'I think some great music came out of the eighties, so I don't mind 'settling' in at all - I actually prefer it.'

The decade was remembered for other genres as well, some of which impacted on TJ in his formative years. 'It's funny to be compared to bands like the ones you mentioned. Although I liked all those bands too, I found myself listening more to bands like the Ramones, INXS, and The Police. I think our music represents a blend of the music that influenced Kenny and myself' he says. Because of that, their roots are firmly entrenched by the musical direction and material generated by the likes of Honeymoon Suite, Survivor, 38 Special, Loverboy, and The Outfield. Particularly for Ken, who uses Def Leppard and Boston as a springboard of ideas for production purposes. 'And I'm sure I'm leaving a lot of bands out!' he adds. 'For my guitar playing influences, I would say Eddie Van Halen first, and then Michael Schenker, Ace Frehley, and Tom Scholz.' As a singer and songwriter, TJ finds it difficult to venture past some of rock music's definitive icons. 'For me, Queen, The Stones, The Beatles. I find my writing is heavily influenced by The Beatles. Those harmonies and melodies!' Well TJ, you won't be the only one touched by the Fab Four in this way!

What it does mean for Secret Smile, is the reluctance to go anywhere near today's contemporary styles, which doesn't do much for the band. You've heard Ken's point of view, and TJ's not far from it either, though he does concede on a couple. 'Yeah, although a lot of today's music scene drives me crazy, there are a lot of one hit wonders out there that I enjoy. For example, a couple of bands I like these days are Simple Plan and Nine Days.'

However, there's still a market out there for this style of music. If you're reading this article then you are testament to that fact. As for Ken, he acknowledges that technology, can be mans best friend! 'Thank God for the internet! That's all I say! In the mid nineties, I thought I was the only person still listening to melodic music. Even some of my close friends were making fun of me for not getting into Collective Soul or whatever was out then. Once I realized that lots of people do in fact still love this type of music, it sort of validated my feelings about it at the time. I didn't feel like such an outcast after that.'

Which brings us onto the touchy subject of US Radio. Not a particularly good friend to melodic rock artists these days. The guys in suits obviously care more about dollars than sense! 'It's very funny over here' says Ken. 'All of the bands I love from the eighties (Night Ranger, Survivor, Poison, Whitesnake, etc.) are still touring and drawing good crowds but radio is another story. Certain laws that limited the number of radio stations one entity could own have been repealed here, so what has happened is you have one company which owns hundreds of stations, and multiple stations in the same market.'

'So now you have all these different stations with the exact same playlist. The only difference with radio here is the call letters. It's awful! I hardly ever listen to the radio anymore. And now I have heard that these same companies that own all of these stations have begun to buy up clubs, theaters, and arenas. Talk about a stranglehold on the industry. They not only now decide what gets played but what bands will be able to play their venues. It just doesn't seem right that a guy in a suit decides what I hear on the radio and what band I can see at my local club.' TJ adds his weight behind the argument. 'Unfortunately the market doesn't seem to include a lot of radio airplay for our style of music at this time, but I still feel with the proper promotion that our music could still be mainstream today.'

As it turns out, we also happen to be interviewing the creative duo of Secret Smile. Ken gives us an idea as to how he and TJ construct their material, and share their musical ideas. 'Well, I just put a 24 track studio in my house, so writing just got a lot more convenient. I write all of the music, and most of the time, have the melody in my head already. If I'm stuck, I'll give a copy to TJ to see if he can come up with something, but usually TJ will come over and I will already have the music laid down and then I sing it for him and he puts his twist on it, and that's it. I find writing lyrics to be the hardest for me, but luckily I have a huge book of lyrics that I've written and kept since about 1984 to the present. I also use MasterWriter software which is good for the times that you're having a mental block trying to find a word.'

Secret Smile - The Road Less Travelled

On the other hand, TJ says that when he writes a song, Ken will just tell him whether it's good or it sucks, and that will determine if it goes on the record. Sounds very arbitrary doesn't it?

The connection to the Metal Mayhem label came about because Ryan Northrop is also a Connecticut resident, and knew the band way back when. Ken gives an abbreviated account. 'Ryan grew up down the road from my parent's house (which is where we rehearsed for years). He was in a pawnshop looking through the used CD's, and came across our first CD 'Anatomy' from around 1993. He remembered that we were from Monroe, so he picked it up and liked what he heard. We finally ended up getting together to discuss doing a record for him, but it took a while to meet because our bass player Todd kept telling me to send this guy (Ryan) a CD because he's interested in signing us. I had heard so many of these stories before, as virtually every major label turned us down in the early nineties, that I didn't want to be bothered. Funny how things work out. He resurrected the band and we owe him a lot for that.'

Some of the material for 'The Road Less Traveled' goes back to the period of that 'Anatomy' album, though a majority of it is relatively new. Ken's favourites include 'Take A Chance On You' and 'All About Love', while TJ is keen on 'Around', 'All About Love' and 'The L.A. Song'. The latter because he got to play harmonica which was pretty cool for him, and considering that he doesn't really play harmonica at all!

The album was released on the 1st May and is available locally in the USA and abroad through the normal distribution channels. Ken says he's gotten a lot of feedback from both the US and Europe and 90% of it has been positive. 'We get the occasional 'the songs are weak and your singer can't sing', but we've always heard that. We don't listen to those ones.'

Mr 'Arcangel' himself Jeff Cannata has provided the band with some engineering input. He certainly brings a wealth of studio experience and an educated pair of ears to the mix, not withstanding that he too, is a local New Haven resident. For Ken and TJ, that's a bit of a bonus. ' We first met Jeff back in 1989 and he's done most of our recording since then' says Ken. 'I was a huge Arcangel fan in high school so it was a big thrill for me to meet him and then get to work with him. Jeff is just awesome and I always learn something new from him.'

'When we first met Jeff it was a very intimidating experience' remembers TJ. 'He has a certain aura about himself and is an incredible musician. It took a while to break the ice, but once we did he has become a tremendous asset to the band and has since become a good friend.' The band have just started rehearsing and are looking at summer dates in the US and depending on sales and interest in Europe, possibly a fall tour overseas, where they have toured previously.

The following is an overview of what Ken and TJ are currently listening to. This will confirm their 'retro' status for sure! We start with Ken. 'Well, now that you know how 'retro' I am, let me think about this. I've been listening to some old Scorpions stuff (Blackout, etc), the new Boston, which still hasn't grown on me (no kidding.. Ed), Simple Plan, The Outfield, Van Halen, Kiss, and Honeymoon Suite. I like Swirl 360, and was just listening to their first album. Oh, and I was just listening to Harem Scarem's 'Weight Of The World' which I really like. Last week I had Tour De Force's 'World On Fire' in my CD player.' Next up TJ. 'Simple Plan are my personal favourites right now although today I was caught listening to Boston's Greatest Hits.'

As per our usual Tech-head segment within our interviews, Ken does the honors, including guitars and keyboards.

Ken: I have had many different setups over the years, and am always experimenting with different rack processors. I have a Digitech GSP-5, an ART MultiVerb III and MultiVerb LT (which are always broken!) an Alesis QuadraVerb GT and a couple of Furmans that I'm always pulling in and out of my rack. The only constant is my red Charvel Model 6, which has been my favourite guitar for over 10 years, though I'm only allowed to use it for solos in the studio because Jeff says it's too noisy. My latest rig has the Charvel into a DigiTech 2120 Dual Guitar Valve System and from there into a modified Scholz Rockman EQ (Todd our bass player is awesome with a soldering gun!). I then go out of the Rockman EQ and into an AB Precedent Series power amp, and out to a couple of Randall 4 X 12's. That's it - simple!

I've learned that less is better. The DigiTech 2120 is great though. I found out that John Spinks from The Outfield uses it live so I knew I had to get one. I love it, and since I've gotten the 2120, I haven't been experimenting as much. For keys, I use an old Korg DW-8000 as a midi controller and then the Roland JV-1010 Synth Module or the E-mu Proteus 1 for sounds. I don't like to fiddle around too much with sounds in general, so I like both the DigiTech and Roland because they sound great with minimal tweaking. My wireless system is the Nady UHF-10.'

The guys would love to take Secret Smile as far as they can, and they aren't about to slide off into obscurity and time soon! 'Obviously, it would be great to get picked up by a major label and we're all committed to trying to accomplish this, but the reality of the music scene is that we need to be satisfied with what we're doing first and just see what happens.'

The guys have some final words. 'I would just like to thank all of the readers for supporting melodic music and GLORY DAZE, and hopefully they'll check out our new album. Many thanks to George for involving us with GLORY-DAZE.' Ken.

'Thanks for taking the time to recognize our efforts on our new release. All the best. We'll keep you informed on any upcoming news. And by the way, our CD is available on and' TJ.


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