After college Justin found himself playing Hammond organ in a blues jam band – something like The Allman Brothers I guess. That band was called Killing Floor, a few guys from Kansas City who relocated to Philadelphia. (Later the name was changed to K-Floor after a band of the same name threatened to sue.) For 5 years the band played all over the country with support from an indie label, but when the guy with the money bags pulled out, Justin knew he was out of the band. The life of a touring musician is grueling and the 30-year old piano player knew it was time to make use of the college degree and get a job for the man and settle down.
Still. somehow you can't kill the artist inside... not even with your business casual attire. Justin still plays music and recently has completed a solo album called Skin and Bones made in his home recording studio full of musical instruments including an array of guitars. If you ever need to catch up with old friends who are musicians to learn what cards life dealt them, listen to their music: the story unfolds as if you had been there the last two decades, each song relaying a different chapter, each verse a different moment. (At least I think that's what happens – I can't be sure as I've been on a Beach Boys binge lately - it's Difebbo's fault and Portlandia.)
My old pal Justin took time from his busy life as a day job keeper, husband and father of three, to answer my questions about his new music, influences, challenges and his 5 years as the organist of the absolutely an udderly phenomenal K-Floor. Secretly, I bet the Q and A was the highlight of his week and could only be topped by all-you-can-eat-wing-night and a barrel of Yuengling.
A: My name is Justin DiFebbo. I’m a singer-songwriter from the Philadelphia, PA area. I’ve been playing music in one form or another since I was 10 years old. My very first instrument was the flute, which did wonders for my grade school popularity. My parents bought a piano around the same time and I found myself noodling around on it all the time, learning by ear and figuring out Beatles songs sort of a half-assed kind of way. I joined my first band as a keyboard player when I was 15 or 16 with some friends. We weren’t very good but we did play a bunch of gigs… me, I was lying to my parents about sleeping over a friend’s house then driving into the city to play these gigs. Playing shows was everything to me back then. I almost attended college for piano performance but bailed on it at the last minute when I figured out I just wasn’t enjoying it. In my mid-20s, I hooked up with a young blues band, K-Floor, from the Kansas City area who had moved into my neighborhood. That changed my life… I went from playing in various bands and doing gigs here and there to a full-time, intense, touring situation. I quit my job and headed out on the road where I spent the next 5 gigging relentlessly, signed to an indie-label, etc… Had some of the best times of my life, and as you could imagine, some of the more challenging times as well. We all know the life of a full-time musician is not an easy road. I took a long break from music following that experience, took a job, started a family. It wasn’t until about 5 or 6 years ago that I got back into music. I mean, it’s always been there, but I went from playing piano by myself to writing songs, recording them and finally getting the nerve to release them and actually have people listen to them. I’m pretty introverted when it comes to this sort of thing, so for me it was a breakthrough in my personal development. I released my first solo record, Turn Out the Light, Turn On the Stereo in 2014 and have a new one, Skin and Bones, due out next month. I’m really excited for this next record.
A: Yes and no. I don’t blindly go out to a club and hope to discover something new. But if I get wind of something cool, I will go check it out. I find it’s harder and harder as I get older to find people who will go with me, so I often go it alone… which is something I rather enjoy. If the venue/artist is appropriate, I like to bring my oldest son with me.
Q: I detected a bit of Pink Floyd in the new album tracks you sent me. Particularly with the first track, there is an airy, breathiness of the vocals. What artists do you think most influenced you?
A: I’m a Pink Floyd fan, along with The Beatles, Brian Wilson’s Beach Boys, and many of the greats from way back when. There was something so pure and engaging about what those artists were doing… breaking new ground and exploring. It’s interesting to think about their influences and how they went about creating off the back of those before them. With my music, I’m most certainly influenced by the above-mentioned in terms of instrumentation and harmony, but I try to create a sound all my own. I’m not a pop-song writer really, at least not with this project. I’m more interested in creating an atmosphere or a mood with my recordings. Other influences of mine include bands like The Cocteau Twins and Dead Can Dance. I love the idea of someone associating something that I’ve written with a time or situation in their life… or maybe a season. There’s a Cocteau Twins album that I only feel right listening to in the winter. It has a mood. That’s what I’m going for…
Q: What is your opinion on digital streaming, downloading, etc? Do you long for the days when we still went to shops or shows and bought music on tape, CD or vinyl?
A: Well, it’s a strange dichotomy I’ve got going on between what I want to feel and how I actually feel. I want to dismiss the idea of streaming and I do long for the days of spending an afternoon driving to various record shops and browsing for hours… saving a portion of my paycheck to buy music. But. I love the convenience of streaming music and how easy it is to discover new music. And for someone like me, who’s really just trying to get people to discover my music, the current state of affairs makes that much easier. So I guess I’m supportive of streaming, downloading etc… but I still buy music from indie artists.
Q: What is the most challenging thing about making your music? Is it finding the time between family and job? Or do you wrestle with the songwriting, arrangements, finding right sounds, etc?
A: Lyrics, they don’t come naturally... I have endless melodies and song ideas, bits and parts floating around in my head all the time. But getting the lyrics down is work… it’s an art form and I’m extremely jealous of people who write them with ease.
Q: What is the message to your music?
A: I don’t know that I’m trying to project a particular message on anyone… I’m just trying to express as best I can things that have happened to me or moved me. If I’m listening to music and somehow get the sense that the artist is being real and not going through the motions, I can connect with that indescribable thing. I hope when people listen to mine, maybe through their personal experience or whatever… they’ll be able to connect with mine. People are going to take from it what they want… you can’t force it. At least…I can’t.
A: It’s a little of both. Sometimes I start with something that I’ve experienced… then manage to mangle the idea completely as I find lyrics that fit the song, inevitably making the original sentiment unrecognizable, even to myself. Most of the time though, I’m writing in hypotheticals… trying to imagine a situation, how people are feeling... and trying to relate to something more universal. There is, however, one tune on the album called "To My Love" that is from a direct personal experience… and I managed not to obliterate the intended meaning of the song. I’m pretty proud of that one…
Q: What is one area of your music or skill set you want to improve upon?
A: All of it. I’m kidding, sort of… but really, if I could be a killer guitar player, I’d like that a lot. For the record, any of the expert guitar playing you hear on the record is a guy by the name of Avery Coffee. He’s amazing.
Q I vaguely recall a chat we had online where you said you did the whole touring thing at one time. Can you elaborate on that? Touring is an important aspect of music promotion but also exhausting. It's not for everyone. How about you?
A: Yes, I mentioned above… but I toured as a Hammond Organ player in the band K-Floor. Probably played 1000 gigs with those guys all over the USA. It was exhausting, but also exhilarating. But I don’t know that I could do it again. I’ve become quite the homebody. My focus is on making great records these days.
Q There have been a lot of rock stars dying lately. Bowie and Lemmy. How did you react to their passing? If you could meet any artist dead or alive who would it be?
A: It’s been a wake-up call recently with all of the deaths. Not just Bowie and Lemmy, but also BB King, Scott Weiland, Glenn Frey… all these people that have impacted the lives of others with their talent. On the one hand, it makes you realize how important music is to everyone on this planet. On the other, we’re smacked right in the face with our own mortality. It’s strengthened my resolve to just go out and make music the way I want, when I want… because life is too short to waste away not being creative. I’d love to have had the chance to work with Pet Sounds era Brian Wilson.
A: Yeah, we used to play 5 nights a week for years... for about a year, we did two shows on Friday nights. We'd do a happy hour background jazz-blues sort of thing in Manayunk then haul ass to West Chester to do the late night gig. We even had two sets of gear. The shitty gear that we'd stored at the club in Manayunk and our real gear which we kept in our trailer. That shitty gear eventually got washed away with everything else in Manayunk in Hurricane Floyd back in 99.
The indie label thing was cool (for me) but if you asked some of the guys in the band, you'd probably get a different answer. It was an interesting situation... a start-up label backed by a guy with big money. He owned a restaurant at the Jersey Shore... think he made his money in the dot.com era. He was a hippie guy who just loved music. He hired another guy to run the music business end of things. They built their own studio in Somers Point, NJ and it was a beautiful studio. The studio was on a plot of land with a house and a guest house. The engineer who ran the studio who lived in the house; bands got to stay in the guest house while they recorded. Then to top it off, they brought in a world-renown engineer/producer to produce the records. His name is Shelly Yakus. Google him... he has crazy credits (John Lennon, Tom Petty, etc...)
We were given tour support which was a huge help in getting around the country. Recorded two records - one was a live album, the other a studio album. We played everywhere from Key West to Boston to Chicago to the Sturgis Bike Rally in South Dakota. We made decent money when we played in the Philadelphia area... commanded top dollar really for local original acts. When you go on the road, it's a crap shoot... and really don't make much money from the gigs. You kind of hope between the gig and the merch sales that you end up in the black. Though, we were able to occasionally land some anchor gigs that paid well that would carry us through some of the lesser paying gigs (think festivals at Six Flags and such...).
But the whole thing never really got off ground... the restaurant didn't do well one year and the money guy pulled out. So then everything tightened up; this coincided with my decision to leave the band.
Justin DiFebbo's album Skin and Bones will be released in early March 2016. He's also known to perform with Summer Fiction. Go to http://justindifebbo.com