May 2024 20

Cybertronian wars, Hooky basses, and Trade Secrets – all are covered as F.J. DeSanto speaks with ReGen about his band’s artistic path.
 
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An InterView with F.J. DeSanto of Trade Secrets

By Ilker Yücel (Ilker81x)

Although the band first emerged in 2017, the history of Trade Secrets traces back even further as F.J. DeSanto pursued his creative destiny. From the grating industrial and machine/rock tones of The Aggression, leading into the chillwave electro-pop of Hypefactor, his musical trajectory is a busily storied road of maturing and reinvention. With such longtime associates as Mike “Ash” Venezia and Charles Labarbara forming the core of Trade Secrets, the band has included at various times such figures as The New Division’s John Glenn Kunkel, The Dossier’s Peter Riley, Damien “Peka” Polak, and Japanese artist Kanako Kobayashi. Adding to that roster of collaborators is Colin Wood of Coleurs and James Meays of Missing Words, both appearing on Escaping History, the band’s latest full-length album released this past March via Distortion Productions. ReGen recently had the opportunity to speak with F.J. DeSanto about the formation and working methods of Trade Secrets, the friendship and musical synergy among the various band members, along with a bit of bass guitar talk, and delving into his other career as an esteemed motion picture producer and comic book author.

 

 

Trade Secrets released the Escaping History album on March 22, following up on the duology of These Other Lives. In what ways would you say that the new album progresses forward from These Other Lives, in terms of both lyrics and production? Where is this album trying to take the band and the listener?

DeSanto: This album is a huge leap forward. I feel it every time I listen to it. A drawback to everyone being remote is that you can fall into a routine of simply passing files back and forth, so I was determined to change up how we work and do things in a way we hadn’t done before. For example, a song like ‘Violent Hearts’ was created from loops the band separately created and put into Ableton for Ash to live mix an arrangement as if were a DJ set. ‘Unstitched’ started with Peka providing the bones of a fully arranged song with just vocals and synths. The song was realized in his head, and we fleshed it out. It probably doesn’t seem like much, but these changes in the process made a big difference. Also, I think just adding some new faces like James and Colin to the mix made it even cooler.
Lyrically it depends on who is singing. For this record we had three lyricists, which keeps things interesting. I don’t have to discuss lyrics with Peter as he is a master storyteller who instinctually understands what Trade Secrets is; he delivers every time. Peka is more of an emotional poet and sometimes you have to guide him. But they always hit the bullseye. I write the lyrics for John and me and, in the case of ‘Antarctic,’ for James to sing. I usually write ‘chapters’ for the larger story that forms the album. This time, I decided against that and treated each song as its own snapshot in time as opposed to a larger narrative like I did for our previous albums. It’s subtle, but I’m glad I gave into that instinct.
All told, there was simply a desire to just do whatever the fuck we felt like doing with this album – zero pressure. Because of that, the it feels almost like an homage to our entire musical history.

While there are stylistic and tonal similarities to your previous Hypefactor outlet, in what ways would you say that Trade Secrets has progressed beyond the parameters of that band? Also, how would you say that Trade Secrets has evolved beyond whatever your original vision for the band was?

DeSanto: Trade Secrets eclipsed everything I had done from the very first note of Golden Life. It was my favorite thing we’d ever done ever until maybe this album. We started at a very high level with that EP, and if we ended there, I would have been very happy. However, it planted a flag and made us hungry to do more.
When you talk about parameters, Hypefactor was extremely narrow in its focus. It was a marriage that became lopsided to the point where one person had way too much control over the music. That dysfunction stunted the band’s progress until it eventually collapsed on its own overfed drunken narcissism.
Though I didn’t realize it initially, Trade Secrets was a reaction to that. It was supposed to be just an ‘F.J. Solo Project,’ but it changed almost immediately when I realized I missed being in a proper band. Trade Secrets has more in common with The Aggression than it does Hypefactor. I didn’t expect everyone to be as committed to it as they are, and I am grateful for that.

On past releases, Peter Riley and Damien Polak (Peka) were listed as special guests, but are this time listed as part of the band, which also includes Mike Venezia, Charles LaBarbara, and John Kunkel. Escaping History also features as guests Missing Words members Colin Wood (also of Coleurs) and James Meays, and you’ve worked with them before in a remix capacity; this applies also to the other band members (Baye, The Dossier, The New Division, etc.). Would you tell us about the working dynamic within the band, what songwriting and production sessions are like and what you feel everyone’s contributions are to the sound of Trade Secrets?

DeSanto: Working with a group of likeminded people is where I thrive best, so when I started Trade Secrets, it was basically an open invitation to all my friends to contribute. The core trio is Charles, Ash, and myself – those two do the heavy lifting; Charles makes sure every note is perfect, while Ash is the sonic mastermind who mixes everything. The music sounds incredible because of those two. I’m not good at any of that shit, so my comments are usually (sarcastically), ‘make my bass louder and my vocal lower.’ Musically, I can’t touch any of these guys. My strong suit, however, is producing. I’m good getting the best out of everyone and basically making it all happen. I set the table and together we cook the meal.
I had initially called it a ‘collective’ to allow everyone to come in and out as they please. I think that still applies. Everyone has their ‘main’ band. John has his, Peter has his, etc., so there’s no obligation. They can contribute as much as they want, and I think that makes it more fun for them to work on songs without the responsibility. However, this is mine, Ash, and Charles’ main band, and everyone respects that. It’s a good situation for everyone.

 

 

Given that everyone has their own sound and style with their own bands, how big of a challenge is it to bridge all of those disparate elements together – how does it all gel together to become that distinct entity of Trade Secrets?

DeSanto: It is surprisingly easy! Usually, the songs are generated from either Charles, Ash, or myself, so we set the tone for everything. John lives here, so I’ll sketch out ideas in the studio with him early on. ‘Kyukei’ started off that way; Charles eventually brought that one home.
Occasionally, someone else will offer up a demo they think could fit for us. ‘Someone Else’s Dream’ started from James. I stole the title track from John when helping him out with New Division. There’s a version of the song under a different name, ‘Silent Films,’ on his album. I just loved it so much that I nagged him until he surrendered the files (I may have stolen them off his computer before that to be fair). Ours is clearly better!
Once we have demos cooking, we circulate them around to the gang and decide who will do what next. In Peter’s case, he picks a few tracks that speak to him and goes off and does his thing. Peka is the wild card as he does whatever he is feeling at the time. I usually save my parts for the end.
It’s usually my job to decide on what songs we will work on and how they fit on the album. Once I’ve arranged the songs, Charles and Ash come in and do their thing, and that’s really where everything comes alive. Together, we bring it all to the finish line. After that, it’s on me to get the artwork done, interact with the label, find some remixers, etc.
I think because we have all known each other a long time, we have a unified vision of how the band can work and what it should sound like. I think the chemistry really works and is seemingly only getting better.

Are there any artists or bands that you’ve not yet worked with that you’d like to see become part of Trade Secrets in the future?

DeSanto: There are tons of people I’d love to work with. Artists like Andre Obin, Michael Oakley, Future Unlimited, and Brothertiger. The one that got away was Dylan (More) from Chemlab, who I’ve had several false starts with over the past 20 years over all three bands.
However, the thing I am really excited about is our new song for Electronic Saviors, which features someone I’ve been a fan and friend of for over 30 years. This person has been a huge influence on me personally and directly connects to our industrial roots. I can’t wait for that to be revealed. It’s a real full circle moment and a killer song to boot.

Do you ever find yourself adjusting or completely changing your own personal approach to songwriting or performance when a new element is brought in? Not necessarily to accommodate a different style, but perhaps because it’s inspired you to try something different… how often does this happen?

DeSanto: It always happens, especially on this album. That’s one of the reasons I like having different people involved. Someone could play something on a song you’ve written and completely blow your brain wide open. Ash does that a lot; he will go into a song and just turn it inside out to where you’re like, ‘What the fuck is this?!,’ and then realize it’s an entirely new canvas to work on. It opens up so many possibilities. I get inspired by all the people we work with.

On the subject of your personal style, the Peter Hook influence is quite apparent, and I believe you once told me that one of your basses was designed by the same person who made Hook’s custom bass… or something? So, just to fit in some gear talk, are there any particular pieces of equipment that you’re especially fond of that you couldn’t play or make music without?

DeSanto: I saw Peter Hook perform when I was a teenager and immediately bought a sequencer and a bass the next day. My entire life has been chasing that bass sound. I did try to get a custom bass made ages ago, but was scammed, which is a long story; the guy who scammed me actually died… again, a long story.
However, years later, Charles tracked down a barely played vintage Yamaha BB1200 bass from 1979, which is the same bass Hooky uses on every recording. It’s my most prized possession. The key to the sound, however, is the old Clone Theory pedal made by Electro-Harmonix. You can’t get the sound without it. I have two of them, one of which I outbid Hooky on eBay for years ago, which we joked about when I finally met him. He scoops all of them up for parts. They aren’t cheap either!
Now, years later, Yamaha makes a Hooky signature bass, but why get one when I have an original? However, Eastwood Guitars in Scotland made a perfect replica of Hooky’s six-string, so that was a must have. That helped keep me sane during COVID. As long as I have a synth, those two basses, and the pedals, I am good to fucking go!

You’ve worked before in the more aggressive sounds of machine/rock, industrial/rock, coldwave (whatever) in The Aggression and Chemlab, while Hypefactor and now Trade Secrets have a still emotionally intense, but are more refined, atmospheric, melodic, etc. How does this shift over time reflect your own personal growth as a musician and as a human being? Do you feel you could work in those heavier, angrier sounds again now, or would you even want to?

DeSanto: Like anything, people evolve, and tastes become more diverse over time. We were no different. I was knee deep in industrial when I started The Aggression. I was obsessed with bands like Chemlab and 16volt, but was simultaneously in love with New Order, The Smiths, John Cale, etc. I always admired guys like Chris Connelly who could do anything over a myriad of styles.
Once we had a drummer, The Aggression evolved into more of a proper band, and towards the end, we were writing songs that were more The Cure than they were Chemlab. If you listen to FLOOD, you can hear the sound of a band starting to look beyond industrial. We didn’t stop loving it; we simply outgrew that kind of music. It was a natural progression. When we got around to Hypefactor, we were on a steady diet of DFA and Gustavo Cerati, who is the second biggest musical influence on me. The one thing that always remained constant was we wanted to make electronic music.

As well, across the board, we see so much cross-pollination of styles and new terms are invented seemingly with every band (i.e. blackgaze, electroscuzz, etc.). I’ve asked this question a lot – what are your thoughts on ‘genres’ these days, not just as they apply to you and Trade Secrets, but in general?

DeSanto: I honestly don’t know what our style is. It could be industrial yacht rock for all I know. I kind of don’t care. What I do like these days is there’s less territorial bullshit. I think people are more openminded. When we were in The Aggression, the synth bands hated us because we used guitars, and the guitar bands hated us because we used drum machines. I just wanted to be part of a ‘scene’ when we started. I loved that era of WaxTrax!, Reconstriction, and Fifth Colvmn (to whom we almost signed with, but luckily, every band on the label warned us not to), where everyone was working together to push boundaries. I’ve made tons of lifelong friends thanks to being in these bands, so it was all worth it.
Our friends now are retrowave, synthwave, chillwave, coldwave, etc., all these fucking waves! Forget it. I am just chilling on the yacht watching all these waves go by. As long as the music is good, you can be any fucking wave you want. I just want to hear good new music. Searching for new music led me to friends like John, Colin, James, etc. Good music is good music. End of story. No one should feel limited to one genre. We sure aren’t.

Trade Secrets does not play live – obviously, the logistics must be difficult as I’m presuming most of the band live in different areas. That said, has there ever been a consideration to try to translate Trade Secrets into the live environment?

DeSanto: I think the guys will be surprised to read that I honestly think about it a lot. It’s all worked out in my head – setlists, visuals, you name it. The label wants us out there really badly, and Jason has suggested a few times that we should do ColdWaves, but that’s where the distance comes in. It’s just super tough to do it in a way that I think would work at the level I expect from this project. Getting everyone together in one place would be a logistical nightmare, and it wouldn’t feel right doing it without that same specific team. I couldn’t just have random people up there. I have thought about doing a one-off filmed performance in a studio somewhere. I think a lot of the songs would be tailormade to be performed, but the weight and the logistics of that right now feels very heavy.

What do you think are the biggest difficulties with live performances right now? What do you feel artists, labels, venues, the industry as a whole should take away from the pandemic and use or think about going forward?

DeSanto: Thanks to advances in technology, we have access to so much more music. However, the world seems weirdly smaller and harder to navigate. There’s no money to be made selling albums anymore, so it’s forced a lot of legacy bands out on the road, which is great. In the past few years, I’ve seen almost every favorite band from my youth – Love and Rockets, Skinny Puppy, Peter Hook, The Sisters of Mercy, The Mission, Lead into Gold for the first time, just to name a few. People want to go out, especially after COVID, but it’s all so expensive.
Conversely, I don’t get to see that cool new electronic artist from Chicago or England here in L.A. because it’s impossible for them to tour. So many bands I have loved over the past 30 years would never ever get a solid chance today. It’s so cost prohibitive for bands to do proper tours. Hell, it was a struggle 20 years ago, let alone now. And just talking to friends in Europe and the U.K., Brexit fucked so much up. We used to do select gigs in the U.K. and places like Moscow, which you couldn’t do at all now.

When you’re not making music in Trade Secrets, you’re also heavily involved in the production and writing side of comics and mostly animated features. How do the creative challenges of working in these mediums differ from those of music? In what ways are they similar?

DeSanto: I always loved music and film, so I decided early on to try and make a living in one while continuing with the other. With the music, I don’t answer to anyone, which is probably why I still love it. With my day job, I have lots of people to answer to, and an incredible amount of responsibility to my team, and an audience that is going to watch whatever I am producing. While I truly appreciate anyone who listens or buys our music, in the end, I am doing it for me. It sounds totally selfish, and it is, but it’s also been my true love forever. However, as I mentioned earlier, I am good at guiding a project and getting the best out of people, so that’s where the real crossover is between the two. Any creative process requires some form of guidance and collaboration, and what I’ve learned from being in a band has really helped me in my life as a producer.

Among your credits, you’ve worked heavily in the Transformers franchise, working on such titles as the Combiner Wars, Power of the Primes, the War For Cybertron trilogy, and more. Tell us about your connection to this popular franchise – how did you first encounter it, how you first became involved, and your thoughts on where it’s gone in its many iterations?

DeSanto: I loved the original Transformers as a kid, but I didn’t have the obsessive love for it like I did Star Wars or Batman. Ironically, that’s why I was drafted into writing and producing Combiner Wars – they wanted someone who wasn’t a total fanboy to lend some balanced perspective and someone who could work with teams in Japan (where I spent a lot of time working).
The original showrunner was a fucking sociopath who fired everyone, including me, after the first season and declared he would do it all himself. Of course, this asshole then fucked it all up and pissed everyone off. Eventually, he was fired, and Warner Brothers asked me to come back to run it. Of course, I immediately agreed even though I had never run a show in my life. But they didn’t seem to care, and away we went! So, I kind of don’t like Power of the Primes because it’s tainted by stupidity and could have been so much better.
However, we eventually got the series on track, and that led to War For Cybertron, which we did for NetFlix. That was a show I could start from the ground up, so I am insanely proud of it. I eventually became the guy who was obsessive and fiercely protective of the franchise. Regarding the franchise as a whole, there is stuff I like and don’t like throughout the years, but there’s something for everyone to love.

 

 

Trade Secrets is signed to Distortion Productions, which released the Respect the Prime compilation and the Constructed Cold EP. Has there been any talk between you and Jim Semonik (that you can tell us about) regarding a possible Transformers-related project involving Distortion and Trade Secrets?

DeSanto: Jim was a big help to me while I was producing the shows. He knows more about this shit than I ever will. I could always pick his brain, and he in turn introduced me to a lot of the cool folks in the TF fandom world. I even credited him on the last season as a consultant. He was a super valuable resource.
He has asked us to be on those comps, but to be honest, it felt a bit on the nose for me to do something like that. I kind of wanted to keep things church and state, if that makes sense. What he’s done is amazing though!

With Transformers One soon to be released, tell us your thoughts on the future of Transformers?

DeSanto: Transformers is like Batman – it’s always going to be out there in varying versions for various ages, and the fact that there’s something for everyone is what makes it so iconic.

What other projects are you working on that you can tell us about – musical or otherwise?

DeSanto: Music-wise, we have the Electronic Saviors song and a few remixes in to unleash this year. We have plans to re-release a collected edition of Golden Life with all the remixes and a new version of the title track; this time with me singing. If we have time, I’d like to get around to remastering The Aggression catalogue as the majority of it isn’t available digitally. We usually get distracted by the new songs to worry about the old, but I’d like to get all that out there.

Music, comics, movies – all work, but also clearly enjoyable for you; what other activities do you enjoy most when you’re not doing those that involve ‘work?’

DeSanto: All of that occupies the majority of my time, but I do watch a lot of Premiere League Football (a.k.a. soccer) and pro wrestling.

Anything that you’d like to add that we’ve not talked about?

DeSanto: I just want to say thanks to you for continuing to be the standard bearer of informing people about all new kinds of music and bands. You keep a lot of dreams alive, and a lot of people connected to great music and history. I also just want to shout out three of our lost brothers – Jamie Duffy, Howie Beno, and William Tucker, who all were amazing and influential in their own unique way. I can’t imagine music without them, and they all played important roles over the course my career. We were lucky to have them.

 

Trade Secrets
Website, Facebook, SoundCloud, Bandcamp, YouTube, Instagram
F.J. DeSanto
Instagram, IMDB
Distortion Productions
Website, Facebook, Bandcamp, YouTube, Instagram

 

Photography by Patrick Meaney, from the “Out the Picture” video
Website, Facebook, YouTube, Instagram

 

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