Dominic Lalli: Shapeshifter

By: Chris Clark

Dominic Lalli by Alex B
Dominic Lalli is something of a post-modern music man. The Boulder-based saxophonist turned producer is a gifted melody maker who wears many hats, enjoying the dexterity and diversified skill-set that countless musicians strive for but rarely achieve. In Colorado and the surrounding area, he has been the sax-blazing sparkplug to The Motet's Afrobeat magic, the dance regulator in the funky trio Juno What?!, and most recently the creative force, songwriter and production impresario for Big Gigantic. It's been a busy few years for Lalli, showcasing his various talents that consistently bring dance floors to their knees regardless of which act he's working with.

With Lalli splitting time between three bands he's a hard man to nail down. Instead of trying to get the full story with one chat, JamBase kept the tape rolling with Lalli throughout the summer to find out what he's doing, where he's going, and how he's getting there. And with The Motet releasing Dig Deep earlier this month (free download here) and Big Gigantic blowing up in the electro scene, turns out there's quite a bit to talk about.

Round 1: The Motet

JamBase: Let's start with The Motet. It's been 11 years now and The Motet is still alive and well by the sounds of your new album, Dig Deep. Tell me about how it all began and where you want to take it.

Sayers & Lalli - The Motet by Voggesser
Dominic Lalli: Well, I've been with The Motet now for probably six years or so of that eleven. The band is definitely alive and well. The Motet bandleader, Dave Watts, has always been good at keeping things fresh and reinventing The Motet sound through the years, which has helped the band be as successful as it's been. I met Dave while I was still living in NYC. [I] got to jam with the band a little while they were passing through town and, fortunately, Dave called me shortly after that to join the band. I feel confidant that Dave will continue to be the driving force behind The Motet and continue to bring some of the freshest sounds to the scene as he has in the past.

JamBase: With The Motet, there's a plethora of both engaging and experimental sounds you've explored over the years. How has the band evolved so much but still maintained its musical roots so well?

Dominic Lalli: I think the key is that we have stuck to our roots and developed the sound around that. I think The Motet has always been rooted in world music styles like Afrobeat and Latin-based music. From there, we have kind of mixed in more experimental and electronic sounds to keep the music current and fresh. We are always trying to keep our music rooted but current and fresh.

Describe the recording process for Dig Deep. Was this business as usual or a departure for you guys from both the songwriting and playing side as well as the production end of it?

Dave Watts was really the mastermind behind this album. He had a vision and really went for it. Dave really dug into the production side of this album more so than on other Motet recordings. We kept with the Afrobeat sound on the record, playing some of Dave's original material as well as some of Fela Kuti's material - who has always been a big influence on us - and then mixed in some more electronic layers on top. I feel that is one thing that is unique that The Motet is doing these days.

What are some of the musical highlights of the album for you? Dave's drumming always stands out to me for one, but the album is so full of color that it's hard to pin down the best and brightest.

Dominic Lalli
Some of my highlights on the album are the horn stuff and the Afrobeat tunes. I love the sheer power of the horns and I love the way the horns feel over the more electronic sounds.

In all your different recording sessions what kinds of new studio tricks have you picked up over the years?

Well, I've learned quite a bit over the last couple years. I've been working on production now for about three years but playing with The Motet is really what started getting me interested in production.

The Motet doesn't play all that regularly together as a unit these days, well, compared to when I first moved to Boulder years ago. How does that affect the band's sound when you are in the same room again?

One thing we are fortunate with in The Motet is that every musician is incredibly talented. So, if we haven't been gigging a ton we can get together, have a few rehearsals and really come out and have fun and feel comfortable performing the music. So, I don't really think it affects us too much; it actually keeps things really fun and interesting.

Whether it is the one-off shows or when you guys do your musical costume nights, what are your quintessential moments of playing live with The Motet?

My favorite musical moments are the ones where we are all feeling the music together. The moments when you look back at your bandmates because you're feeling something about to go down and they are looking back at you smiling, shaking their head because they're feeling the same thing. Dave Watts and I have that happen all the time. It's an incredible feeling and that's why I love to play with Dave so much. When a band is phrasing together, magic happens.

How has living in Boulder helped cultivate such a worldly and dynamic sound? Do you find the area artistically stimulating? There's always an abundance of quality music coming from the Foothills.

Juno What?!
Boulder and the Colorado scene in general is really incredible. You have a ton of great bands and musicians who call Boulder their home and the fans here are some of the greatest I've ever seen. Never have I seen so much support for live music. It's amazing.

You guys had a couple more of your world famous Tribute Shows in Denver recently, Michael Jackson for post-STS9 and the Talking Heads for post-Phish. Give our readers a glimpse into what it takes to put on the shows, and not just put them on, but to perform them as capably and spot-on as you do.

It definitely takes quite a bit of work to put this stuff together. Again, Dave Watts is the mastermind behind these tribute shows. He decides whom we are going to cover and what tunes we are going to play and also directs how the general flow of the night will be. We generally try to play the music the way it was intended but also throw a little bit of Motet flavor in the mix as well. It turns out to be a really great party every year.

With the immediate success of your Big Gigantic project and also your work with Juno What?! where does the future of The Motet stand?

Well, things have definitely been moving along for Big Gigantic and Juno What?! much quicker than I expected, but Dave Watts is my bro and we have been playing music together for quite a few years now. It's really amazing to really be on the same page, musically, with someone else. Dave and I definitely have a great musical connection and we will continue to play in The Motet and other side projects for many years to come. I'm sure of it. The Motet will keep doing its thing and I plan on being a part of it.

Continue reading for more on Big Gigantic with Dominic Lalli...

Round 2: Big Gigantic

How did the Big Gigantic project come about?

Dominic Lalli
I started getting more interested in the electronic music scene a few years ago and started hanging out with my friend Alex B [of Pnuma Trio]. He is an amazing producer and he really helped to spark my interest in the production side of things, which is really an amazing art form. After a while of working on my production skills, I decided I really wanted to bring the music I was writing to a live setting. I called up Jeremy [Salken], my drummer, and we started rehearsing to figure out the best way to bring this music to the people.

Alex has a very unique style of production that hasn't been over-emulated yet in the whole live electronic scene. How did you draw upon those lessons and experiences with him and craft your distinct brand for Fire It Up? [Big Gigantic's Fire It Up was released on May 19, 2009 and is available for free download here.]

Well, I think that being unique is one of the keys to anyone having success in music or art in general. If you trust your ears and your heart and you let the music come out naturally, no two bands or producers, etc. will sound the same. Alex has a ton of skill in the production world and that just makes it easier for him to get out what he is hearing in his head. The same goes for me with Big Gigantic and making the album Fire It Up. I work on the production skills that help me get the sounds that are in my head out into the air, and then I just try to keep growing and developing from there.

You and Jeremy have known each other for a while living in Boulder. Tell me a little bit about your connection musically, as well as personally.

Jeremy and I have been playing gigs together for probably four or five years now, mostly jazz/funk type of gigs around Boulder. We were also roommates for year. He is a really great friend of mine and, in my mind, one of the best drummers in the Colorado area. He is very solid and very versatile. We also listen to a lot of the same kind of music and have been to a bunch of shows together. We are definitely on the same page in a lot of ways, which is really great.

The album has a great party, get down feel to it. Tell me about the concept going in and what you had in mind when putting the songs together.

Big Gigantic
Fire It Up is essentially a compilation of the songs that I have written up to this point; definitely trying to bring the party vibe with beats but also trying to bring something new and different to the genre. I am a really big fan of melodies - probably because I'm a sax player! With most, if not all, of the songs I write, I try to write unforgettable melodies that will stick. Since our music is all-instrumental and there are no lyrics to grab onto, I feel like this is the best way to get people to connect with our music. I am a huge Herbie Hancock fan. He is probably one of my biggest music influences in general. The melodies he wrote were pure genius and that is one of the many things I strive for with Big Gigantic.

Are you still doing gigs with Juno What?!

Most definitely!

All three of your bands have such a different feel live. How does playing in each help tailor and hone your overall musicianship and ability to diversify your own creative outlet?

The diversity is the thing that keeps me on my toes. I am a big fan of practicing and rehearsing so I spend time getting ready for my gigs, which in turn helps me get better every day because I'm figuring out new things and reinventing old things. One hand definitely washes the other, and each project helps to keep the other projects fresh.

Big G has been playing a lot of high profile gigs lately at festivals like Rothbury and seems to have found a niche alongside the STS9 community. How has your music been received by the people?

Dominic Lalli
I feel like it's going well and I feel like people are receiving it pretty well. We have been very fortunate to have the opportunities that we have had so far - Rothbury, STS9 openers, etc. My plan has been to work as hard as I possibly can so that when a great opportunity arrives, we can go in there and feel confident and comfortable and really bring in the rowdiest possible show that we can and have a great time doing it.

You certainly don't seem to have an issue doing that. Do you have a preference of Big G vs. Motet vs. Juno?!

I feel really, really fortunate to be able to play as much music as I am right now with as many different bands. It keeps me incredibly busy, which I like. I enjoy the diversity of the projects. Big Gigantic is all music that I have written myself so I am definitely really loving to get to perform my original music for people. But, The Motet and Juno What?! are really great as well. I definitely just love to get out there and play and get fired up with everybody.

Yeah Dom, it's really good to see you writing and playing all your own music. The reception has been pretty impressive. Do you feel that you'll stick within this burgeoning STS9-led live electronic scene or do you see yourself diversifying into alt-country, psy-pop and the like [laughs]?

For now, I like the direction we are heading and I would like to continue in that direction. But, like I said, we are definitely interested in growing and developing as a band and as individuals. I would love to branch out, production wise, and work with as many different artists as possible. I feel like the electronic music scene is really young and budding right now, and it seems that there is a lot of room for new sounds and ideas within the genre. There is a lot of room for everything and everyone to develop, which is exciting being a musician and a fan of the music.

2009 has been a big year for you. Where are you taking it from here?

It really has been an incredible year. I feel very, very fortunate. I'm currently working on another new release for the fall for Big Gigantic that will include a lot of sax and drums and some awesome special guests. I really want to focus on developing Big Gigantic in as many ways as I can to keep the music and the live show fresh and different. [Big Gigantic] have a bunch of new tour dates coming up in the fall that will take us all over the U.S. and we are really excited about that. The Motet has its annual Halloween celebration coming up and Juno What?! has been writing new material that we will be performing at our upcoming gigs. I just want to keep pushing and developing the music more and more everyday and I'm really excited to have an opportunity to do that.

The Motet tour dates available here, Big Gigantic dates here and Juno What?! dates here.


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