Today the Venice Paparazzi spotlight shines on Eclectic Guitarist Vinnie Caggiano.
How many years in Venice? Damn. I wish I had been born in Venice or at least California. I moved to Santa Monica in 1989 from New York City. It took awhile before I fully discovered Venice. I moved over by Flower & Lincoln in 2007. Then, in 2010, a dear friend pretty much handed her apartment to me in Thornton Towers. Here by the beach, my life changed immediately and I’ve always been happy and grateful to be here at the beach. The short answer: 11 awesome years.
Tell us about your music/band. I often busk as a soloist on Westminster at Groundwork on weekends. At the moment, I’m in two bands: The Elegant Strangers and The Blue Kind. The two bands are worlds apart yet both so much of a joy to play in. The Elegant Strangers have been together for roughly three years. We started out as the house band for the erstwhile “Danny’s Deli” (now Surfside.) We played there for almost a year up until its closing party. Presently, we play at the Sidewalk Cafe every other Thursday of the month. The band consists of two legendary musicians and myself. (I’m still working on becoming legendary.) Rob Mullins plays keyboards and drums, (at the same time, no less), and has over 30 records to his credit. He is Music Director for the eminent Jazz Flutist, Hubert Laws, and he is on the Grammy Committee. He has performed many times with illustrious Jazz musicians. Rob is certainly one of the top Jazz pianists in L.A. and I consider him to be a genius. Stan Behrens plays harmonica, flute and sings. He’s also a legend, being a touring member of the Band “War,” and having done many, many sessions with celebrated musicians, and even played a few TV themes. He was good buddies with the Blues great, Muddy Waters and played with him often. The Elegant Strangers formed in a haphazard way. We never once rehearsed. Ever. With good musicians, playing on-the-spot with no rehearsal is as easy as having a conversation with a friend. After all, music is a language. We play classic rock and pop songs ranging from the Sixties to the present. We have always had a great time and never had a bad show.
My other band, The Blue Kind Band consists of Marina Del Rey resident, Pete Novitch (bass), Kid Caviar, (vocals, better known for his other band, Horny Toad), Mike Novitch (guitarist and Pete’s brother), and Eric Huezo (drums.) That’s the core of the band but we have an additional horn section which includes some eminent players with serious track records. This band does original music that’s a blend of funk, jazz, rock, pop and blues. I say The Blue Kind is worlds apart from the Elegant Strangers in that we stringently rehearse, especially before a show. I’m proud to be in this band. We recently released our first CD called, “Ladies and Gentlemen…” and will be back in the studio with a slew of new tunes to do a second CD probably by mid-winter of 2018. I love this band for many reasons: first, we’re like brothers and always have a strong camaraderie going. Secondly, they are west side based and we usually play clubs on the west side. Our home base for the longest time was the now-defunct Good Hurt on Venice Blvd. Lately, it’s been The Trip in Santa Monica, and in fact we did a show there just last Saturday. The third reason I love this band is that–not unlike the Elegant Strangers–it is brimming over with tremendous talent. And finally, I love this band because most of the songs are in the keys of A Minor or G Major and those are two of my favorite keys!
- The Elegant Strangers — Mostly cover material spanning the decades and also some original material from Rob Mullins’ CD which is an homage to Venice Boardwalk life called, “Only In Venice.” (onlyinvenicestore.com/about) So generally, this is rock, pop and some jazz and blues thrown in for good measure.
- The Blue Kind Band — Mostly original music with some covers such as Bill Withers’ classic, ‘Use Me Up’ and Miles Davis’ ‘All Blues’ tweaked to perfection, or, as we like to say, TBK’d. This band is a blend of funk, rock, pop, jazz and blues. We are a VERY dance-able band!
Your job in the band.
In both settings I am the lead guitarist. While the Blue Kind has a second lead guitar player, I’m leaned on to solo through the more difficult chord changes. But in that band, I’m also a composer and have written a few of our “hits” (if such things exist these days.) Our writing process is a joy because we write together. Just like the Beatles in their early days, whomever has the best idea…that’s the one that gets put into the song. We are egalitarian that way.
What projects are your currently working on?
Glad you asked! I’m very pleased and happy to say that I’m close to releasing my second CD project called “Razzmatazz.” It’s quite eclectic and traverses a number of styles from Jazz to Latin to Rock to Gypsy Jazz to Reggae to Twenties Music to straight-on Pop…and more. The record will be brimming with tunes. Fifteen all tolled. My producer, George Madaraz of Mar Vista, liked all of the songs so much, he didn’t want to sacrifice a single one. I am lucky to have imported many local Venice talents on the record including Matt Demerritt, the truly brilliant multi-horn player and close friend of mine. Michael Jost, guitarist par excellence, contributed a cameo on a Latin-style Rumba I wrote. The Illustrious producer/drummer, Andy Kravitz, who owns and runs Studio 4 West in the Bordello Alexandria, contributed to three of my songs. Greatly featured on the CD is Rob Mullins. I’m also a music theory nerd and have been for years. Currently, I’m working on a book that challenges the traditional academic views on music theory. The book is called, “Fragments of Infinity.” To be quite honest, I’m not sure if I’ll go through the trouble of attempting to publish it. partially because I am presenting the book in video format on my YouTube channel under the playlist of the same name, “Fragments of Infinity.”
Past bands/ Albums recorded:
My only other record is called “Loop Du Jour.” That’s a completely different record than the present project I’m doing. Back in the early 2000’s I was doing guitar looping using digital effects to get a psychedelic, mind-expanding kind of sound. I was basically a one man band on this project. One of my most recent sessions has been on Rob Mullins’ “Only In Venice” record. I have played with gazillions of bands and done hundreds of sessions from New York to Austin, TX, to L.A. Sadly, I never played with anyone who became famous, although, I have played before with the illustrious African composer/musician Babatunde Olatunji. He used to open for The Grateful Dead and Santana back in his day. Since, I’ve been in a band through the years featuring Olatunji’s lead drummer, Gordy Ryan. That band is called “Oba.” I’ve been lead guitarist on both of Oba’s records. The first was called, “One Breath Away” and the second was called “Beautiful Game.” For some strange reason, it’s been in my karma to play with African musicians. I learned a lot about African music and my belief is that, if any music can change the world into a better place, it’s African music. I played in the late 90’s with Afrika O Sey Yeh and also with Ayo Adeyemi.
My first influence is the Beatles. They always will be. Sheer genius. I’ve always been a pop music guy. I love the pop music of the early to mid Sixties and do believe these composers–teen pop or not–deserve acclaim for their work the way you’d hear acclaim of a great jazz musician. Since I’m deep inside of music theory, I can understand the depth and inventiveness of a song like “Monday, Monday” by the Mamas and the Papas, for example. The songs from this era go much, much deeper than people would imagine. It’s deceptive though, because the content tended to be directed toward naive teenagers and had a sort of bubble gum appeal. Make no mistake: musicians such as the Wrecking Crew of L.A. or the Funk Brothers of Motown, did incredible work. Not many people know that the Funk Brothers had more hits than the Beatles and the Rolling Stones combined. That’s quite a feat! In regards to guitar, I look at my influences through the decades. In the Seventies, my main influences were Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page and Jimmy Hendrix although I leaned most heavily on Eric. In the Eighties I became greatly interested in the Police. They’re my second favorite band next to the Beatles. Regarding guitarists, I became greatly influenced by Mark Knopfler–the progenitor of the band, Dire Straits. I felt he was daring and ballsy to come out playing a clean Fender Stratocaster sound when everyone else was doing balls-to-the-wall overdriven guitar. I like the clean sound and enjoy the challenge of trying to conjure up a kickass guitar solo with a clean sound. To this day, I always include the song, “Sultans of Swing” into my set. In the 90’s I discovered session guitarist Larry Carlton who remains my favorite to this day. Other guitarists I looked pretty deeply into through my life were: jazz guitarist, Joe Pass, Les Paul, Chet Atkins, Django Reinhardt, Tuck Andress and, really, lots of others.
How did you get into it?
When I was a boy of about 6 or 7 years old, I was hearing buzz about this British band called “The Beatles.” On the night of their first American television appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show, my older sister invited her girlfriends to come over and watch. They were screaming like crazy. And so were the girls in the TV audience. Of course, the Beatles now look pretty dorky in those old photos, but at the time, they looked like the coolest thing going. At that very moment I thought, ‘this is what I want to do!’ Of course, it was mostly for the screaming girls and looking cool and all that. But as a good friend of mine once said to me, “we started out wanting to be rock stars but who would’ve guess that we’d become artists instead?” I began playing guitar at age 8 or 9 and haven’t stopped since. Playing guitar has always been the major thrust of my life. In a way, Les Paul is an idol of mine. He was kicking ass on guitar and performing jazz in NYC until he was 92 years old! And he was dignified–unlike a lot of aging rock stars that start looking ridiculous doing rock & roll prancing about in their senior years.
— You can usually catch me busking on Friday, Saturday and/or Sunday afternoon at Groundwork on Westminster. — The Elegant Strangers are booked for the summer every other Thursday at The Sidewalk Cafe. We’ll probably do a few shows here and there at Surfside as well. –I do a lot of shows for Eric Vollmer, impresario for Voice In The Well Productions. His shows are quite cultured art salons ala Paris 1920’s. His chosen venue is Beyond Baroque on Venice Blvd. It’s a great stage and I love performing there! He includes multiple actors, comedians, storytellers and musicians in the shows. I will be performing on Sunday, August 12th for one of Eric’s productions. I’m sure that some time this year I’ll be participating in one of Michael Jost’s ‘Radio Venice’ shows. Usually there is a show at 4:20pm on Sundays. Michael Jost goes a long way in supporting the musical arts community with these shows and other efforts on his part.
Over the years I’ve accumulated quite a few favorite memories of performances. In recent years though, I’d have to say that the closing party for Danny’s Deli with The Elegant Strangers was a pretty awesome memory. It started early, like 4pm and went on through the night. My favorite moments for shows in Venice is when I see a ton of locals showing up…friends and familiar faces. The Danny’s closing party was over-the-top fun. We had a film crew come in to video the evening. They also interviewed each band member. So I got to be a mini-rockstar for a bit. The interviews and clips of the performance (which was pretty damned good!) can be found on my YouTube Channel on the “Danny’s Closing Party” playlist. Another great day was New Years Day, 2016. I was asked by KPFK host, Sergio Mielniczenko, to bring the Elegant Strangers down to the studio to do a live broadcast at 11am. It was a fun show yet the day wasn’t over yet! Joe Gorrie, proprietor of The Wee Chippy on Westminster always loved my busking shows on Westminster and he hired the Elegant Strangers to play in front of his place at 4pm. What a magical day! People were streaming off the Boardwalk to hear the music. We had a huge semi-circle of people bopping to the music, smiling and applauding. A musician can’t ask for anything better than this.
What advice would you give someone starting out in your field?
A lot of musicians who haven’t made the big time can be cynical about the field of music. Even the famous ones. For example, Larry Carlton was asked by a musician/fan about how to proceed in their musical career,Larry retorted, “go into real estate.” Given that, I’m not so cynical. It’s my truest belief that a person absolutely must pursue that which they love and makes them happiest. Granted, I’ve had a really rough life because I chose to be a musician and I suffered a lot. Constantly being broke isn’t any fun in a capitalist world. Yet, when I look back on my life, I’m happy and proud that I persevered and continue to do what I love, what inspires me and keeps me smiling throughout the difficulties. So my advice would be, put your all into it but be prepared to face the fact that music won’t make you rich. You’ve gotta be strong to keep on doing music when all the world seems to be against you. I’d also suggest that they move out of the States and go somewhere like Europe or the Far East where American music and musicians get paid well and get appreciated for what they do.
Favorite book, band or movie?
I went through a period where I became obsessed with Mt. Everest and especially the disaster that happened to multiple mountaineers in 1996. There’s a great YouTube video called “Storm Over Everest” that interviews the survivors. I had to read John Krakauer’s account of the incident in his book, “Into Thin Air.” I found the whole event so fascinating that I read the book twice and I’ll probably read it a third time now that I’m thinking about it.
What causes do you support?
I’m generally not a politically oriented person and avoid political conversations as much as possible. I find them to be tedious, divisive and do absolutely nothing to bring people together but instead cause tension and worse, hatred. Yet, when it comes to Venice, I have no choice but to get political. The cause I support is stopping the rampant and obnoxious gentrification of Venice and getting those irritating startup companies the hell out of here. I fear that in ten years the Boardwalk will become Santa Monica Promenade–The Sequel. It pisses me off that the locals are nearly powerless in the face of these hamfisted companies like Snapchat, Bird and other invasive groups.
Favorite affirmation, mantra, or quote.
“Only quote yourself!” — Vinnie Caggiano
What’s one thing we can do to make the world a better place?
If people cannot come together there will be no hope to make things better. Unfortunately we live in divisive, separatist times. Lately I’m under the impression that the only thing will help humanity to remember love is a calamity of massive proportions. I’m personally rooting for a gigantic comet to smash into the earth. Seriously, at times I feel like an alien on this planet. I find political arguments to be cringeworthy; I don’t understand war whatsoever and how mothers can give their blessings to sending their boys or girls to the Middle East and elsewhere to support war. For what? Honor? Patriotism? The American Government is populated by criminals and I don’t care whether they lean left or right. I grew up in a time when when music acted as the bonding agent to bring people together. If we keep listening to music about bitches and hos, about drugs and murder, and pure egotism, music will certainly never bring us together again. I have a belief that if any music can come along to bring us all back together, it’ll be African music which is, and always has been, a celebration of life. So, I would say, one thing that would make the world a better place is to have an African music dance party twice a week!
List 1-2 things on your bucket list.
I saw the bio-luminescence–neon blue–one time in our ocean. I would love to see that again. Beyond that, I’m just happy where I’m at.
Anything else you want to share about yourself to the world? Fun facts.
My musical history is pretty oddball. I began in a garage rock band emulating the Beatles as a preteen. When I was about 16 I heard some Bach on the radio and though to myself, “People have been playing this dude’s music forever…he has to be important. I should look into him.” Suddenly I became wrapped up in classical music. I bought music theory books, books on orchestration, got a piano and began to study classical music. I decided then that I wanted to be a classical composer and perhaps write music for film. My parents were pretty blue collar and they couldn’t afford a good music school for me. I finally opted for Five Towns School for the Performing Arts. The thing was, these guys didn’t specifically teach classical composition. It was a jazz school. This was an odd choice because I had no interest in jazz at the time. However, I WAS interested in Music Theory and I knew I’d get it there. After graduating, the Punk/New Wave scene began to explode. So, my band-for-the-fun-of-it was Punk/New Wave and I had to forget all of my theory training in exchange for punk rock power chords. But the first band I joined upon graduating was an all black disco band. I was the only white guy…and I loved it! At the time I was living on Long Island and towns were still pretty segregated. With this band I could venture where no white man has gone before. It was awesome. I felt like a VIP. The band used to introduce me as “Vinnie, the blue-eye soul brother,” no matter that my eyes are brown. After this, I moved to Manhattan and got introduced to African Music through Babatunde Olatunji. When I came to LA I was approached by two different African bands and joined them both. So, as you can see, I have had quite the eclectic musical history. This was beautiful and enriching to me. This is the very reason why I bill myself as: Vinnie Caggiano–Eclectic Guitarist. I can be at home playing blues, African, country, jazz, rock, whatever. And I can pretty easily flow through many styles.
I typically describe Venice as ‘the place where misfits go to fit in.’ The is not derogatory at all! I consider myself to be a misfit and I absolutely could not feel comfortable living anywhere else! Venice is a bohemian paradise where anything goes. It is unique in the world. Unfortunately, it is about to be transformed into Everywhere Else, USA so long as we keep allowing the Addidas of the world to invade our sovereign ground. I have literally prayed to God that Snapchat would leave this place. Every city needs to have a bohemian community and it should be respected. Great art should be supported, fostered and elevated in society.
Describe your perfect day in Venice:
Coffee first. Always coffee first. Breakfast at the Sidewalk Cafe listening to Nathan play piano like crazy. Off to Westminster to greet my pals, and saying hi to Edward and Jackson over at Zelda’s. Set up my rig and play. That’s enough for me. At night, it’s an edible and Netflix and chill. I’m fine with that. Lucky for me, I have many perfect days here!
List any of your favorite Venice businesses, event(s) or activities?
Well, of course I’m partial to the Westminster mom and pops: Zelda’s, The Wee Chippy, El Huarique, Groundwork, The Juice Gallery. The owners of all of these businesses are lovely people who greatly appreciate my busking out there. Also, since legalization, I’ve been enjoying checking out Green Goddess.
Who has the best Venice nightlife? Favorite places to watch live music?
Honestly, I’ve been reclusive from any nightlife save for when I perform. I’ve always felt home at the old Danny’s or now, Surfside and if I were to opt for an evening hang, it’d be a Surfside or the Sidewalk Cafe Bar.
Your favorite Venice bands?
God…there are so many. I love Michael Jost’s work, Milo Gonzales is utterly brilliant, the amazing Suzy Williams, of course, I love Cristina Vane’s blues approach, the Venice Philharmonic is a gas. I’m good friends with the Gumbo Brothers and love those guys. I must say I’m a bit partial to the Elegant Strangers as well.
What is your craziest or fondest Venice experience?
Back in the early 2000’s I used to play weekly at the amazing but now-defunct Novel Cafe on Pier Ave. (Yes, that’s technically Santa Monica but the vibe then was Venice all the way and many Venicians used to hang there.) The place was always filled with bohemians, intellectuals, artists, musicians. I met the most extraordinary people I’ve ever met in my life there! The Korean owners at the time, had no reference point for this kind of world, though. They were entirely like fish out of water. For one, they were strictly Christian and did not even slightly understand the bohemian lifestyle they were surrounded by. This in itself was a hoot. I’d love to see the looks on their faces when some raving homeless person would come in and blow their minds while ranting some over-the-top weirdness at them. Not the the regulars weren’t weird in their own way but at least they could follow at least some social formalities. That said, very often when I played there, I literally became afraid that the entire place would erupt into pure chaos. On more than one occasion, it actually did. One day, somebody requested I play a song like ‘Tequila’ or something like that. The next thing I see, in the middle of this sedate cafe, a conga line of about ten people had formed. They danced the conga up and down the stairs, through the four rooms of the cafe. I was laughing my ass off! It was so hysterical. For some reason, the Korean owners didn’t attempt to stop the anarchy that erupted. I honestly think they were afraid to intervene. In the long run, the whole thing turned out to be harmless fun. I have hundreds of tales of the Novel Cafe from these days and I do miss it dearly. It was the best time of my life!
Any shoutouts or thank you’s?
Thank you, Mr. Abbot Kinney for making such a unique and wondrous place for artists, misfits and everyone else who loves the weird and wonderful!
Anything else about Venice that you would like to say?
Venice by the beach changed my life forever and I’m forever grateful to our awesome neighborhood!
Who should Venice Paparazzi cast the spotlight on next?
I’d like VP to spotlight Rich Ragsdale. Rich is a low-key guy with tremendous talent as a composer, film maker, animator and cartoonist. He’s done film and TV scores, recently did Sean Lennon’s rock videos and made a horror movie in Thailand called “Ghost House,” where it became a blockbuster hit. Rich is a quite guy and a hidden gem in Venice. facebook.com/rich.ragsdale
HOW CAN ONE FIND YOU?