KissFAQ Interview: Tom Saviano Talks Vinnie Cusano And Heat

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KissFAQ Interview: Tom Saviano Talks Vinnie Cusano And Heat

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KissFAQ Interview: Tom Saviano Talks Vinnie Cusano And Heat
Heat bandleader/principal songwriter sheds some light on unreleased track featuring Vinnie Cusano

By Tim McPhate

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Just in time for summer, Heat -- an early '80s West Coast R&B/rock/fusion collective led by bandleader/principal songwriter Tom Saviano -- are primed for a comeback with the release of "Heat Revisited" in Japan on July 17. Of interest to KISS fans, the album includes a 1981 unreleased Heat track, "What Does It Take," which features lead guitar by Vinnie Cusano and offers a snapshot of his pre-KISS days as a session musician.

Listen to the premiere of "What Does It Take" HERE

In addition to founding Heat, Saviano is a well-known session musician on the Southern California scene. KISS fans will recognize his name as the horn arranger for select tracks on Peter Criss' 1978 solo album, including the Catman's cover of "Tossin' And Turnin'." Saviano has collaborated with high-profile musicians such as Brenda Russell, Earth, Wind & Fire, Sheena Easton, and Rahsaan Patterson, among others. His more recent work includes sessions on recordings for Muse, Maroon 5, Meatloaf, Neil Diamond, Ray Charles, and Tim McGraw. Saviano has also shared the stage with musicians such as Ziggy Marley, Lee Ritenour, Clarence Clemons, Steve Ferrone, and members of Stone Temple Pilots.

In conjunction with the exclusive online debut of "What Does It Take," KissFAQ caught up with Saviano to chat about the "Heat Revisited" project and his recollections of working with Vinnie.

KissFAQ: Tom, Vinnie Cusano is credited as a guitarist on Heat's 1981 album "Still Waiting." But he didn't end up actually playing on that album, did he?

Tom Saviano: No, he didn't. But Vinnie is on the tune that's on the new "Heat Revisited" album.

KF: "Heat Revisited" will be released July 17 in Japan. Can you describe the contents?

TS: There are 16 tracks. It's redone versions of the first two [Heat] albums completely with different singers in some cases, some cases different rhythm sections, new guitar parts and such. Vinnie is on a never-released song, "What Does It Take," one of five songs that were never released. This song doesn't sound characteristically like the rest of the Heat albums, it sounds a little more Steely Dan, a little more rock, which is kind of cool, especially for the KISS fans. It's not heavy metal, but it's rock for sure.

KF: What was the overall goal of the "Heat Revisited" project?

TS: The whole goal was to "revisit" Heat and think about what I could do today that I couldn't do 30 years ago. And I think I improved the sound field, the whole thing is in your face more. The drums are punchy, they hit -- the snare drum cracks like a real snare should. And the bottom end is hitting you in the chest and the horns -- there's nothing shy about it. Everything's there. And I don't think I lost the vocals either, the vocals are there.

KF: The mixes sound crisp and full. You personally oversaw the remixing process, correct?

TS: Oh yeah. I did it all in Digital Performer.

KF: That's a tall order.

TS: You know, it was a big undertaking. It took me a whole year. But I lived and learned. I studied mixing and I started listening to my guys. I talked to some of my great engineer buddies, I said, "Hey, am I doing the compression right on this?" (laughs)

KF: "What Does It Take" has some nice chord changes and dynamics. And Vinnie's guitar is featured prominently. His playing is tasteful and his tone sounds very warm and almost Hendrix-y.

TS: Yep, I thought he played real melodic on this track.

KF: Agreed. And it's a complete 180-degree turn from what he would become known for during his solo career.

TS: He was a speed guitar guy.

KF: Yes, but this track shows another side of his sensibilities, which he also showcased in KISS.

TS: He played like a studio musician. You can hear his voice at the end of one of the takes, where he said, "Sav, let's do another take. I didn't do a good job on that."

KF: Is that his original guitar sound on the track?

TS: Yeah, it's recorded in stereo.

KF: You can hear Vinnie rocking the whammy bar just a bit, and it sounds like he's playing a Fender Strat.

TS: I think it was a Strat.

KF: Tom, where did you meet Vinnie?

TS: at the same studio where I did some early work for Vini Poncia, at Fidelity Recording, Artie Ripp's studio, which is now Studio City Sound. I think he was doing some work for an artist who was signed to Artie Ripp.

KF: And can you outline who Artie Ripp was?

TS: Artie Ripp was the president/CEO of Buddah/Karma Sutra Records. [He was] the youngest record executive in the history of the music business. He signed Billy Joel to his first record/ publishing deal [as well].

KF: And an artist Vinnie was working with was signed with him?

TS: For a while, yeah. He was doing session work there and hanging out at that studio. And I happened to be doing some of the demos [for Heat] -- that we're demos for the 2nd Heat album. We tracked it quickly, but it sounds like a record, doesn't it?

KF: Yes, indeed. So this track was in the running for the "Still Waiting" album?

TS: Yes, it would have been the second album, but we pulled it off because we kept the album R&B.

KF: So that's the reason why Vinnie was likely credited.

TS: Yeah.

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Heat (l-r): Tom Saviano, Jean Marie Arnold and Ed Whiting

KF: How exactly did Vinnie come to play on the track?

TS: Well, he had heard about me because I had a reputation. I had gone on to be this studio guy. I came back to that old studio where Vini [Poncia] worked with me 3 years earlier. I was back and it was like, "Hey, Tom Saviano's here. Man, you've got to meet him!" And he comes in and he starts talking to me, "Hey, my name's Vinnie Cusano and I'm a guitar player. I'd like to work with you." So I said, "Well, I'm going to do some stuff here, maybe I'll have you play."

KF: Was he pushy at all?

TS: No, he was just an East Coast Italian trying to hang with another Italian guy.

KF: I ask because legend has it that he kind of willed his way into KISS. He was writing with a songwriter named Adam Mitchell and he met Gene Simmons through him. So it seems Vinnie was one of those guys who was trying to get his foot in the door?

TS: That's what you've got to do in this industry.

KF: Do you remember anything strange or left of center about Vinnie?

TS: No, I never saw him in that way.

KF: And when you dusted off this track and heard his guitar, what did you think?

TS: I think it sounds great. I wouldn't have put it on there if I didn't think that. I had the final call. I mastered and mixed everything. I made the call and said, "That sounds good." Even [guitarist] Bruce [Gaitsch] said so. I said, "Should you do the solo again?" He said, "No, it's great." So we left his guitars on there.

KF: In overseeing this project, you sonically expanded a few things compared to some of the previously Heat recordings. What tune is an example of what you feel benefited the most?

TS: "Pickin' And Choosin'." That's one of my favorites. The original version had an old-fashioned snare drum. It still grooves but this one has got a little more energy and it's just in your face. And I like that about it.


The original recording of Heat's "Pickin' And Choosin'"

KF: It's got a great funk feel happening. How about your sax solo on this one, did you write that out?

TS: That was an impromptu solo, an ad lib.

KF: And is it your original recorded solo?

TS: Oh yeah, that's the original. I left that on there. One of the new additions was I outlined the chord changes that were implied when I played the original sax solo with the new piano. The original piano part did not do that. So the new piano player on here, which is me, follows the sax. (laughs)

KF: There's a nice chromatic motif in there.

TS: Yeah, kind of a Michael Brecker type of thing.

KF: Heat's recordings convened an impressive list of talented musicians. Who is playing on "Pickin' And Choosin'"?

TS: Harvey Mason's playing drums, and Ed Green -- two great drummers. Eddie Watkins Jr. on bass. Guitars are Charles Fearing and Thom Rotella, another famous studio musician. Myself on piano and Jai Winding is playing electric piano, which is tucked way back as the acoustic overwhelms it. And the horn section is the cream of the crop of horn players -- on trumpet, it's Chuck Findley, Steve Madaio, Ralph Rickert and Judd Miller. The trombone section is equally as strong. Slyde Hyde, Bill Richenbach, Doug Wintz and Phil Teele. You'll recognize these names on many records that you pick up. You may say, "Oh, I know those guys."

KF: Tom, you've garnered a reputation as a top studio musician. What's your take on the session musician scene today versus back in the day?

TS: Yeah, it's nothing like it was back then. We used to actually go into the studio and work together, and that made it fun. We would go down to Hollywood and hang out down there and order food from Roy's Chinese Restaurant and they'd deliver in and that was the thing. It was a social event. And guess what? We'd bounce ideas off of each other, and there was interaction. I miss that. Occasionally we still do it with a horn section, but not as many. I'll get those same players, like I did recently for a Muse date. And it was so much fun, because we were at Ocean Way. And the band is there and you see that they're interacting with us, and they were like, "Hey man, this is fun."

KF: So even though sessions today are marked by the convenience of sending files via Dropbox and home recording, is there a part of you that misses the camaraderie of the studio environment from years past?

TS: I have mixed emotions about it. I feel that, being the producer and arranger that I am, it's amazing to be able to control everything. I'm not a control freak but I can control the whole picture. If something's wrong with the mix, I can go, "Hey, you messed up on the mix!" And I can go change it.

KF: But wearing "all the hats" is a challenge, isn't it?

TS: I've been doing it my whole life. I've been in positions where I've been the arranger, I've been the artist, I've been the writer. And at some point, I wanted to go, "Man, can't somebody else do this?" When I did the first Heat album, I had a team of engineers I was working with, one guy in particular John Mills, did the "Wired" album [by Jeff Beck]. He was my main recording engineer and [David] Wolfert was in the room with us. So, even though I was writing the tunes and doing all the arrangements, I had two guys to bounce ideas off of. And I didn't have to worry about EQing the bass drum. I didn't have to worry about the compression on the bass. But this time,I did it all.

(KissFAQ thanks Tom Saviano for his time and the privilege of debuting the unreleased Heat track "What Does It Take," featuring Vinnie Cusano. Check out "Heat Revisited" promo videos below and read more about Tom Saviano and his career at http://www.tomsaviano.com.)