With their beautiful orchestration, poetic lyrics and a deep focus on the technical aspect of the music, trio Stalko left an indelible mark on the music scene long before the upcoming release of their first album. Over the past couple of years, Tim Ellis (voice, keyboards), Chris Cini (violin) and Mike Stivala (voice, guitar) have, through a series of gigs, gathered a loyal following of music lovers that have followed them across various venues, some of them extremely quirky. There have been the big, formal events – like opening for Owen Pallett, taking part in Nil by Mouth and Sickfest festivals and more. There have also been the charming and unusual concerts, like the series of (sold out) house gigs, a performance at Cafe Riche and another at Beachaven. The Stalko boys do quirky very well, both when it comes to making music and choice of venue.
Which is why their decision to hold tomorrow’s launch of their album, Grandiloquence, at the old Orpheum Theatre in Gzira surprised no-one, given that it is exactly the sort of thing they would do. The concert will be a seated one, a choice that usually I’m not too fond of for live gigs but that in this case, given the nature of their music, will work out beautifully.
“From the experience of past gigs, we realised that people tend to chat among themselves when we use a particular setup. The fact that the audience will be seated, on the other hand, means that they can really focus on the music. When there is a lot going on, with people coming and going, it is difficult to really enjoy Stalko music,” Tim says about this decision.
From my past experience at the boys’ gigs, I can understand what he is saying. It is difficult to classify this band’s genre of music – they themselves casually refer to it as indie nufolk, but in reality it doesn’t conform to any precise pigeon-holing, borrowing as it does from various music elements – but whatever you choose to call it, one thing is sure. To get the full experience, it is necessary to give it your full attention so as to be able to appreciate the interplay between the instruments, the vocal range, the lyricism… The setup at the Orpheum promises to be conducive to just such an experience.
Of course, the launch of this album has been a long time coming, with fans eagerly clamouring for a date through this past year. The launch of the band’s video for the track In A Hurry – a whimsical affair with an extremely tight production and stunning visuals that further confirmed the trio’s status artistic approach to their music – only served to whet more appetites. However, the band refused to be cajoled into doing things “in a hurry”, preferring instead to take the full-time necessary in order that the final product could be just so.
The wait promises to be worth the while. For the launch itself, the musicians haven’t limited themselves to their usual three-piece format. Instead, they will be joined on stage by a host of other musicians from other bands and projects, with whom they have been collaborating for the album. Among the names we find Brikkuni’s Manuel Pulis and Mark Farrugia, Kantilena’s James Baldacchino, Alex Aldin, Augusto Quintano, Gabriel Gauci from Kultural, cellist Gilmour Peplow and Mauro Farrugia from Big Band Brothers on the euphonium. Surely, getting all these musicians, with their conflicting schedules, to work together must have been a headache. Not as much as I would suppose, Chris tells me.
“Actually we are really grateful for the way everyone has gone out of their way to make this whole thing possible. We are looking forward to the effect that this will produce in our music.”
So the mythical competitiveness between local bands is just that, a myth? It would appear so.
“In reality musicians from different bands collaborate together and help each other out regularly, at least on the local indie scene. The same is true of the metal scene. After all, from an objective point of view, a great performance by another band can only help strengthen the scene in Malta. People who enjoyed the gig realise that attending such events is worthwhile. And that is exactly what we need. Many of us work on different musical projects too…” Mike explains.
Some would say that the flipside to this tightknit indie community is that it might appear to be cliquey, even impenetrable, to outsiders – both from an audience and a potential musician point of view. However, the trio disagrees.
“In reality the community is very much open to newcomers. Take our gigs, for example. The audience is extremely diverse. You get the young, indie crowd, the older music-lovers, the ones who are just discovering the band… It is very inclusive. The best thing is that now the audience at our gigs always includes a lot of people whom we don’t personally know. Within such a small community like Malta, this is very rewarding,” Tim says.
He adds that the scene is open even to newcomers. Using Coach & Horses – a pub in B’Kara that has become synonymous with showcasing both established and emerging live acts and where he oversees the schedule – as an example, he says that the place has always welcomed new musicians who are passionate about what they do.
“In reality it is not that difficult to join the scene, both as musician or simply as someone who is passionate about music.”
I ask about that old chestnut, that it is practically impossible to make a living as music professionals in Malta. Turns out that it is not such a chestnut after all – and sadly, the statement applies not only to Malta but also to the rest of the world.
“Unless we are talking seriously commercial, radio hit kind of music, it is a very small minority who make music their main employment, even in the UK and the States,” Chris says. “Most have to have some sort of day job, even if it is something on a small-scale.”
Mike agrees, adding that there is no real money in the industry, even if you can afford to spend all your time touring and that the reality is that even if you play to sell-out gigs you will still wind up losing money.
“Nowadays no-one forks out money to support the release of an album beforehand. You have to finance it yourself and then, if it is well-received, you might find partial sponsorship.”
Tim adds that even established artists who enjoy a discreet international success typically find that they need a day job to round off the corners.
A decidedly pragmatic approach from musicians who are more renowned for their whimsy. But then again it is probably this balance between the pragmatic and the romantic that makes the Stalko formula such a winner. In the meantime, it is all systems go for tomorrow’s gig where, if past performances are anything to go by, the mundane will be left behind in an uplifting celebration of everything that music-lovers value.
Stalko will be launching their debut album Grandiloquence during a live performance tomorrow at The Orpheum in Gzira. For ticket information visit www.stalkoband.com.
This interview appeared on The Times TV Guide.