“People…will remember how you made them feel.“
The DC region is an incubator for highly talented musicians. Historically, many of the world’s most influential musicians started out in DC: Dave Grohl, Eva Cassidy, Fugazi, Bad Brains, Ron Holloway, the great Duke Ellington, among many others. Parklife DC regularly covers many of the DelMarVa’s current best: Cathy DiToro (Legwarmers, Rose Riot, Herafest), Broke Royals, Wicked Sycamore, Karen Jonas, Cat Janice. Count Dante Frisiello among these artists who broke out of DC to do great things.
Dante’s story is a reminder that talent, drive, timing, and a good sense of humor pave the road to success.
Dante Frisiello learned his chops from a variety of teachers, not the least of which was gigging with many accomplished DC musicians over the last several years. Although Dante now calls Florida home, he nonetheless credits his time working with musicians in the DC area with preparing him for his next chapter, and challenge: In 2023, he was selected to play lead and rhythm guitar on Steve Vai’s Inviolate Tour, starting with Europe this past May, embarking on a South American tour in June, and returning to North America in July and August.
Stream Steve Vai’s album Inviolate on Spotify.
From Day 1, that accumulated experience has served Dante well. Live performers must learn to handle any number of unexpected incidents (some might say fiascos): hitting bum notes, strings breaking, bleeding fingers, mid-song tunings, and perhaps most ominously, complete silence. Dante jokes that he nearly got fired after his first show, but the potential for disaster was real: Just as he prepared to take his debut onstage solo with Vai, his rig decided to crap out. But if expecting the unexpected and dealing with it is the test of a true professional, Dante passed with flying colors.
Success is a tricky thing to measure, of course. For some, it’s measured in wealth, but for others, succeeding is a direct result of risk-taking, of drive and energy, of “doing the work,” and the certainty that one is on the right path. In many ways, success is a mind-set, a belief in the possible, and an innate curiosity to see what’s beyond the next ridge.
Parklife DC’s Mark Caicedo caught up with Dante recently to talk about success, how his life has changed in the last year, and what the future holds.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Mark Caicedo: Hey there, how you doing, man? Thanks for taking the time to do this. I wanted to talk about the changes in the last year and your future plans.
Dante Frisiello: I appreciate it. But hey, full disclosure. I moved back to Florida in 2021. But I did live there [in Washington, DC] for six years. I gigged in the area, as you obviously know, with a bunch of bigger local people like Eli [Lev] and Natalie [Brooke].
MC: I wanted to start off with just a little bit about your background, where you were born, where you grew up, that kind of stuff.
DF: I grew up in Florida, in a little town called Satellite Beach, over on the East Coast. I was always interested in music. I started listening to Rush when I was, like, five years old. I didn’t start playing guitar until I was 13, thanks to my older brother who was my first real guitar hero. I was playing Guitar Hero, the plastic video game at the time, and he saw me playing the fake one and he was like, “dude, that’s so lame! You gotta’ play the real thing.” He picked up my old acoustic guitar and started playing Stone Temple Pilots on it. I was like, “damn, that’s the coolest thing I’ve ever seen!” And that really lit my fire. I went down the traditional career path, went to college and law school, practiced law, all that. But I never stopped caring about music and guitar.
MC: Where did you go to law school, by the way?
DF: I went to Georgetown.
MC: So that’s how you ended up in the DC area?
DF: Yes, exactly, and then after that it was working for big law firms.
MC: So, you get into the local music scene and end up playing with Eli and Cat (Janice) and all those people. How do you go from playing in Jammin’ Java’s parking lot to stages in Europe with Steve Vai? How did that even happen, man?!
DF: To be honest, I’m still about as befuddled by it as you sound! [laughter] So, when I was in college, I took three or four Skype lessons from Dave Weiner who played with Steve for 20 years. And they were amazing, like four of the best guitar lessons I ever had. When I moved to DC, he started a jam club called Philly Guitar Club. I found out about it my second year of law school.
The first year of law school is basically, for lack of a better term, a massive Charlie Fox Trot. It just ruins everyone’s life. You don’t do anything except, like, sneak out to the bars one night a week to try and blow off a little steam because it’s so competitive and stressful. I barely played guitar my first year of law school, I would go weeks and weeks without playing. When the dust settled and I realized, okay, I’m 23, I am about to begin a legal career life that I don’t care about. I don’t enjoy it, I don’t like it. I love and care about music. That’s my passion. And it just felt very simple. Why would I not make my life about my passion? Why would I not do that? And even though I had all the law school debt at the time, and I still do, I just stopped caring. It was like, okay, why am I going to put myself through all this misery when I could do something I care about?
So, what I experienced around this time was an intense pull to music. And there were really two big things that happened. One, I discovered [Australian guitarist and composer] Plini and Intervals, who were guys my age, touring the world, making amazing music. Then I started going to Philly Guitar Club with Dave. For four years I drove three hours to Philly and we played, we would jam in a music store for like two hours. Out of those two hours, I probably played guitar for about 15 minutes, but it didn’t matter because I just wanted to get better. I was in this headspace where, okay, I’m going to do this. This is what I need to do in my life.
I needed teachers. I knew Dave and his career and music. I thought what a perfect person to learn from because he’s doing exactly what I want to do. I got to know him at Philly Guitar Club and eventually he started offering me opportunities. My band opened for his band a couple times, then I teched for him, and then he asked me to be his tech on the Steve Vai tour. I quit my job and moved back to Florida in 2021. And then I came to find out he was leaving the band and recommended me for the spot. I was learning parts and on my first two tours as a tech I was auditioning during soundcheck. [Dave] left and Steve moved me up and here I am!
MC: Sounds like you were just doing whatever it took to follow that dream. So, other than Steve, Dave and Alex [Lifeson], who would you say are your influences? What kind of music did you listen to growing up?
DF: It’s definitely evolved. In middle school I pretty much exclusively listened to Rush, Linkin Park, and Yellow Card. Rush was my favorite band. By high school it was Rush, Stevie Wonder, Joe Satriani, Eric Johnson. I’m a huge Pat Metheny fan, as well. And then, of course, Guthrie Govan, he’s basically become my north star guitar player. I just want to learn as much of his stuff as I can because he’s such a master.
Once I got through that phase, I began listening to electronic music, orchestral music as well. And I love classical movie scores. Not necessarily classical music, but movie and video game scores. They’re just a little bit more digestible and more exciting for some reason.
MC: Well, they’re composed for the drama that’s occurring on the screen so the music and the images really have to match up.
DF: Right. A lot of classical music has a tendency to sound like exercises at certain points and it’s not as inspiring to me. I would listen to Hans Zimmer or Jeremy Soule sooner than I would a classical composer.
MC: You know, it’s interesting to me the way you mentioned the orchestral and the rock side of music. I’ve always been a big prog rock fan and the skill it takes to marry those two seemingly opposites. I hear a lot of that in Steve Vai’s music, too.
DF: What I love about Steve’s music is his attention to the detail of textures, much in the same way that Alex Lifeson is a very textural guitar player. I think that’s why I love electronic music so much, it’s all about texture. There’s a million different ways to make a chord sound and Steve and Alex both go for a lot of the sounds I really like.
They use a lot of reverb and delay, and layer different textures together. Something I love to do is directly inspired by that. I’ll play a chord, then I’ll double it in harmony, and I’ll add a synth to that, then add an acoustic guitar and then double the acoustic guitar with the harmony. And then all of a sudden you have this breathy, textural chord! And I get that straight from those guys.
The other thing about Steve’s music is it’s just supremely melodic. You can sing from A to Z with every song and to me that’s the staying power of music, the melody.
As far as prog goes, I don’t like that progressive music, quote unquote, has come to be a cliche genre sound instead of a mindset. Progressive originally meant you’re bending genres, breaking rules, putting things together that don’t really belong together, making long songs, your lyrics are about deep and interesting shit, and you’re pulling stuff from different places to put in this new thing. Progressive literally meant to progress. Just look at Rush, they’re the gold standard. Every single album sounds totally different but they’re still Rush. Just compare 1984’s Grace Under Pressure to Power Windows in 1985. Different guitar sounds, different synths, different tones, different bass tones, different drum kit instruments in one year. Every single album was progressing.
It’s very relevant because when I think about how we market my band [Fly in Formation] we do not use the word progressive, and that is simply because I don’t want to be put in a box. I absolutely refer to it as a blend of a high energy blend of rock and electronic music. It’s a little bit of both, you know? That’s kind of what we’re going for.
I could say prog metal but again, that puts me in too specific of a box. It sounds like regular old rock mixed with electronic music, you know? It’s complicated and there’s fast parts and a lot of odd time changes and weird things that are proggy, but is it prog? I don’t know. I just leave that kind of shit for other people to decide. It’s all rock. It’s all just music. You either like it or you don’t when it comes right down to it.
MC: Right! Let’s get back to Steve for a minute, making that adjustment to being onstage with him. What was that like? Take me through your thought process. Was it nerve wracking, or exciting, or all those things? And then, of course, talk about your first solo, that whole thing.
DF: Yeah. Well, the first couple times I was really nervous. I knew the parts, so I was confident, but I was really nervous and there was definitely this part of me that was like, “Oh my God, I’m playing with Steve. I can’t believe this is really happening.” But here’s the cool thing…I had gotten through that doing the soundcheck auditions and soundcheck jams as a tech and then when I came to play, I was actually pretty confident. The coolest part is how quickly I became comfortable.
During the first gig, I, we start playing the intro, standing side stage and I can’t believe this is happening, you know? But then I got on and within 15 seconds it just hit me, ‘Dude, this is just another gig!” I realized, of course I can do this. And that feeling only continued over the six weeks of the tour, each time we went out and played I felt just a little bit more relaxed.
And then the first show I had a whole crazy disaster with my solo. I’d been playing my amp and pedal board at home for weeks and never had a single problem, of course. Never once had anything cut out, no weird noises. And then he’s [Steve Vai] introducing me and it’s time for me to come out front and play solo. And my rig just goes out.
My guitar tech, Nick Scout, comes running out. We’re unplugging shit, we’re running around. What do we do? Do we go straight into the amp? That doesn’t even work. I’m like, “Oh my God, I don’t know what’s happening.” And then I realized, it’s just this bad pedal. Skip the pedal, put everything back. That moment was another reminder for me that as a performer I know how to handle it when something goes wrong. You just have to smile and laugh. You can’t get upset; you can’t get mad. You have to keep the vibes good. Yeah, and ultimately it doesn’t matter. You’ll make it work.
MC: Just two comments. Number one, that feeling of integrating into the band, you know, that’s just as much about your bandmates and them supporting and lifting you up as it is about your own determination to get there. And two, when I first saw the story on Instagram about that solo incident, that happens all the time in live music. That’s just the way it is. I like watching what the guitarist is doing, what the drummer is doing, and their facial expressions. And when they hit a bum note or something, they always kind of smile or raise their eyebrows and just play through it and keep going.
DF: Well, it’s, it comes down to one simple truth about performing that I learned from the public speaking world. People will not remember what you say, they will remember how you made them feel.
You know, I was at a Guthrie Govan show in Jacksonville and the power went out. Everyone kind of looked at each other on the stage and almost without hesitation, Marco [Minnemann] started a drum solo. I had this old picture on my phone of Guthrie literally sitting on the stage with the guitar in his lap and he’s just looking over at Marco soloing. He’d look at the crowd, he was playing at a low dynamic because of the environment. Then he would build it up a little, and then stop and get people into it.
It’s funny because when I think about that gig, I couldn’t tell you a single song they played. But I remember that and I remember how well it was handled. And pulling the audience in, brilliant!
MC: I wanted to ask you a little bit more about Fly in Formation. Obviously, you’re going to be involved with Steve’s band for a while. What will that do to your other music projects?
DF: Well, we’re really focused on finishing our second record right now. It’s almost done and we want to release it this year. Putting an album out in this day and age means you have to spend basically 100% of the time recording, writing, and marketing. We’re going to be filming a lot of videos, making a lot of content, and a whole online campaign to promote the album. But when all is said and done, we really want to tour. It’s just a matter of finding the right opportunity to do that and, hopefully, not lose a ton of money. Maybe next year we can tour.
[Check out Fly in Formation and Dante’s solo work on his website.]
MC: So, you’re coming back to the States to tour after South America?
DF: We’re coming back to the States this summer and doing a lot of touring. Guitar fans will be excited.
MC: I just want to say I’m really happy for you. Watching your journey, seeing you play. It’s nice to see someone on that path and making it work, doing what you love. Congratulations, and thanks a lot for talking to us, Dante. Safe travels and we’ll talk to you later.
DF: Thanks, Mark. Yes, stay in touch, dude. All right, peace. Take care.
Steve Vai’s Inviolate tour continues across the USA and Canada this summer 2023. (Sadly there’s no DC date on this leg, but Steve Vai was last in our area at The Birchmere on Oct. 25.)
Please check Steve Vai’s website for tour updates, music, and video.
Dante Frisiello performs in Steve Vai’s band during the upcoming tour, including a date at the Rickshaw Theatre in Vancouver on August 15.
Tuesday, Aug. 15
Doors @ 7pm
69.50 Floor/$99.50 Balcony