By Charlie Swanson
Songwriter and bandleader Giovanni Di Morente can do it all. The founder and frontman of the eclectic alternative pop ensemble El Radio Fantastique describes himself as a free-range artist, meaning that his approach to music is categorically indefinable yet surprisingly accessible.
This weekend, El Radio Fantastique unveil their new EP, Shine, with a raucous release show on April 2 at McNear’s Mystic Theatre in Petaluma that also features San Francisco’s animated Extra Action Marching Band.
Di Morente, a Point Reyes Station native, grew up on a steady stream of Sinatra before discovering the Sex Pistols and playing punk rock. “We were out in the woods, and I was just left to my own devices,” Di Morente says. “I had no boundaries musically, and punk got me delving into Old World music—Gypsy, Brazilian songwriters—all these paths that I took with open ears.”
In the mid-’80s, Di Morente moved to Los Angeles and, under the pseudonym Johnny Dollar, was part of the one-hit wonder pop group Times Two, whose single, “Strange but True” peaked at number 21 on the pop charts in 1988. Yet he compares the experience to selling his soul. He spent the next decade depressed and being bounced around from label to label.
Finally, Di Morente left L.A. for New Orleans, working as a gravedigger by day and playing jazz and blues clubs by night. Newly inspired, Di Morente formed his first incarnation of El Radio Fantastique in 2002. “I felt redeemed,” he says.
Originally a darkly classical take on New Orleans jazz, the band expanded its sound to encompass all of Di Morente’s musical influences, from the Beatles to Bowie to the Sex Pistols and beyond. “With El Radio Fantastique, I felt like I was able to put everything I love together,” he says.
After the devastation of Hurricane Katrina in 2006, Di Morente moved back to Point Reyes Station and started up the band anew. Currently, El Radio Fantastique is a seven-piece outfit, with Di Morente sharing songwriting duties alongside bassist Colin Schlitt and pianist Robin Livingston.
Shine, the first EP in a planned series of five releases expected over the next two years, is a perfect example. The five tracks encompass Space Oddity–era Bowie, baroque pop, sizzling zydeco jazz, growling punk rock and even Persian-inspired orchestration.
“I really want to write pop songs,” Di Morente says. “But in my own fashion.”
El Radio Fantastique parties on Saturday, April 2, at the Mystic Theatre, 23 Petaluma Blvd. N., Petaluma; 8pm; $17–$20; 21 and over; 707/765-2121.