An Interview with Billy Tsounis of Circus of Power
By Andrew Daly
Wielding a classic single-cut Les Paul or various other curious including, but not limited to, Stratocasters, Jaguars, and more, guitarist Billy Tsounis does his part to pay homage to the monsters of late-60s, ’70s, and ’80s rock.
You might know him through his eclectic solo work or perhaps through his various bands and sprawling projects that span boundless genres. And, of course, there’s his longtime presence as the lead guitarist for veteran band Circus of Power, which Tsounis has truly invigorated from a live and studio perspective.
No matter where you first came upon him, one thing is certain—Tsounis is steadfastly committed to preaching the good word of rock ‘n’ roll via his solidbody slab. In an age where more and more young minds are shaped by sounds anew, it does this writer’s heart good to see that there are still six-stringers committed to perpetuating the foundation on which rock was built.
As he prepares for what’s to come in 2023, Billy Tsounis beamed in with ClassicRockHistory.com to recount his origins with the guitar, his love for genre experimentation, taking the stage with Circus of Power, and much more.
What was the moment which first sparked your interest in music?
Music was always around the house, and I was fascinated with the different sounds and just staring at the record spin round and round on the player and wondering if sound could come out of anywhere that had those grooves in there if you placed a needle and spun it around. It could be the wall or anything that you could carve some grooves into. The music that I was initially exposed to, though, was Greek rebetiko, as that’s what played in the house and some AM radio hits.
There was no television at the time in South Africa or international touring bands. Later when I was about ten or so, I heard and fell in love with bands like Grand Funk Railroad, Deep Purple, Black Sabbath, Budgie, Slade, Uriah Heep, Led Zeppelin, and Golden Earring, and this was all before I started to play the guitar. What topped it off was seeing The Rolling Stones’ movie, Gimme Shelter, and Led Zeppelin’s The Song Remains the Same film.
I would stay and watch them twice a day at the theatre. I loved live albums. I would stare at the covers of the albums, and I figured that since all these bands/musicians wrote and played their own songs, that’s what I should try and do as well. Come up with some sounds, riffs, whatever that I could because I just thought that that’s what you’re supposed to do. I had no idea that maybe I should learn some of those bands’ songs.
Who were some of your earliest influences that first shaped your style?
I really loved and still love so many different styles of music, but from what I remember, the feeling or effect some bands had on me. At different stages, I had different influences but never forgot the initial ones, which are/were Ritchie Blackmore and Ted Nugent. I wore out the Double Live Gonzo album and played it for a few hours as soon as I got home from school, along with Black Sabbath’s Sabotage or Sabbath Bloody Sabbath.
KISS’s Alive II was another daily play, as well as Golden Earrings’ Switch album. By this point, I had discovered Frank Zappa and purchased many of his albums, too. I loved his compositions that included so many classical and avant-garde elements with social satire. He’s one of my top-5 favorite composers/ guitar players ever. Then Van Halen was a new addiction, with Fair Warning being my favorite. Also, Tommy Bolin, who I had discovered on an Alphonse Mouzon album called Mind Transplant.
I then went and got his solo albums, and then he was playing with Deep Purple. Then during the late ’70s, I also got into Terje Rypdal, a genius Norwegian guitarist. He was doing space jazz with overdrive. I love it to this day. Funkadelic’s Hardcore Jollies was another one I purchased because I liked the cover and was blown away. I enjoy jamming out/playing the song “Cosmic Slop.” That album is genius and space funk never to be topped.
Then The Police came out, and that blew me away. Andy Summers is a true sonic boss. And from the early-80s onward, Steve Stevens, to this day one of the most unique and creative players around. He really defined coloring in and playing the best and most right-on parts for a song. Later, I got into players like Sonny Sharrock, David Torn, Robert Fripp, Helios Creed, Daniel Ash, John McKay, and Sonic Youth. And another full-on favorite was Snakefinger and Adrian Belew, whose power trio the last couple of years have some exceptional material.
Do you remember your first guitar?
My first guitar was a classical nylon string gifted to me by a family friend. But then my mom got me this Ibanez Les Paul copy which only so many got made as it was a full-on replica of a Gibson Les Paul. Apparently, Ibanez had to stop making them due to legal issues. That was around ’79, I believe. Anyway, it must have been one of three or so in Johannesburg, and I got one. I still have it, but years ago, I painted it with some leftover paint cans, and now it looks like gummy bears on it now [Laughs]. I also switched the pickups to DiMarzio Super Distortion ones. It’s an awesome guitar.
How would you say that style has evolved as you’ve moved through your career?
I initially started in a free-style sort of way which you could perhaps call experimental punk. And then, when I moved to Boston to attend Berklee, I somehow got encouraged to try more melodic style playing that can enhance the song or make the solo section into a song itself. While I did do that, I still enjoy coming up with what part works for the song.
Then when I moved out to Los Angeles, I got further into experimental/noise/acid punk/goth styles and what have you. It was just a sonic primal thing, and me going for it. So, those elements keep swirling around me all the time. I was really getting inspired by Helios Creed and Paul Leary, Geordie Walker, and this guy called Caspar Brotzmann, who sounded like somebody who got locked into a room with only the Jimi Hendrix live jams. I would say that my playing can be well-behaved but is also schizophrenic.
What were some of your earliest gigs?
I actually got to play once I got to Boston in the early ’80s, and initially, I was playing rock/punk bands. There were bands that I was singing in as well, but it was tough to keep finding players as most people want to do what was popular at the time. Most people wanted to get instant applause by full-on copying the bands of the day instead of using their influences to shape their own sound.
A friend to this day, Kevin Rapillo, who now plays drums and is musical director for country artist Rodney Atkins was in the same dorm as me. He saw something in me that he could use/work with for a rock band that he was putting together and thus invited the usually rejected me over to jam. We had great chemistry, wrote many songs together, and were regionally successful. That band was called Kid Crash, and we played Boston, the Northeast, for a good six years.
How did you end up in Circus of Power? Were you a fan back in the day?
I was a fan for sure and had seen the band perform in Boston and New York City. I had a friend back then who kept telling me that I should be playing with this guy Alex Mitchell. So, when I was in Los Angeles, I got a call from Alex, and he told me that he was looking to put a new band together. He had found an ad I had in this magazine called The Music Connection, where I had listed one of the bands that I liked as the Butthole Surfers.
So I went over, and within a half hour, we wrote this song called “Letters from the Inside,” which appeared on the last Circus of Power CD, Four. This was in, like, 1993, and we made this band called Uncle Max’s Cosmic Band and played around Hollywood. We did a lot of acid punk mixed with rock, and I loved it. Then later, we had a band called Fat Nancy, and that evolved into a band called Captain Zapped, and that’s where most of the current Circus of Power lineup comes from.
I also wanted to touch on your instrumental and solo work. How do you balance the two?
You’ve just got to make the time, and for me, I have to do them both as I need constant sonic excitement. My brain can get bored easily. I write a lot and not just for one situation. But all situations are done with love. My solo stuff/recordings are more on the all-instrumental, psychedelic/experimental, space/noise jazz end of things.
I also have this psychedelic/space punk /no wave freak pop project called Vasoline Tuner, which I perform with from time to time. For that project, I use a lot of alternate/made-up tunings. I just love to play, and if one loves anything that they do, time extends. With Circus of Power, we have a backlog of material right now, which is awesome. There are a lot of cool songs coming out soon. Full on rawk, no-nonsense.
From a songwriting perspective, how have your collective experiences affected the music?
I think that having an open mind towards music/art/ experiences in themselves always shows up somewhere in songwriting as one absorbs moments/experiences, and those can pour out from the personal into the group presentation. For me, just the fact of being able to play, because I have hands does it for me. I can wake up, get going and show up, I really appreciate that, and I always look forward to how I can maybe surprise myself as to what riff may show up from out of nowhere. From all my different influences, I can say that they were all there at the same time and ready to jump out and compliment a song from the opposites attract axiom.
If you had to boil down your approach to the guitar, how would you do so?
My approach is definitely one of “let’s see what happens and not being in any particular box or reality at any time.” I love to play and still learn new styles and approaches from different parts of the world. I prefer to respond to whatever the mood of the song or place or surroundings is and soundtrack that moment if that makes any sense—silent irreverence.
What gear are you using these days?
I use a Marshall JCM 800 or the Marshall Jubilee series for most of my recordings or live work. I find those amps classic and eternal in that I can get great clean and dirty sounds without pedals. I don’t use a lot of pedals in Circus of Power, mainly a Boss GE/7 equalizer, a DD -3 digital delay, and sometimes the Electro Harmonix Canyon Delay and Looper. For my solo instrumental live rig, I use the Roland Jazz Chorus 120. The cleanest amp, and with pedals, the effects really come out. I saw Andy Summers and Billy Duffy of The Cult using that. I used to hook it up in stereo with the Marshall, and whenever I can get help in moving and setting it up, I do that.
What are the five albums that have most shaped your musical life?
Black Sabbath’s Sabbath Bloody Sabbath. So many dark riffs, songs and it felt like you were floating between this world and other worlds with a sinister grand entrance.
Van Halen’s Fair Warning. I know that there are the previous albums, all exceptional, but this one is so dark, swinging, and heavy. It’s on a different plateau, perhaps never to be equaled.
The Police’s Outlandos d’Amour. I’ve never heard of any combination like it before. It was sparse yet so full and had a mysterious underlying decadence to it.
Frank Zappa’s Over Nite Sensation. This is the album that I was introduced to initially; the songs “I’m the Slime” and “Dirty Love” were a soundtrack of the world to me. Nobody was combining rock and jazz elements with satire, and I loved it. I walked into parties with a different perspective after that.
Ted Nugent’s Double Live Gonzo. The guitar playing/attitude/ performance is pure primal rock excellence, and the songs are pure teenage party fuel.
What’s next for you in all lanes?
Well, I am looking forward to the release of the next Circus of Power album and upcoming shows/tours for my instrumental material. I am going through some skeleton jams right now, and it’s a matter of just going into the studio to record them and expand on the main riffs. I’ve never gone into a studio with that material and had a band rehearsal. I just pick people that are not afraid to go for it and have somewhat decent mind-reading abilities.
At the same time, I keep learning, working on other styles of music, like African, Brazilian, and Middle Eastern, and looking to better my playing/ideas. I love playing guitar. But in the immediate future, we have finished a full-on new Circus of Power album, and hopefully, it will be out shortly. We’re constantly writing and are happy to be back to doing shows and rawking.
Billy Tsounis Of Circus of Power: The ClassicRockHistory.com Interview article published on Classic RockHistory.com© 2023
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