The Acropolis, the Taj Mahal, China’s Forbidden City, the Kremlin, and the ancient city of Byblos . . . Just a few of the global landmarks that pianist/ composer/ conductor Yanni conquered with his oddly-mesmerizing live instrumental spectacle en route to his biggest conquest yet: Mystic Lake Resort & Casino. What’s more? HE’S ONE OF US, or at least kind of one of us. Yep. The new age pioneer with the silky ‘stache and feathery locks left his native Greece in 1972 to attend the University of Minnesota where he earned a BA in psychology and played a bit of music on the side. Following college he even released an LP as a founding member of local rock band Chameleon (known for a drum kit that could be tilted on its axis and played upside down). By the early ‘80s he’d left us for, sigh, LA, but now he’s back to bring down the crumbling walls of our Acropolis.
DW: What made you leave Greece to attend the University of Minnesota?
Y: My father had developed a relationship with one of the deans from the University Of Minnesota during a time when the archeology students and faculty were doing research and field work in Greece. From that relationship, I was offered the chance to come to the USA and attend the university. It was a great opportunity for me that I would not have given up for anything.
DW: You were a psych major there . . . Do your best to psychoanalyze a person who decides to leave a beautiful, temperate place like Greece for Minnesota.
Y: That is beyond explanation. It would take a Ph.D. to understand that decision. Ha. I was not prepared for the winters in Minnesota, but out of the cold came the chance to stay indoors and really spend a lot of time studying, learning, and playing piano.
DW: Speaking of, why did you bail on a career in psych?
Y: When I graduated I felt that there would never be a better time to explore the idea of pursuing a career in music. I gave myself one year to dedicate to music and see where things stood at the end of that year. I loved psychology and would have returned to school to further my education but music was working and I loved doing it, so I stayed with music.
DW: As you were wrapping up at the U of M you were getting deeper and deeper into the local music scene. Describe the Minneapolis scene that was forming in the late ‘70s that ultimately produced artists such as Prince and Husker Du.
Y: Music at that time was very vibrant and the live scene through all of the Midwest was so prominent that it afforded many bands to start careers. We played shows almost every single day and never stopped traveling in the region for years. I think that it was a good time for music. MTV had just started and people were very supportive of local bands.
DW: Post-college you latched on with a local band called Chameleon. Were you a founding member? What was your role in the band?
Y: I was one of the very early members. In the beginning I was writing and producing with the band and then joined full time as the keyboardist but I still kept my roles as writer and producer.
DW: What would you say was Chameleon’s musical style?
Y: I think it would best be categorized as progressive rock. Similar to some of the UK bands of similar style like Yes and Emerson Lake and Palmer.
DW: You guys were known for having some type of drum kit that actually rotated on its axis so that it could be played upside down. How did that come about/ what the heck was that all about?
Y: That was Charlie Adams doing his best to shock and blow away the audience. It was amazing and dangerous. We had a few accidents with Charlie but he managed to make out ok. I remember that years later Tommy Lee of Mötley Crüe tried to bring it back. You know, I think that Charlie still has that kit somewhere.
DW: Eventually you left Chameleon, and Minneapolis, to pursue doing movie scores in Hollywood. Why? How long did you do that?
Y: I was really looking to start writing different music from what we were doing with Chameleon. When I moved to LA, a man named Sam Schwartz gave me several opportunities to write music for film. Sam was very big in this area of the business and introduced me to a lot of great people. As I started writing music for movies and it was working well, I realized that I wanted to write music for myself rather than films or others. This was the inspiration for the music that I have continued to compose to this very day.
DW: Describe how you go from there to making one of the most historic live albums of all time, Yanni: Live At The Acropolis.
Y: Being from Greece, I was familiar with the Acropolis and the dream of performing there was present in my mind for a long time. Eventually I had made barely enough money to stage my concert at the Acropolis and shoot it for a TV special. I had no idea how people were going to react. The Acropolis was a beautiful setting and the acoustics of that venue rival the best anywhere in the world even today. I think a lot of factors helped with the success including PBS in a very important manner. PBS would play that TV special over and over and people just couldn't get away from hearing the music if they had a TV. It really was the start and then the global broadcasts started and to this day, people all over the world come to see our concerts because they know the Acropolis show.
DW: The most common way I hear your music described is “new age,” but I’ve never really gotten what “new age” actually means. How would you describe your musical style?
Y: I feel the same as you! I have never liked that label and I really don't like defining music. Some of the music that I have written and that I perform is piano based melodic, some is more classical symphonic, electronic, and even rock 'n' roll. I don't feel that you can put my music into any single category, to me it is just music.
DW: It seems like your superstardom is predicated upon putting on a transcendent live show. What makes a Yanni show so special?
Y: Well each concert is very unique. No two are the same and the interaction with all of the musicians on stage and the audience dynamic are never exactly the same. This holds true for audiences around the world. We have performed in over 40 countries at this point and have many more to come and I can tell you that each time we perform it is a truly magical experience for all of us on stage. People coming to our show will hear music from the very beginning of my career right up until the very recent studio recordings.
DW: How many times have you made it back to the Twin Cities since you left and became an international superstar? When was the last time you played here?
Y: I have been back several times, not sure exactly how many but I still have friends and family in the area that I visit. We last performed in the Minneapolis area in 2012 and I am excited to come back this year on September 5th and play for the Twin Cities again!
DW: Do you still stay in touch with any of your former musical cohorts in town?
Y: Yes I do and I am sure I will see some of them this year as well. We even manage to meet up on the road sometimes. That is always fun for me.
DW: When you finally do retire, it will be to a cabin in Brainerd, correct?
Y: Hmmmm. I kind of enjoy the ocean and my family life in Greece.
DW: Last question! You had one of the all-time greatest mustaches in musical history . . . Why did you get rid of it?
Y: During a time that I was not touring or doing any press or recording, I was able to spend a lot of time in the ocean diving. I really found the long hair and mustache were a bit annoying when scuba diving and decided to shave and cut my hair and it stuck with me.
DW: Will you grow it back for your Mystic Lake show? (Pretty please!)
Y: Ha! Probably not going to be ready in time, but the fans can come to the show and check it out!
Sept. 5. Mystic Lake Casino, 952-496-6563, mysticlake.com