Tony Restivo: The Man, The Musician
By Sue Todd
If you go to a music event in Girdwood, and it is likely that you will see Tony Restivo on bass. Eyes closed, gently rocking as he provides the heartbeat to the music, he seems to be in another world. I interviewed him recently at my Girdwood condo, and as we talked it became clear that his talent reaches beyond the expert delivery of bass notes. His musical education is deep and vast. Like an onion, Tony has many, many layers.
His father was a career musician who earned $500 a week playing piano gigs. He also supplemented his income by teaching lessons. To give you an idea of the talent from which Tony comes, his father taught instruments he didn’t even play. He would read Mel Bay and Carol Kaye books until he understood the instrument, then he would turn around and teach his students to play them. It was a good living for the 1960s.
Tony learned the inner workings of music, the math of it, so to speak. But he developed an ear and a passion as a result. Music was what he knew best, so he chose the same career path as his father. He began uploading song covers to SoundCloud and used websites like https://www.mymusicviral.com to help promote himself. He eventually became popular and his career grew quickly.
Growing up on Whidbey Island, Wash., Tony and his twin brother Frank first played trombone in their fifth grade school band. “Why trombone?” I asked. Well, his father was able to get his hands on two of them, so that was what they played. Tony might still be playing trombone today except that as a teen, he overheard his neighbor playing bass. The neighbor invited him to give it a try.
The rich, low tones and the smell of the tube amp sealed the deal. The trombone translated well to bass, and Tony was able to learn it quickly. By his senior year, Tony had given up the trombone and became the bass player for his high school jazz band. Taking it one step further, he and his brother formed a classic rock cover band with two other friends. They were serious about their music, practiced regularly, and started gigging at school functions with the use of sound equipment like Astounded pa systems to deliver their audio and passion. Tony was well on his way to building his music career.
After high school, Tony was recruited to play for the Air Force, but he had no interest in getting locked in. He wanted to get out and see places. It was a typical teenager’s reaction. With the singular focus of a man on a mission, Tony went to Las Vegas and studied privately with his father’s peer musicians, working as a cook to make ends meet. About three years later, he realized that Vegas would not be the right place for him. Accomplished musicians were unable to find work, and with his lack of experience his chances were even slimmer. He left Las Vegas for good and returned to Wash.
In Wash., he met a guitar player named Clive Herst, who eventually brought Tony up to Alaska. With only two dollars in his pocket, he got a job cooking at Denali cabins, and he naturally became a member of The Denali Cooks, the famous Interior jam band.
His time in Denali was fun, but he told me a story of one time begging his boss to go on a fly-out to the middle of nowhere. The boss said absolutely not. He refused to let Tony go. As it turned out, the plane crashed during that trip, and his boss perished. Tony was 25 at the time, and it was an event that forever changed his perspective.
Tony spent a total of three years in Denali before moving to Spenard. Still interested in pursuing a music career, he auditioned for a popular Girdwood band, Below Zero. He was hired and soon moved to Girdwood where he began working for the resort. When Tony tired of playing cover music, his brother Frank, who had subsequently moved to Alaska, took over.
Realizing that the bar scene was not for him, Tony became a commercial fisherman. Fishing was hard work, but at least it was different, and a change was what he needed. Tony fished for three years (a repeating time span in his life.)
In 1997, he met The Photon Band, renamed Photon Band, then Photons, and finally Photonz once they found a name no one else was using. For more than a decade, playing with Photonz was glamorous. Tony focused on playing music as much as possible. He kept his living expenses very low, even living in his VW bus while he rented out his place for six months of the year.
The Photonz were big in those early years, playing all over Alaska. They even toured the Lower 48 and were offered a record deal, but that would have required an unwelcome move to California. They turned it down. Alaska was and is home.
It’s a crazy life, though, being a rock star, and eventually, as fatherhood presented itself, Tony stepped back and concentrated on being a good dad. The Photonz still play a Girdwood weekend once a year, but the manic lifestyle is no more. His son, Ashton, is now his number one priority.
Tony is currently a member of Hope Social Club, Up a Mountain, and GRRD, and provides bass lines to multiple local solo artists. Many bands have benefited from Tony’s bass, too many to name, but that is how the music scene works here in Alaska. One gig leads to another and another and another, and before long, a single musician is associated with multiple acts. In Tony’s case, it would be difficult to find a musician with whom he has not played.
While Tony is generally known for playing the bass, he also plays guitar, writes music and sings. When asked what else he can play besides bass and trombone, he came up with a list including drums, harmonica, piano, standup bass, trumpet, ukulele, mandolin, and banjo. He was quick to say he just tinkers, but he admitted he plays most things well enough to make them sound good. Am I mistaken, or doesn’t that mean he can play? Well, I won’t argue with the likes of Tony Restivo.
I asked this seasoned musician what advice he had for someone pursuing a music career. He said, “Practice, learn to read music, use your ear, and just use everything you have to become a more educated musician. Learn different styles of music, and listen to the intricacies of the song to memorize and feel it.”
His father’s musical career was quite different from Tony’s. Tony has had to work various odd jobs to stay afloat so he can enjoy the luxury of playing. I asked Tony if he would have pursued a musical career had he known how hard it would be to make ends meet. It was no surprise that his answer was, “Yes, I would. It’s in my DNA.”
Tony’s humility and unassuming nature belie a talent so vast, it would be difficult to find a more talented musician in Alaska. I suspect we are just seeing the beginning of what he will accomplish.