Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Chicago band Dastardly bringing eclectic sound to scene

Whether you call their music Americana or grunge polka, Chicago band Dastardly is one of the more eclectic and interesting bands on the local music scene these days.

Dastardly, www.myspace.com/dastardlytheband, will perform Dec. 9 at Schubas, 3159 N. Southport Ave., Chicago, to celebrate the release of its debut album, "May You Never...".

Glittermouse, Chaperone and Jared Bartman are also on the bill. The show starts at 8:30 p.m., and tickets are $6, $8 at the door, available at www.schubas.com.

I had the chance to interview Dastardly frontman Gabe Liebowitz about the band and his vision for putting together this gifted collection of musicians.

Q - You guys are touring pretty heavily in the next few months. Is it the band's goal to conquer the country? Does the band prefer being on stage rather than being in the studio?

Well, that would be nice. Honestly, we've been together for almost a year and have played only one out of town show, and that was, like, two weeks ago. 

I'm grateful for establishing a really great base of fans and a respectable roster of bands to play with in Chicago, but it's definitely gotten me hungry to take the show on the road. I'm generally a homebody by nature, I've never been much of a traveler, so I'm kind of forcing myself to go on tour and see if I can handle it.

As far as conquering the country, I see these upcoming tours as, like, filling out an uncharted map. I'm going to be going on the west coast tour pretty much solo while my band mates continue with their "jobs," "school" and "lives," just so I can start meeting bands, people, and venues...so that if I want to go again with the full band, I have better relationships out there and the whole endeavor will be much more worthwhile. Going on a long tour is a huge commitment, and can even lead to, like, losing your job, so it's definitely got to count.

I am taking the whole band to the east coast in January, which I am very excited about. I'm from Rhode Island, and now pretty much all of my friends are dispersed between Providence, Boston and New York City, which means that we should have good turnouts for each of those dates.
In this coming year, we're going to be focusing mostly on working on our presence in the Midwest. If we can start building reliable in fan bases in Milwaukee, Madison, Iowa City, Indiana and Ann Arbor, I think that we will be in a very good spot.

To answer the second part of your question, I feel that the studio and the stage are completely different beasts. The stage...nothing compares to the energy of connecting to people who are like three feet away from you. It's just a phenomenal feeling. 

But with our instrumentation, we've got accordion, banjo, mandolin...these are instruments intended to be played acoustically, but we play in a rambunctious rock setting, which isn't always easy to do sound for. So for our live shows, the sound doesn't always do us justice. 

In the studio, we got to really produce this record and make sure everything ended up sounding exactly how we intended it to, and you just don't have that kind of control live.

Q - How did the band come together? What did you have in mind in forming the band?

I had actually broken up my second unsuccessful/terrible band in Chicago, and I was taking some of that "soul searching" time, where I was searching for a style of music that I was more comfortable with. The process involved learning a lot of songs...soul songs, folk songs, jazz standards, etc. 

I started learning a lot of Gram Parsons and Townes Van Zandt, two artists I've always greatly admired, and something about the country style really gelled with me. The simplicity of the structures and the straight forward, "tell it like it is" lyrics really opened a lot of doors for me as a songwriter. After that, I started really discovering country music...Hank Williams, George Jones, Louvin Brothers, Carter Family, Patsy Cline...I ate everything up.

After I felt I had a good grasp on the genre, I started writing a shitload of songs. Nothing too original, just how I thought a country song would have been written in the '50s. 

Then I made a five-track demo under the name Dastardly called "Hands on the Wall" that I recorded with Shane, who was in my last band called Lyon and the Notary. Once it was done, I posted it on craigslist to try to get an actual band together, and I started getting responses from some really tremendous musicians.

So yeah, initially my game plan was to play country songs. But then, once we got the whole band together, the excitement started flaring. We all listen to a lot of music, and we wanted to create our own unique sound. 

So we basically kept the country sound as a platform, and began a logical progression of tacking on some progressive shit, some more raucous attitudes, some tribal drum beats...it's all been a very natural change in the sound in the past year, but we're definitely proud of what we've become and feel that it's a sound unique to ourselves.

Q - How do you determine what instruments would fit best on a song? What kind of goals did you have for the debut album?

Luckily, we have a lot of versatile players, so we have a lot of options instrument-wise. John mostly plays banjo, but he also plays the harmonica and guitar. Pat is kind of our bombshell secret weapon, he's a master of guitar and mandolin, and also isn't too shabby at the pedal steel. 

Sarah mostly plays accordion, but she is also a phenomenal percussionist. So with so much at our disposal, there's definitely a lot of trial and error that goes into the arrangement of each song.

As far as our debut album, we really just wanted to show where we're at right now. It's definitely not a see-all end-all of how Dastardly is going to sound...we're definitely still in a rapid state of evolution. 

However, we feel it's a collection of our seven strongest songs, and that it demonstrates all of our strong points. It's something we feel is relevant to the current musical climate yet also has sentimental value. 

We just hope people love it. The songs all meant a lot to me when I wrote them. We also hope we get a multi-million dollar publishing deal.

Q - I am sure that you have heard the band described in many different ways. One reviewer described a song of yours as "grunge polka." How would you describe your music?

I used to get really pissed off whenever anybody would refer to us as bluegrass. Like, I remember after one of our shows, this really nice dude went up to me and was like, "Hey man, I really dug your sound. I'm definitely going to check out some more bluegrass!" And I just lashed out on him. "Really? Bluegrass? You think this is bluegrass? Do you even know what bluegrass is?" 

I was a total dick. I don't know why it got to me so much. We definitely use mandolin and banjo, two instruments that pretty much define the bluegrass sound. They're used in bluegrass more than country. 

I like grunge polka. But to simplify things, if you wanted to describe us to anyone, I think the two most predominant traits we have are roots, Americana music and modern indie rock. So, “Americana Indie.” That's the ticket.

Q - What do you think of the music that is played on mainstream radio today? Who inspired you to become a musician and what bands or artists (past or current) do you admire?

I think there is a lot of really exciting music that's coming out right now, and I'm glad I got out of my pretentious "music was only good before the '80s" phase. First of all, it's really cool to see bands like Grizzly Bear, Arcade Fire and Animal Collective topping the Billboard charts...they're making music that's original and exciting, and they're pushing some serious units. 

Even Lil Wayne, one of the top-selling artists of the decade, is a phenomenal artist and a tremendous lyricist. In fact, I'm not even joking, my songwriting tradition for the past year has been blasting a track from "Tha Carter III" and downing a Red Bull before hitting the paper and pen. 

I think it's definitely a great time for music. I mean sure, there's still Justin Bieber and all that garbage. But I mean, when Led Zeppelin was around, there was also the Bay City Rollers...that's just how it goes.

I actually started out as a drummer, when I was 13. And the world of bombastic rock drumming, especially Keith Moon and John Bonham, really opened up a lot of excitement for me in music. 

I definitely try to immerse myself in as much music as possible, but the artists who have really knocked me on my ass and influenced my approach to music: Nick Drake, Red House Painters, Jeff Buckley, Elliott Smith, Townes Van Zandt, Harry Nilsson and Roy Orbison. Those were the big guns for me. 

Buckley was an avid appreciator of all facets of music and seamlessly weaved all of his interests into his own unique sound, which has always been the big goal of mine. Harry Nilsson, I think of as the Jim Henson of music. He just had an unparalleled creativity, especially in his vocal harmonies, a kind of starry-eyed adventurous quality I've always tried to emulate. 

And besides being obsessed with trying to be able to sing like Orbison, his song writing is ungodly. He mastered the art of a three-minute opera, starting from a low point and gradually progressing it to a thrilling high point that really knocks you on your ass.

Q - Describe your previous bands. Were they similar to Dastardly? Is this a dream project for you?

My first band in Chicago was called Gabriel Lyon. I changed my unbearably Jewish last name [Liebowitz] to try to please the gentiles. The music wasn't very good. I was 19. It was mostly singer-songwriter stuff. Then I was in a post-punk power trio with Andy Taylor, who is currently the drummer of Dastardly. 

I think we did some cool stuff, but it was very obviously music that wasn't in my comfort zone, and we couldn't really get people out to more than a couple shows. Dastardly came about after I had a talk with my friend Tom, who gave me some cold hard reality. 

His main point was that my music was so inconsistent that it made people uncomfortable and disinterested. I definitely had the Buckley complex of liking a LOT of music, but instead of fusing everything together...I'd do like, a folk song, then a punk song, then a calypso song. It was just a mess.

I'm tremendously proud of Dastardly because there is a consistency. I'm really happy with the flow of the record especially. 

There are a lot of different influences in the music, but it all finally makes sense. I definitely wouldn't want to make any other kind of music right now. 

This is a dream project. I'm working with people who I've gelled with better than anything I've ever done collaboratively...not just music. I don't want it to stop.

Q - Do you think Chicago has a thriving music scene? What do you think separates the group from other bands on the scene?

I don't know if there's really a scene in Chicago per se. I don't think we're at a point where you can count on people coming to your show just because they want to see live music. You still have to hit the pavement, get your friends out, and your friend's friends out. 

The bands that draw well in Chicago, they don't do it because they're good. They do it because they bust their ass getting people out. There definitely are nice communities of like-minded artists, though. 

I'm a friend with a lot of bands who I admire out here, and it's a very supportive relationship. We book tours for each other, bring people to each other's shows, fix each other's cowboy shirts, it's very.

As far as what sets us apart from everyone else...I think that we are the only country-sounding act in Chicago fronted by a Jew from the east coast.

Q - Technology has changed the music business. Do you think it is easier to make and distribute music these days? What are the band's long-term goals?

I think Facebook is huge, as far as getting people out to shows. Just being in constant contact with people makes sure they always know what's going on with the band. 

I remember, we hanging out with this guy, J. Chris, who sang in the choir on our record, and Sarah asked him, "Have you seen our new video?" and he just replied, "I had no choice." The Internet, it makes it easier to cram yourself down people's throat. Perverts, go nuts on that one.

As far as our long term goals, like I said before...we're going to be concentrating on getting our name out on a more national level, especially in the Midwest. We hope to be growing our fan base in Chicago. We hope to sell a lot of CD's. We've got a thousand of 'em. 

Most importantly, we're looking forward to evolving our sound and continue making music that excites us and hopefully other people as well. This whole band has grown organically in the past year, sound-wise or career-wise...nothing has been forced, which was my big mistake for my last band. 

I just had a chart that literally listed each show in the upcoming year, and how many people we should bring to each one, and where we should be. It was just ludicrous. I remember
I asked my friend Jon from a great local band called Color Radio what they were up to. He said, "Play, record, tour. That's all you can do."

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