Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Q&A with The Duke Spirit

Pictured: singer Leila Moss, onstage in England, 2007; Check out some of my interview with Duke Spirit drummer Olly Betts. View the feature article at The band plays on Saturday as part of the Download Festival at Gibson Amphitheatre in Universal City.

Q: Where have I reached you today?
A: I’m nowhere particularly interesting. I’m in Milton Keynes, which is probably the most American part of Britain. It’s a new town and it’s based on a grid system. It’s not as good as the rest of England.

Q: The band just played the Granddaddy of all English festivals, Glastonbury. How did that go?
A: It was absolutely amazing, actually. We played four shows over the weekend. Our first gig was torrential rain and it didn’t stick around, which was great. As the weekend went on, it got better and better. I’ve only been to Glastonbury twice, but it was definitely the better one.

Q: In a few days, you play the O2 Wireless Festival. Do you enjoy playing the big outdoor gigs?
A: Yeah, it’s ace. We’ve got a great time ahead. We’re also going to Denmark to play the Roskilde Festival. I love it, really. It’s a great chance to see other bands and meet up with old friends in bands that you see around. It’s great to have a chance to play for people who otherwise might not have a chance to come to your shows. They’re there to see different genres of music and you catch them and win them over. As a band, that’s the key element to playing a festival – to get new people into your band. We embrace festivals. We’re very much a gigging band and always have been. A festival is the jewel in the crown of touring.

Q: For someone who’s never caught a Duke Spirit show, how would you describe it?
A: I like our gigs to be a special experience for the audience as much as us. There shouldn’t be any stage/audience divide as far as we’re concerned. We want people to embrace what we’re doing as much as us. That’s a great gig – when people forget they’re at a rock concert and just enjoying the gig.

Q: Do you hope this American tour, which opens in Solana Beach, will turn out better than the one in 2006, which was fraught with problems?
A: We realized that, although there are souls out there who will steal your equipment, there are 20 times more people who will go completely out of their way to help you carry on as a band and play shows. We’ve had some great [American] tours since then. We went on the road with Black Rebel Motorcycle Club...they were a great band to be on the road with and the audiences were really receptive to us.

Q: The latest CD “Neptune” has been out here for a couple months now. What is the consensus among fans?
A: The majority of people have completely warmed to it. I think it’s a natural progression for us as a band. Many people listened to it and felt surprised by the outcome of the album, but I think people realize songs at the end of “Cuts Across the Land” [hinted toward this one]. I don’t think it’s a massive jump, sonically. I think it’s a natural progression…we feel like we’ve hit the ground running and we don’t want to stop.

Q: Was working with producer Chris Goss a direct result of doing the UNKLE track “Mayday?”
A: It was. Basically, we’d never met him until our collaboration with UNKLE. But we’d heard of him and we were a fan of his work. When the UNKLE collaboration came about we were really pleased. So we went to Rancho de la Luna [Studio] in Joshua Tree and worked with Chris and UNKLE, just for the day...You’re trying to create a piece of art and be musical...often Chris would say, ‘just fill in the gaps.’ He’d make subtle suggestions about harmony and tempo. It would all make sense. He’d never rip everything apart and have us wondering what was going on. He’s a great musician. A great producer often has amazing life experiences. They put it all together and pass it on. That’s exactly what Chris did for us. The changes and suggestions he made were the subtleties we really yearned for.

Q: Did he encourage you to use some of the less common instruments around the place, like the autoharp and omnichord?A: The autoharp we’d used previously. There’s so many weird and wonderful instruments there and sometimes he’d be tinkering on some old Hammond B3 organ. You’d think, ‘what the hell is he doing in there?’ All the sudden, you’d be like, ‘yes that’s great! Press record!’ He’s quite eccentric and that is just brilliant. It was quite different to us, growing up in rural England, you go to the desert. He’s the polar opposite to us. That was so refreshing.

Q: I read that the band actually stayed at the Joshua Tree Inn, where Gram Parsons died, right?
A: We did – our very first night in Joshua Tree. We stayed in rooms on both sides of the room where he passed away...We were there to get [oriented to the desert] and watch the first day of Coachella, then had a BBQ a few miles up the road. It was great introduction into life in Joshua Tree. Now it’s like our home away from home because we spent so long there.

Q: On the cover of “Neptune,” you’re holding up a vinyl copy of Bob Dylan’s “The Basement Tapes.” Why’d you choose that?
A: It’s funny. We didn’t set that photo shoot up to be the cover of the album. We like the end result. Initially, we came together to Toby’s flat and brought 5 or 6 items that we really liked. I ran in my living room and picked up 5 that were dear to me. Everyone did the same. “The Basement Tapes” is an album I’m really fond of...Everything in that picture isn’t as significant as we should have made it. We liked the outcome of the photograph and the items we all hold are dear to our hearts. We wanted it to be slightly tongue-in-cheek. It’s a contrast with the artwork, stands out and creates an interest because people ask, ‘why are you holding that?’

Q: Toby said you consider yourselves to be a soul band. Can you elaborate?
A: I wouldn’t want to pigeonhole it with a type of soul. It’s more the ethos behind the sound. The way we sound when we play and us as people. One thing that really captivates us is old soul records. Even bands like Parliament Funkadelic and Sly & the Family Stone – it’s a celebration. You can’t avoid being drawn into the sound. Just the way everyone looks when they play. When you watch and listen to the music it’s uplifting. We want to emulate that in our music. It’s something that influences us and we want to express that when we play. That’s where us being a soul band comes from – it’s more the feel of things. We definitely tried to make more of a groove-based album this time…knocking things around and realize there’s more space to be had. With “Neptune,” we tried to express that space which you have in soul music.

Glen Helen Pavilion name change

I sure do hate the proliferation for corporate names on sporting and entertainment venues over the past decade or so. The companies don't consider how stupid they often sound or that they are tongue twisters, let alone whether the general public keeps up with the changes.

We have the new Citizens Business Bank Arena opening up in Ontario, CA this fall.

Now the Blockbuster Pavilion/Hyundai Pavilion/Glen Helen Pavilion in Devore, CA is now known as San Manuel Pavilion. Even worse is San Manuel, an Indian casino in nearby Highland, will also have the San Manuel VIP lounge at CBB Arena. How's that for confusion?

I can't tell you how many people still wonder where Honda Center (formerly Arrowhead Pond) in Anaheim and Gibson Amphitheatre (Universal Amphitheatre since the '70s) in L.A. are at.

The biggest laugh for a corporate named venue came several years ago when the Jenny Craig Pavilion listed shows in San Diego. I don't even remember what it was.

Anybody else feel the same way?

Thursday, July 3, 2008

Bonus Q&A with Gillmor

Here is more from my separate interviews with two members of the California band Gillmor. They perform at the Glass House in Pomona on July 5. Debut EP "Counting the Days" is available through

TYLER THOMPSON (keyboards/piano), a San Bernardino resident, was born and raised in the city.

Q: Can you tell me how you first got involved with the band?
A: About a year and a half ago, I was doing some session work with a local artist here [in the IE]. They were looking for a keyboard player and I was looking for something fun at the time. I joined up with the band Ava Elliott. They were involved with Loren Israel who was doing artist development for Capitol. When they broke up, I got a call from Loren about a guy named Ryan Gillmor. At the time, I’d never heard of him. [Loren] sent me a couple tracks and I was blown away. So we did a couple practice sessions and a few weeks after that, he asked me to join. I was doing a piano/acoustic thing on the album and things went from there.

Q: When the five of you performed together for the first time, was there an instant chemistry?
A: The moment we jumped onstage it was magic. It felt like we’d been playing for years together like old friends.

Q: How do you think the IE music scene has evolved over the years? Has it gotten better or worse?A: The Inland Empire has always had a reputation for going against the grain of the music industry. I’ve noticed a lot of punk bands coming out trying to bring it back to “Inland Empire grass roots.” Although it’s a small scene, it’s still punching hard. I really hope those guys get a lot of exposure and we can really bring it out. As far as us, we’re far more involved with the L.A. scene where a lot of other things are going on. As far as the Inland Empire, it’s kind of a diamond in the rough waiting to explode.

Q: There’s really a lack of places to play.
A: Definitely. It’s part of one of the biggest counties in America and I can think of one club that’s even remotely decent and that’s the Glass House. And a lot of people don’t want to drive an hour to get there. I genuinely think if there was one decent club here, it would take off.

Q: The Showcase Theatre closing was a death knell for certain genres.
A: As far as that [hardcore] music goes, they were doing it strong for awhile. I think we can build that stuff back up. I remember always hearing my dad and uncle talk about the [Swing Auditorium, now the] Orange Show, where Zeppelin and The Doors used to play. If we could bring back a spot like that, that’s what we should be known for.

Q: I noticed the band only does a few shows a month. Is that because of the logistics where everyone is located?
A: Yeah. We do as many as we can afford to do as starving musicians…Ryan lives in Northern California, which is a 7-hour drive…if we all lived down in Southern California, we’d be playing almost every day. We get tons of offers for shows. Our biggest draw is Northern California because of Ryan’s solo stuff. It’s really tough trying to get up and down there.

Q: Any talk of moving closer together?
A: Yeah, there’s been talk since last year of Ryan maybe moving down here and getting a house and centralize everything. But Justin already has a house with his girlfriend. I don’t know. If it does happen in the future, it would be rad.

Q: Was Gillmor always meant to be a band?
A: The only reason I joined Gillmor was because Ryan said specifically he wanted to be a band. We were barely writing the album [at the time]. We chose Gillmor [as a name], because the crowd draw already knows Ryan so we went that route. The CD is specifically band oriented. We had a bunch of guest musicians. The drummer from Reel Big Fish came in. And me before Jimmy and Jake all came in. We cut ties with Loren Israel a few months ago. There were some contract issues. He wanted us to extend the contract for development. We felt we were better off doing things ourselves [next time]. We talk all the time. We really wanted to do things on our own as far as the direction we need to go. We got the “American Idol” and Fox [TV show] on our own.

Q: The songs often have a power pop vibe. Who were you listening to while writing and who are some of your influences?
A: My influences have little to do with the band. I was into Buena Vista Social Club…we all add a little spice to it…it’s completely diverse.

Q: Have you had any major label interest after the Fox-TV exposure?
A: I can’t count how many showcases we’ve done. The only drawback to it is it’s a really scary time right now. A lot of labels are scared to put too much money out. The music industry in general is afraid; it all comes down to singles and iTunes. If you don’t have the singles, it’s not about the album anymore. It’s really tough.

Q: Were you inundated after that “Idol” episode aired?
A: The day “Idol” came on, within half an hour, we had 40 messages from people giving us their contact info and ‘let’s see what we can do.’ We’re still talking to them today.

Q: A few months back, the band appeared on the KLOS/Mark & Brian radio show. How did that go?
A: Wonderful. We did about an hour set, played 3-4 songs. Tons of people were calling in. Mark & Brian are the coolest guys.

Q: Any plans for new music coming out this year?
A: We have tons written already. If you thought the first album was great, you haven’t seen anything yet. Our songwriting is maturing a lot more. We’re talking about a lot of deeper subjects.

RYAN GILLMOR (singer/songwriter/guitar), lives about an hour outside Sacramento

Q: Why doesn’t the band do more shows in the area?
A: Actually, the hardest thing about doing more Southern California gigs is the club owners. They’ll say, ‘if you’re playing here, you can’t play another show for six weeks.’ Makes it hard to do a lot of shows. I can understand where they’re coming from because they want you to draw to their club. At the same time, people going to the Glass House aren’t necessarily going to go to the Key Club.

Q: How would you describe the typical Gillmor show to someone who’s never seen you?
A: Lots of singalongs and crowd interaction. There’s a lot of energy from us and we don’t like silence onstage. We like to keep the party going all the time. Even in between songs there’s jam sessions going on. Once we start, we don’t want to stop until the very end.

Q: You played a some solo acoustic dates on Warped ’07. Tell me about it.
A: Last summer, I was also volunteering with Music Saves Lives. I’d register people as bone marrow donors. That was something I could do while I was out there anyway - a way for me to get inside the Warped Tour every day. It was a great experience.

Q: Were you in other bands before Gillmor?
A: I was in another band for about 7 years in the Sacramento area. I did some touring with Frank Hannon from Tesla. I played guitar for about 6-8 months with that. I had known him for a long time. It was an opportunity for me to get out and play with someone who sold millions of records, get on a tour bus and do fly out dates. Getting the rock ‘n’ roll treatment. While doing that, I was writing and recording my own stuff. I did the acoustic thing for a couple years before hooking up with these guys. Now we’ve been together a year now.

Q: On meeting Tyler…
A: On some of the songs I was writing, I played piano on them and Loren said, ‘I know this great piano player who might be interested.’ Tyler had just left the band all the other guys were in. We hit it off right away. He loved the music and I thought he was one of baddest ass piano players I’d seen. I felt super lucky I met him. He brings so much to it.

Q: Was there an instant rapport?
A: Yeah, we got together before I left for Warped Tour. I had a CD release dinner with all the musicians involved, the producer, guys I co-wrote with. We had a big party in the Valley. That was the first night I met Justin and Jimmy. We hung out and hit it off. I left for the Warped Tour all summer and we had our first rehearsal at the end of August ’07. We played through the songs and it worked. Pretty instantaneous.

Q: Tom Higgenson of Plain White T’s guests on backing vocals on both this EP and your solo one. What was it like working with him?
A: He was really open to suggestions and said, ‘this is your song. Let me know what you want me to do.’ And threw in some suggestions. Obviously the first time he came in and sang was before they really blew up. It was nice enough for him to come and do it the first time.

Q: Tell me about collaborating with Tim Pagnotta of Sugarcult.
A: He’s become one of my best friends. We talk every other day…I hooked up with him first about a 1 ½ years ago and we started writing some songs. We wrote “Hey” and thought, ‘this song could be a hit.’ We have a slew of songs we’re getting ready to demo together.

Q: What inspires your songwriting?
A: The thing that really inspires me is other music. There are so many different types of songs I want to write. Songs by Queen, The Beach Boys, and all these bands I grew up idolizing. Aerosmith and No Doubt. When I hear a great song, it inspired me to write my version of that song.

Q: Any other genres/acts you’ve admired over the years?
A: Power pop. I like Boston, Kansas. I grew up listening to old ‘60s music like Motown, the Byrds, Mamas & Papas. And I grew up listening to ‘80s rock like Tesla, Motley Crue, Bon Jovi. Music from the late ‘90s, No Doubt is probably the reason I’m doing music. When I first got ‘Tragic Kingdom’ and went and saw their tour, it changed my life.

Q: Tyler mentioned your lyrics have an innocence to them, which might stem from your fascination with Disneyland.
A: My car has a Disneyland license plate on the back and ‘I Love Lucy’ on the front. When I’m down there, I have a season pass. I’m at Disneyland a couple times a week when I’m down there just hanging out. I was born in Anaheim and grew up there until I was 10. My parents are big Disney collectors. I’m not one of these dudes who tries to be a tough guy…It comes across in some of my songs. People will hear them and say, ‘you might want to toughen up the lyrics.’ I don’t really care. When you listen to the oldies or even some ‘80s stuff, the lyrics are so innocent. People wanted to listen to music to have a good time and not searching for life answers. The music I write is influenced by that.

Q: How did the process with “In This Moment” on ‘Idol’ transpire?
A: I was actually at Disneyland when they called to say I made the top 20. The Mark Twain boat went by and blew its horn while I was on the phone and the guy said, ‘are you at a train station?’ I said where I was and he said, ‘Ryan Gillmor you’ve made the top 20, what are you going to do?’ Two days later, they started online voting for two weeks. Three weeks after that ended, I found out I made the top 10. They called me that day and said David Archuleta chose the song to sing on the [two-part] finale…there’s no better exposure for a songwriter than ‘American Idol’ at this point. It’s the biggest platform to have your songs showcased on.

Q: Industry people are taking notice.
A: When ‘Hey’ was the theme song, it sparked a lot of interest. But a lot of artists get lucky once and they never have another break. For ‘Hey’ to come along and a few months later, ‘Idol,’ shows [labels] it’s not just luck. There’s something here to pay attention.

Q: Does Gillmor have an overall philosophy?
A: Going back to oldies and ‘80s music and having fun – there’s a lot of things I write in my lyrics that are very meaningful, but at the end of the day, don’t think too much. Just listen, enjoy, let it move you and have a good time with it. You can dig so deep into things. You do that every day of your life, just listen and enjoy. Don’t make so much of it.