The Popdose Interview: Michael Gurley of Dada
While the ‘90s might have ushered in the popularity of MC Hammer and of course, his “Hammer pants,” it also brought about an explosion in popularity of the alternative rock radio format.
The mainstream rise of alternative rock, no longer relegated to only college radio airplay (but often, placed on lower wattage commercial FM signals), opened up a hole for some pretty interesting bands to get airplay.
Dada (properly referenced as “dada” from this point forward) are one such example who used the format to their advantage, to take their music to some intriguing places. Their Facebook page says it best, expressing that the Los Angeles-bred rock trio is “so much more than their one well-known radio hit, ‘Dizz Knee Land.’”
Beginning with their 1992 debut Puzzle, dada would catch the ear of fans with their distinctive blend of harmony vocals and guitars that mixed jangle, crunch and intricate acoustic passages with lyrics which were often thought-provoking and sarcastic while incorporating additional elements of both youthful awkwardness and romantic turmoil.
The success of “Dizz Knee Land” (and its choice reference to pissing off “President George,” which had relevance during not one, but two presidencies) might have pushed some bands towards a more formulaic output, but for dada, it was just the fuel that delivered more ears to hear subsequent albums, which would find them working in even more experimental directions.
It would be fair to say that dada’s collective output as a group deserved more exposure than it received. But that’s the great thing about nostalgia – an anniversary date brings about the opportunity to look back and rediscover past loves and for some, discover something new for the first time.
With Puzzle celebrating its 20th anniversary this year, dada will hit the road in 2013 for their most extensive tour in over five years. We had the chance to talk with dada guitarist/vocalist Michael Gurley to get his thoughts on the upcoming run of dates.
You guys have a lot of tour dates on deck, which is cool.
Yeah, I know, it’s good! We’re going out on the bus again too, which is really the way to travel, especially these days with the way the airline service is. There’s not really so much “service” anymore. I always feel like I’m in trouble when I go to the airlines these days, you know?
The band emerged in the midst of what you could call the explosion of ’90s alternative. Were there influences, as far as perhaps bands that were already successful and stuff like that, that helped to shape where you wanted to take dada as a group?
Well, I don’t know if we were so much listening to a lot of stuff that was on the radio at the time. I remember that Nirvana came out right before our record actually came out and I remember listening to Nirvana and it was just so much different than what we were doing. And the nation hadn’t really heard of Nirvana [at that time] and so I just went “holy shit, that is awesome – that is going to be huge” and [bassist/vocalist] Joie [Calio] goes “you think so?
Our sound to me kind of came from not following [what anybody else was doing]. Joie and I got together and we were writing all of the time and it was like “what the hell are we doing wrong?” A lot of our friends were getting signed and we had confidence that we were good. And we were just like “you know what, we have to stop following anything.” We have to do what we’re best at.
And at that time, it was just Joie and I on acoustic guitars – we had gotten rid of an old drummer and we were trying to go electric. And it was like “let’s just get together,” because we lived a couple of blocks away from each other in Hollywood. I learned about the propinquity effect at UCLA, where I was a psych major and it’s like, the closer you are to somebody, the more time you will spend with them.
I think the [Rolling] Stones used to live together in an apartment, you know? We lived really close, so we just started writing everyday. We made a commitment – let’s just make good music and let’s not try to pick a style. And what we found that we were really good at was harmony and our lyrics were I thought, fairly original. They didn’t sound like the standard lyrics of all of the pop and rock songs that had come before.
So we just started playing coffeehouses and we would just try to write the best songs that we could with two acoustic guitars. That old maxim that if it sounds good with one guy on an acoustic guitar, it’s probably a good song – that was kind of our motto. We stuck to that for a while and said “let’s write a bunch of good songs, not worrying about how cool we are or what kind of sound we have – let’s just write and sing.” And we did, all of the time and it was really cool because we gave each other confidence.
We also edited each other and hopefully edited out the lame shit. Lots of times we’d be writing and it’s like “is that any good” and Joie goes “that’s fucking amazing” and then I’d play something I really liked and he’d go “ummm, I think this might be a little light – it doesn’t fit.” So in that way, we helped each other out as writers and then we opened up for this really popular group called Mary’s Danish in L.A.
Our buddy was in that band and he said “why don’t you open up for us” and we were like “what? you guys are like a punk/funk band!” We opened up for them and we had like six songs that we played and people really liked it and I remember Joie as we were getting off stage, he said “we have to remember this – the response that we just got and that it can work.” So that’s where we started from.[As far as] the bands that I liked, I used to listen to KROQ out here and just any band that came on, like the Screaming Trees had this song that I loved and it was like “wow, that’s a cool song – I love the Screaming Trees now.” [But] Joie and I, I think our roots are really planted in the ‘70s, the most. There’s lots of bands in the ‘80s that I liked too, like R.E.M. and the Pretenders and there’s a lot of [other] great bands [from that decade].
But really, our harmony style kind of developed out of a Simon & Garfunkel acoustic thing where we tried not to do the normal third background vocal or three stacked on top of one – we tried to do like Simon & Garfunkel, they have a lot of really interesting harmonies and you can tell that they put thought into that. Joie and I said that “if we’re going to sing harmonies, we’ve got to try to do it a little bit differently.”
Eventually we started playing electrically again with the acoustic in the middle and then when we got Phil [Leavitt] in the band – thank God, we finally found a drummer after about eight tries – it just kind of all clicked. It was like we’ll use our writing that we did on acoustics with the harmonies and then we’ll beef it up with this trio sound, which naturally formed in the rehearsal room one day when the three of us played for the first time.
You and Joie had previously done the Louis and Clark project. What had you learned from that experience, by the time you got around to putting dada together?
That you’ve gotta be in charge. Louis [Gutierrez, formerly of Three O'Clock] was in charge of Louis and Clark and he’s really good, you know? Louis and Clark I think spent too much time on clothes and being cool and there’s plenty of bands who have made it on image and being cool, but we definitely weren’t one of them. So the first dada songwriting sessions with me and Joie were kind of the antithesis to Louis and Clark in a way because we actually said “let’s forget about the stores on Melrose and what everybody else is doing in L.A.” [Laughs] That’s it.
And I would advise that to young bands too; it’s like the last thing you want to do is try to sound like somebody else, because you’re never going to be them. It’s never going to be the original and people want the truth. At least in rock and roll. There’s plenty of pop stars, singers and solo artists that are packaged and promoted like canned corn and that’s different. That’s like the entertainment business, but to me, rock and roll in the music business is a real art form and I think it is, if it’s done really well. It comes from honesty and [the] truth of what you can really do well.
dada has always been known for its killer live show, something that I think is taken for granted these days, with the artists that are coming out now, who maybe have never played a show prior to getting signed. Did you have a sense at the time that having a good live show was something of great importance?
Yeah, kind of. It was more important just to kick ass. Every band has it – you want to blow away everybody else. You want to be friends with the other bands, but you also want to blow them away. It’s that whole pride thing that I think every band has, just like a baseball team – you want to win. So there’s that and then there’s just….you want to be great for yourself, too. It’s a prideful thing and it’s a wonderful thing when you feel like you’re coming up with your own sound and you just want to do more of it. The more you play, obviously the better you get. Now, there was that whole thing, you know, getting signed [from playing a gig].
This band got signed [because] they played a gig at the Club Lingerie or they played a gig at the Roxy and they got signed off of the show. I never really believed that that was going to happen for us, because I’d been in the music business in L.A. already for 10 years and played thousands of shows and it hadn’t really happened yet, so that was not in my mind at all, I have to tell you.
However, because we played live and because we were pretty good, Ken Scott, the producer, saw us. He was in the crowd one night, really liked us and saw a lot of potential. We talked to him after the show and we set up a production deal with him and recorded our first three demos with him, which started getting us noticed a little bit more around town.
Was he already tied in with somebody at that point, or did you have to pitch the demos to a lot of labels?
We had to pitch to a lot of labels and we didn’t have a manager. We didn’t want a manager. We were starting to get just nibbles. It comes together quickly when things are starting to happen. Before you’re ever signed to a major record company – and I had been signed to a couple of really small independents and that was fun and everything – but it seems like this impossible fence that you’ll never leap over. It seems like some planet that other people have visited that you just never will, because it seems so fucking impossible. What is this magical land of signed bands? How do you get there? It seems impossible!
It started happening [for us] because we started writing good songs and we got Ken Scott and made some good things and we started playing good live shows. And then one person is interested and then here come all of the other people, which is really great. I just remember that feeling, it’s like wow, this could be for real.
We had a bunch of offers and some of them were like “look, we have a guy who’s out of town, but he’s coming back in a month and he’s really interested” and blah blah blah. Another company, it was like “well, if we can get this A&R guy to really like it, then we know we can sign you.” And then we had IRS and it was just “sign the paper tomorrow, if you want to – we’re in.” So we went with them. Joie and I were not taking any chances.
We had a publishing company that was interested in us for a lot more money than we signed our record contract for and it was really tempting, [because] they said they could get us a deal, but it wasn’t the sure thing. So we went for the sure thing and I don’t regret it.
Was there an allure to IRS, because of the fact that Miles Copeland was part of the label?
Oh definitely. And R.E.M. was signed to there and the Go-Go’s and the Bangles, Timbuk 3, Concrete Blonde and I thought it was a cool label, for sure.
They definitely had one of the coolest logos, for sure.
Definitely. The whole Police connection with Miles Copeland, definitely it weighed in on it. But I’ll tell you, to be honest with you, we just went for it. We just jumped at it and we said fuck yeah, we’re signing. Let’s go.
It’s interesting to hear about your experiences, because hearing what you were doing, right from the get go with the Puzzle album, it seems like the music of dada might be something hard for the average record label to grasp and figure out what they were going to do with it. Where are we going to put this? Where does this fit in?
Exactly. Grunge was coming on slowly – R.E.M. was still getting a lot of play, U2 was still getting a lot of play and the Soundgardens and the Nirvanas and the Pearl Jams, they were big, no doubt about it, but there was still a split on alternative between [those bands and bands like] Toad the Wet Sprocket was getting played [for example], so there were still bands that were getting signed and getting played that weren’t grunge.
Sure, and there was a definite hole for someone like your band to get a song on the radio, or Matthew Sweet to get a song like “Girlfriend” on the radio. I think there was an interesting zone where artists like you guys could slip through and be heard.
I know, it was a great time. I remember that Matthew Sweet record, I listened to that so much. After we recorded our record, that record came out, like between when we were done recording it and when our record came out. I remember listening to that record a lot going “oh shit, this is really good – I hope our record stands up,” you know? It’s a well-recorded record. I like that record.
Well, I think your band has never been afraid to go against the grain on a number of levels. And one of the things that’s interesting to me personally is the way some of your songs tend to play out with the guitar solo. So many times, the solo in the average song is wedged mid-song. Is that something that was born out of jamming in the studio or where did that come from?
I would say that it’s born out of jamming in the studio and again, maybe some of our ‘70s influences like Led Zeppelin. You wouldn’t think that Led Zeppelin inspired a little bit of the “Dizz Knee Land” song, but it did. That part in the riff right after the chorus, I guess – the chorus and the verse are kind of the same thing in that song. There’s that whole [imitates riff] part that reminded me of Jimmy Page. It might not have reminded anybody else of Jimmy Page, but I listened to a lot of Jimmy Page and maybe somebody will hear that after I say it now.
But as far as an ending solo, you listen to “Stairway to Heaven” and there’s an ending solo on that. A lot of the iconic solos are at the end of songs, like “Freebird” and “Stairway to Heaven.” The whole band, Phil included, is into the ‘60s and ‘70s and I tried to make sure that I didn’t overdo it with solos on the record, but it’s strange, the first song on the record has like three solos, you know, “Dorina,” it’s six minutes long. It’s like whatever, it’s a good song!
I’ve gotta say that Joie was really instrumental in making sure that I played enough guitar, because I was scared of putting too much guitar on and too many solos, because this is coming fresh out of the ‘80s. People hated solos and it was a strange era for guitar players, the ‘80s. But Joie said “dude, play some guitar – just play it, you’re good! Dude, just go for it!” He was just championing me on in every song, it was great. I needed that. You need somebody to do that, just like you need a good producer who understands when to go for it vocally, too, without overdoing it. It’s a fine line.
Looking back at Puzzle, how hard was it to get the record down?
You know, it was pretty easy. Once we got in there, we kind of knew what we wanted to do and we were just so excited and so ready to go. We’d been playing these tunes live for so long. We had come in a couple of weeks before we started, which was very key. We went over the arrangements and I actually had a list of overdubs that I wanted to do and we were ready. We had the lyrics down and we were so prepared, so organized.
We had to scale down from about 42 songs and we scaled it down to about 15 and then actually ended up recording another four at the end of that record. We were ready to go. We had already done three demos with Ken Scott, of three of the same songs that we were going to be re-recording, so we had a good idea of what we were in for with Ken and it was really nice. The vibes were great.
Having a picklist of 42 songs going into that first record, obviously you didn’t record that many, but as you said, you recorded close to 20. As a rule, did you often record more material for each record than what might have made it out?
Yeah and we’ve re-released and put that stuff out. You can go back and find those [re-releases] and they’re hard to find. But we re-released Puzzle with an extra four tunes, I think…
I’ve actually got those. I was wondering if that was representative of what had been recorded, or if there was other stuff hanging out in the vaults.
I think we released a lot of the stuff. Two days before we recorded with Ken Scott for the first time for the demos, we made a demo called 16 in 2, with sixteen songs in two days. We recorded them with my friend Eddie Ashworth and we released those songs last year [to the fans] and it’s pretty much all-acoustic, because like I said, we did it so quick. There’s a lot of stuff that we recorded full-born, mixed and everything, but we’ve released it all, I’m pretty sure.
When it came time to do the second album, American Highway Flower, you’d had some success with “Dizz Knee Land.” What changed because of that and how do you think the band had changed and progressed as a unit?
Well, we’d been on tour for 15 months and we wanted to make something a little bit harder, I guess. A little more [closely tied] to our sound that we’d been using live. I like the record a lot – I love it, but I think in hindsight, we all wish we had used Ken Scott again. The record company didn’t want to hire Ken – it was like “we gotta get someone from Seattle” and we could have used some help [to debate that issue]. He’s been around and he’s been making records for the last 30 years.
We needed somebody to come in and go “guys, the Beatles had George Martin and they stuck with him for quite a while, why don’t you stick with Ken for at least one more? You just had a gold record.” But who knows, if the record would have turned out better. I guess you never know. But it just didn’t flow quite as easily as the first record, which to me, having a good time making a record – you’ve got to have a good time. It’s important and it’s work, but you better be having fun and it just wasn’t as much fun with our second producer [Jason Corsaro]. He just wasn’t as interesting of a guy and I don’t think he was as good of a producer as Ken Scott. So we ended up doing a lot of it ourselves.
That’s interesting to hear. I think that you guys made interesting statements with each record and I certainly remember picking up that album and it was a big evolution from Puzzle. Picking up the third album, El Subliminoso – that was a big evolution from American Highway Flower and so on. Looking at the first four albums, you always seemed to push ahead creatively with each release and I also saw that you worked with different producers on each release, so I wondered how much that figured into the evolution of the band and how much of it was just musical nature taking its course.
I think a lot of it was musical nature taking its course. But I also think that [for] the third album, [which] we did ourselves, with a great engineer, Scott Gordon, we had unlimited time at IRS Studios, because it was free. So it was like, “get in there and do your thing – you sound great.” So we had a lot of time and a lot of fun making that record. We used to smoke a cigar after we finished a song.
We did so many experimental things, you know, playing a guitar through a tube and recording a giant truck outside while I was singing vocals. We did everything. There was a lot of smoke in the room, you might say, blowing back and forth and just a lot of experimentation, because we had the time and it didn’t cost anything. So that’s one of the reasons that record sounds like it does. I think we also had a much better mixer on that record – we had this guy Tom Lord-Alge, who is just a great mixer, who actually added a lot to the record in his mixing, which was really cool.
When you mention the mix, that’s one thing that really stuck out to me listening to the self-titled fourth album recently, is what a great mix it has.
You can say what you want about dada, but we have not written the same song over and over again and we have not done the same record over and over again. And maybe that’s why we haven’t been as commercially successful as some of these other bands, but you’ve got to do what’s true.
dada is one of those bands that seemed to take full advantage of the storage ability of the CD format, issuing albums that had 12-13 cuts each. Was that enough space to fulfill the collective songwriting and creative mojo that was happening between you, Joie and Phil?
Yeah, I think it was. I think the first record, we wanted to add one more song. It was this instrumental called “Opera” and we just loved it and I remember that we just really, really wanted to put it on, because it just rocked and it was like this strange instrumental. And Miles Copeland said “you know, man, I’m telling you, 12 songs – it’s the perfect length for a record – don’t make it too long” and looking back in hindsight, he’s right. I don’t think that record would have been [any better, with that song added], I think it would have been a little….like almost the funny thing at the end, instead of ending the record on a slightly more serious note and more emotional note. He was right.
I kind of learned from that, looking back after the first record got popular and I said “Miles was right about that.” I think that if you give people 70 minutes of music, it’s just too much for them.
Looking at dada as a unit, you opted for the power trio thing when the band came together. I know you had a second guitar player for some of the touring that you did in the ‘90s and stuff like that. But was the trio format an important thing for you from the get-go as opposed to having a more traditional four piece?
Absolutely. And the only reason that we had a second guitar player was because of my tendinitis We never wanted to have an extra guitar player and didn’t need it, ever. We actually sounded much better as a trio than we did as a four piece. We never wanted to do that, me especially. The right people was me, Joie and Phil and we could just tell, right away. I like that I can do whatever chord I want and play whatever riff I want and not have to worry about what the other guitar player and keyboard player is doing and it’s very freeing as a guitar player. You know, all of my favorite bands from the ‘70s were like that. R.E.M.’s kind of that way too and so is U2 – they’re not trios – they have lead singers, but they only have guitar, bass and drums and I love that sound, I really do.
The band has been working on new music and a new album. I heard that had been placed on hold. What’s the current status on that?
I would say ask me again when the tour is over! [Laughs] We went in the studio a while ago and we just didn’t have the time. The scheduling wasn’t good and then Joie and Phil went off and did 7Horse and I was producing a couple of records here in L.A. so windows open and windows close, so we just have to open up another window and I’m sure we’ll get energized by this tour. I know we want to make new music together, so I’m sure we will.
Can you talk about some of the new material you’ll be playing on this tour?
We’ve been playing a couple of new songs for a little while now. “Moment in the Sun” is one of the songs and it’s another one that just came out of a jam, which is really fun. It talks about playing your dad’s guitar and smoking bowls and how life, especially in L.A., can just be so incredibly fast and you lose the moment all of the time and you’re on to the next thing.
What about the setlist, what sort of nuggets are you looking forward to pulling out?
We haven’t talked about setlists and I don’t really want to give it away, but we’re going to go into some deep tracks, let’s just put it that way.
dada will be on the road between January and March celebrating the 20th anniversary of Puzzle. Tickets for many of the shows are on sale right now. Check out the band’s tour page for more information and show details, including special VIP packages. Keep up with the band via their official website and Facebook page.