A CLASSIC CASE : ‘60s Rock May Not Be Very ‘90s, but Dada Continues to Be a Delight in Diversity
Dada is one of the most accomplished new rock bands of the 1990s, but in today’s climate, its ability may be a liability.
After two albums, the Los Angeles trio’s mastery of the classic rock virtues is evident. Bassist Joie Calio, drummer Phil Leavitt and guitarist Michael Gurley are splendid players and artful arrangers whose songs are assembled from a full palette of varied, alluring hues. Calio and Gurley also give the band two strong, rangy and distinctive lead voices harnessed in a tandem approach that emphasizes teamwork and harmony in the grand tradition of the Beatles.
But the classicism of the Beatles or mid-period Rolling Stones--two key Dada influences--has fallen out of favor in the ‘90s rock market. A few new bands steeped in ‘60s classicism--notably Counting Crows and the Gin Blossoms--have emerged with hit albums. But most of the media attention and chart action nowadays belongs to bands that have swept to success with raw slabs of distorted sound and vocals in which the overriding vehemence of expression leaves little room for a pop classicist’s finesse.
With its 1992 debut album, “Puzzle,” Dada (named for the post-WWI absurdist art movement) made headway against the opposing current. The single “Dizz Knee Land” got lots of airplay, the band impressed with a harder-than-the-record stage sound in extensive touring that included arena gigs with Sting, and the album wound up selling about 300,000 copies, according to Dada’s label, I.R.S. Records. Not instant stardom, but a more than solid start.
Two years later, the musical climate has grown even tougher for ‘60s-influenced pop-rockers. Punk went mega-pop on the charts in 1994; Dada deflated.
In separate phone interviews last week, Calio, Leavitt and Gurley, who will all be in their early 30s when the drummer’s birthday arrives next month, were realistic about their underdog status. But none of the Dada members sounded glum. All said with a shrug that commercial trends are beyond their control and that making good records is the main thing. By those lights, Dada hasn’t had such a bad year, after all: With “American Highway Flower,” out since last fall, it delivered an album even better than the more successful “Puzzle.”
“This time everyone was expecting gold (sales of more than 500,000) by Christmas,” Leavitt said, recalling the group’s high expectations after its promising debut.
Reality, Calio acknowledged, has fallen considerably short of expectation. “It’s at 50,000 on Soundscan right now. We sell about 2,000 every week.”
He said plans call for promoting at least one more song to radio after the failure of the shoulda-been-a-hit leadoff track, “All I Am.” Dada, which plays at the Coach House on Saturday, will stay on the road through February, hoping the album can still get hot and live up to the commercial hopes I.R.S. had for it.
“But if radio doesn’t latch on to it, OK,” Calio said. “It’ll be an interim record (between marketplace successes). I’m very proud of it. My goal is to look back and say, ‘I didn’t sell out. We made a great record.’ ”
“We don’t want to sound bitter because we’re not on KROQ,” said Gurley, a somewhat more relaxed conversationalist than the emphatic Leavitt and the eager and effusive Calio. “I feel very lucky to be in a band traveling and making records.”
But while he enjoys Pearl Jam, Green Day, Stone Temple Pilots and other bands that have risen on the current wave of brawn and disaffection, Gurley is peeved by what he sees as an overvaluing of anger and alienation as rock themes:
“I get weary of all these reviews (that say), ‘Oh, he’s representing the tortured youth.’ Is that (so) important all the time? It’s almost like if you don’t do that, critics aren’t going to take you seriously. There are so many other things to write songs about.
“I’m not saying bands shouldn’t write about that, but it seems to be the focal point of so (many) reviews. OK. We get it,” he said in an exasperated tone, and then added: “I hope I don’t sound bitter.”
Rather than ramrod one core emotion, Dada delights in diversity. There are lots of brooding, alienated songs on “American Highway Flower” that would fit the current trend, but Dada’s highly musical arrangements make the effect less blunt and obvious than most commercially lucrative expressions of Angst. Gurley’s lyric to “Feel Me Don’t You” portrays a character caught in a frustrating mess of manic depression, and some of Calio’s verses in “S.F. Bar ’63" match Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails in their over-the-top expression of downward-spiraling self-revulsion:
I’m a shadow crawling into the black
I’m a bug, sticky feet
I leave a trail.
I am nothing, for no one, I’m useless.
The sun burns itself out.
Pop classicism usually demands a sense of proportion and balance, and Dada achieves it with songs like the breezy, part-ironic, part-appreciative “Gogo,” a snapshot of a charming rock ‘n’ roll lass. (Calio said that although he once had a crush on lead Go-Go’s singer Belinda Carlisle, the song was inspired by an article his wife showed him on early 1900s’ Los Angeles debutantes, one of whom went by the name Gogo.)
The album’s diversity extends to romantic upsets expressed bitingly (“All I Am”) or plaintively (“I”), to mysterious, unsettling character sketches (“Ask the Dust”) and to songs such as “Scum,” Gurley’s melancholy, defeated-sounding rejoinder to the nastiness of contemporary political discourse embodied by Rush Limbaugh.
“It was inspired by many conversations I’ve had with my girlfriend’s mom,” he said. “She’s a big Dittohead. (Limbaugh) has some ideas, but he’s just kind of a finger-pointer. I’m opposed, basically, to everything he says. I tried to put myself in the voice of this guy with a beer belly sitting and watching Rush Limbaugh after work, laughing at him to make himself feel better. It was satirical, but in the last verse I include myself” as one of those too mesmerized by howling TV rhetoric about society’s problems to do anything constructive about those problems.
“Certainly I and most people are not above apathy. We’re all kind of guilty in a way.”
Given their love of the pop past, classicists such as Dada almost invariably quote from it in their music. One can listen to the band’s albums and play name-that-source: Beatlesque production touches abound. The rhythmic drive in the verses of “All I Am” harks back to “Mystery Achievement” by the Pretenders, while Gurley’s guitar solo pays homage to Neil Young. “Real Soon” ends with some yowled “yeah, yeah, yeahs” that are pure Jaggerwocky, followed immediately by a cooking groove and solo that sound a lot like “One of the Boys” by Mott the Hoople. The syncopated rhythms that course through “Green Henry” have a direct precursor in “Sympathy for the Devil.”
“Bands like the Beatles and the Stones weren’t afraid of (borrowing from their influences) either,” Gurley said. “It’s like an homage. It’s all logged in there somewhere, and sometimes you take it out and use it. But you have to do it in an original way. You have to put some kind of original touch on it, or you’re just ripping somebody off.”
At this point, Gurley is the best sort of under-35 acolyte that the ‘60s rock guitar tradition could have. He has an astonishing command of tones and styles, and listening to him construct the ever-shifting guitar patterns of a Dada song brings to mind what Satchel Paige must have been like on the mound: With such a wide assortment of pitches to choose from, anything might come sailing toward the plate, and usually it winds up right in there for a strike.
“Maybe it’s because I get bored easily,” Gurley said of the diverse approach that makes every other rock guitarist of his generation, except perhaps Curt Kirkwood of the Meat Puppets, sound pedestrian. However, in using so many reference points from the past, Dada’s guitar player could be undermining his chances of establishing his own place in the string-benders’ pantheon.
“I’ve thought about that a couple of times, but it’s nothing to worry about,” Gurley said. “I’m not going to change. If you listen to my favorite guitar players, it’s what they play (that counts), not the sound. Jeff Beck uses hundreds of different sounds, but you can always tell who it is. I think that comes over a period of time.
“After you’ve released five or six records, you have a more identifiable sound as a guitar player. I have definitely not reached that point. If I do, it would be great. But this band is about songs too, and sometimes you can play too much. You’ve got to kind of watch it, because the solo is just a part of the song.”
The prelude to Dada’s story goes back to Gurley and Calio’s high school days in the Bay Area town of Saratoga. Calio, who had been playing bass in bands since he was 13, was impressed when Gurley, a grade behind him, entered Saratoga High School and quickly established himself as “the hot guitar player.” Calio tried to draft him into his band, Egypt, but Gurley stuck with Bogart, its rival on the school’s keg-party circuit. After graduation, the two briefly hooked up in a band called A French Invention, but they split and made their separate ways to Los Angeles.
Calio jumped into the usual aspiring Hollywood rocker’s routine of day jobs--including one at Geffen Records--for subsistence while seeking a musical break. Gurley enrolled at UCLA, where he earned a degree in psychology, with a minor in music. Playing in rock bands was his extracurricular activity.
By 1986, he had become the singer in Louis and Clark, and he invited Calio to audition as the band’s bassist. Louis and Clark broke up after one EP on the now-defunct Chameleon label, but Calio and Gurley stuck together. In what Calio sees as the pivotal move of their musical careers, they decided to concentrate on songwriting rather than quickly starting another band.
“That’s what changed both our lives,” Calio said. “The bands we had been in before were very image-conscious. We got out of buying clothes on Melrose and started focusing on songwriting. Bands get together because they have the same haircut, or like the same Bowie album. When that kind of euphoria goes away, the reality is you have to be good and write songs that mean something. When you find out that’s not there is when you start hating each other.
“It’s got to have a passionate motivation. You can’t be motivated by music videos or rock shows or girls or drugs. They’re not going to take you anywhere. To become like a Neil Young, or somewhat like that, you’ve got to be in it all the way. You’ve got to make some sacrifices. Our sacrifice at the time was not being in a band,” with all the immediate gratification that can bring.
After a year or two of woodshedding, Gurley and Calio were invited by their old band mate, Louis Gutierrez, to open at the Coach House for his new group, Mary’s Danish.
“At first I was basically frightened of the idea (of playing as an acoustic duo),” Calio said. “But it sounded good, just me and Mike, and we got a standing ovation. I walked off stage and thought, ‘Maybe we’re on to something.’ ”
Leavitt was recruited through a mutual friend after Gurley and Calio decided to work again in a rock format. He had first gone on the road as a drummer at 18, earning a living in a touring act that did a history-of-pop revue in hotel lounges. When the Dada duo found him, he was pursuing a record deal as a singer-songwriter.
“I wasn’t looking for a band to join, but this was such a pleasurable situation,” Leavitt said. With Gurley and Calio collaborating on almost all of the melodies and lyrics, Leavitt has had to limit his songwriting aspirations within Dada, although he gets songwriting credit for his rhythmic contributions.
“I’m a little like George Harrison, I guess,” he said, invoking the Beatles guitarist’s position as a singer-songwriter overshadowed in his own band by two other powerful figures. “I’d like to have a little more input, but I’m happy with the way things are going, and I’m a drummer first and foremost. With Dada (I contribute) a rhythmic statement. What do we want to say with the feel of the music, the groove? The beat and feel is key to people’s perception of what the music is about.”
Most rock fans’ first perception of what Dada was about was skewed by the novelty element of “Dizz Knee Land,” a song that members acknowledge wasn’t fully representative of their style. The song made sardonic but substantive use of the Anaheim amusement park’s ad-campaign slogan, “I’m going to Disneyland.” The song evoked wide-ranging feelings of alienation as it rolled along on a chiming anthem-guitar figure that recalled R.E.M. and U2.
“It does bother me that some people don’t take the song at its full value, but how can I complain? It’s the song that put us on the map,” Calio said.
With “American Highway Flower,” Dada has found that its popularity differs widely from city to city on the touring map. It draws well enough to play 1,000-seat venues in pockets like Philadelphia, Washington, Chicago and Denver-Boulder, where it gets airplay, but attracts only a small cult following of about 200 fans in some weaker areas.
“You can’t worry about that stuff,” Gurley said. “You’ve got to write your songs, play your guitar and hope for the best. If we said, ‘Let’s try to put more distortion on our barre chords and try to get on the radio,’ that would just be copping out. This guy at a radio station in Boston said, ‘Don’t sell out and go punk and alternative, keep writing pop songs.’ Fifteen years ago, he’d be telling us, ‘Don’t sell out. Start playing punk music.’ ”
Over the past year, the most painful adversities Dada had to contend with weren’t the marketplace’s swing toward punk, but the death of Calio’s mother during the recording of “American Highway Flower,” and Gurley’s yearlong struggle with tendinitis and carpal tunnel syndrome in his guitar-fretting hand.
Gurley, the first band member interviewed, didn’t bring up his injury, but the other two members said it has had an effect on the band.
“He’d be in pain, and we’d have to stop,” Calio said. “You don’t want to think about (stuff) like that when you’re trying to be creative. But he’s played through it, and he’s just about to beat it. The guy’s playing in pain, and he’s a trouper for carrying on.”
“It’s like hanging out with Sandy Koufax or something,” said Leavitt, noting Gurley’s post-gig therapy of icing down his hand.
To take some strain off Gurley during shows, Dada has added a rhythm guitarist, Robbie Allen, to its touring lineup. Allen, a member of Rob Rule, is a veteran of several bands on the Orange County-Long Beach scene, including Tender Fury and One Hit Wonder. He primarily plays rhythm chords, allowing Gurley to avoid stressful barre-chord configurations and concentrate on lead parts.
Calio figures that facing adversity will build fortitude, whether it’s physical pain, or a commercial climate that can seem as inhospitable for Dada as the wind-driven rain that was rearranging the deck furniture outside his Malibu home as he spoke.
“We have nothing to do with what Spin and Rolling Stone consider the ‘now’ kind of vibe,” he said. “I’d like for them to get around to including us. But I think we’re a word-of-mouth band, and the more we record and play, we’re going to win in the trenches anyway. I really feel we’ve got a shot at longevity, a career where we can look back when we’re 50 and go, ‘That was a good run, a good band.’ ”
* What: Dada.
* When: Saturday, Jan. 14, at 8 p.m. With Factory and Sybil Vane.
* Where: The Coach House, 33157 Camino Capistrano, San Juan Capistrano.
* Whereabouts: Take the San Diego (5) Freeway to the San Juan Creek Road exit and turn left onto Camino Capistrano. The Coach House is in the Esplanade Plaza, on the right.
* Wherewithal: $13.50.
* Where to call: (714) 496-8930.
IN LONG BEACH: ANN DE JARNETT
Too little has been heard from De Jarnett since her striking 1989 album, “Possessions.” Once the most talented woman on a local rock scene that remains curiously low on females, the singer-violinist returns Friday, Jan. 13, at Portfolio Gallery, 4th and Junipero streets. (310) 434-2486.
IN IRVINE: DAVID WILCOX
This singer-songwriter from Ohio is a solid folk-pop performer with four albums to his credit. Currently between record labels, Wilcox could be previewing new material with which he aims to win his next record contract. He plays Friday, Jan. 13, at the Irvine Barclay Theatre. (714) 854-4607.
IN SAN JUAN CAPISTRANO: MICHAEL PENN
Penn is best known for singing plaintively through the indoor snowstorm of his hit video, “No Myth.” This strong but somewhat enigmatic pure-pop craftsman is between albums and may be trying new songs when he and his band arrive at the Coach House on Friday, Jan. 13. (714) 496-8930.
* Times Line: 808-8463. To hear a sample of Dada’s album “American Highway Flower,” call TimesLine and press * 5570