Published June 1996, The Music Paper


Da Da

The sound and the son

"Down around the corner, half a mile from here, we'd watch those long trains run and we'd watch 'em disappear "

Squinting his eyes against a glaring combination of house lights and late-afternoon sun streaming in through an open door, guitarist/vocalist Michael Gurley lets the cigarette dangle from his lips as he slouches into his microphone and sings the familiar lyrics.

As Gurley frantically chomps out the timeless chords and distinctive riffs of The Doobie Brother's 1973 hit, Da Da bassist/vocalist Joie Calio and drummer/vocalist Phil Leavitt lean into their mics and begin singing along, "Without love, where would you be now, without love"

The effect of the three voices rising in a perfect, Zen-like harmony coupled with the sheer power of the band's playing causes the bar-backs and assorted staff members hustling around the empty Jersey Shore club to stop in their tracks and concentrate on the group for a moment.

With their brooms, mops, buckets of ice, cases of beer, barstools, counter tops and kitchen duties temporarily forgotten, the assembled staff begins to bob their heads in unison as the three-piece (plus touring guitarist Gig Gurley - Michael's younger brother) catches the minor crowd action on the floor and cranks it up a notch.

Finally satisfied with the acoustics in this particular club, Da Da run through quick versions of "Bob The Drummer," "I Get High" and "Sick In Santorini" from El Subliminoso, their latest IRS Records release, before Gurley, Calio and Leavitt conclude the sound-check with an extended, psychedelic guitar/bass/drums workout that sputters briefly and then tails off into deafening silence.

As the staff gradually return to their preparations for the evening's sold-out performance, Gurley notes the sudden, pervasive emptiness in the club and lets out a nervous burst of amplified laughter followed by one last monster power chord.

Thanking the soundman and the club staff (sincerely), the three band-mates jump off stage and head toward the kitchen for a high calorie, high cholesterol dinner and a few minutes of televised golf before they wander off to their tour bus to while-away the next four hours until show time.

With the just-repaired air-conditioning system doing its best to cool down their cramped Roadmaster; the three close friends drape themselves across couches and chairs in their impersonal, vinyl-coated, home-away-from-home and try to fight off the sort of debilitating fatigue and restless sleepiness that's a part of living on the road.

"It's a warm day, so, of course the air conditioner has to pick today to break down," says Leavitt as if apologizing for a sink full of dirty dishes to just-arrived company.

"It's just one of the many wonders of life on the road," chuckles a comfortably-lounging Gurley.

The ensuing conversation centers around the minor inconveniences of touring, the merits of tour buses over vans, early influences, actors as rock stars, high school parties, local cops and the group's current favorite bands (Radiohead, Cracker, Echobelly, Spacehog).

After a bit of thought, Calio observes that, "It's hard to find a record from any band that you like all the way through. It's really tough."

When the comment is made that Da Da's latest just may be one of those records, Gurley laughs and jokes, "I haven't listened to it in a while, so I really wouldn't know about that. I generally don't like to go back and listen to what I've already done "

"Unless he can't remember all the chord changes," chuckles Calio as he rummages in the cooler for a cold soda.

"I actually listened to our stuff just before we left on this tour," comments Leavitt. "I listened to all three records back-to-back. It'd been awhile since I'd heard the first two albums and I really wanted to re-familiarize myself with our earlier stuff. It was kind of interesting for me to listen to the old songs with a new perspective."

"It's like they want to be you! They want YOU. They want a part or a piece of you. And, they think that they really know you from knowing
the record - so a strange sort of vibe is
put out when you meet them."

~ Drummer Phil Leavitt on fans ~

"I found that I appreciated some of the stuff a lot more than I thought I would," he adds. "You know, things like Ken Scott's production on the first albumthe total crispness of it. Man, that album was clean. I really liked it."

Da Da's first record - the "clean," melodic, hook-filled, pop-friendly, Puzzle - burst onto the music scene just as Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Alice In Chains, STP and "grunge" took over the airwaves and the MTV Buzz Bin back in 1992.

Despite being slightly out of sync with the flannel shirts, unchecked anger and heart-on-sleeve angst that was suddenly a hot musical commodity, Puzzle yielded three relatively successful hits ("Dim," "Dizz Knee Land" and "Here Today, Gone Tomorrow") for the young band.

"We were in a van outside of Reading, Calif. on our very first tour when we heard 'Dizz Knee Land' on the radio for the first time," recalls Leavitt fondly. "The station was playing a block of songs and we came on after a Led Zeppelin tune. We had to pull the van over to the side of the road. We just flipped out!"

"I think I actually leaped from the back seat up into the front of the van as it was rolling," laughs Calio.

"It was just so totally unexpected," marvels Gurley at their long-ago innocence and youthful excitement. "Man, it was hot!"

The album went on to sell an impressive 300,000 copies and Da Da spent most of the year "alternative" began to morph into "mainstream" experiencing America from a cramped van.

The seemingly never-ending Puzzle support tour exposed the group's surprisingly intense live show and stunning harmonies to the scattered beginnings of what would, over time, grow into a cult of devoted Da Da fans packing clubs regardless of the band's current chart position.

The group's second effort, American Highway Flower, was released just as Green Day-fueled punk rocketed its way up the charts in 1994. The new album found Da Da, once again, concentrating on creating great pop songs with deep lyrics, moody dynamics, endearing vocals, catchy choruses and ear-grabbing hooks.

Although they enjoyed a bit of minor success with "All I Am," Da Da was completely out-of-sync with the three-chord, green-haired, make-believe punk being crammed down the throats of consumers - and American Highway Flower languished briefly at the lower end of the charts before vanishing.

"We didn't get much press for the second record," laments Calio [actually, other than a flurry of reviews and features generated by Puzzle, the group's press file is surprisingly thin]. "We're not part of the 'thing' that's been generating for the last few yearsthe big Rolling Stone/Spin/MTV pyramid. We don't have one identifiable sound and we're kind of an eclectic band. So, I guess, that's made it hard for people to 'set' us anywhere. It makes it hard to pigeonhole us as any one thing."

"We're cult favorites," deadpans Leavitt.

"Yeah!" laughs Gurley. "But, at least we won't get that 'quick burn' thing that happens with those poor guys that get too much press," he says semi-sarcastically.

"Most of our fans are great," Gurley adds. "They've got all the records, they know all the songs, they know all the lyrics they're really hardcore fans. Some, however, are a little more, uhm hardcore than others."

"We've had a few, uhm fan 'episodes,' " offers Calio.

"Now then, you obviously want and need fans," says Leavitt. "But, some people just go past a certain level, you know? It becomes "

"They figure out your unlisted home phone number and call you there," interjects Gurley.

"It's like they want to be you! They want YOU," exclaims Leavitt. "They want a part or a piece of you. And, they think that they really know you from knowing the record - so a strange sort of vibe is put out when you meet them."

"It's great to get the chance to talk to people that are really into what we're doing," concludes Gurley. "Because we all spent so much time making music that absolutely no one cared about. But, uhm, sometimes "

In spite the somewhat disappointing CMJ and Billboard showing of American Highway Flower, fans who'd caught the band in concert during the first tour turned out in droves to cheer them on during their latest unending trek across the country. And, being true Da Da fans and confirmed converts, they brought some friends along with 'em.

The tour was eventually deemed a success by label accountants, which encouraged IRS to give the group a thumbs-up for a third album. The three musicians quickly disappeared into the studio with producers/pals Adam Weiner and Scott Gordon and mixer-to-the-stars Tom Lord-Alge (Live, Oasis, Dave Matthews Band) for six months to work on what would become El Subliminoso.

Taking the time to grow with their new songs, the band relaxed, experimented and discovered that, according to Calio, "The fact that we took our time making the album gave us a chance to sit back and breathe. The melding of the two elements of Da Da - the song and the sound - finally came together."

A 12-song treat, El Subliminoso covers a broad range of emotions and musical styles while encompassing influences that include The Beatles, the Who, Jimi Hendrix, jazz, funk, soul, metal, pop, grunge and early-Rolling Stones - with just enough hooks, jangle and sweet, three-part harmonies thrown in to keep things constantly hummable.

"We all started listening to music early, when we were around four or five," Gurley says by way of explaining the group's eclectic sound. "We're all big Beatles fans and we all seemed to start playing our instruments when we were, like, six or seven. So, I think we also have that strength, as well as a history of influences behind our sound. It wasn't like we just started playing and decided to form a band at the age of 18 to pick up chicks. However," he laughs, "that part of it didn't hurt!"

"Bonus!" chuckles Calio.

"Anyway, we were able to take things song by song when we recorded this record, which really helped create a more relaxed atmosphere in the studio," continues Gurley, "In the past, we usually did the rhythm tracks for everything first and then came back in and stacked the vocals and guitars on top. This time out, we took our time and went song by song as we recorded."

"We were pretty much left alone and worked on our own schedule," the guitarist laughs, "so the studio turned into, like, our clubhouse."

"The result is that there are a lot of great songs on the new album," says Calio. " 'Time Is Your Friend,' 'No One,' 'Rise,' 'I Get High,' 'The Spirit Of 2009' "

"That song " interjects Gurley, "I'm definitely afraid of the Republican right wing. It seemed like they were picking up a lot of steam there for awhile, you know, the religious right - guys like Newt, Rush Limbaugh, Dole and Buchananand I got to thinking, 'well, what if the nation really does go way to the right here? How would things go? What's a 15-year-old's life gonna be like in the year 2009?' "

"The vision I had really scared me," he shudders, "and I thought that alone was reason enough for me to write a song."

The conversation is briefly interrupted as the bus driver checks his air-conditioning repair job. Obviously not satisfied, he sighs and trundles off to the back of the bus. Seconds later a series of bangs, crashes and mechanical moans shake the huge vehicle and the ceiling unit begins blowing Arctic blasts of frozen oxygen.

"We're just out here dealing with things and trying as hard as we can to get as big as we can possibly be - no bones about it," proclaims Leavitt as he glances out the window of the tour bus at one of the opening bands unloading taped-together gear from a ratty Ford van.

"No doubt!" seconds Gurley as he watches two young musicians pull an amp out of the van and high-five each other as they roll it to the club door.

"I'm not saying big at all costs," Leavitt adds, "I'm just saying that that's our objective. It isn't to be a 'small cult band,' it's to bring our music to as many people as we can possibly bring it to."

"And the only way for us to do that, is to do it honestly," offers Calio.

"We realize that, particularly with us being on a smaller label like IRS, the only realistic way for us to get heard and to reach our audience is to be out on the road," finishes Leavitt.

"Every night is different," adds Calio. "Different people, different town, different club, different openers that's the really cool thing about getting to do this for a living. It's not the same thing day after day - even though it kind of is the same thing."

"That's cool, though," drawls Gurley. "As soon as you get up on stage, you know - there's people in the crowd, the smoke, the noise - wellthat feeling is just the rush you're looking for and it always seems to work."

-- AL MUZER