Saturday, October 8, 2016

A Ripple Conversation With Danny G

 Photo Credit: Heather Bishop

The world of music is infinite, if you ask me. Looking at the whole spectra of genres the well of bands, artists and musicians is bottomless. A fantastic treasure trove where all kinds of great music can be discovered. The other side of the coin is that just as much, if not even more, gets lost in translation. Sure, we all hear about the hot shots hitting the headlines becoming superstars off of their music. But what about all the musicians out there who work a million times harder releasing albums and touring diligently, year in and year out, to little or no accolade despite playing great music? A while back a friend of mine turned me on to an amazing instrumental band from Texas called Ocean Of Stars. Fell immediately in love with this “out there” band and their total laissez-faire attitude towards boundaries. After some correspondence with the band’s main man, Danny Grochow, I was intrigued to find out what gets him going, and keeps him going. Why you ask? Well, he is one of many fantastic musicians around the world, who performs for a living but he is not one of the superstars mentioned earlier. So join me as I talk to Danny about the music he plays but more importantly about how to be a full time performer away from the limelight, sometimes scrambling to make it by day to day.

Please, if you don’t mind, tell us what your background is. Where you are from all the way up to which bands you’ve been in. Spill the beans!

Oh man, where to begin! I was born in Norfolk, VA and lived there from 1974-1985. My dad was in the Navy and was stationed there but in 1985 the family moved to Ewa Beach, HI before settling in Corpus Christi, TX in 1989. Then I moved to Austin, TX in 2000 to focus on my music career.

Played guitar for Mad Taxi and briefly for Front Lawn Revolution in Corpus Christi TX 1992-1995. After moving to Austin in 2000 I was on guitar/partial vocals for Southern Gun Culture 2000-2004. Started playing guitar with Shandon Sahm (son of TX music legend Doug Sahm) around 2004. Also started learning bass in 2004 and played with Velvet Brick 2004-2006. Started putting Ironclad together in 2006 and were active through 2007-2008-ish. Played briefly on bass for the Ryan Bales Band 2006-2007, which was my first taste of playing music full time. Joined The Mother Truckers on bass in 2007 and that blew the doors wide open. Quit my TV station job in 2008 to tour full time and never looked back. Worked as guitar tech for Ty Tabor of King’s X 2009-2010. Joined the Eric Tessmer Band on bass/backing vocals and played full time with him 2009-2013. Still fill in on bass with him almost monthly. Also started doing lots of sub gigs and session work around 2009. Started putting Ocean of Stars together in 2013 to play music I had been writing and recording on my own going back to 2009. Ocean Of Stars debuted for the Small Stone Records official SXSW showcase in 2014. In between I toured on bass/backing vocals with Rick Hornyak, played bass downtown Austin quite a bit with Sean Evan and the Very Handsome Band. Started playing bass/backing vocals/mandolin with Adrian Conner (Adrian and the Sickness) around 2013as well as playing bass/backing vocals with Deann Rene around 2012 or 2013. Began playing bass and guitar for Thunderosa around 2013. Hired on as bassist for Bleu Edmondson in late 2014, moved to guitar/backing vocals/mandolin in 2015. Finally playing guitar full time but making bass player money. But had an amicable parting with Bleu this summer, I’d been wanting to focus more time on my own music anyway. Did a weekend run as sub bassist for Cheetah Chrome (Dead Boys) last year. Joined Stupid Drama on bass/backing vocals this summer. Many other fill-in/sub gigs as well.

Playing with Cheetah Chrome must have been fun. How did that come about? Saw him perform with Drivin' N' Cryin' a few years ago, and that was something else.

That fell in my lap from my friend Jason Kottwitz, who plays guitar with Cheetah and in Sylvain Sylvain’s band, as well as The Bulemics and many others. We’ve known each other since Southern Gun Culture opened for Tummler in the early 2000’s. He contacted me one day seeing if I could sub on bass for a New Orleans/Houston run, as Cheetah’s usual bassist couldn’t make it. Of course I said yes (even though I’d miss shows with Bleu Edmondson). The run was a blast and Cheetah is such a nice guy. Not the typical image of a punk legend haha, but such a nice dude. The shows were a fun, the rehearsals were fun. Even losing a tire on the way to Houston and being super late wasn’t the worst thing in the world. It was really cool learning the Dead Boys material, as I had only a passing exposure to it from my punk rock friends in Corpus Christi TX. Then in learning it, realizing how amazing some of those bass lines were. Wow! During cigarette breaks in rehearsal, Cheetah would ask me questions about Ocean of Stars (Wow, that’s cool… seems like I should be asking HIM questions!!!). Cheetah is on the road right now, Curt from Dixie Witch is on bass.

Photo Credit: Olivarez Imagery

You were Ty Tabor's guitar tech?!?! How did you land that gig and did he play many shows when you worked for him?

Yes! I was on the road with them for 3 tours over about 3 months in 2009, and did some one-offs for awhile after that through 2011 I think. I got the gig via Bobby Rock from Honky/Down. Have also known him from the Southern Gun Culture days (he engineered half of the ROOM 65 album). Went to the Continental Club, Austin, TX, to see Honky. This was April 2009, the Mother Truckers were on hiatus after 6 months on the road in 2008 and I was scrambling for musical work. Was going out to network, “stay visible” and keep the word out that I’m looking for projects, and see one of my favorite bands. Had gotten there early, just ordered a beer, and I see Bobby walk in the front door. He quickly scans the place like a gunslinger, sees me at the bar and walks up with purpose in his stride. “Hey man, how is your May looking? King’s X needs a guitar tech NOW. If you want the job, call this guy right now!” and hands me his cellphone. Turns out he was going to contact me anyway and just happened to bump into me before he could call. Wow! I was literally on the road with King’s X five days later for about 5 weeks. Rode around with them over pretty much the entire continental US and parts of Canada. It was a blast. Not only the crew, who are awesome and are still good friends, but also with band. It was awe-inspiring to watch them every night, truly one of THE MOST consistent live bands I have ever seen. Really awesome experience, and the first time I’ve gotten to ride in a tour bus!

Do you still work with Shandon Sahm?

Shandon hasn’t played solo in a while, as he’s been touring as drummer for the Meat Puppets full time over the past few years. Haven’t seen much of him either, but I occasionally get a voicemail from him “Hey man! We’re in Copenhagen playing in a SKATE PARK!” or “Hey man! We’re opening for SOUNDGARDEN in this HUGE STADIUM!” I need to see what he’s up to, it would be great to play with him again. He does sets of his own music (very Iggy Pop/Ziggy Stardust) and sets of Doug Sahm tunes as well. Was really awesome being formally introduced to Doug Sahm’s music through Shandon. And he always has a great revolving group of players (Jim Ortiz from Amplified Heat, Tom Frank from Duel, Amber from Southern Gun Culture etc, etc, etc.) I first met him in passing during (again haha) the Southern Gun Culture days. Jason McMaster (Dangerous Toys, Broken Teeth etc) came by Southern Gun Culture’s jam room to show some friend of his my Paul Stanley Iceman. I didn’t fully catch who he was until later. Fast forward a few years to 2004. Southern Gun Culture had disbanded, and I started to talk to players about putting a band together with the music I was working on, which would later become Ironclad. Was on my way to Room 710, which was a venue in Austin, to hand Trinidad from Dixie Witch a demo CD. Walking past Headhunters, another venue in Austin, I see Shandon onstage with Jim Ortiz on guitar. Holy shit! After handing off the CD I came back and caught rest of the set. Shit, I want to play with Jim!!! So in wondering how to approach Shandon about seeing if he needs a second guitar player, he instead comes up to me and says:

“Hey man! You still got that Paul Stanley Iceman?!?”

“Yes I do! And I got an original ’79 now as well!”

“Dude that’s awesome! I need a second guitar player! Want the job?”

“Hell yeah!”

And that was that haha.

Have you appeared on many recordings?

Yes, quite a few as a band member or session player!

I think the count is somewhere around 20. Ranging from the Mad Taxi and Front Lawn Revolution albums I put out on cassette on my own DIY label in 1994. Few CDs/EPs with Southern Gun Culture. An EP with Ironclad. The Velvet Brick album. Played some lead guitar on Shandon Sahm’s “Knock Yourself Out.” Ironclad did an EP. Played bass on two critically-acclaimed albums by The Mother Truckers. Have released three of my own instrumental solo albums from my work in the RPM Challenge. Eric Tessmer “Green Diamond” album. Lots of other sessions engineered by Frenchie Smith, Chet Himes, J Yuenger (White Zombie) and many others. Did an album as session bassist with Trinidad Leal (Dixie Witch/Honky) on drums and Josh Zee (The Mother Truckers) on guitar. It’s insane. Did an oddball session at Arlen Studios cutting a post-apocalyptic version of “Ring of Fire” with Eric Tessmer Band for the TV show “Revolution” where I’m on second guitar. I’ve mainly been a session bassist, but did just cut some harmony vocal tracks on Rick Hornyak’s new album. There are also a few lost Shandon Sahm recordings I’m curious to hear. I’m always looking for session work and love being in the studio.

Photo Credit: Olivarez Imagery

What’s you music set up these days? Are you in many bands, are you a full time musician?

Yes, I am in many bands. Playing full time you play in as many bands as it takes to pay the bills. Which is ALL the bands haha. Current projects: Stupid Drama (bass), Ocean of Stars (guitar), Thunderosa (guitar/bass), Adrian Conner (bass), Deann Rene (bass). After the part with Bleu I was torn between looking for another full time band to maintain a healthy revenue stream, even if it’s a project I don’t like, vs being completely freelance and being in control of my own schedule, meaning being able to book Ocean of Stars on weekends again. I am currently making a go at being totally freelance again. Will see where I’m at by the end of the year. It’s fun though. Ocean of Stars has been doing a residency which we’re taking some time off from to work on new material. Stupid Drama has several residency gigs as well. Thunderosa leaves this week – through September 2nd to the 10th -  
for Midwest/Colorado. Some weekends with Adrian coming up. Lots fill in gigs, have done a few with Eric Tessmer and Ulrich Ellison recently.

When did you know being a musician was your calling?

Probably in middle school, 8th grade I’d say. I’d always been into art and drawing, but my drawing never got past a certain point (turns out my eyes were bad). I started realizing that music was making me feel things that nothing else did, not even going to church at the religious school I was going to at the time. Once I discovered Guns N Roses and Metallica, it was all over. Got a Harmony acoustic for Christmas 1988. Had a few lessons before moving to Texas in 1989. My mom got me a Peavey Strat copy and amp soon after we got settled in. Been hooked ever since. A lot of my own calling is more a feeling that music chose ME. I don’t know how else to describe it. My goals from day one were not to become a rich, famous rock star. More to make music that makes other people feel the way music makes ME feel. Just be a professional musician, and make a living at that.

Southern Gun Culture was my first experience in a band where we were trying our damnedest to become a national touring act and play music full time, or at least have a part time job while not on tour. Attainable goal, and we worked hard. When I met Adrian Conner in 2005-ish, she was one of the few friends in our peer group of musicians who was playing full time (Angus Young in Hell’s Belles, touring with The Sickness when not killing it on AC/DC). Ok, THAT is an attainable goal. So when the opportunity came to quit working full time once and for all and play full time with The Mother Truckers arose, I jumped at it. Because I don’t know when another opportunity like this would present itself. If ever…but it’s been a very hard road, and continues to be. Not going to lie. Along the way I got divorced, sold the house, did not have a family, have willingly walked away from any kind of stability or security. Only recently acquired actual health insurance for the first time since 2009 thanks to help from a local Austin program called HAAM (Health Alliance for Austin Musicians). And it’s a constant inner struggle of doing something that pays outrageously well (bad country, or cruise ship gigs) to stabilize my finances vs. doing musically whatever the fuck I want and hoping for the best. As Henry Rollins once said: “The less you have, the less there is to separate you from the music.” However, if I had to go back and relive some of the decisions I’ve made regarding music, even knowing what I know now, I wouldn’t change much, if anything.

Are we going to see more explorations of Danny G? 

I should hope so! I’m always wanting to try new things and face new musical challenges. Playing with Stupid Drama is pretty musically mind-blowing, and I’m very proud of my involvement. Ocean of Stars is the real exploration for me right now. I haven’t played in my own original band since Ironclad, and that had been missing from my life for many years (too busy trying to make a living in other people’s bands that I don’t have time to pursue my own music). So when it came time to decide what kind of original project to do, it was kind of a no brainer. My lack of original band for years fueled my pursuit of the RPM Challenge: a website which is an open challenge to bands/solo artists to write/record/mix/artwork for an entire album (10 songs or 35 minutes) during the 28 days of February. I dove into this headlong playing all the instruments every year from 2009-2015, I took 2016 off finally. First to see if I could do it, then to see if I can make a fully realized album with no filler. And finally to see if I can do concept material. Then to see how well I can free-form improvise entire arrangements in one sitting. I kept thinking I’d eventually run out of ideas, but since I don’t even know where this music comes from, the ideas just kept coming. I really closed myself off to everyone and everything for this music. Would go mad composer and by March 1st was usually sick, somewhat malnourished, and slightly nutty, and with a CD of music that I’m not exactly sure where it came from.

I felt good enough to release three of them, warts and all: Ocean of Stars (2010), Leap of Faith (2012) and Automatic Writing (2014). So Ocean of Stars the live band has a HUGE backlog of available music. Putting a line up together was also an exploration. My solo recordings are all guitar-based, but I wanted to take it off to left field with some different instrumentation. Already had drummer Ric Furley in place. Found tenor saxophonist Derek Rodrigues on Craigslist from his ad: PSYCH SAX SEEKS PROJECT. So in lieu of 2nd guitar Ocean of Stars has saxophone with wah, delay, harmonizer, and all kinds of cool weird noises and shit. Perfect! Found Melanie Martinez on bass soon after and we were a band. Turning the recordings into live arrangements has also been in interesting process. On guitar I can do rhythm, melody and lead. Sax can do melody, lead, and weird space noises. So some of the arrangements was pretty clear who should do what. But other times are more involved, Derek and I switching parts back and forth to see what works best. He’s sharp as a tack and can pick up any weird shit that I throw at him amazingly fast without charting it out. And I’m ok with him doing more of the cool parts haha. As a live band, I like how Will Taylor runs his band: Will is running the show, but he is not the star of the show. I’m just glad to have the players I do for this project. Especially since this is such an art for the sake of art project. When players get to a certain point in their career they have kind of done everything already so they do something rather eccentric and you wonder if they’ve gone a little nutty. I hope Ocean of Stars is my “Wow, this is amazing but should we start to worry about him?” project haha!

When I first heard some of your music, Danny G as well as Ocean Of Stars, you play some mean guitar. Therefore, it's interesting that you are more of a bass player these days. Which instrument do you prefer?

Thanks man! That means a lot.

I sort of wound up a bass player after joining the Mother Truckers. That got me enough notice and a name that suddenly I was known as a bass player and started getting lots more work doing that than guitar. Everybody just needs bass players, haha. And it wasn’t until I was with Bleu Edmondson that I was finally a full time guitar player. But now I’m back to more bass. Gotta go where the work is. In general I prefer guitar more, as it’s for me more of an active creativity as opposed to bass which for me is more of a passive creativity. On guitar I have more freedom to drive the chord changes and have an active role in where the music is going. Whereas my bass playing is almost wholly dependent on what the drums and guitar are doing. My role is to link together the kick/snare pattern with the chord structure/melody. If the drummer or guitarist change anything in what they are doing, I have to reevaluate my bass line and adjust if needed. Hence it being a more “passive” creativity.
Photo Credit: Dave Prewitt/ Dave

How do you manage your schedule being part of so many bands? Are there a lot of scheduling conflicts?

It can be tough haha. I use the Google calendar on my phone and constantly update it with gigs, rehearsals etc to avoid any scheduling conflicts. There is a constant chatter of gigs, rehearsals, logistics and such most days. But playing in multiple projects, conflicts are inevitable. Most of the time it’s not a big deal, as most full time players in Austin have to be in multiple projects just to cover the bills. So there is an understanding that if someone can’t make a gig due to a prior obligation, the project will simply have someone sub. And most projects have an occasionally nebulous line-up depending on who’s available. It’s rarely been an issue but, of course, it has been at times. Occasionally on Craigslist there will be a backlash against “hired guns!” and people who “can’t commit!” which is kind of dumb and sad if you think about it. I remember early in Southern Gun Culture when Amber joined a side project. For about 5 minutes I felt a pang of lack of loyalty on her part. However fast forward 2 weeks and she is coming into Southern Gun Culture rehearsal noticeably better because she was playing twice as much. After that I understood: the more you play, the better you get.

As you say: "And it's a constant inner struggle of doing something that pays outrageously well (bad country...) Is it the same in Texas as in Tennessee, where the standard country cover bands are raking in the dollars?

I would imagine country cover bands would be more prevalent in Nashville given it’s history. But Texas has it’s own subgenre of country with it’s own history, Texas Country, as well as ties to the Outlaw movement, in addition to the whole Red Dirt (Southern Rock) thing. So of course you can make a killing performing those styles or covering those styles. A lot of rockers and metalheads wind up in Red Dirt or TX Country at some point. Huge market and a fat paycheck. So dipping my toes into that pool has had mixed results. I’ve played (older) country covers and enjoyed the hell out of it, I’ve played newer country covers and questioned my own existence, and I toured the Red Dirt scene with Bleu Edmondson, which I enjoyed quite a bit as I was on guitar and he writes great music. But was always slightly strange to be in all those situations, where instead of seeking them out, it was more a case of ‘this is where the musical current happened to wash me ashore’. Kind of an outsider looking in, who doesn’t have the history or grew up listening to these styles. Hell, I’m surprised I lasted as long as I did as a guitar player in Red Dirt without any country licks or a delay pedal haha.

I think it's interesting to see how you took a lot of your guitar-driven heavy rock - in lack of better terms - Danny G material and transformed it for Ocean Of Stars. The music might be nutty, as you put it, but for an avid music supporter, it's very refreshing to hear a musician/ group you like take that step over the edge. Is that how it works for the musician as well? You know, to step out of the box and open the flood gates?

Thanks. I can’t really speak for others, but for myself I’d been writing and recording the solo material for years without any real plan for it past just doing it. The ‘Ocean of Stars’ solo album got me noticed by a label, so that was the first indication that maybe I should do something with it, even though the deal ultimately fell through. So when I started feeling the pull to perform the music live which then opened the can of worms as to “How?” Do I stick to strict interpretations of the arrangements and instrumentation, or do I make the live band a related but entirely separate entity? There was a one-time early incarnation of Ocean of Stars I put together in 2010 for a friend’s birthday, with myself and Adrian Conner on guitar, Heather Webb (Adrian and the Sickness) on bass, JRAB (King’s X crew leader) on drums and Michael McDaniel (Eric Tessmer Band) on sax. It was a worthy effort but it would be awhile before I attempted again. Originally I wanted Michael on keys, but there wasn’t enough room onstage at Headhunters haha. So when it came time again to try to put Ocean of Stars together, I remembered how cool it sounded with guitar and sax performing the recorded guitar harmonies. I found Derek Rodrigues on Craigslist, and his playing, in addition to all the effects and noises, has been invaluable to the shaping of our sound and in making Ocean of Stars a separate entity entirely from the solo recordings. That, in addition to Melanie having her own interpretation of the bass groove and Ric being a better drummer I will ever be in my entire life. “What now?” is the current dilemma. I put a band together and set sail for the blank part of the map. Now that we’ve actually made it here, I’m a bit at a loss. Putting it together I kind of felt like a dog chasing a car. And now that I’ve caught a car I’m not exactly sure what to do with it. Guess I should have planned ahead better haha. For now we are taking a hiatus from our summer residency at Beerland here in Austin to work up some new material and plan to be back for November. In the meantime I need to take full advantage of being back in control of my calendar to book weekends. We need to print shirts. Have the money just haven’t had time to make a design. I want to get into music licensing and soundtrack work. I think this music could be a goldmine for that. Would love to play Roadburn and tour Europe with Ocean Of Stars. Will see about Psycho Las Vegas 2017 and similar things. Actually, I think I’ve planned this all out much more than I give myself credit for haha.

Thanks for taking the time to do this interview Danny, it’s been a pleasure! The world of music need people like you to keep everything going, and keep music evolving and interesting.


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