The All Roads Music Festival named Rustic Overtones their first ever legacy artist and I was honored that they asked me to moderate an onstage interview with the band. So on May 21st, I was joined by members past and present and we talked about their history, experiences, influences and lessons learned over the past quarter century.
Three very quick notes:
- The band mentioned that member Ryan Zoidis could not be there because he his car rolled into a bank (I’m hoping they meant embankment) while he was taking a picture of it, which both explains his absence and creates a very funny mental image.
- Many, many thanks to Spose for helping me craft many of these questions. He even asked one from the audience.
- The All Roads Music Festival is an extraordinarily special event. I cant thank Meg Shorette and Joshua Gass enough for including me. In the short time I was able to be around, I encountered heaps of greatness, both in personal feels and performance prowess. It was an honor all around and a great pleasure to see so many good people making great art in one place. So very well done, Maine.
Back to Rustic.
The ripple effect of this band’s influence is profound, musically and otherwise. I remember Spencer giving me advice about dealing with press back in the early aughts that is still resonant today—it comes in handy in my professional life. Rustic is not only a cultural institution here in this state, but in this way they’ve been a training ground and incubator of knowledge regarding both the craft of making music and the business of making art.
This is a band that began before “alternative” had become a commodity, and so there wasn’t even a logical home or marketplace for it. Think about that. Alternative radio was only on the cusp of launching when they began playing and recording. In an era in which the Internet ensures an audience to almost anyone doing almost anything, that is a profound testament to who these guys are and perhaps what contributes to their significance and staying power. They started doing what they loved, built and audience, built a following rooted in their own cross genre style, worked hard as hell, and created on their own terms. Long Division, the album that launched them into broader consciousness across the state, begins with About a Kid, a song that takes makes a genre split two minutes before it ends, and the rest of the album—followed by the rest of their careers—follows suit.
Only then did a medium for distribution emerge.
It’s difficult to emphasize how committed they are to that style, and how essential this is to their identity as musicians, a band, as people. But there is an incredible story in which they play an industry party back in 1999, and they are these Maine kids flanked by celebrities and kingmakers, and they’ve been instructed by the president of their label which songs they are to perform. So they go out, get in front of the crowd, eschew the curated list and play their most Avant Garde tracks. It’s a form of punk tradition that goes back to when Elvis Costello, against a directive from Lorne Michaels, played Radio Radio on SNL. It’s no wonder that by the time they met and worked with David Bowie in the 90s, he took a liking to them and offered insight, guidance and friendship to the band.
From my teenage perspective at that time, and for so many here, they were one of the first beacons of hope and creatively. You can make something. You can find a community. You can be creative. It’s entirely possible, and these guys are doing it. And as I’ve grown older, they’ve remained beacons of sustainability, experimentation, resilience and persistence.
And this all is to say nothing of the bands, partnerships, and contributions to endeavors impressive in their own rights—Paranoid, Seekonk, Soulive, Lettuce, whatever projects Spencer is working on at any given moment, Armies (the last two of which earned honorable mention in Rolling Stone). And all of that is to say nothing of the hundreds of bands they encouraged, inspired, and helped launch in some way.
I could go on, but they are much more interesting than I am. Without further ado, Dave Gutter, Jon Roods, Tony McNaboe, Mike Taylor, Jason Ward, Dave Noyes, and Spencer Albee.
What moved you in the direction of becoming professional musicians?
Dave Gutter: Early on, because Jon [Roods] and I weren’t formally taught, we would write songs rather than learn other people’s because of our lack of know-how. So we’d play those and then when you see someone getting into your music, and then you see them singing the words… There is the first moment when someone says that a song you wrote affected them a certain way—whether it inspired them to write a certain song or if it helped them through something—that was motivating.
How did you shape your sound, which is extraordinarily eclectic:
Tony McNaboe: When we first met we all had the genres we each liked. Dave and Jon were definitely deeper into ska than I was. I was into it but I was also sort of into heavier stuff too. As the band developed, everyone had strong influences that they brought to the table. There were 7 different genres of music represented by our interests. When we wrote, everything became a melting pot of everything else. Ryan [Zoidis] would turn us on to different Jazz or Hip Hop and each of us would be doing that for the other. It was endless inspiration.
Gutter: Zoidis was vigilant about everything having to be funky all of the time—he still is. Everything has. to. be. funky. Whatever genre we’d want to go with—we might want to do a punk rock song—he would somehow try to put the funk into every part of it. Which is cool.
McNaboe: I remember the first time we heard Colossal Head from Los Lobos—our sound man brought that to the van on one of our tours—and we were like, “Man, we need to write more stuff like that.” At the same time, we’re listening to [The Roots’] Illadelph Halflife and we have this rhythm section that’s really rooted in Hip Hop. It was this constant thing where we were tapping into—and aspiring toward—all of these influences. That’s what kept us writing and wanted us to keep creating.
Gutter: We had these early tours—and even on most recent tours—where we would spent all of these hours in the van and everyone is fighting over, “I want to play you guys this” or “I want to show you guys this.” We would just be devouring all of this music from all of these different places and regurgitating it on all of our albums. That’s what everyone does; it’s not a super special or exclusive thing that we do, but those van rides listening to music definitely formed our sound.
You started to emerge before “alternative” radio had really taken hold, and long before there were audiences you could tap into online. Who were you initially playing for?
Gutter: We were mostly playing for our parents.
Roods: My dad worked for Deering Ice Cream and we played for the grand opening. [laughter]
Gutter: We played on floats for Shop and Save. [laughter] But in Portland we first started playing at Zootz. It really matured at Granny Killums because our first manager owned that club. We would play for anyone who would listen. Our idea all along has been to go anywhere and everywhere.
McNaboe: [Before I was in the band] I used to go and watch them all the time. It was Dave Noyes and Jon and Gutter. I went to a commuter high school so I had friends who were from the same town as them. So I used to watch them play and it was the greatest thing. I’d know their original songs and learn them from the audience. They were a year ahead of me so when I was a senior and they were all heading to college, my friend was like, “Hey, Matt’s leaving Rustic and they’re looking for a drummer.” II thought this would he a great opportunity. My friend Justin got me Roods’ phone number. Land line. [Tony recites the number.] But my friend gave me the number with the precursor that “these guys… they do some drugs.”
I called Jon and he was like [low, “stoned guy” voice], “Hello?” And I’m like, “Hey, I hear you’re looking for a drummer and I know all these guys you know and I’d like to be your drummer.” And he says, “Dave? Dave’s handlin’ everything, dude. So you should like? Call… Dave. You want his phone number?”
Jon Roods: They have to know that I’d just gotten my wisdom teeth out.
McNaboe: Yeah, that’s right. He was on a bunch of meds.
Gutter: Our first experience with Tony is we were supposed to pick him up and I saw this boy standing on a median with a long ponytail and an Anthrax hat backwards. We just kept driving.
Roods: He used to wear gloves to play drums. Drum gloves.
McNaboe: I’m ashamed of it.
Gutter: But back to the question, what amazes me is we went out on tour without cellphones. There’s no GPS. Tony had the map. He still tries to argue with GPS about his and the map’s perspective. We’d all be lined up at payphones at truck stops arguing with our girlfriends. We’d have to factor in an hour for that. And even though now we can get to the gigs easily and argue via text, I like that we got to experience that. YouTube is now the new touring, as Tony has said, but I am glad that we got the experience of having to bust our humps and go out on the road. It made us better because we had to play so much.
You toured relentlessly.
Spencer Albee: By touring, by proximity you’re going to aggravate each other. There’s 9 people total in the van… You know, you’re watching Dave vindictively eat a bowl of chili knowing what that’s going to be like for everyone in the van, but because it was so tight knit and because of what Dave’s talking about, we had to plan ahead and things were less immediate and changing all the time. You had to take care of each other. We were a bunch of 18 – 21 year olds from Maine out in America and some of it was dangerous and hard but by looking out for each other, and having accountability or each other, and that was very important.
And around this time, WCYY emerges.
Albee: They had just gotten going. We each had these groups of friends from each of our respective towns—York, Yarmouth, Gorham and elsewhere—who were calling the radio station and requesting that they play us, and so they started playing us.
Gutter: This was right around the time Lalapalooza started and the “alternative” movement was solidifying. Music was being heralded for being different. Bands like Primus were coming around and Fishbone and all these bands were this melting pot of all this different music. You were encouraged to have a different sound. I thought that’s what made the marriage between us and CYY work.
McNaboe: It’d be remiss not to mention that plain old good management had a lot to do with that. Bill Beasley did a lot for us. We were opening for Chucklehead and Bim Skala Bim and all these bands that would sell out a 200 – 300 seat club and Bill started managing us and he put us on all these bills that were selling out. So he’d get us opening for them and then a few rounds in, they’d be opening for us. It caused a lot of resentment.
Roods: I remember loving every one of those bands.
McNaboe: We built that and this huge all ages thing and we worked that really hard. So we went from playing those shows at Zootz to doing this show at Sullivan Gym at USM and we put 3,000 people in this place. They didn’t have any security so we were putting our shirts on our friends telling them to do security and the door. People were just walking in and it was insane.
Gutter: We hired our friends to do security but once the music started, they’d bailed to see the music. At one point I saw a child walk by and he had a staff shirt on. He’s swimming in an extra large.
Roods: We’re not allowed back.
McNaboe: I think that’s when CYY said, Okay, we might have an asset here. That was largely credited to Bill and how he found a way to move us from clubs to the Sullivan Gym to the State Theater when we would be back home in town.
Gutter: Also Bull Moose. We were lucky that all of these outlets were coming around at the same time. The clubs, the stores, and the locations were all there.
Albee: And people were buying music.
I know you get asked about record company drama and fallout relatively frequently, and about your work with Bowie specifically, but I am much more interested to know about the experience of a bunch of kids from Maine suddenly finding themselves in close proximity to their idols.
Roods: We got booed off the stage opening for Foxy Brown one time.
McNaboe: The whole crowd was giving us the finger. [laughter]
Albee: At that same show we’d also opened for De La Soul. We were huge fans of theirs.
Gutter: They were very nice to us. Our first big tour was with Steel Pulse. The first date of the tour was on Bob Marley’s birthday. It was on Black History Month. We were in the South.
McNaboe: It was the last date, in Winston Salem at Ziggy’s.
Gutter: And you know, we’re not a reggae band and they’re introducing us: “YOU GUY’S READY FOR SOME ROOTS REGGAE?” [laughter] And we’re playing “Combustible” and stuff. It was an odd match. They were so great to us and they were great musicians and they liked that we were just ourselves and we found acceptance by these audiences.
I also remember playing with Run DMC and we played soccer all the time. One of the crew guys stole our soccer ball and I had to walk over to the limo and knock on the window. Jam Master Jay rolls it down and I’m like, “Yeah, someone stole our soccer ball.” And he reaches over to the driver and is like, “What are you doing, man? Give them back their ball!”
Albee: “That’s all they’ve got.” [laughter]
Gutter: We spent hours playing frisbee, soccer, four square, yo-yos.
As an organization that I believe has more or less gotten along over a number of years, what’s the secret to longevity?
Albee: Member changes. [laughter]
Gutter: There was never any incident. If anyone wanted to do their own thing or had their own vision, they did it and that’s cool. When we did break up, all of our other bands played together all the time. As Fast As and Paranoid did tons of shows together. It’s always been friendly and we’ve always been friends. There was never any big dramatic thing.
Albee: I think when we split, it had less to do with interpersonal things in the band and more to do with the fact that we had just been through so much at that point. The deal with Arista went up and then the album didn’t come out. We recorded with Tony Visconti and Bowie and Funk Master Flex and that doesn’t come out. And then Tommy Boy picks us up and it finally comes out and it does well and by our second single Stern is using us for bumper music in the morning and then Warner Brothers folds that label. For the first three years we were working, growing, working, growing and when those things happened, and you have that hope and promise, that’s a lot to put anyone through. I can speak for myself when I say I remain an admirer of everyone on this stage and what they do. When anyone here puts something out, I want to hear it.
McNaboe: The friendships really go deep and they are before the music. We wouldn’t have enough time in the day to tell the stories that each individual was given the responsibility of saving everybody’s life on tour. That happened dozens of times. When it gets to the points where, say, I want to break Spencer’s jaw, I think about the time he changed a tire on the Cross Bronx Expressway and I was peeing my pants scared. All kinds of different things have gone on, but we’ve share a lot more good than bad. Part of my getting out when I did was a matter of me saving friendships and putting it before music.
When you did start to work on your own projects, and then the band came back together, how did you coexist?
Gutter: I think you get a better sense of what your band sounds like by playing with other bands. When we broke up and played other projects, I think we got better because we had to learn how to work with other people. When we first did the reunion, it was like, “Wow, you guys are fun to work with!”
Albee: When I went away to play with As Fast As for however many years, and I came back and played with you guys, I found I had a better appreciation for what everyone brought to the table that maybe I had initially taken for granted.
McNaboe: I just had a deeper appreciation for how much you took for granted.
Question from Spose: How did you guys survive splitting the money so many different ways? As a solo artist, the only way I can survive is not having to split the money. I feel like I would have broken up years ago.
Gutter: We were surviving on a $3 per diem per day at one point. Pizza was one thing we’d have to divide. Because it was scalding hot, most people could only get one slice down but Zoidis could get down three in that time.
Albee: I’ve only just now been able to change the way I eat. You’d fight over food sometimes. Jon and I started combining money and we’d buy Saltines and ice cream sandwiches, which we’d eat immediately because they were melting, and then we’d feel terrible. And Dave and me figured out the watermelon.
Gutter: There is this picture hanging at Halo Studios of Spencer and me holding a watermelon like it’s our child. Like we’d figured everything out. Like, “We’ll get a pack of cigarettes and then buy a whole watermelon and split it. We’d cracked it on the sidewalk and dug into it.”
Albee: I’ve walked by that picture a bunch and you can see it in that we’re really happy.
Gutter: You stick with it because by the time you’re 32 and you think, “I need to get a real job,” you put that resume together and it’s like, “When I was 14, I scooped ice cream… And…” There’s that huge gap. I can’t go back to the real world. I’m really misplaced at a day job.
But we survive because we appreciate the quality of life afforded by being able to make music. You have to sacrifice in other places. We’re not balling off music. We’re barely getting by. But the reward that is music.
PHOTO CREDIT: Jeff Beam