dada | Their Light Is Anything but Dim

prof dada_75“When you’re starting out and you’re just a kid, 20 years seems like an impossibly long time.”


Twenty years ago—well, 21, but who’s counting?—a California trio named dada took over airwaves and ears with a catchy little song called “Dizz Knee Land” from their debut album Puzzle. Second single “Dig” was even bigger—and better, as it further showcased the band’s stunning and distinctive harmonies. dada (Michael Gurley, singer-guitarist; Joie Calio, singer-bassist; and Phil Leavitt, drummer) would go on to release four more records, including six charting singles, before ultimately parting with their record label in 1999 and, for a time, each other.

Everyone knows rock ’n’ roll is a fickle business, no one more so than musicians. Still, despite side careers and diversions, the three musicians stayed in touch and, when the time felt right—in 2003—began playing together again. For a few years it was shows here and there, weekend warrior-type tours, until, in 2012, the drummer got the idea to stage a 20-year-anniversary tour. Now, dada is once again crossing the country by bus, playing their hearts out to loyal fans for whom the light had dimmed but never entirely gone out. With dada side project 7horse (Leavitt and Calio) opening the show, dada fans truly are getting everything they’d hoped for, and more.

I had a chance to chat with the affable Leavitt by phone as the tour kicked off.

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Why is now the time to get the band back together?

First of all, it’s our 20-year anniversary; I saw that coming and thought we should commemorate it. It’s so hard to keep the band together in the first place, and to go as long as we have, to be able to fight through the ups and downs of our career, is rare. The music business has changed so much over the years, that to be able to go out and play to audiences that are still so devoted and will still come out and see us, that’s a good reason to get out there. We connect with those people, and obviously we say thank you for all the support over the years. You want to celebrate these milestones when they come because they’re few and far between.

When did dada last tour?

We’ve been touring a lot of short little runs; it’s been about five years since we’ve gone out for an extensive U.S. tour, but over that five years we’ve done a lot of little five-day runs where we fly into Chicago and get the van, drive around for a few days, play a few gigs, and go home. I hate the airport—especially for a band with a bunch of gear. They call it “the road” for a reason—you’re not supposed to be in an airplane, you’re supposed to be on the highway.

Do you find it’s harder to be out on the road now that you’re older?

So far, I feel pretty good—and I’m playing two shows a night, opening for ourselves. I don’t go at it as hard as I did back in the early days; I’m a little smarter with what I do now, so I can still have a good time but manage it a little better. I can still get up the next day and be ready for the show. People think that the road is one nonstop party, and you do have a good time out there, but especially when you’re on a schedule like we are—we’re playing six days a week—you have to find a way to get some sleep, or else it’s really going to get tough. I’m not ready for the old folks’ home yet. If the Rolling Stones can still do it on their 50th anniversary, then we can do it; we’re only on 20. We’re kids. [Laughs]

Outside of your actual hometown of Los Angeles, is there a city that feels like a second home?

Chicago was big for us back in the day; we got a lot of radio support in Chicago. St. Louis has always been a really good town; we’re looking forward to getting back; it’s been a while. Denver, Chicago, Minneapolis, Philadelphia—all those towns have really been good to this band, so we’re looking forward to that part of the tour, for sure.

Do you have any specific memories of St. Louis?

I remember walking around downtown and not seeing any people. It’s so weird. I’ve never been in a town like that, where in the middle of the day you’re downtown and you’re like, “Where is everybody? What happened?” I haven’t been able to figure it out yet.

I’m a big baseball fan, too, so I have memories of going over to Busch and seeing a few games. We get out and see some baseball whenever we can.

Back when dada got together, did  you think you’d still be playing 20 years down the road?

When you’re starting out and you’re just a kid, 20 years seems like an impossibly long time. People that are 20 years older than you seem like they’re ready for the old-age home, so I don’t think we were thinking about that; we were thinking about trying to survive to next week. It’s weird; time really does fly, and all of a sudden you look up and, Wow, what happened? Here we are—we’re 20 years down the road. That’s why I think it’s a good time to slow down and take notice, because I don’t know if a 40th anniversary is in the cards at this point. We’re going to ride this one as long as we can.

I’m sure that, over the span of your career, you’ve seen a lot of ups and downs. Among the highs, which ones have stuck?

The first time I heard “Dizz Knee Land” on the radio—I’ll never forget it. We were driving through northern California and this rock station out there put us on—coming out of Led Zeppelin they played “Dizz Knee Land.” It was just chaos in the van. We literally had to pull over because we were going to crash; everybody was jumping over the seats.

The first time we played in front of a big audience, we got up on stage on what is now the Gibson Amphitheatre in Los Angeles. We were playing as part of a big radio station show at Christmastime. You come out of the clubs playing 100, maybe 200 people; in a room that size, you can hear individual people—you can recognize your friend’s voice yelling at you from the audience. You get in front of five, 10,000 people and it doesn’t sound like individuals anymore; it sounds like this wave of humanity coming at you. That’s something that just sticks in your memory forever.

After the band’s first break, you joined the Blue Man Group. Tell me about that.

I did, yeah; it was a job. After we were together eight, nine years and the record company dropped us, the bass player went to Seattle and I needed a job; it was either that or get a pizza delivery job. In L.A. one day there was an open call for Blue Man drummers. I wasn’t really familiar with it—I’d never seen the group—but I ended up getting the gig and went out to Las Vegas for a couple years and played drums for the show. There were some tremendous musicians out there, there still are. For us, it was fantastic, because we’d finish the show at midnight, one in the morning, and the town’s wide open. We went at it pretty good for a couple of years. [Laughs]

Did you have to shave your head for that?

Nah. I just played drums in the show, so I wasn’t a Blue Man. Three Blue Men down front—those guys don’t shave their heads; they use bald latex caps. We had a seven-piece band out there, four drums—it’s like a percussion army.

Tell me about your other band, 7horse.

7horse is myself and the bass player for dada, Joie Calio, but he’s playing guitar, a lot of slide. It’s kind of blues, funk, blues and country, but I won’t say it’s blues because it’s a rock ’n’ roll band. We’re a two-piece—that’s a popular format right now, and we didn’t see any reason to get more guys. At the end of 2011, we had some time that we’d booked in the studio. We didn’t know what to do with it, so we went in there and started experimenting with some stuff we’d been talking about, blues-influenced music, playing slide a lot, and we thought, “Well, let’s do something that’s totally different from dada.” We came up with a bunch of stuff in a short time, and in two weeks we had the record made. We decided to take it on the road last year; we went back to the beginning of how we started with dada 20 years ago: two of us in the van, driving around the country, dragging our gear around. We played 50 dates and got the record on the radio a little bit, got some attention from show people and started to build a whole new audience. It’s very interesting at this stage of our career, where you kind of start over. It’s a challenge, because there’s so much out there right now, to try to set yourself apart and not lean on what you’ve done in the past.

It’s definitely a challenge, but people seem to dig what we’re doing. With this 20th anniversary dada tour, I got the bright idea: Why don’t we just open for ourselves? This way, some more of our audience will get a chance to hear it. The more the music business is going right now, you have to capitalize on everything you’ve got. So we put it all under one roof and go on the road with a big traveling circus. We’ve got this kid Jerad Finck out with us; he’s a really good singer-songwriter—he plays in the middle, which gives us a little break.

People get a lot for the money: They get to see everything we’ve got in the course of about three hours: A lot of high energy, a lot of memories from the past, and new stuff as fresh as we can make it. | Laura Hamlett

dada plays the Old Rock House in St. Louis on Sunday, Feb. 10, 2013. Doors 7/show 8 p.m.; $20 flat; all ages. Visit the Old Rock House’s website for more information.

About Laura Hamlett 467 Articles
Laura Hamlett is the Managing Editor of PLAYBACK:stl. In a past life, she was also a music publicist and band manager. Besides music, books, and other forms of popular culture, she's a fan of the psychology behind true crime and violent criminals. Ask her about mass murder...if you dare.

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