TUNE IN TO
|ROCKWiRED iNTERViEWS DEAD ROCK WEST
THE BITTER AND THE SWEETFew bands successfully walk that delicate line between loud, gritty four-to-the-floor rock n roll and the sweet, plaintive sounds of country as the Los Angeles-based DEAD ROCK WEST. Fronted by lead singers, FRANK LEE DRENNEN and CINDY WASSERMAN, the band is getting numerous comparisons to that other L.A. based band X, fronted by that legendary team of JOHN DOE and EXENE CERVENKA. "It's funny. We've been getting the EXENE CERVENKA/JOHN DOE comparison a lot and I find it kind of curious because when I started the band I was thinking more along the lines of EMMYLOU HARRIS and GRAM PARSONS." says singer/guitarist FRANK LEE DRENNEN. " I just find it curious how people relate to things. I know how I come at it but that doesn't mean that that is going to be a listeners experience."
FRANK LEE DRENNEN AND CINDY WASSERMAN
OF DEAD ROCK WEST
TALKS TO ROCKWIRED
ABOUT 'HONEY AND SALT'
TOURING WITH JOHN DOE
AND GETTING THE MUSIC OUT THERE
iNTERViEWED BY BRiAN LUSH
It should come as no surprise that during the summer of 2007, DEAD ROCK WEST toured the country, opening for JOHN DOE. "It's been so amazing. It's been running so smoothly." exclaims CINDY WASSERMAN. "It's such a joy to play with JOHN DOE. For me it's great because I get to open with my own band and I get to sing with JOHN DOE all night and I can't really dream of anything better than that."
The bands debut CD HONEY AND SALT is a testament to the bands innate ability to add a little country sweetness to it's hard-rocking edge. Just give tracks like the mesmerizing opener HIGHWAY ONE, the smashing ROCKET FROM THE CRYPT and a countrified spin on the 1985 X track BURNING HOUSE OF LOVE a listen. This disk is worth the repeated listens. "We wanted to make a record that was hip. I'm very proud of this record and my focus right now is to get that out to people and get them to hear it." says DRENNEN. "I feel like it's got something to say. I think a good test for a song is if you're not sick of doing it after performing it night after night after night."
ROCKWIRED spoke with FRANK LEE DRENNEN during a spirited game of softball in the parking lot of a MOTEL 6 outside of Pittsburgh. Here is how it went.
How are the shows going with JOHN DOE?
They 're going great actually. His audience has been really receptive. Right now, I think we just lost a baseball. a precious commoditiy of which to relieve the bordeom as we're booking a room.
Where are you guys right now?
We are just outside of Pittsburgh right now.
So you really are in the middle of something.
Yeah. We're about a month and a week into the tour right now. We've got eight weeks left to complete.
I'm not tying you up from trying to find a room am I?
Not at all. As a matter of fact, I just found the baseball. We're rocking and rolling! So yes, the tour has been going great and JOHN DOE is nothing but a joy to tour with. His audiences have been more than welcoming to us.
It sort of makes sense that his fans embrace you guys. You guys are almost branches from the same tree.
It's funny. We've been getting the EXENE CERVENKA/JOHN DOE comparison a lot and I find it kind of curious because when I started the band I was thinking more along the lines of EMMYLOU HARRIS and GRAM PARSONS. I just find it curious how people relate to things. I know how I come at it but that doesn't mean that that is going to be a listeners experience.
HONEY AND SALT is a great CD. What brought everyone together? How did it all get started with this band?
Very organically. It started out with CINDY and I getting together. We had our own bands at the time. For quite a while we just got together and played songs together. I was playing in a band with DAVID J CARPENTER at the time so he came along and was playing double bass and we started playing as a trio. I was playing acoustic guitar. Another mutual friend of ours, BRIAN HEAD came into the picture and started playing drums with us. As this was going on, we were sort of cassually doing gigs. Nothing serious. We were just enjoying ourselves and followingthe music.
What do you think that each of the members sort of brings to the table that makes this thing work. Creatively or personality wise.
The whole spark for the band is CINDY. She has the most special voice of anyone that I have personally sung with. It's almost sympatico in the way she's able to follow phrasing. She has an amazing ear for arranging vocals. As far as DAVE and BRIAN go, DAVE brings a similar kind of energy that CINDY does in that he's very musical and is very capable of melding in to whatever vibe is happening. As far a myself and BRIAN, we're more aggressive in how we approach music so it gives it that push. Instantly there is sort of a paradox that happens within the band and a sfar as PHIL on the piano, he is the wild card. We're never sure what he's going to play, and that's always good to have.
Now that the album is sout there for everyone to hear, How do you feel about it?
I feel extremely proud that we made this album ourselves. We made the decision to record it on tape and to not use pitch correcting effects or anything like that. We tracked live the first three days to get that feel of a band and I feel very proud of it. It's made to be an album that pulls you in slowly and once it's got you, it's worth repeated listens. We wanted to make a record that was hip. I'm very proud of this record and my focus right now is to get that out to people and get them to hear it. I feel like it's got something to say. I think a good test for a song is if you're not sick of doing it after performing it night after night after night.
What all goes into writing a song in this band?
The really great thing that I love about this band is that stylistically, we don't feel like we're not locked into being a folk,country, pop, rock band. We want to write good songs. The creative process is to simply write and not worry about a target audience or anything like that. For me writing is often times a reactionary thing. If something is happening in my life, I react to it by writing. Usually, the stuff that stays for me is the stuff where I've reacted emotionally to something or somebody. That's rock n roll, isn't it?
The CD has a curious title in HONEY AND SALT. Would you like to talk about it?
It's an arty-farty kind of title. I took all of the photos that are on the CD except for the band shots. As the songs began to come together, I started to realize that the theme of this album was beauty and loss. HONEY AND SALT. It's finding love, losing love, and wondering why it went away. The questions that everyone asks themselves. I'm a huge fan of CARL SANDBURG. He is hands down my favorite American poet. He has a poem called HONEY AND SALT and I thought that poem represented what the record is.
Now that I know you did the artwork for the CD, do you think you would ever use this eye for making videos for this band?
I would very much like to. I draw and I take photographs and write and for me it all lends itself into one thing. I'm not a musician that only feeds off of his music. I think the world around me is something to express in one form or another and I would love that opportunity one day.
You guys have agreat label in POPULUXE RECORDS. Would you like to talk about them?
POPULUXE is record label that's not the traditional label where they find you and offer you money and bankroll your tour. It's a label that's composed of artists who are on the label. We don't support each other financailly however we support each other through any way we can. For instance, THE TRUCKEEBROTHERS who are also on that label, I just recently did all of the photgraphs for their new record. PEAT TRUCKEE from that band also does the design and layout. He also did the layout for our record which was inspired by THE WHO's QUADROPHENIA.
Yeah. I love how everyone is talking about how the CD is on the way out and that everyone is going to download everything. Fine! If everyone wants to download our music, I'm totallly down with it. I feel like part of the responsibility has to lie of the artists. So many artists these days, are putting out artwork that looks like it's Pepsi-Cola Can Land. It's not creative, it doesn't represent the artist, it's all some fancy-schmancy guy with a computer pushing buttons and making it happen. Our goal at POULUXE is to make artwork that gives people a reason to want to own the actual thing. QUADROPHENIA makes me feel like I'm experiencing the music through the pictures inside. I think with this whole digital society which is coming down on us real fast, is going to create a need for fans of the music that actually has a human touch to it. My friend TIM CLARK hand drew a Summer Tour 2007 JOHN DOE - DEAD ROCK WEST Poster and were screen printed by hand and signed by the artists. We made 200 of them and they are selling like hotcakes. The response from people is tremendous and it's encouraging. That was why I got into music because it makes that personal honest human connection.
Growing up, what music got to you?
I was a late bloomer. I really didn't start playing until I was about sixteen or seventeen. The first artists that really nailed me to the wall was a guy named BRUCE COBURN and a guy named LARRY NORMAN, and then U2. When I first heard U2, I was living in North Carolina I didn't know that rock n roll could be so personal. Their alhbum WAR just nailed me to the wall.
What would you like for someone to come away with after hearing this CD?
I don't want to impose on people what I want them to hear in our music but I love to feel when I leave from a show or leave from listening to a great record is feeling empowered and thinking, "I can do that!" Sometimes, if I don't feel that, I'll feel like 'I have someone who says something that I want to say but I never knew how to.' I don't want to say that something like that has been lost but rock n roll has moved into place where it's all about the big fancy video and the big fat record deal. Rock n roll started as a movement of the people. Rock n roll belongs in the hands fo the people and not to some executive. Hopefully DEAD ROCK WEST can bring some of that back because it never really went away. It's always there.
Sometimes I don't think it's even about a record contract or a video. it's all about pushing beer.
Are you a fan of the LAST DJ
There is that one song where he talks about the beer commercial. It's a tough thing because musicians can't make music if they're not making money.
Music is backed into a corner a little more now than it was before.
The thing is, when I start to deal with those things like, I've got something that's owed to me, it's so easy to go there and rail against the music industry and to point out how fucked up things are, I'm reminded of the fact that being an artist of any kind through out the ages has never been easy and it's a privelege. That sense of entitlement will do absolutely nothing for my music. And as I struggle to make ends meet, hoping for even a small break that will pay the bills for a year (laughs) I keep in mind that it is a privilege because there are so many places in the world where you aren't even allowed to play muisc.
Since you and CINDY are a team, at least the musc press makes you out that way, could I interview her as well?
I was told much later on that I was actually the first person to ever interview singer CINDY WASSERMAN which I found surprising. Normally when you have a singer/front person with a penchant for being a bit mum towards press, it' for a good reason; they are dumb. However, this wasn't the case with WASSERMAN who seemed a little more relaxed than DRENNAN, which probably had something to do with the fact that a room had finally been secured for the band. There were so many things I wanted to aske her but the one observation that I had to get off of my chest was her likeness to STAR WARS-era CARRIE FISHER.
CINDY talked openly about being the only girl in the band and her hopes for a more collaborative effort on a forthcoming DEAD ROCK WEST project. Here is how it went.
How are you doing?
Doing good. Sorry I made you wait.
No problem. Where you sucessful at getting you guys a room?
Yes. It was very challenging because we had the reservations and the rooms weren't ready. Now we're staying at the lovely MOTEL 6.
The glamorous MOTEL 6. And they say life on the road is hard.
(Laughs) Where are you calling from?
Orange, California. You guys are based in San Diego right?
No, Los Angeles. FRANK used to live in San Diego when I met him, but now he's lived in Los Angeles for about seven years, but people often say that we're from San Diego for some reason. I'm certain that it's because of him.
Or maybe the connection to the label POPULUXE.
That's true. Every other artist on POPULUXE is based out of San Diego.
How is the tour going for you?
It's been so amazing. It's been running so smoothly. I'm sure FRANK has already said that's it's such a joy to play with JOHN DOE. For me it's great because I get to open with my own band and I get to sing with JOHN DOE all night and I can't really dream of anything better than that.
You've worked with JOHN DOE before, right?
I have. A few years ago we did a double billed tour with JOHN and GRANT LEE PHILLIPS and I worked in both bands there as well. That was fun and I was super excited to do it again. It's funny because even though it's challenging on the vocal cords, singing two sets a night and getting ready for all of those old X tunes, it's so much fun. I'm glad that we got yesterday and today off to rest my voice but we've got 15 straight days in a row coming up, but doing only one set seems so easy now. It's hard on the voice but JOHN never seems to lose his voice. It's miraculous. But the last time that I toured with JOHN and GRANT LEE, I didn't have this problem. Maybe it causes me a little more anxiety, the fact that it's my band opening, and merchandising. It's a much more involved than simply being in another persons band. If that makes sense.
Has anyone ever pointed out your resemblance to CARRIE FISHER?
Oh my God!. That has not happened to me until this year. It's happened about five times now. How funny is that?
All you need is the buns in your hair and it's 1977 all over again.
I'll have to go back and watch the first STAR WARS. But yeah, nobody ever told me that until this year. I'll take it as a compliment.
It is a compliment. CARRIE FISHER/PRINCESS LEIA is a godess!
I love it. (Laughs)
I'll even put in a picture of CARRIE FISHER at the end of this interview so readers can decide for themselves
Your gonna have to let me know when you're doing it.
Absolutely. Before DEAD ROCK WEST you worked with RICKIE LEE JONES -
That's right, RICKIE LEE JONES, and GRANT LEE PHILLIPS for a chunk of time. I'm on the newest MARK OLSEN record that came out the same day that JOHN DOE's CD came out and a lot of San Diego people like GREGORY PAGE and TOM BRUSOE who is now an LA guy and numerous other local people you never would've heard of. I had my own band in there for a while; a short-lived thing called STARBELLY.
Oh that's a horrible name!
I know, I hate saying it. I was actually stuttering before I said the name.
I heard the hesitation.
This is the funnest interview I've ever had!
It's so much fun, that I haven't asked you any real serious questions yet. The CD HONEY AND SALT is out now. How do you feel about it?
I'm really excited because for so long we were gigging in Los Angeles and we didn't have anything to sell and had nothing to talk about. Now, it's nice to have something to talk about. Now it's a little daunting to think that we have to do another one. This CD took us a good chunk of time just because we recorded it to tape which I'm sure FRANK already talked about. Now, I'm sort of spoiled by recording to tape because the end result is so great. I'm still hoping to keep that happening for the next one.
You come from a very musical family.
That's right! My brother is a great bass player and I'm his biggest fan. He's played with everybody under the sun and I have had the luck of getting tag along with him to almost everything since I could remember. Since he's my older brother, he kind of brought me along to everything and I don't think it was until I was in my twenties when I realized "Wow! This is really cool!" When he started playing with people like LOU REED and ELVIS COSTELLO, and RICKIE LEE JONES, and NEIL YOUNG back in 1989, I became his roadie. I was like "Bring me along to your session and I'll carry your bass." It was actaully funny because it was a stand up bass. And he let me carry it! What a mean brother (laughs). I pretty much learned from the school of WASSERMAN because I never had any formal training unlike my brother who had a ton of proper training. I learned by watching and messing up.
It doesn't sound like music was discouraged.
No. My parents were very encouraging. We were so lucky that way. My dad was a dentist and my mom is in real estate now but was a housewife at the time and they always encouraged us in whatever we wanted to do. I also think that because my brother did it and was successful, they probably figured that I could do it as well. I never asked them, but I'm sure that's what it is. That's my theory anyway.
Growing up, what music got to you.
By the time I was five, my brothers were kind of out of the house so I inherited alot of their record collections. In the begining I listened to pretty much whatever was left in the house - a ton of BEATLES and a lot of BEACH BOYS and MOTOWN, ELVIS PRESLEY and LED ZEPPELIN. This is gonna sound sort of cliche but I'm a huge BEATLES fan. I just became obsessed from a very young age. I've only recently stopped my obsessive listening 'cause I realized there are other things out there. There were also the STONES and early ELTON JOHN. All of the other guys in the band make fun of me because of it. So there you go.
What it like being the only girl in the band?
I'm so used to it. Even with the GRANT LEE/ JOHN DOE experience I was the only girl. I'm used to being the only girl. I grew up with two older boys. I grew up being a tomboy trying to fit in with the guys. Unfortunately, they treat me like I'm one of the guys. I don't know if that's good or bad. I'm probably much more one of the guys than is probably healthy (laughs). It doesn't phase me really. There are only a few guys in the band who I won't name who have these real bad farting, burping thing going on. Then there is that one part of me that's really girlie that can't stand the constant farting. But when I get back into the real world and have ladies to hang out with again, I have to re-adjust.
You have to hold your farts in.
From HONEY AND SALT are there any tracks that sort of stand outfor you.
For me, I'd have to say the ones that the section quartet played on like HIGHWAY ONE and ALL I KNOW.
HIGHWAY ONE is the best opener!
Oh thank you!
It's starts off quietly and you don't know where it's going to go and then the chorus kicks in with "DO YOU STILL RIDE ON HIGHWAY ONE?" and it's great! Another one that jumped out at me is BURNING HOUSE OF LOVE. I thought I was the only one that remembered that song. That was from X's pop period.
It was. I'm a big X fan. Me and FRANK had a lot of CD's around and that song jumped out at us. That song is another one that I would pick if I could pick a third.
How many more dates do you have of this tour?
That last date is the tenth of August. Then we've got a show on August 25th where we do the DEAD ROCK WEST / JOHN DOE thing.
What kind of direction would you like to go in on your second album?
Not having talked to the other guys, I can speak for myself. I'd like to stay in the rock n roll vein, but at the same time I'd like for the next album to be a little more stripped down. Not that this album is huge with layer upon layer of stuff going on but I think that in hindsight it could've been a little more sparser. And that's what I'm kind of gearing up for for the second album. As far as songwriting goes, I just want to write good songs. For the album you have right now, It's mostly FRANK writing with other people and I've got a song on their that I co-wrote with someone. Alot of the songs were written prior to DEAD ROCK WEST. We've started writing more as a group and that's a goal for the next album.
We're aiming for a little more rock but I'm not afraid of our country roots.
What do you want someone to come away with after listening the music.
I'd like them to remember the songs and want to go back and re-listen. I'd like for a song to get stuck in their head and come back for more.