With their second album available now, Dave Derby gives FRUK an exclusive insight into his musical history and some of the things that feed into and inspire Gramercy Arms.
Tell me about your musical history. What got you started? What were the things that fed into your musical education?
I grew up in Hawaii in a very musical family. My dad, his siblings and my grandparents all played traditional Hawaiian music. My mom was really into country and Burt Bacharach. I think a lot of those early influences rubbed off on me. 70s pop radio was also pretty great. One of the most significant moments of my musical education was inheriting my uncle’s mostly classic rock record collection. T Rex, Hendrix and the Mothers of Invention, The Who Sell Out and Quadrophenia blew my young mind. I started taking guitar lessons when I was about 12 and started writing songs shortly after that.
What was the music scene like on Hawaii? How did the classic Dambuilders line up come together?
There has always been a vibrant music scene for traditional Hawaiian music and since the 80s a pretty strong reggae scene. Punk and everything post-punk kind of fluctuated on and off. When I was in Hawaii I was lucky to be in the midst of a thriving independent post-punk scene. Believe it or not I played in a mod band! The Dambuilders grew out of a band we had in high-school called the Exactones that was inspired by listening to No Wave records from the Contortions and James White and the Blacks who we wrongly thought couldn’t play their instruments. We kept trying on different musical styles and by the time we made our first record as the Dambuilders for a Berlin-based label, we were all over the map with styles ranging from post-punk, new-wave to power-pop, Talking Heads-ish funk and REM type folk rock.
When did you make the move out east and what inspired the change of location?
When we got signed to a German label we decided we needed to relocate. It would have been too limiting to play the same clubs in Honolulu over and over again and would have been too expensive to tour. We toyed with other options but ended up in Boston largely because our guitarist Eric Masunaga’s then-girlfriend was living there and he ran out of money. Because we had all gone to college on the East Coast Boston seemed like a reasonable choice. NYC was a serious contender. Boston was a great place to start out though because there was so little else to do there in the late 80s and early 90s other than go out to see shows. It had a rollicking music scene in those days.
What has musical life like been since you made the switch and what have you worked on and who with?
Boston was where I really started my professional musical life. The Dambuilders went on some great tours in Europe, the US and Australia. I met Joan Wasser (Joan As Police Woman) when she was an undergrad at Boston University and Kevin March (Guided by Voices, Shudder to Think) when he had just graduated from college. I have continued to make music with them ever since. Tryan from the original Hawaii version of the band has become a successful director and directed the soon-to-be-released video for Beautiful Disguise. Through the Dambuilders I met and toured with a number of people I have been friends and collaborators with for years such as Hilken Mancini (Fuzzy, the Monsieurs), Kendall Meade (Mascott, Sparklehorse), Tanya Donnelly (Throwing Muses, the Breeders, Belly) Matthew Caws (Nada Surf), Sean Eden (Luna), Thom Monahan (the Pernice Brothers) Renee Lo Bue and Ray Ketchem (Elk City) and many others. I played in a side project called Kam Lung with Claudia Gonson (Magnetic Fields) who later introduced me to Lloyd Cole. Initially we talked about him producing my band Brilliantine but after a first session recording together he decided that I knew how to produce and that he’d rather be the keyboardist in the band. Shortly thereafter his bassist left his band I joined his band. We’ve been friends and collaborators ever since
How did the idea of Gramercy Arms come together? What were your thoughts about the sound you were aiming for?
When I was doing my first Brilliantine records I was doing everything myself. My friend Robbie Adams (U2 mixing engineer, producer) who mixed a few of my early songs gave me some great feedback saying that he felt like the songs felt a little lonely. “Why don’t you start making records with your friends?” was the simple question he asked me. Since then I’ve looked at writing, recording and all of the music I’ve made as “making music with my friends” like Willie Nelson says. It’s evolved more and more with each record I’ve done as they’ve become more and more collaborative.
One of the most significant developments in my career was meeting Tom Rose (Reveal Records). He’s been an amazing collaborator and has provided me with lots of wisdom and guidance. He has great vision and he and I have worked closely together in the evolution of Gramercy Arms and continue to do so.
I’ve read somewhere that New York is like the invisible member of the band, what are you trying to channel into Gramercy Arms?
I am hugely biased but I think New York is the greatest city in the world. It’s impossible to live there and not be constantly inspired or at least motivated by it in some way whether it’s negative or positive. For me it’s mostly positive. I have been in love with New York since I moved there in the mid-90s to shack up with my then girlfriend now wife. It has such a rich artistic history. Gramercy in particular is a really mysterious and magical place for me. It was where all the big actors lived before Hollywood became Hollywood. Bacall, Bogart and Cagney are some people who lived there. It’s not very big but it has a unique vibe to it.
Am I right in thinking that The Seasons Of Love took it’s time to come together? Is it hard to keep a focus on a project that involves so many people?
Yeah, it was a logistical challenge to get the record done. It was also a thing where I got more experimental with things. Tom Rose encouraged me to add horns and strings and once I introduced those layers it felt like the rest of the record needed special treatment. He and I joked that I was going a bit Brian Wilson on it towards the end but it became a thing where I had sunk so much time and effort into it that I had to keep working on it until I knew it was finished.
Tell me about your time with Lloyd Cole and what was it like working with him on this project?
Lloyd is a great friend and a fantastic collaborator. He has such great insights and can always pinpoint what’s working and what isn’t in a song. I have taken songs to him when I’ve been stuck and he’s managed to help me see how to make them work. He and I both spent a fantastic drunken weekend a couple of years ago where we played songs for each other and traded ideas and lyrical snippets. We both have very similar taste in music, humor and similar attitudes to drinking, so it’s always fun.
What was the first song that was written for the album and did it set the template?
I think it was the Season of Love. It has a simple, understated expansiveness to it that I thought set a good tone for what the record could and should be. The fact that it was largely based around Verena Wisendanger’s gorgeous French vocals set the tone in terms of collaboration. Tanya Donnelly took it to a different level when she sang her part on it.
The use of strings and horns is a really special feature. Who are the people you worked with and how did that come about?
I’ve always been a huge fan of strings. Led Zeppelin’s The Rain Song has always been a template for me. Joan in particular has always inspired me with her ability to arrange strings. She was unavailable and our mutual friend suggested I call up Joe McGinty to arrange. It was amazing to work with Joe and it made me wonder why I hadn’t worked with him before. Joe later replaced a lot of my keyboard parts with his playing because he’s so much better than me. Through Joe I met the incredibly talented and wonderful Claudia Chopek who has been playing violin and singing backing vocals with us live.
Is it possible to take this out on the road? Have you got any dates lined up? What other plans are there, both generally for you and for Gramercy Arms?
It will be hard to get the whole band together all the time but I intend to tour in the US and possibly UK/Europe later on. I’m still trying to figure out the best way to make this happen. We have some NY dates scheduled and I’m thinking about doing an East Coast US tour.
Interview by: Simon Holland