In spite of their young age, New Jersey band The Tea Club have already been around in various incarnations for almost a decade, and have already attracted the attention of the progressive rock fandom both in the US and in Europe. Their brilliant set at the 2011 edition of ProgDay confirmed them as one of the most exciting acts on the modern prog scene, and the recent release of their third album, Quickly, Quickly, Quickly, is quite likely to consolidate their position. To celebrate this new milestone in their promising musical career, brothers/band founders Dan and Pat McGowan and drummer Joe Rizzolo have kindly agreed to answer some of my questions about the past, the present and the future of the band.
As your site includes some very thorough biographical info about The Tea Club, I will skip the usual introductory question about the origins of the band, and go instead for something less usual (and perhaps loaded). Why did you decide to play progressive rock, instead of opting for a trendier – and possibly more financially profitable – genre?
Dan: The music that we wrote when we first started the band was a little more accessible, but that might be because the songs we wrote when we first started out were simpler. We took a whole bunch of different influences. Some of it was King Crimson and Yes. But our whole thing was that we weren’t hearing the kind of music that we wanted to hear coming from new bands, so we tried to make it ourselves. We saw a lot of other people in bands that were trying to intentionally do something in a style that was trendy or popular, and instead of achieving any popularity, they would just wind up looking like people who were pretending to be a popular band, and it was just uncomfortable for everyone involved. There are a billion bands that already have that exact idea. Bands that are in a better position than you are. Bands that have more money, who are better- looking, who are already connected in the business. So in our experience, there seemed to be no point in dumbing down our music to be more accessible and make something that isn’t all that it could be. We decided that it’s better to just make music for ourselves, and chances are, there are people who are just as crazy as we are who are going to get it. And they might even give you some of their money to support you because you have the balls to try to make something unique.
Joe: I enjoy composing and performing all styles of music and progressive rock lends itself to including many of these styles in a rock setting. Harking to what Dan said, composing music, in my humble opinion, is done best by throwing out all genres and gates that are put around it. To truly create something unique and interesting, you must draw from all experiences musical and otherwise and include them in your music. Whether you end up being described as a progressive group or a techno-pop-rock-indie band is up to those who listen.
Pat: I think a lot of bands are afraid of the word “prog” and all it entails. I am not. I fully embrace it because in my mind all it means is that we are “progressing”. Everything else associated with “prog” is for people to argue about in forums. I’m only interested in getting better as a musician/artist and having the freedom to do so.
Let’s talk a bit about names. Why did you choose that particular name for your band?
Dan: Pat came up with The Tea Club and it was the one name that everyone in the band liked. We are notoriously terrible at naming things.
Pat: I didn’t want a band name that gave you a hint as to what our music was gonna sound like. Some bands names kind of give it away but I wanted a more ambiguous name so we could do whatever the hell we wanted to.
Judging from the eclecticism of your sound, you listen to a lot of different music. What are your main influences, inside and outside the prog spectrum?
Dan: When it comes to prog rock, I love pretty much everything that King Crimson has ever done. I love 70’s Yes and Genesis, Gentle Giant, PFM, Magma, Van Der Graaf Generator… I think even a lot of the bands that I like that aren’t “prog” are still kind of “proggy”. Bands like Trail of Dead, Sunny Day Real Estate, Flaming Lips, Doves, Radiohead, Björk… bands that are in that twilight area where it’s not quite prog rock epic but it’s still adventurous and extremely emotionally moving. What else… Well, I love Nick Drake, The Beatles, Tom Waits, Jeff Buckley… I like a lot of old 90’s grunge like Soundgarden and Nirvana and Alice in Chains. I’m a pretty big Michael Jackson fan too. I’m also really into old video game music. Koji Kondo, Keiichi Suzuki, Dave Wise, Grant Kirkhope, these are all guys that are musical geniuses in my eyes. And I love Danny Elfman’s film scores from the 80’s and 90’s too.
Pat: I’m pretty much gonna second everyone Dan mentioned. I’ve been listening to a lot of Todd Rundgren lately as well as The Tubes and The Cardiacs. I love a lot of classical music, jazz, Motown and R&B. Some of my favorites are Marvin Gaye, The Temptations, Smokey Robinson, Stevie Wonder, The Heartbeats, The Orioles, and James Brown. Some of my favorite composers at the moment are Ravel, Stravinsky, Debussy, Handel, Shostakovich, Bartok, Schubert, Shoenberg, Berlioz, and Wagner.
Joe: Everything and everyone.
Though I am aware that this is a bit of a hot-button issue, this is a question that I find it hard to resist. I saw you perform as a six-piece, and I thought that the additional band members added a lot to your sound. What is the deal with all those lineup changes? Do they affect your songwriting process?
Dan: Well, it’s been a different situation for every person who’s been in the band and then left. Being in a band is a relationship, and any kind of relationship with other human beings is going to be an extremely complicated thing. Everyone’s different. You can’t predict what’s going to happen when you have a group of people playing music together. It’s all part of the craziness that comes with being an artist.As far as the songwriting goes, everyone who’s ever been in the band has contributed to the music and brought their own unique personality and soul into it. But that’s part of the beauty of being in a band; how people interact with each other and what they bring out in each other. It’s unpredictable. All I know is that I’m extremely excited about the lineup that we have right now. I’m really looking forward to writing music with these guys.
Pat: A fluctuating line-up has its blessings and its curses. The first 5 King Crimson records are great examples of them all. You can hear the triumphs and failures in those albums of what comes with re-inventing a band from record to record. You also get a very powerful glimpse of what can happen with a (semi) stable line-up in the last three records of that period. The Beatles would be the go-to example for that. So we’ve had to balance those blessings and curses over the years. The goal is to be always balancing, but never achieving balance (my fortune cookie philosophy moment of the interview…). The vision that Dan and I share for The Tea Club is a musical world where things are constantly changing, and moving, and (dare I say) progressing. For some musicians that’s a terrible place to be, for others (like Joe) it’s the only place they want to be. So, sometimes things happen and you don’t all see eye to eye and a decision has to be made. All the musicians who have passed through this band are great players and gave their all to help us make some great music. I respect them all and the decisions we made.
Are you planning to continue as a trio, or have you already contacted some prospective new members?
Dan: We have a new bassist named Jamie Wolff and a new keyboardist named Renee Pestritto, and it’s going really well. Right now we’re just focusing on playing the stuff from Quickly Quickly Quickly and Rabbit, but we’ve already started to throw around some new stuff, and I’m extremely encouraged by the sounds that we’re making.
Pat: It’s a very exciting time right now. There are all kinds of ideas and music flying around. Jamie and Renee are wonderful players with big ears and at this moment the sky’s the limit. I’m looking forward to seeing how touring will grow the band and develop the ideas into new music.
Are any of you professional musicians, or otherwise involved with the music industry for your day job? What is your view of the current state of affairs that, to all intents and purposes, does not allow most non-mainstream artists to make a living out of their music?
Dan: Me and Pat don’t have any kind of musical training, so basically everything that we’ve done musically has gone into The Tea Club. So far it’s been easier for us to work a simple job during the day, just make the money to pay for rent so we have a place to make music and art. If that’s what I have to do to make sure that the band has a place to practice, then so be it. As long as it isn’t interfering with my music, or something that makes me start treating the band like it’s something that needs to take a back seat.
Pat: Whoa, those are loaded questions! Again, I believe it’s a matter of balancing the good and the bad. In some ways I’m immensely grateful we’ve had to work dead -end day jobs. There are things that you learn from being ‘in the kitchen’ that you would absolutely never understand without spending some time there. And for a musician/artist those lessons can enrich your art in a way that cannot be imitated. I think popular or ‘mainstream’ music in general could benefit from spending some time pumping gas.Of course the downside is the toll it takes on your personal life. But it forces you to be real and if this is your path it separates the hobbyists from the lifers. For some it’s a price you must be willing to pay. No one is making us do this. We are CHOOSING to endure all the insanity. But very good things are starting to happen for us and there does come a time to get out of ‘the kitchen’ because staying there too long can become a trap. Once you get past the fear of not ‘making it’ you come to terms with the real reasons why you’re doing what you’re doing. And, in my opinion that’s when you become dangerous.
The current state of the non-mainstream music scene encourages artists to stick together in order to promote and perform their music. Do you have any ongoing collaboration with other bands or artists in your area, or elsewhere in the US?
Dan: Sure, there’s a bunch! There’s some amazing music happening around us. And for me, it’s easier to believe in the music when you know the people and you see the hard work they’re putting into it. Rexedog, Thank You Scientist, Goodnight Lights, Suit of Lights, Craig van Hise, Banned Books, Advent, Changing Modes, and Rasputin’s Secret Police are some of my favorite acts that we’ve played with. And of course, those Echolyn gents.
Performing live is an essential part of your activity, as anyone who has seen you on stage will not fail to realize. Is it hard for you to find gigs (as it usually is for prog musicians), or does the “modern” component of your music give you access to a wider range of opportunities?
Dan: We’ve been able to play some really great shows. We’ve played with some interesting bands in these cool little venues in Philly. I suspect that some people might find it kind of hilariously awesome when they see us play, and they might be thinking, whoa these guys are in their 20’s and they have the balls to sabotage their careers and sound like Yes! There are apparently some clubs in Philly who literally refuse to book “prog rock” bands though, which is pathetic. There is still a hilarious stigma about “prog rock”. I still read it in certain music magazines and reviews. You can’t do this or that because that’s “proggy” and you’re not allowed to sound like prog rock or else no one will like you. It’s kind of like, well you want to sit at the cool kids table right? But I think that limiting what you are and are not allowed to like or write or play will ALWAYS suck. All I know is that when prog rock is great and it hits, it hits hard and it leaves a lasting impression. Like Close to the Edge or “Gates of Delirium” or “Supper’s Ready”. Those moments where imagination and musicianship come together to create something that is almost impossible not to be moved by. Maybe college kids don’t dance to it, but I don’t think any form of rock music has EVER moved me the way that prog rock has at its best.
Pat: I’m consistently surprised by the shows we get and the shows we don’t get that we really thought we would get. We manage to get away with a lot and play places I never thought we would, but we do tend to stand out musically just about everywhere we play. Sometimes it can be quite hilarious.
What about your most important live experiences so far – your ProgDay appearance and the mini-tour with Beardfish?
Pat: There are countless things to learn at every show and if you want to be a great live band you must look for them. Years ago we did a live radio show and minutes before we began the vocal monitoring system died. We were in a small room with all our gear playing at full volume singing into mics that were plugged directly into the radio station’s soundboard and going live over the air without being able to hear our voices AT ALL. We had to play for 90 minutes like that. We overcame it and played a pretty damn good show but you can’t prepare for things like that. You have to get through it and each show builds your confidence.ProgDay was a challenge because it’s a very smart crowd and they know your music and are expecting you to be great. Many, many great bands have played that festival and much of the audience comes back year after year. They’ve seen good bands and they’ve seen truly great bands and the burden was on us to rise to the occasion.The Beardfish shows taught us many things. Watching how they play to their audience was incredible. It forever changed my understanding of the relationship between audience and performer. They were brilliant and I learned a lot.Our most recent NJ Proghouse show was something of a milestone for me. We did not play it safe in preparation for that show. It was our first performance since releasing Quickly Quickly Quickly and we went for broke. There were 4 part vocal harmonies, multiple keyboard players, improvisation without any visual cues: stuff that we avoided in the past. I learned a lot from that show as well, but most importantly I learned that we must be progressing as a live band just as much as we are as a studio band. A musician at the end of the day is a performer and that is an art all to itself.
Let us talk a bit about your new album – starting with its title. As I wrote in my review, I applaud your decision of not releasing 80 minutes of music, though other artists would have done so without too many qualms. How did you end up writing so much material?
Dan: Well, like I mentioned earlier, we are horrible at naming things. It took forever to name Quickly Quickly Quickly. No exaggeration, there were probably about 100 titles we were throwing around that would have been really good titles, but we just couldn’t decide on one. With naming an album, just like naming a band, there’s a lot of pressure. It has to be memorable, it has to sum up the album or at least fit with the album in some way, and everyone has to agree on it. And it had to match the album cover that Kendra DeSimone made too, and that album cover is just beautiful. For me, there was so much riding on it that eventually I started coming up with really silly names because I wasn’t having any fun. “Canine Suspect” was one I came up with. “Fleas on a Crab” was another one. When I get to that point I’m pretty much out of the picture, I just become useless.
Pat: Dan and I always have to be working on “the next thing” whatever that may be. More often than not it’s new music and the compulsion can borderline on mania. For me personally I have difficulty with down time. If a few days go by and I don’t have anything creative I’m working on I start to get very anxious. Being productive is essential and after we finished Rabbit it was essential to our survival. There were a lot of difficulties going on at that time (both band related and not) and we had no outlet that felt productive other than to write. So we wrote a lot of music. The band could have very easily ceased to be during that time but the new music would not be denied.That’s a reason why I love the album title so much. It sums up what we were going through. Also, just to go on the record, there was a night or two there where I actually considered “Fleas on a Crab” as an album title.
Unlike many other prog bands, you put a lot of attention into the lyrics. Where do you get your inspiration?
Dan: From my experience, inspiration is an extremely mysterious and spiritual thing. It can come from anywhere and everywhere and I can’t force it to happen. When I’m writing lyrics, I tend to feel like it’s not good unless it feels like it has come through me and not from me. Like I’m just guiding words together that are supposed to come together. I think more than anything, I’m good at recognizing what’s inspired and what’s not. Sometimes there will be weeks where I create absolutely nothing of worth, because I have no inspiration. And then suddenly it’s there. And it can come from something as serious as a panic attack or the death of a loved one, to something as silly as an old cartoon or an inside joke. Or just from nowhere at all. I don’t understand it. I believe that it comes from God. It’s one of the most important ways that I can connect with God. But I don’t understand it.
Pat: I read a lot and I read on a variety of subjects. I love to pick weird topics that interest me and drink them in with the goal of mixing them all together and seeing what comes out of it. It’s that fascinating struggle between discerning randomness and specific intent. It’s really just a lot of fun to give your conscious and subconscious a voice and try to navigate your way through the insanity. For me, going to that place is a bizarre way of worshiping God. But it’s very important for the words to be meaningful. I love poetry that is nonsensical but I also love poetry that seems nonsensical or whimsical but is really loaded with deep meaning. We’ve tried to provide many a long and mystical night for those interested in such things.
The visual aspect of your albums also deserves a mention. Do you see the artwork as a necessary complement to your music?
Dan: Definitely. It’s totally essential to creating our own little Tea Club world. I plan on integrating it more and more for years to come. I’ve been working a lot on music videos for our songs, messing around with things like stop motion animation and puppets. I don’t really know what I’m doing, I don’t have any experience with animation or film, but it’s a lot of fun and it’s turning out surprisingly well. But it’s SO much work if you really want it to turn out even remotely watchable, and I have the utmost respect for people who can really do it well.
Pat: My favorite records are ones where you are pulled into the weird little microcosm the band creates. I love the cover to the King Crimson album Lizard. I would stare at that cover all night as I listened to the record and try to find the hidden meanings and references to the lyrics. I was pulled into that record. The same thing could be said for Kid A by Radiohead. The art for that record is nightmarish and perfectly fits the atmospheres created by the music. I remember the first time we discovered the hidden booklet behind the disc tray, it was like Thom Yorke had accidentally included his diary in our CD. My connection with the music only deepens when I find those little breadcrumb trails bands leave behind. I want to offer that experience to our audience and it’s been especially enjoyable for us since we do almost all the art ourselves.
Have you ever been in touch with a label, or are you happy with releasing your music independently?
Dan: I’d like to work with a label, but it would have to be a label that can legitimately do something for us that we can’t do ourselves. And if that doesn’t happen, we’re just going to have to keep going, even if people think we’re completely delusional in the idea of trying to make a career out of a supposedly unmarketable product. We have faith that people will get what we’re doing.
Pat: We’ve had contact with a number of labels but the right offer hasn’t come our way yet. I’m certainly open to the idea of working with a good label that understands what we’re doing. But we’ll keep doing this on our own whether anyone helps us or not.
When can we expect to hear the second half of the recording sessions that produced Quickly, Quickly, Quickly?
Dan: Soon, but probably not as soon as we were originally thinking!
Pat: A lot has happened since QQQ was released. Plans have changed many times but the music endures. We hope to have a new record out sometime next year.
What are your plans for the next few months? Are there any live appearances in the pipeline?
Dan: We’ll be playing the Terra Incognita Festival in Quebec City this May, which is extremely exciting! This will be the first time that we’ve ever played a show outside of the United States, so we’re really looking forward to that.
Pat: We’re booking a lot of shows right now and will be doing some touring in the summer. We also hope to be back in the studio by the end of the year. There’s a lot going on right now and it’s a very busy time for us but that’s just how we like it. QQQ has done us a lot of good and there’s plenty more on the horizon for us and for the fans.
Thank you so very much for your answers, and all the best for your future ventures!
Dan: Thank you Raff!
Pat: Great questions, this was a lot of fun!