JOIN THE BAND: THE WALCOTTS MAKE BIG, BEAUTIFUL NOISE
BY: JIM VILLANUEVA
The Los Angeles-based, baseball team sized sonic carnival known as The Walcotts is a nine-piece unit that skillfully weaves a tapestry of tasty influences into a delicious gumbo of great music. Tom Cusimano, the unit’s founding member, frontman and guitarist notes that his band took its name from a deep cut by The Band, and in doing so laid the foundation for a sound that is as indescribable as it is infectious. “Stylistically I think we touch a little bit on a bunch of genres,” says Cusimano, who when pressed will concede that his group does owe a debt of gratitude for the musical ground laid down by The Band and Little Feat. “It’s a mix of R&B and soul and rock and country and blues and New Orleans jazz.” In other words – just the good stuff.
Soon fans who have already experienced The Walcotts’ super-sized stage show will be able to take the group’s musical menu to-go when they release their (tentatively self-titled) debut album later this year. In a recent conversation, Cusimano wet the band’s fans’ audio appetite by discussing some of the tracks on the forthcoming collection, which include the appropriately titled “Let Me Take You Home Tonight,” “Let the Devil Win,” “Should’ve Been Me” and their take on Little Feat’s “Spanish Moon,” among others.
Tom, thanks for calling. I appreciate your time today. In case your publicist didn’t tell you, I saw you guys open for Chris Stapleton (November 13, 2015) in Chico, CA.
Oh, that’s great. That was a fun, fun show. The crowd was awesome. We took a videographer with us and I’ve seen footage from that show and that crowd was just fun. We had a great time that night.
So let me begin with a couple of in-depth, hard-hitting questions, starting with this one: how does a baseball team-sized band fit into one bus when you’re on the road (laughs)?
(Laughs) Yeah, umm, not comfortably (laughs). Not comfortably at all. We don’t even have a bus, we rented a van. It’s tight, it’s real cozy (laughs). We had 10 people – nine of us in the band and then the videographer, so it was a tight squeeze. It took a little bit of logistics, but everyone’s a good sport.
One more hard-hitting question before we really get serious: how do you split the bill at the bar?
(Laughs) I ask for somebody else’s credit card and charge it to them (laughs)!
Alright, well tell us about the formation of the band, for those who are just getting to know The Walcotts.
Sure. So the drummer Jim Olson and the fiddle player Devin Shea and I have been playing together for a long time. I’ve been playing with Jim for about 13 years, and we’ve been playing with Devin for about seven or eight years, and we actually had a band that couldn’t get arrested (laughs). I was relocating from San Diego back to L.A. and I was like, let’s just put this to bed. Jim lives in San Francisco and he came down to go see a Bruce Springsteen concert – we’re all big Springsteen fans – and I had been working on some songs…and Rami Jaffee (The Wallflowers, Foo Fighters) has this really cool studio, and so we went in and had a blast and we cut six songs…four of which were Walcotts, essentially, but we weren’t a band. We didn’t have a name or anything. Then because of our old band, we always get asked to play at Humphrey’s By the Bay down in San Diego. So I got the call and they asked if we wanted to open up for America. I was like, well we don’t have that band any more, but I’ve got this thing; I don’t really know what it is and we don’t have a name, and they said, great. So I texted everybody who was gonna be able to do the show and we started throwing around ideas for band names. And I’m a huge fan of The Band…and I was literally flipping thru The Band catalog and listening to tracks and stuff and saw “The W.S. Walcott Medicine Show.” So I said, what about The Walcotts and everybody was like, yeah! And thus The Walcotts were born and our first gig was opening up for America.
That’s cool. Quick anecdote: the very first album I ever bought with my own money was America’s Homecoming.
Oh wow! Those guys are awesome. We’ve been very lucky. So that’s how it started. We made this EP and I gave it to a few friends, including one who’s a music supervisor, and she placed one of the songs in a TV show. So we decided to keep at it and we kept recording and playing.
For the uninitiated, give us your best description of what The Walcotts sound entails.
Stylistically I think we touch a little bit on a bunch of genres. The best thing I could say is that we’re a big nine-piece with horns, pedal steel, violin, electric guitar and Hammond organ. So there’s a little bit of The Band, there’s a little bit of Little Feat, there’s a little bit of New Orleans, there’s a little bit of Bruce Springsteen and there’s a little bit of Fleetwood Mac because we’ve got the duel male-female lead vocals. It’s a mix of R&B and soul and rock and country and blues and New Orleans jazz. I was raised by a DJ (father); I was just told everything was rock and roll (laughs).
And I can personally attest that you can add a whole lotta fun to that sound that you guys put out from the stage – and soon enough – on a new record. Let me take you back even further, Tom. When you flip the switch from music fan to music maker? Did you experience your personal sonic big bang? Did you have one of those moments?
I think I had a couple of key moments that kind of led me down the path. One being that I had to move in the middle of high school. My dad lost his job and got a new one about four hours away. I grew up in Vermont and was very fortunate to ski a lot, but where we moved in upstate New York it was very, very flat…so there was not a lot to do during the winter months. My brother had played guitar, and he had gone off to college, and he had left a couple of guitars at home…so I just started plugging in this old, crappy electric guitar into a karaoke machine for an amplifier. I just started learning chords, you know as just like something to do. I was always into music; I was always that kid who got asked about classic rock bands and stuff cuz my dad had raised me like that. I was probably the only kid in fifth grade who could of told you who Dion & The Belmonts and The Temptations [were] and still knew about grunge rock and all that stuff. And then I remember watching Woodstock, the movie, I was like 15, and watching the Hendrix part and I just remember seeing him with that white Stratocaster with the maple neck and being like, that’s it! I want that guitar! I want that funky, whatever that is, I want that! So those two things combined, when I was in high school, really sent me down that path.
So you’ve mentioned Little Feat and The Band. What’s the secret to channeling those great groups while cooking up your own, well, “Rad Gumbo” and making the music sound your own?
I think the idea to creating something like that is really trying not to think about it, because I think if you try to channel something like that you’re just gonna do it an injustice. I don’t think I’ve really ever sat down and said, I wanna write a song like this, but I’ve definitely, after I’ve written a song, said I think it’d be great if we had it sound like this. So it’s not so much of like, let’s make a song like that song, as it is let’s use a similar palette as they may have used to create that song.
Gotcha! Well let’s talk about some songs. I’ve had a link to the forthcoming album (sample HERE) for several weeks now. You guys have cut your version of Little Feat’s “Spanish Moon.” Tell me about picking that song and what flavor you thought you could add to that particular tune.
Well “Spanish Moon” was kind of an anomaly because I was at SXSW and I was at an event…and unbeknownst to me Lowell George’s son was at that party…and he was potentially gonna put together this tribute to his dad. And so I met Luke and he was like, would you guys want to do something? And I said, of course, I would love to do “Spanish Moon,” because it’s just so funky. So we went in and spent 6-8 hours in the studio and that’s how it happened. I was so happy that we had Luke’s blessing on the song, and he was there at the session with us. We kind of sat on it for a bit, we play it live all the time, and I will forever count that as one of the coolest things I’ve done.
You guys are getting ready to serve up your full-length debut album. Is there an update that you can give me on a projected release date?
It’s done. We’re in the process of working out some distribution and because of it being the holidays we just had to chill out for a few weeks. But hopefully it will be sometime this year. I would love to tell you when (laughs). I would love to know myself.
If you don’t mind, I’d like to ask you about a few of the tracks on the record, since I’ve had the pleasure and privilege of living with it for a few weeks.
Appropriately perhaps, horns are front and center on the stomp with Satan called “Let the Devil Win.” Talk a bit about getting that track together, and why are you conceding defeat to the devil, Tom (laughs)?
(Laughs) Jamison Hollister, who co-writes a lot of tunes with me, came over and I’ve had that guitar riff for like 10 years. He came over and I was just doing that and I was like, you know what, I’ve gotta do something with this at some point in my life, or it’s gonna bug the s**t out of me (laughs). And he was playing mandolin and I was playing finger style on my National (guitar) and it just kinda swung and it kinda popped. And I think we just started mumbling lyrics back and forth to one another, and I think at one point I think I just kicked off going (singing) “Hey sweet mama, I wrote this rag for you.” And that’s where the whole idea came from. We’re working on a music video for that one right now.
“Our Part of Town” is one I like a lot, too. For me it paints a similar picture that so many Springsteen songs do. What’s the backstory to this track?
Actually, that’s funny cuz you’re picking the ones that are Jamison and I sitting down, primarily. I think both of those songs are written in about a week of each other. That one came together really fast. We just started playing that riff…and I think it just kinda sprung from [the fact that] he had just moved to my part of town, and so it just kind of naturally came from that. I layered a 12-string acoustic, I layered this mini 12-string mando-electric guitar thing that I have and just made it jangle out a bit, almost like a Byrds song, or like a Tom Petty song.
Introduce us to the namesake of the song “Phineas Gage,” for those who don’t know the historical fact behind it, and him.
As I mentioned before, I’m from Vermont and there’s this very famous story of this guy named Phineas Gage who worked on building train tracks back in the 1800’s, who literally had a rod iron shot thru his head and survived for like 10 or 20 years afterwards. Especially in that time in history, how did someone survive such an injury? He went on to lead a somewhat normal life. He travelled all over the world. So basically I don’t know what got in my head about it, but I said I wanna write a song about this guy. And so everything in the song is 100 percent accurate as far as we know from the history that we looked up on the internet (laughs). It’s all very factual. It’s a fun song.
Yeah, it’s great sonically; great story. And of course I went to the internet to look this guy up because I’d never heard of him. It’s a fascinating story.
There’s a little museum dedicated to him in Vermont.
The album has back-to-back tracks about travel and spending time in two cities. The first is called “Helping Hand (Austin, 4AM)” and the second is “Coalinga.” I can totally understand writing about the well-known music mecca of Austin, but why did you pen a song about a tiny town located in an isolated area of California’s Central Valley?
Well if your car broke down there and all you had was your guitar and you were stuck in a Motel 6 for a couple of days (laughs), you might write a song about it, too (laughs). And that’s exactly what happened. That is one of my oldest songs. I wrote that by myself, in a motel room in Coalinga back in 2003. My dad was flying to Santa Rosa, just outside of San Francisco, for a job interview, and I hadn’t seen my dad for a while. So I was like, screw it, I’m gonna drive to Santa Rosa, I’m gonna have dinner with my dad and then I’m gonna drop him off at the airport and then I’m gonna drive back to L.A. So that’s what I did. I was gonna drive thru the night back to Los Angeles and all of a sudden, this car that I’d had for like 28 days, all of the gages on the dashboard just started spinning; just like out of a cartoon. I thought I was trippin’ out. And it was like one in the morning, so I pulled off right away. I’m literally 200 miles from L.A. and 200 miles from San Francisco. I had my guitar, cuz I never left home without my guitar. No joke, I wrote that entire song in like no less than 20 or 30 minutes. It was one of the most cathartic things I’ve ever done in my entire life. It’s very factual, very autobiographical. And that’s how I ended up writing a song about that funny smelling little town (laughs).
Well the silver lining is that you got a great song out of it. I’m gonna ask you about one more song and that is the lovely, lap steel, fiddle-filled “Instead,” which just might be my favorite cut on the album. What was the inspiration for this one?
“Instead” was actually the first song for the band. I keep talking about that National guitar, and in fact, I swear I’m gonna play that tonight cuz I’ve talked about it so much today…
I love that sound! I’m a sucker for that sound.
Me, too. I’m a huge Mark Knopfler fan and he plays a lot of National guitar and I like the way he does it with finger-style picking and that’s a big influence on me. And so I was just messing around with this (song) and it sounds so beautiful on this guitar. I basically took that tune and the initial sentiment of, like, I’m growing up, I’m trying to find that space between teenager, early 20s and middle age. Who am I? Where am I going? Am I in love? Am I not in love? You know, that general angst that we all have, probably from 25 to 45 (laughs). And that’s where it really stems from. That’s a burner, as I like to call them. It builds and it’s got a good dynamic, I think.
Boy, after hearing your description of the sessions and how the song came together, I think officially it is my favorite on the record. And I could now, as you were describing it, how live it could build and build and build and you could stretch that out onstage. So I guess, since you said that was the first song for the band, that song brings us full circle.
Yeah, I had actually forgotten about the order of all those. You know it’s funny, (album closing track) “Instead” was the first thing I started working on and (album opening track) “Should’ve Been Me” was literally finished two days before the session.
Well I started with a couple of fun questions to begin the conversation, and I’ll finish with another one. If the classic Little Feat and The Band lineups were playing in town on the same night, which show would you go to?
Oh s**t man! Man, I don’t know. God, I’m gonna lose sleep over that tonight. That’s a tough one. I, I don’t know. Do I really have to answer this? This is unfair (laughs).
I guess you don’t have to answer, but boy, now you got me curious (laughs).
I don’t wanna answer because I don’t know. I guess if you ask me today, because I listened to The Band a little bit earlier – “(I Don’t Want To) Hang Up My Rock ‘n Roll Shoes” came up on my iTunes – so I think maybe today I’d go with The Band, but tomorrow if Waiting For Columbus comes on I might give you a different answer (laughs).
Alright, well again, thanks for the time, Tom. It’s been a pleasure.
Sounds good, man. I really enjoyed the chat. Thanks so much.