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The Gunboat Diplomats

Vann Hardin

This time at Radical Notes we
talk with a representative from the band the Gunboat Diplomats about songwriting and recording. The Gunboat Diplomats are a "song shop" which record songs in differing genres. Their first album Fine State of Affairs is a fun romp through varying song styles such as reggae, pop, girl group, and even rockabilly. Gunboat Smith was kind enough to answer our questions.

Roy: So how did all this start? The Gunboat Diplomats don’t seem like a regular band, how did they come to be?

Gunboat Smith: Thanks for the opportunity to talk music, Roy. Well, it all started long ago on a continent far, far away. I was stuck for a while in a remote location and, over time, I had a bunch of songs and song ideas stacked up in my head and on various scraps of paper. By the time I returned to the world of modern amenities, the songs had reached critical mass and I finally decided to take these little gremlins that had had been wandering around in my imagination and, for better or worse, record them for posterity. So I was a man on a mission to establish the right creative environment and to recruit local talent to have some fun in the studio and help bring the songs to life. And you're correct, The Gunboat Diplomats are definitely not a regular band. An "irregular" band would be a more apt description. Perhaps even irreverent...or irrelevant! Anyway, we have a core group that writes and arranges the music and a revolving cast of diplomats who graciously lend their talents to the songs. You know, the old record labels used to release singles from "bands" that were actually just a conglomeration of studio musicians. Songs like "Na Na Hey Hey, Kiss Him Goodbye" by Steam and "Beach Baby" by The First Class were hits, but there wasn't an actual team of performers who practiced together in the garage, called themselves a "band," and played gigs together. Steam and The First Class were basically made up of studio musicians who recorded one-off hits. In that same vein, we call ourselves a song shop, meaning that we are focused on creating fun songs in a variety of styles that we hope somebody out there will enjoy.

Roy: Do you write songs for the different singers or bring them in as needed for the material?

Gunboat Smith: These songs were actually written with the fantastical idea that John Lennon, Roy Orbison, or Eddie Cochran would sing them. Obviously, it would take a miracle to get them on our songs, literally. But that's what I heard in my head while creating them. All those acts I listened to on Don Kirshner's Rock Concert and Midnight Special, on my older sisters' records, or on the oldies stations inspired the writing. The soundtrack of my misspent youth. Anyway, once a song is composed and arranged, we look for a musician or performer that will provide the tone or general vibe we're after, like Paul Simon when he went to Jamaica to record "Mother and Child Reunion." We brought in Mystic Dino to sing our pop-reggae number "Something On My Mind." He's an experienced reggae performer and had a natural affinity to the feel and the rhythm of the genre and effortlessly improvised stuff that I couldn't have come up with even if you injected Desmond Dekker's brain cells into my skull. Once these talented performers get into the studio and begin doing their thing, they bring their own, unique elements into the mix. And it's often better than the original idea we were working on. So, within the structure of the song, there's a creative dynamic and an evolving synergy that is very fun and artistically satisfying. (By the way, I will not use the word "synergy" again for the rest of the interview. You're welcome.) I can't count the number of times a performer has finished a take and said, "Whoops, I didn't do what was on the scratch track." And our immediate reply is, "Keep doing that, for God's sake! It's terrific!" So the songs can change, turn a corner, or expand as we put them together. They end up carrying the spirit of the original influence while sounding like something slightly familiar, yet different. At least, we hope so!

Roy: Every songwriter has a different way they craft their material. Some wait until inspiration strikes and they complete a finished song in less than an hour, others labor over each verse for weeks until they get it the way they want. How do you go about writing a song?

Gunboat Smith: Often, a musical idea, a bit of a melody or a phrase, will hit me while I'm driving my car. I'll roll it over in my mind during the entire commute until suddenly I notice that I'm home. And I think to myself, "How did I get here? I just drove for thirty minutes, took three exits and passed four lights and six Stop signs, but I don't remember a bit of it." That's because my cerebral cortex went on auto-pilot and dealt with the incidental business of navigating through speeding traffic on the interstate while my frontal lobe took on the critical task of playing around with a song idea. I'm a danger to society, I tell ya! But the pieces of the puzzle might not fully come together for years. I notice that you interviewed local legend Mike Shackleford, who described his songwriting process as taking "from minutes to months and sometimes years to piece several unfinished songs together into the song I end up with." I can definitely relate to coming up with a verse, taking a chorus from another song and changing it enough to work, and then later stealing a bridge from some unfinished tune so I can stitch them together into a functioning Frankenstein song. And, yes, when it's done I yell, "It's ali-i-i-i-I've!" But every once in a while a song just drops out of nowhere fully formed, like going through a short, painless delivery and giving birth to an adult. Okay, I've used up all my good "songs are like Frankenstein and adult babies" analogies. Next question!

Roy: When you “feel a song coming on”—as one friend of mine calls it—do you jump on it or let it linger until you’re ready to work on it?

Gunboat Smith: I rarely have a chance to jump on it immediately, so it ends up lingering against my will. I worry that I'll lose it and never get it back again, but a good, strong musical idea will normally return to me before I forget it. (Memory is a strange thing, especially when it comes to music. For instance, I can't remember if I ate at a particular restaurant a year ago, but I can sing every word to "The Night Chicago Died" even though I haven't heard it in decades, and despite the fact that there's really no utilitarian reason for that great Paper Lace song to take up valuable space in my limited Random Access Memory. Hopefully, I'll go on Jeopardy one day and it will finally pay off: "I'll take 'Obscure 1970s One Hit Wonders' for a thousand, Alex.") But once I'm at the keyboard and in the midst of the creative process, furiously scribbling down chord progressions and ideas, I get tunnel vision. I feel driven to forego sleep until I complete it. Then I'll set it aside for a while, re-visit the composition weeks later, and realize that much of it is weak, or trite, or just complete rubbish. I agonize over particular words and syllables, searching for that perfect turn of phrase. I was reading the Paul Zollo book "Songwriters On Songwriting," in which he interviewed accomplished songwriters like Randy Newman and Laura Nyro, and one of them said, "You don't write a song, you rewrite a song." I think that's true. But sometimes the quixotic quest for the perfect three-syllable word drives me to the brink of insanity. In those cases, it's a race against time to complete the song before "those nice young men in their clean white coats are coming to take me away, ha-ha!" It's rather like a compulsion. Once the muse hits, that song is going to come out one way or the other.

Roy: You write in differing genres, do you decide that you’re going to write—let’s say a reggae song—and go from there or do you start with the lyrics and then decide what genre might work? Have you ever changed the genre of a song after it was written?

Gunboat Smith: Great question! My natural tendency is to write what I grew up listening to, which is mostly pop, rock and swing. In college, I worked at a station that played a lot of big band music and I grew to love the complex arrangements and the dynamic range those orchestras delivered, from moody, soft clarinet ballads to powerful brass tunes for jitterbugging. So I often unconsciously write in those genres as a temporary default starting point. Somewhere along the way, the phrasing or rhythm will suggest something different. The title track, "Fine State Of Affairs," began as a soul-infused Van Morrison tune, but when I came up with the simple horn motif, it decided to become this Harry Belafonte meets Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass thing. (Judging from the final vocal track, apparently Harry had a sore throat that day!) Then Ken Nasta laid down an upbeat, islandy drum pattern to make things fun. "Standup Guy" was going to be a humorous Gilbert O'Sullivan pop ditty, but that wasn't working and it morphed into a Doctor John and early J. Geils Band number with a blues harp. "Obsessive Love" started life as an aggressive, grunge rock song in Eb Major, but that was too on the nose for the theme. We decided it would be more sympathetic, realistic, and ominous in a minor key with a female voice, so we brought in Megan Dimond and she just blew it away. We ended up with this song that is a weirdly pretty yet oddly disturbing, in the sense that "Ode To Billy Joe" and "Angie Baby" left the hint of some awful, underlying scandal as a mystery for the listener to ponder. At least, that's the vibe we were shooting for. "Brittany" is one of those quirky Frankenstein songs I referred to earlier; it's supposed to be something that might have been co-written by Elvis Costello and Cole Porter, which really makes no sense at all. And "Crazy About You" started out as a Bobby Darrin swing number. But the record was going to close with the mid-tempo "Dance With Me" followed by "A Lullaby," so we figured we'd amp up "Crazy About You" into a rousing rockabilly tune before getting all relaxed and mellow. The rest of the songs remained in the their original genres, but not without transformations. "We'll Walk Away" was intended as something that might have been on Springsteen's "The River" album. But Frank "Monster" Pilgrim sang it with this gorgeous tone that kind of reminds me of Roy Orbison, and Chuck Nash came up with this almost southern rock guitar solo, so it took on a life of its own. And finally, "She Said" was an attempt to do an early Hollies song, like "Bus Stop" or "Carousel." It ended up retaining some of that powerpop feel without actually sounding anything remotely like The Hollies. So we often start with one thing in mind and, as we layer the tracks on, it becomes its own thing. We love the process of slowly discovering what these songs are going to be when they grow up!

Roy: One of the things I admire on the album is the way the songs seemed linked together. Not a theme exactly, but more like the songs all belong together as if they’re in a musical or a rock opera. These could be the lost songs from some unfinished off-Broadway rock musical. (And I mean this in a good way!) You ever think about writing music for theatre productions?

Gunboat Smith: Thank you for noticing the linkage between the songs. They do all have similar DNA. The record is kind of a 12-tune song cycle that examines different aspects of love, from the general overview in the title song "Fine State Of Affairs" to those who are unlucky in love, from obsessive and dysfunctional relationships to love lost, and from finding true love and re-kindling romance to the pure love of a parent for their child. Of course, our group of pop love songs isn't as formal as a song cycle by Schubert. And I'm not sure that there are any completely new ideas when it comes to composing love songs. After all, it's been a pretty popular subject probably since the first early hominid beat on a log with a stick and howled at the moon. (In fact, to illustrate that there's nothing new under the sun, on our Facebook page we've begun running an occasional segment we call "One Time At Bandcamp" where we find other artists on the Bandcamp music site who have songs with the exact same titles. Many of the songs are similar in theme, but none sound alike.) The other connective tissue between these songs is that we were hoping they could represent the variety that used to be available on radio. Way back in the Paleolithic Era, before FM radio played entire albums uninterrupted and featured favorite rock acts in concert on The King Biscuit Flower Hour, AM Top 40 radio stations brought you the hits of the day. But the stations weren't narrowly formatted to specific genres. These days, if you tune into a station, you're likely to hear, "Eagle 102.5, nothing but Eagles. You just heard 'Lyin' Eyes' by the Eagles. Now here's 'Hotel California' by...the Eagles." Okay, that's a bit of an exaggeration, but you get the point. (And, for the record, I like a lot of Eagles songs, but they do figure prominently in the rotation on the Classic Rock stations.) Anyway, back in ancient times, you could turn on a Top 40 radio station and hear Motown soul, Beatles psychadelia, Frank Sinatra swing, folk from Peter, Paul and Mary, blues rock from The Rolling Stones, a novelty song by Roger Miller, a one-hit wonder pop tune, and a cross-over country hit by Glenn Campbell back-to-back on one station. What an awesome variety! You might not have loved every tune, but there was so much diversity that something good, fun or different was sure to come on soon. Anyway, "Fine State Of Affairs" is our humble, imperfect attempt to emulate that experience. We hope that the first time someone listens and hears the genre-spanning selections, they'll think, "Oh, wow! I wasn't expecting that! What fun! I wonder what's next?" And yes, it would be fun to write for musical theater, too. Although we don't have a traditional Broadway tune sound like Rodgers and Hammerstein, I think the style of some of our songs is just quirky and catchy enough to be suitable for telling a story for the stage or a cabaret act. I'm thinking "Stephen King's Pet Sematary! The Musical." Or a Who-inspired rock opera about the younger Smothers Brother called "Tommy." Hey, I'm just spitballing some outside-the-box ideas, okay? Truthfully, composing a musical would be an artistic challenge and a total blast. If anybody is looking for an Andrew Lloyd Webber tribute band or a Tim Rice wanna-be composer, you can reach us on the Contact page of our web site.

Roy: The last two songs on the album seem to my ears more personal than the first few. “Dance With Me” is very romantic, but not cloyingly so, and the short closer on the album, “A Lullabye” is very tender. I’m guessing these have a more personal inspiration?

Gunboat Smith: You have very good ears, Roy. You are one of the brave few who's actually made it through the entire six minutes and fifteen seconds of our neo-magnum opus "Dance With Me." It's our take on a Brill Building number written by Leiber and Stoller, performed by The Righteous Brothers with The Drifters singing backup, and produced by Phil Spector (before he grew unruly mad scientist hair and went crazy). The very specific details in the lyrics are a dead giveaway that it contains personal references.   As Leonard Bernstein pointed out, "Be specific. Why say 'tree' when you can say 'sycamore?'" That's so simple and so profound. Anyone familiar with the Jacksonville Beach area will remember the great beachfront venue The First Street Grille, which is now closed, unfortunately. The magnificent Roberta Flack gets a name check because her achingly beautiful rendition of "The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face" has special significance. As do Merlot and bourbon as beverages of choice. It was a lot of work and a labor of love recording that song. In terms of the arrangement, the performances, the theme of a long-term, mature relationship, the changes (two different bridges and an extended instrumental outro), and all the elements coming together as envisioned, it's probably my favorite track on the record. And Megan took our gospel-tinged "A Lullaby" and sang it so tenderly, it really brought the message home in a sweet way. She told us that one of her friends actually cried when she heard it. Presumably because she found it touching, not because it was too unbearably painful to endure. Ha! Despite the personal inspiration, we hope the feelings behind the songs have a universal appeal that will connect with listeners on some level. That's really what it's all about.

Roy: What’s next for the Gunboat Diplomats? How long should we wait for some new material?

Gunboat Smith: I'm not sure that anyone is waiting with bated breath for any new material, but we're almost finished with the first two songs of our next project called "Manifest Destiny." This record will not be a string of love songs. Instead, it will deal with "regret, reflection and redemption." That sounds kind of somber and heavy, doesn't it? The sub-title is "Songs For Jumping Off Bridges." Actually, as dark and serious as it may sound, it won't be all dramatic angst and introspective doom and gloom. "Manifest Destiny" promises to put the fun back into regret! And we will continue to obsessively record in different genres on this project, including samba, Americana, bluegrass, bluesy soul, doo-wop, crooner, and, of course, pop rock. The first two tunes are a folksy singer-songwriter ballad and a Bakersfield country song. They should be licensed and street legal in about a month. Our Facebook page will chronicle the somewhat-compelling events as the quasi-epic saga unfolds. In the meantime, we invite your readers to visit www.gunboatdiplomats.com, where they listen to our odd sonic concoctions and see if there's any genre-bending, "Frankenstein adult baby" songs they might like. And also just to say hello, make erudite comments about everything from rock to Bach, or try to sell us a time share in Zimbabwe. We'll be happy to handle it all very diplomatically, of course. Thanks, Roy! I enjoyed it.

Check out the official Gunboat Diplomats website at www.gunboatdiplomats.com and be on the lookout for their next release Manifest Destiny.
You can download their album Fine State of Affairs at Bandcamp right here: https://gunboatdiplomats.bandcamp.com/album/fine-state-of-affairs