TOO GOOD TO IGNORE
A Conversation with Rock Stars TOMMY LONDON and TOMMY MOKAS of THE DIRTY PEARLS
By Jonathan Metzelaar
If you want to make a name for yourself as a musician in New York, you need more than just musical talent. It sounds trite, but for people to take notice of you or your band, you’ve got to have that little something extra, that one thing that pushes you above the sheer volume of talent out there. When you look to some of the musical acts that made it in New York, more often than not you can see that distinguishing characteristic. Bob Dylan had the inimitable falsetto and the generation-defining lyrics. KISS had the face paint and the personality. The Strokes had the attitude and the charisma. Here it is not enough to simply be good; you have to be exceptional.
Enter The Dirty Pearls, a New York-based band with the attitude and the stage presence that rock and roll has been sorely lacking for a while now. Watching them perform live, you can sense them feeding off the enthusiasm of the crowd and channeling it into their music. These guys pretty clearly love doing what they do, and they’ve got the musical chops to back up their enthusiasm. Their brand of rock is gruff and manic, but instrumentally tight, a sound that is quintessentially New York. With their first full-length album, Whether You Like It Or Not, having just been released, and a potential cross-country tour on the horizon, these guys have been very busy, but lead singer Tommy London and guitarist Tommy Mokas still found the time to sit down and answer a few questions.
Jonathan Metzelaar: How do you view the New York music scene right now compared to other cities? How do the audiences, venues, and musical talent compare? What are some of your favorite New York-based bands and venues, and why?
Tommy Mokas: I think the New York scene is very volatile in terms of its perceived popularity, but always very vibrant in terms of the participation of the musicians themselves. It may go without saying, but New York City is probably the most difficult place in the country to be a successful, functioning unit. Every single factor about existing is against you, but I firmly believe this is what makes it exciting as well. Being a band in New York has changed significantly these past twelve years in terms of the scope of requirements for both the individual and the band, but what hasn’t changed is the amount of crazy you have to be to even try. I think it’s a bold statement to even be a band in this city at all. There is a vast amount of talent here, and because the pool is so vast, sometimes your “average” band doesn’t get very far here, when it would likely succeed in another place due to less competition. Other cities have the advantage of being cheaper, easier to get more space, easier to have a vehicle, etc. But none of those other places are New York. If it wasn’t such a drug, there wouldn’t be 8 million people trying to be here!
Venues in New York have gotten better over the years, but I think the more venues we have, the less of a scene there is. It’s been quite a while since a scene was centralized around a couple of key spots. I personally believe this makes it harder for a scene to grow. In other cities, you only have a few choice spots to frequent if you want to see live music, let alone good music. In New York, you have the choice of hundreds of venues on any given evening, and you rely largely on word of mouth as to where you’re going to go to enjoy yourself. You could go out to a venue, really enjoy it, and never go back there again before it closes up for good.
The last place that I feel had a really rabid and vibrant scene in New York rock was Snitch. The stage was shitty and narrow, there were barely any stage monitors, and it had a crappy sound system, but fuck, the crowds! The Monday night party was the place to be, because you could step on that stage and rock a full room. Even if nobody knew you, they gave you a chance just for having the courage to try. That was the last time I felt that sort of energy from a venue and a scene.
As for NYC-based bands, there have been a lot of good ones in recent years, and the range covers it all: The Strokes, LCD Soundsystem, The Walkmen, Ryan Adams, Yeasayer, Grizzly Bear, Vampire Weekend, Holy Ghost… I mean it’s all over the place.
Tommy London: Yeah, there are a lot of great bands on the NYC music scene right now. It reminds me of when I read about the NYC rock scene from the 70′s, where all these bands were different in their own way, yet they still shared a core audience and were part of the same scene. You had The Ramones, Blondie, The Talking Heads, New York Dolls, and many more all coming from a different place, but still part of of the same scene. I feel that is the strength of the downtown rock music scene at the moment. It’s not like a Seattle scene or hair band scene, where all the bands were cut from the same cloth. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not knocking those bands. I purchased all their music and still love it today. I’m just saying that the rock scene in New York has always been an eclectic one, and it still is. Though I think it’s more of a “community” than it is a “scene”. We have a strong community of rock music enthusiasts who just live and breathe rock ‘n’ roll. That’s what its all about–keeping the spirit alive.
And whenever we play out of town we always discover that small community of rockers, just like in NYC. They are just as passionate about rock ‘n’ roll as us and our friends in NYC. It’s pretty amazing. Sometimes I feel as if they are seeking that larger community of people that they can relate to, and when I sense that I always tell them they need to come to the the city for a week and experience the bars, parties, and venues that cater to their taste. Then they will see why New York City truly is a drug.
As for venues, we’ve played most of them in New York, like Irving Plaza, Gramercy Theatre, Bowery Ballroom, etc. They all have their own history, which makes them special to play. But I have to say the one that really did it for me was when we first headlined the Bowery Ballroom. That was our first venture into a large venue. On the NYC rock club scene, the Bowery Ballroom has always been considered the “Madison Square Garden” of the scene. They never booked bands from the rock scene. So when we landed our first headline show there, it not only represented the fact that The Dirty Pearls had arrived, but it also gave a lot of attention to the scene that we came from.
JM: You’re new album, Whether You Like It Or Not, was just released. In what ways would you say this album is different from the music you made prior, and which songs do each of you guys enjoy playing the most on the album?
TM: When I joined the band, I had every intention of making it a decidedly more hard-hitting band, but expanding on the pop sensibility. In my previous band, Nova Clutch, I was influenced by a lot of heavier and more progressive bands like Muse, The Mars Volta, and Soundgarden, but I was always rooted in bands like Aerosmith, Guns n’ Roses, and The Clash. Playing with The Pearls made me get back to my roots and start thinking in a simpler, more straightforward way about songwriting. I think the songs which best portray that spread of influence would be “Who’s Coming Back To Who” and “Mayday”. Those also happen to be my favorite to play live.
TL: Yeah I have to be honest, when Mokas and I got together and started writing, the band started shifting in a different direction–in a good way! The songs I wrote in other bands before The Dirty Pearls were cut-and-dry, fun rock tunes. But when I got together with Tommy Mokas the songs took on a whole different life of their own. To be honest it was pretty magical. We pounded out a bunch of killer rock/pop songs with strong hooks, melodies, lyrics, and riffs. Then when Sunny Climbs joined the band we hit the songwriting trifecta. I’m looking forward to the three of us writing some new songs.
As for performing live, my favorite songs to perform live are “Who’s Coming Back To Who,” “Sucker For A Sequel,” and “New York City Is A Drug”. There is just an energy behind them live that makes me want to jump into the audience and put my fists in the air with them.
JM: How do the songs you guys write typically come together? Is each band member responsible for coming up with their own part, or does one of you kind of give the others direction? And is Tommy generally in charge of lyrics since he’s the one who has to sing them, or is it more of a collaborative effort?
TM: Because I’ve been a recording studio owner since 2003, I can safely say I’ve forced my influence on the parts in the songs that I’ve helped write. I would generally demo out the songs in my studio, playing all the parts and getting the ideas out of my head. But in the hands of the other members, they have been allowed to come alive. This became even more true under the direction and wisdom of Mr. David Kahne, who took our piece of granite and chiseled a nice group of songs from it. His ear and ability to edit tightened the songs even more, both musically and arrangement-wise, and the songs are better for it. Lyrically, London and I work out the initial ideas together, but I’ve always allowed him the space to sing whatever he’s gonna sing. I know from years as a singer, you have to believe what you’re singing, so I tend to be slightly hands-off in that respect. But I give my input when I feel it’s needed or helpful.
TL: A lot of the songs actually start with a chorus melody and chord structure, and then we build around it and see where it leads. But as Mokas said, it was our producer Daivd Kahne, who has worked with Sublime, The Strokes, and Paul McCartney, that really helped mold the clay and make our songs just pop even more. After we get the initial demo down with melody and structure, we take it to the band so they can help develop it even more, and that’s when the song starts to come to life. That’s actually the best feeling in the world; coming up with an idea with a guitar and a vocal, getting the band involved, and then starting to feel it come to life. The icing on the cake, of course, is when you perform it in front of an audience to see their reaction. It’s amazing, I can’t even describe it
JM: The illegal downloading of music has been a pretty big issue in the music industry for awhile now. As a band trying to make a name for itself, I’d imagine it’s pretty frustrating to lose out on some of the profits you could make in music sales, yet some musicians look at the silver lining and say it’s okay as long as their music is getting out there. Where do you guys stand on this issue?
TM: As the owner of a studio, and a lifelong musician, I say stop whining. It’s over. It’s been devalued, and it ain’t ever going back to the way it was. Figure out new ways. Its called the music business. It always changes, and it always will. It isn’t profitable to sell typewriters anymore, but people still write, don’t they? Someone made money when the trends changed, and it wasn’t cause they lamented the death of the typed word on paper. If you want to be financially successful in music, which, for the record, is not a God-given right, then you have to be an enterprising individual. If you want to be a musician, make music. They are two separate things to me. I treat them as such. You think Hendrix was thinking about how to market “Foxy Lady”? No, he was too busy being Hendrix. As Steve Martin said, “Be so good they can’t ignore you.” That is how I believe you have to be to win. Oh, and have a good manager!
TL: I think Mokas just said it all! I mean the internet became a double-edged sword for a lot of things, not just music. But let’s be honest, an unsigned band like us have the opportunity to be seen and heard all over the world by just the touch of a button. That’s pretty amazing and special if you ask me. You have to learn to market your music as a way to sell your live shows and merchandise. Plus, there are many other avenues to make money with your music besides downloads. Commercials, TV, and movies are still profitable venues for you to make money with your music.
JM: The Dirty Pearls have a very distinctive sound, kind of a gruff-yet-polished rock and roll. Have you guys ever felt confined by that? Were there ever any songs you wanted to include on an album that you had to exclude because they didn’t really fit? And do you envision yourselves experimenting with new things on future records, or are you guys devoted to the sound you’ve got?
TM: Personally, I’m making all different kinds of music all the time. I’m a composer, it’s what I’ve been doing since I was 13. So for me, The Pearls is an outlet for making the kind of music that I really love, that I might not make to this extent on my own. I don’t think it would be wise to say we’re devoted to the sound we’ve got, but I’d say we’re devoted to the feeling we’re trying to create. I’ve seen how crowds react to us when we hit them over the head with a set, and that’s an energy I want to expand on.
TL: We never felt confined at all to be honest. We did have a few songs that we recorded for this album that just didn’t blend with the songs on the album as a whole. But that’s not to say we won’t be performing them live, or that we won’t consider them for the next album, or even that we won’t release them as an individual single online. We have a few demos we’ve written that are experimental in sound and groove that will definitely show our growth as writers and musicians, which we will showcase on the next album for sure. But at the end of the day, it will always be rock ‘n’ roll.
JM: What upcoming events or projects are you working on that you’d like people to know about?
TM: I’ll let you answer this one, London.
TL: We just released our first full-length album, Whether You Like It Or Not, which at the moment is only available through our website, but you can also purchase some of the singles from the album on iTunes. We have generated a lot of major interest with the album, and that’s why we haven’t released it fully on digital outlets… yet. We’re playing regional dates in support of the album with some national acts, as well as our own headline shows. We are lining up a big NYC headline show for the end of the year, and we’re hoping to take the band cross-country soon, especially due to the fact that a lot of radio stations have recently started to spin the songs from the album.
A few of our songs have recently been picked up by the popular video game Tap Tap. As far as I know, we are the first unsigned band to be included in this game, so it’s a really big deal for us. Metallica, Lady Gaga, Green Day, and many others are included in the game, so I’d say that’s pretty good company. We have a lot of other things in the works that involve tour support slots, film, and television, but it’s too premature to discuss them just yet. But you can always find all the updates on everything that’s happening with us, from tour dates to news, on our facebook, twitter, and of course on our website.
Tommy Mokas and Tommy London are both members of New York-based rock band The Dirty Pearls, whose first full-length album, Whether You Like It Or Not, was just released.
Written and Edited by Jonathan Metzelaar
Photography by Coco Alexander
Design by Marie Havens
The Dirty Pearls in NYC, 2012, Photography by Coco Alexander