Wednesday, January 16, 2019

GIFTSHOP - Exclusive Interview + "Big In Astoria" EP Review

New York City's Lower East Side of Manhattan and the borough of Queens share a unique historical place in the annals of punk rock's evolution ever since The Ramones burst on the scene in the mid 1970's. That same gritty, blue collar toughness can be found in today's like-minded and similarly situated rockers GIFTSHOP. Their latest EP “Big In Astoria” (set for a February 16th digital release) delivers five searing tracks of updated power-punk with pop styling that would make Joey, Johnny, DeeDee and Tommy proud.

However, this is no all-boys club as GIFTSHOP comes fronted by a firey female lead vocalist and features a female keyboardist/backing vocalist. That allows the band to broaden their style and follow in the footsteps of other late 70's and early 80's punk and new wave pioneers like Blondie. What you ultimately get is the perfect blend of heavy-as-hell rhythm section, quick chugging/riff-raging guitars and pretty ladies who exhibit a sweet-but-tough New York edge.

The band graciously agreed to an interview, answering a variety of questions that explores each member's musical beginnings and current thoughts on being in this band, as they prepare to release their latest work.

Q:  Let's talk a bit about the recording process for this latest digital release EP. There were a few indications on social media that you recorded some of it at a studio in Tribeca. Where exactly was that? Was any of it done in home studios?

Bassist and Songwriter Damian Eckstein: We recorded at Mark Dann Studios which is located somewhere between Tribeca/Chinatown. Mark has been at the address for like forever, it's a classic New York loft from the 1970's that has a cozy creative vibe. There are isolation rooms with glass panels so the musicians have line of sight and can rock out but still be in sync. The recording equipment is Pro Tools mixed with classic tube amps and state-of-the-art microphones, a remarkably wonderful blend of old school and modern.

Q:  How much revising goes on with things like the lyrics and song structures? Does each writer bring in a mostly fully formed song, or is there still creation going on in the studio?

Lead Vocalist and Songwriter Meghan Taylor: Every song is different. Even when a "fully formed" song is brought in it gets tweaked. I think it's just bound to happen with a group of creatives. Could really depend on how everybody's day went and where their head is at at any given moment. Once we're in the studio the structure remains but new harmonies, group vocals, percussion just might pop into our heads. It's fun.

Damian: For the most part GIFTSHOP makes it a rule to come into recording with fully formed song ideas. Writing and even revising on the fly in the studio gets expensive fast. That being said, rules need to be broken now and then so the lyrics and arrangement for the tune "Same" was pretty much finished in the studio. We had written it in parts but hadn't put the whole thing together. Luckily, our engineer Rich Lamb helped us pilot that one in for a smooth landing.

Keyboardist/Backing Vocalist and Songwriter Nichole Onopiak:  For this album at least, we each came in with lyrics and melodies already written, then fleshed out the rest of the songs and individual parts together as a group during rehearsal. Going into the studio we had an idea of how we wanted things to sound, but there was still plenty of improvisation. Once we had all the tracks recorded we each listened to the songs individually, took notes of things we wanted to change or improve, and went back into the studio and put the finishing touches on the album. Personally, I have an easy time starting songs, but a hard time finishing them, so it's great to have other people to bounce ideas off of.

Photo by Andy Estevez

Q: Where are each of the band members from? Where you grew up, went to school and live now.

Meghan:  I was born in Middletown, CT but spent my early childhood in Germany - pre-school thru kindergarten. Then my family moved back to the States to a sweet little town outside of Rochester, NY. 

Damian:  I'm a native New Yorker. Growing up SoHo was my stomping ground. I still live in Manhattan but hey, guess what?!?! The record is called BigInAstoria!!! At one point 4/5ths of the band lived in Astoria. I spend A LOTTA time in Queens now! 

Guitarist and Songwriter Matt Santoro:  I Grew up in a small town outside of Rochester, NY called Victor. 

Nichole O:  I grew up in Collierville, TN right outside of Memphis, and went to college at Middle Tennessee State University, about 40 minutes away from Nashville. Then I got bored one day and moved to NYC on a whim and I've been here ever since. 

Drummer Jordan Kramer: Went to UAB, Alabama at Birmingham. Studied Marketing and Industrial Distribution, then Masters in Business.

Photo by Scott Wilson

Q:  You previously did a 7" Blue Vinyl Double A-Side 45rpm Single off of your previous record Blue Monster for the songs "Despicable" and "Dontcha Know" on Tarbeach records.  Are there any plans to do a similar thing with this latest one?  Otherwise, are you putting this digital release our independently on your own?

Band Manager Nicole Vandestienne:  Tarbeach Records has approached the band about another vinyl release and right now we are just in the talking stages but we hope to put out a large compilation album including work from all of our EPs. This would probably not happen before Summer 2019.

Q: Talk about your earliest memories of getting started with music. When did you first start playing or singing and what instruments did you pick up first?

Damian:  Music was always flowing throughout my parent's apartment from the time I was born. My Dad was a self taught multi-instrumentalist so we had an upright piano, electric and acoustic guitars, and unfortunately for the neighbors...a Ludwig drum kit. For me, it was a natural evolution to become a performing musician.

Photo by Scott Wilson

Meghan:  I learned to sing mostly by listening to my Dad while in the backseat of the car while he was driving. He liked to sing the harmonies to all the Crosby, Stills and Nash songs. And we LOVE John Denver. I didn't actually start singing in a band onstage until much later. I had been studying dance since I was 4 years old and went to Sarah Lawrence for Modern Dance so that had always been my focus - not singing. I was about 23 or 24 years old when I actually started singing in a band. As far as being the front person in GIFTSHOP - I don't feel pressure in the way that I'm nervous - but more pressure not to let my band mates down during a gig. I just want them and the audience to have a great time!

Nichole O:  My dad is a drummer and huge music lover so he got me into great music from an early age. As a kid he made me memorize the rap part to Blondie's "Rapture" and my parents always took me to concerts and Broadway shows. I've been singing ever since I can remember and I've played piano since I was 5 years old. Growing up, I did a lot of musical theater and once I was a teenager I started playing in bands. A few years after moving to NY I met Meghan and we came up with the idea to do a 90s theme DJ set at the bar where she works and while singing along with some of the songs we realized we harmonized really well together and she asked me to sing backing vocals for the Blue Monster album. Then I did a few live shows with the band and eventually added keys as well!

Photo by Scott Wilson

Jordan:  I started actually playing in 7th grade, but my dad taught me to play a beat when I was 4 or 5 years old, just a basic doo, dah, doo doo, dah, but I got struck with the desire to play early. When I actually started playing and practicing often, I really got into Danny Seraphine from Chicago, especially Chicago II, I remember my dad telling me, "if you can cleanly play the drums to this album, you're a good drummer." That made a huge impact and started the direction of my style and taste. I got into Mike Portnoy and Neil Peart through high school, playing prog rock and more technical challenging things, and then Martin Lopez from Opeth for the grooviest heavy / death metal drumming I've heard. But as I got older and started to appreciate studio drumming and playing the best part for the song without letting ego decide how much you want to try to show off, I really got into Jeff Porcaro, the drummer from Toto, but what people don't usually know is that he was the drummer for "Thriller," recorded on Jackson Browne's "The Pretender" Steely Dan and with Boz Scaggs, many more than that in fact, but the guy laid down more perfect drum tracks than people realize, and as far as role models go, you can't do much better. The world of drumming was improved through his life, and I just try to think, not necessarily what would Jeff do, but, how can I focus on the song, what it needs and more importantly what it doesn't, when trying to decide what to play when recording. That's most of what's going on in my head when I'm trying to sort the best part in the studio.

Q: Do you use rack effects or guitar pedals to forge your own sound? If you do, please list the ones you use the most and let everyone know why you love them.

Matt:  I don't use a rack unit but I do use a couple pedals to juice up the sound for GIFTSHOP. I build guitar pedals as a hobby and used to use a whole range of homemade effects in our sets. These days I like to keep things pretty simple. If it were up to me I'd just use a guitar, a cord, and an amp but for various reasons that isn't possible at the moment. GIFTSHOP has a lot of layered tones that are needed for the songs we write so additional effects help fill up some of that space. Right now I'm only using an Ibanez TS-9 Overdrive that I've modified a bit along with an Electro Harmonix Memory Toy. The TS-9 is just a great all-around clean overdrive that doesn't effect the tone of my guitar but just juices it enough to give me the grit I need for our louder songs and my solos. The Memory Toy is a smaller version of the Memory Man but still has tons of sweet modulation and nice organic sounding delay settings. Those and a Boss TU-2 tuner are the only things in my set up lately.

Photo by Scott Wilson

Q:  Is there a person outside the band that's been important in perfecting your recorded or live sound?

Damian:  Every band should have a "ringer" to call on to help them out in the studio. The Who had Jimmy Page. Iggy Pop had David Bowie. GIFTSHOP is lucky enough to have Jason "Steak" Maksymilian Szkutek from the American Darlings who has sung background vocals for every EP we have ever done. Jason will always be part of the GIFTSHOP family. We all go way back.

Q:  Would you say that your live show informs your recording process or that your recording process informs your live show? Both? Neither?

Nichole O:  We haven't really played the new songs live yet so I would say most of the recording process was either inspired by things we came up with individually on our own time or by ideas we had as a group during rehearsal. A lot of the time we will notice a particular arrangement of a song working really well during rehearsal and make a point to replicate that during live shows. It's always fun during rehearsal when we figure out a new way of performing songs we've played hundreds of times before. I remember during one of my favorite live shows I've played with GIFTSHOP (Tompkins Square Park last fall) I thought of a different way of singing the background harmony just completely in the moment and went for it, and it ended up working really well. it's always really cool seeing what we come up with playing off each other in a live setting.

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Having been privileged with the opportunity to listen to the "Big In Astoria" EP in it's entirety, a full track-by-track review now follows below.

Immediately hitting the ground running with a bass and buzzy synth driven pulse, the Damian Eckstein written opener “We Want You” comes wrapped in an early 80's “new wave” sheen.  The initial hook has Meghan circling through it's title line as a sweetly sung mantra. Sharp angled accents quickly punctuates the verses, adding a punk rock urgency to the “meaningless” of false (or at the very least, questionable) idols. Playfully weaving in popular French language expressions “Je ne sais” (hard to describe), “Voulez vous” (do you want?) and the classic expression of exuberance “Joi de vivre” pits desire against illusion.  A well-placed bridge at the songs mid-point finds snare drum rolls powering harmonized vocal lines that accurately cut through trite, media driven “platitudes.” The direction of “want” comes full-circle as those delivering the clich├ęs are the one's craving mass appeal. It's thought-provoking social commentary woven inside of an uptempo, poppy three-minute song.

Thundering out of the opening gate like some pent-up racehorse unleashed, quick-cut accents slice up the Nichole Onopiak/Meghan Taylor dual authored “Same.” With the lead and backup vocalist frequently blending their voices for maximum effect, shades of Blondie's “Rip Her To Shreds” is channeled in both lyrics and attitude. “You and all your shitty friends - Think you’re starting all the trends -But the rest of us just don’t buy in - No the rest of us just don’t buy in.” Those vocals are delivered with a smooth contoured phrasing as initial tambourine gives way to a deeper synthesizer texture. With alternating single voices taking the next verse, the simple question is asked “are you hollow and just fake?

Gears suddenly shift with a tempo change underpinning the lyrical realization that “it's a hive mind can't escape” even when you “try turn around try to walk away.” The powerful movement underneath comes courtesy of some well-recorded (and inspired) tom-tom heavy drumming. Cymbal percussion provides an additional bridge to the next segment serving as the heart (and centerpiece) overall. “We fight the same, We talk the same and everything is just a game. We laugh the same, We cry the same, We stay up till we feel insane. We drink the same, We smoke the same, We steal your boy to cause you pain. We are the same, We have no shame” - delivered with hand-claps, cheerleader style – until the denial - “We’re not the same” followed by a telling pause. Cycling through the progression a second time leads to rising synth buzzing – another dramatic pause – before a brief solo bass guitar leads the band into it's confessional outro and the repeated mantra “We're the same.” It's an honest approach of being put in the position of being both the critical eye and the one being criticized.

It shouldn't surprise that guitarist Matt Santoro brings hard-charging crunchy rocker “Stacked” to the record. Powerful, chugging chords get punctuated by sharp, quick cymbal shots, ticking high-hat timekeeping and singular bass notes, setting an instantly aggressive tone. Meghan delivers the incendiary lyrics with an appropriate sneer, as a confident dominance is clearly spelled out. As each line is delivered (“All I know is that I’m better than you - My bag o’ tricks is full it’s easy to see”) razor sharp guitar-bass-drums crunch punches down on the accelerator.

 Lunging directly into the chorus stating “It’s not a riddle, You lack the subtlety, You’re second fiddle, The chips are stacked for me,” leans on card game imagery as metaphor of significant edge. It's as if John Malkovich's “Teddy KGB” character in the classic late 90's poker film “Rounders” is once again exerting his upper hand.

Under a minute in, and with the verse/chorus cycle passed through twice already, a searing guitar riff barrage is unleashed that is quintessentially rock and roll. The full spectrum assault is pulled back for Meghan to deliver the lyrics in a more intimate, almost playful way. Those momentary quieter moments inevitably set-up immediate, explosive full-band broadsides, and that is what follows here. More hyper-drive Chuck Berry riffs ensue before a final round of the chorus. A clever choppy rhythmic pattern with alternating vocal “ahhhh's” close out this barely over two minute song.

Photo by Andy Estevez

With just a hint of feedback on the front end, the Meghan Taylor penned “Things I Feel” alternates throbbing bass guitar with combined rat-a-tat drums and quick chord guitar strokes before hyper-speed vocals kick in.  Angry punk-rock vitriol comes lashing out in maniacally screaming waves - “Get lost you creep. You're in too deep. You make me sad. So Goddamned mad.You'll strut your stuff. I'll call your bluff.You make me ill.” And yet there is somehow room for “I love you still.” Mixed emotions? Love or Confusion? The complicated nature of relationships have been known to produce these results.

You make me cry. Why won't you die? Go. No stay just one more day. Things I feel when I see you!”

When the tempo change kicks in it's like a welcome respite from the initial 40 seconds of pummeling. This chugging, Stones-like groove with big power chords, melodic riff and rising keyboard stabs is instant head-bobbing material. However, the drums begin to quicken in pace and the half-minute groove is once again full-throttle shouted punk fire. The whole track clocks in at under a minute and a half, making it something of a marvel that so much is packed into such a concise and tightly wound space.

Collage of photos by Scott Wilson

Check out brief clip of the video to come for this song on Instagram

What a band chooses for a cover song often reveals as much about their state-of-mind as any of their original compositions might.  Selecting well-known classics from an equally universally loved artist can be risky but ultimately rewarding as well. Having already previously established a penchant for cards, poker and gambling in general, it makes sense that the thrashing, punk-heavy metal hybrid that is Motorhead's “Ace Of Spades” would serve as the EP's signature homage.

Although the original track is kicked off by guitarist “fast” Eddie Clarke, GIFTSHOP flips that script slightly with bassist Damian taking that honor.  It's a subtle twist as the full force throttle of bass-drums-guitar power trio lightning is launched.  Meghan embraces Lemmy Kilmister's gambling metaphor lyrics with the appropriate desperado edge.  A deeper understanding of the song's origins take shape by singing both “ace” and “eight” (“the dead man's hand again” - aces and eights' - Wild Bill Hickok's hand when he got shot).

Photo by Andy Estevez

 As the band careens forward, duplicating the originals teetering-on-the-edge breakneck speed, tasty guitar riffs shred between the verses. “The pleasure is to play” speaks to more than just card games, and in fact could apply to any band that above all else, simply enjoys what they do. The song's recklessness and lack of concern for consequences from hard-living appeals to those who feel they were “born to lose.” And while “gambling's for fools,” the outlaw declaration “But that's the way I like it baby, I don't wanna live for ever” unleashes a thrashing charge and quick-cut chord progression. Modern day studio upgrades come by way of enhancements on the line “and don't forget the joker!” Here's where the band (once again) delivers a ferocious battering of rhythm section and mad riffage over top.

It's a fitting close to a record that packs as much (mostly) fast and ferocious music into an economical not-a-minute wasted five songs as possible.

The "Big In Astoria" digital release happens on February 16th and will be available via Spotify, iTunes, Amazon and CD Baby.

The band has a number of shows and appearances coming up, including:

January 26, 2019 - Otto's Shrunken Head, New York, NY 

February 11, 2019 - Radio Free BKLYN - The Rodent Hour

 February 16, 2019 - Coney Island Baby, New York, NY (EP Release Show)

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