Room 56 @ THE NICE ROOMS presents
"The Gunboat Diplomats"
- Music With A Vintage Vibe
Date of Article: 28th September 2018
If you are viewing The Nice Rooms Webzine on a tablet / Kindle etc then Desktop Version is recommended
"The Gunboat Diplomats are an independent song shop in Jacksonville Beach, Florida that records original music with a vintage vibe in a variety of genres."
Welcome to The Nice Rooms Mr Gunboat Smith.
You once described The Gunboat Diplomats in an interview (with Roy Peak) as being an "irregular" band as opposed to a "regular" band. What did you mean by this?
Thanks for inviting me into the tantalizing inner sanctum of The Nice Rooms. (I really like what you've done with the place!) Yes, I did refer to The Gunboat Diplomats (GBD) as “irregular” in response to Roy’s comment that we are not a regular band. In fact, I myself have been referred to as irregular...and somewhat irresponsible...and even irredeemable. Actually, we call ourselves a “song shop” as opposed to a band because we are exclusively focused on creating and recording original songs. And also because we are hopelessly pretentious...but mostly because we're all about crafting songs.
Although we’ve got a small core group of a songwriter, guitar player and drummer who are on virtually every recording, the rest of the performers are a rotating cast of talented artists that we recruit according to the needs of the particular song that we’re working on. Sometimes we need a gruff, bluesy vocal, like the one on our bastardized bossa nova, Original Sin. Other times, a song requires a soft, feminine touch, like the gospel-tinged A Lullaby. Being able to tap into the talents of different performers with a range of styles and instruments is the approach that best serves the songs and contributes to the wide musical variety that we strive to offer. We have no plans or desires to perform live...or dead, for that matter. Of course, some of our crew do gig with different bands, but GBD itself is strictly a creature of the studio made up of lots of different elements.
By the way, our irrepressible irregularity is certainly not unprecedented. Way back when, non-touring studio bands made up of a bunch of session players would record a song and then give themselves a name to stick on the record. And some of them became big hits, like Na Na Hey Hey (Kiss Him Goodbye) by Steam (1969) or Beach Baby by First Class (1974). So for us, it’s all about the songs, kind of like the one hit wonders I mentioned that used to pop up on the radio. You may have never heard of the band or had any idea what they looked like, but, if you liked the song, that was all that mattered.
Generally speaking, I don’t fit in anywhere, primarily because of my pathetic vocabulary and poor social skills. But musically, for better or worse, I write, arrange, and co-produce all of our songs, which have a predominantly vintage vibe heavily influenced by my own music collection and what I grew up listening to. So GBD records run the gamut from Hollies-inspired power pop like She Said to Bakersfield country like I'm Not Going Back To Jacksonville.
You may remember their AM hits like the iconic Happy Together or the two and a half minutes of joyous pop perfection called She’d Rather Be With Me. Anyway, they released a concept album in 1968 called The Turtles Present the Battle of the Bands. The idea was that you were listening to a bunch of different bands playing in many styles, from surf to hard rock to bluegrass. Flo and Eddie and the rest of The Turtles performed every song, but the liner notes listed twelve fictional bands, with great '60s names like "The Atomic Enchilada" and "Chief Kamanawanalea and his Royal Macadamia Nuts".
Incidentally, the pug-faced gentleman (above left) is Gunboat Smith, who was an Irish-American boxer in the early 1900s. I use him as a persona because of his cool nickname, and because I boxed a bit in the service back in the day. The naval officer is Commodore Perry (above right) who became our mascot because he's the original Gunboat Diplomat who used the threat of naval firepower to open Japan to trade in the mid-1800s. Both of these guys go along with the whole old-school, retro vibe.
Although I personally have no personality to speak of, you are correct that the rogues' gallery of artists we work with bring their own personalities and musical influences into the mix. It’s great when the performers really understand the point of the song, feel the vibe we’re going for, and get into the spirit of the thing. That’s when things start to come together, to gel, to coalesce, to...well, you get the point. When the artists in our diplomatic corps bring their creativity into the studio, they vastly improve the songs with their ideas.
For instance, almost all of the instrumental solos are made up on the fly and in the moment. And Mystic Dino’s sublime reggae ramblings during the outro of Something On My Mind is all improvised on the spot. But they really made the song. So, to answer the second part of your question, the musical goals absolutely do shift, but not due to a difficulty in maintaining focus. Personally, I stay focused like a laser beam on a particular goal until the task is completed down to the smallest detail, because I can't afford to take my eye off the ball or allow myself to be distracted by...wait, where was I going with this? Oh, yes, spontaneity during recording.
Sometimes we discover an idea or a hook during recording that unlocks a new angle in the song. You know, like a vocal trick, a musical figure, a small countermelody, or a drum fill. All the bells and whistles that inject delicious ear candy into a song. Truthfully, next to the initial effort of composing a song from scratch, getting into the studio to finally discover what it’s going to be is the most gratifying part of the creative process, the inventive undertaking, the artistic method, the...next question.
Please click on each album cover above for each separate track list and date of release.
Well, conceptually I am fascinated by the concept of concept albums. Despite the fact that proclaiming, “I am an artist and this is my high-brow concept album” sounds rather self-important and pretentious, there’s no denying that song cycles with common themes have been around quite a while, from Beethoven and Mahler, right through the more recent practitioners of popular song, like Woody Guthrie, the Beatles and Pink Floyd. (There’s also no denying that pseudo-intellectual name-dropping sounds even MORE pretentious! And here comes another!) I’m particularly enamored with Frank Sinatra’s 1955 release In The Wee Small Hours Of The Morning, with its introspective and somber study of relationships. And GBD does make a feeble attempt to take that approach.
Anyway, all three of our projects are at least close cousins of concept albums. Our first record, Fine State Of Affairs, explored love songs from many different angles, from being unlucky to head-over-heels in love, and all points in between. As I’ve said before, love is probably the least original theme for a pop song. Since the invention of the song form, legions of sincere dorks have composed countless overwrought stanzas about the objects of their romantic interest. Whether the song deals with youthful puppy love or real grown-up dog love, it remains a powerful and popular musical theme. So we tried to keep it interesting by looking at many different aspects and presenting it in very diverse genres. But if that’s not your cup of tea and you agree with The J Geils band that Love Stinks we offer other musical curios and sonic oddities.
Manifest Destiny is an ongoing project which we describe as "a tale of regret, reflection, and redemption." Yeah, it sounds dreadfully foreboding and deadly serious, but just because we cover those themes doesn’t necessarily mean that every song will send you into a spiral of soul-deadening depression. After all, we don’t want listeners to search for our music on the worldwide interwebs and get a message that says: “People who downloaded Manifest Destiny also purchased strychnine.” So allow me to clarify.
We’re trying to keep those deep, dark, inescapable regrets fun and danceable! We love the dichotomy of songs with dark themes set to upbeat music. So far, we’ve completed a bossa nova, a country tune, and a folk-AAA-easy-listening-MOR-singer-songwriter ballad.
Our latest sugary sixties single, If Summer Could Stay, is the first tune on a larger project called A Song For All Seasons which will eventually include tunes for holidays and special occasions, such as a swingin’ Christmas carol, a jazzy but sad Valentine’s Day ballad, and a rip-roaring birthday rag. We might even branch out to include less obvious commemorations, like a solemn St. Crispin’s Day dirge or a gritty blues number bemoaning tax deadline day. The possibilities are virtually endless...and fundamentally meaningless.
Hopefully, all of our songs can stand alone as solid singles while simultaneously fitting inside a larger musical mosaic. And since we work in so many disparate genres, there’s bound to be something for everyone to hate!
..or love of course! I'm particularly referring to your afore-mentioned new single, If Summer Could Stay.
How does all this wonderful music that covers so many genres, involves so many different musicians and explores so many different themes translate into record sales and followings out there in the big wide world?
Well, first let me thank the fine people out there who have listened to our songs, liked our Facebook page, and /or purchased our music. We have a small, brave band of followers who love indie music and they are much appreciated by our entire diplomatic corps. In that sense, we’re just like a million other indie bands floating on the vast sea of internet content, shouting from our tiny gunboat, “Hey! Listen to us! Ignore that viral cat video and the gigabytes of music at your fingertips and click on OUR song!” Basically, we’re a needle in a haystack of other needles.
I’m not complaining, mind you. That’s just the world of truly indie music. But we haven’t let anonymity go to our heads. Besides, GBD's brand of genre-jumping pop with a vintage vibe is probably not ideally suited for wide, universal appeal. There’s a niche audience for this kind of stuff, a micro demographic of listeners who want a quirky variety of old-school Motown, blues-rock novelty songs, retro rockabilly, and Righteous Brothers tributes.
Probably, it's a tiny subset of eccentric audiophiles who number in the single digits. In fact, it’s within the realm of possibility that I alone am the one person on the planet who likes it. Thus, it should come as no huge shock that our sales are negligible at best. As cliche as it sounds, we’re not really chasing sales, anyway. Mainly, we’d just like people to hear and maybe enjoy our songs. And that’s why we’ve executed a sure-fire advertising blitz that virtually guarantees widespread apathy! Our cutting edge marketing plan consists solely of our web site, a Facebook page, and passive availability in all the various distribution platforms where individual indie artist profiles hide in plain sight like forgotten hermits and exiled outcasts. Ha! And it certainly doesn’t help that the "short bio" that we send out while marketing our music says really dumb, counter-productive things like:
"When they are not recording in Zoe Tribe Studios, they enjoy writing short biographies about themselves.”
With regard to our consistently ineffectual efforts to spread the GBD love vibe, I should mention that we’ve received tremendous support from indie radio stations and shows all over the world. The folks running indie music stations, podcasts and blogs do it because they love all kinds of music, and those are the freewheeling waters we sail in. So, we do occasionally get dribs and drabs of cold, hard cash here and there from streaming services and radio play.
By the way, even though I made the very noble comment about being in the game to share our songs as opposed to chasing sales, I want to make clear that anyone who would like to buy our music on the Bandcamp "pay what you want" model can freely contribute ridiculously exorbitant amounts that we will eagerly accept. After all, it would be rude to turn down generous offers of support.
I may not be the sharpest tool in the shed, but I can probably shed some light on the matter. Yes, as you correctly observed, Embassy Records is part of our diplomatic branding model. Just like GBD is not really "a band", Embassy Records isn’t truly a "record label". The Gunboat Diplomats are the only artist on the "label" and we produce no physical CDs, vinyl records, cassettes, 8-track tapes, or Thomas Edison-style phonograph cylinders. (We’re digital only, baby!...not because we think the old formats are defunct or to save the environment...we’re just cheap and lazy.)
Basically, we thought "Embassy Records" looked cool on the 45-RPM graphics that we create for each single. Egad! We’ve been exposed as complete frauds yet again! (But we won't shed any crocodile tears...it was still a good question.)
Request time! As your music is so varied - and I'm finding it tough to choose just one track - How about you choose a Gunboat Diplomats' track of your choice to feature next?
Glad to. In fact, I’m going to talk about a song that’s somewhat different from most of our tunes, which often have a fairly robust arrangement full of multiple voices and instruments playing countermelodies, such as the reggae tune Something On My Mind for example. But what I actually have on my mind is a bit of an anomaly for GBD.
I call Beneath A Solemn Sky our folk-AAA-easy-listening-acoustic-MOR-singer-songwriter ballad. It’s part of the Manifest Destiny collection of "regret, reflection and redemption" so it’s full of heavy Biblical allusions about ramshackle chapels, lonely prophets, bones being buried in the dust, prayers without meaning, great floods, and sad penitence. But without being too preachy, of course. We’re definitely not proselytizing.
The song is about the dual nature of salvation. Even when you’re staring into a void of hopelessness looking for a lifeline, you should still be careful what you ask for because you just might get it. The lyrics were conceived as a hybrid of Leonard Cohen the elegantly profound pessimist, Billy Joel the thoughtfully literate troubadour, and Bob Dylan the impossibly enigmatic poet. Not to wallow in an unseemly orgy of self-congratulatory narcissism, but I’m happy with the lyrics of this song in the sense that its probably the best I can do. They say just what I wanted to say in the way that I wanted to say them. In fact, one reviewer was kind enough to compare the lyrics to a sonnet, which was a stunning compliment...that immediately went to my head, of course...and I began wearing turtleneck sweaters and calling myself an "artiste" and acting insufferable. (Just joking...I didn’t wear turtlenecks.)
Each step of the recording process was a pleasure because we could immediately hear the parts fitting into place as intended. I originally sang the scratch track and it was okay, serviceable, so-so. But I knew immediately that it wasn’t right for this song, which required a different set of pipes. I remember getting a sublime reaction, a chill, when we finally laid down the real vocals. That may have just been a result of the spicy Thai food I had for lunch that day, but I think it was because Chuck Nash flat out sang the hell out of the song. And the simple acoustic accompaniment is immeasurably enhanced by Brittany Maroney’s exquisite cello performance. Her nuance and tone really did tap into an extra layer of poignancy in the song. This illustrates the beauty of our song shop process. We got the perfect performers using their unique talents on the right tracks to completely serve the song.
In one of your earlier answers you referred to the GBD track called "I'm Not Going Back To Jacksonville" - I have to ask in a naive webzine editor sort of way 'Why ever not?'
Contrary to my stated position in the song, I actually love living at the beach in Jacksonville so much that, after traveling quite a bit around the world and the US, I decided to come back. But I liked the idea of using Jacksonville in the title of a country song that was forming in my head because city names are often used in that way, such as El Paso by Marty Robbins, Amarillo by Morning by George Straight, The Streets of Bakersfield by Buck Owens, or Galveston by Glenn Campbell. Jackson" by Johnny Cash and June Carter is actually the example that popped to mind as I composed. I guess I should have titled the song, "I Most Definitely AM Going Back To Jacksonville (And How)" but it just didn't swing.
("I'm Not Going Back To Jacksonville") is basically a group of Florida boys and a Canadian trying to put their spin on a sound that originated in southern California.
The Bakersfield sound, an electrified version of country music that started in the late 50s and early 60s as a reaction to the slick Nashville productions of the day, paved the way for country rock. As is normally the case with the metamorphosis of musical genres, many artists contributed to the evolving sound.
Maddox Brothers and Rose left Alabama and arrived in Modesto, California just before the influx of Okies escaping the Dust Bowl during the Great Depression. In those pre-rock days, they established themselves on the west coast as wild hillbilly entertainers who played boogie music.
.. they had a huge influence on rockabilly, but they also created a fertile environment for other hybrid genres. The upbeat tempo, double-bass, pedal steel and electric guitars that bands in SoCal added to the country mix were precursors to a new sound that was rapidly gaining popularity.
Just leading on from my last question then; what and how much influence does the Sunshine State exert / have on GBD's music?
Y’know, I’ve never really thought about how living in Florida might influence GBD’s music. I grew up in Jacksonville Beach, (Florida, USA) and was basically exposed to music from three sources: the big band music my parents preferred, my older sisters’ albums, and Top 40 on the radio, with a great deal of overlap between the last two categories. Of course, back in the day, the Top 40 was considerably more diverse than today’s narrowly formatted stations. You could hear rock, RnB, country crossover, pop, folk, orchestral movie themes and even Broadway tunes on one station. But everyone across the nation was listening to the same Top 40, so I don’t think I experienced any true regional Sunshine State influence on my young musical psyche.
For some odd reason, there were dozens of quaint parlor songs written about that little river that cuts across the state’s panhandle. This musical dance craze that swept the nation included such exciting smash hits as Stephen Foster’s Suwannee River (and his follow-up Old Folks At Home / Way Down Upon The Suwannee River the official State song), Campin’ On The Ole Suwannee, Down Where The Suwannee River Flows and I’ve Got The Suwannee River Flowing Through My Veins. In order to demonstrate my native Floridian pedigree, I might just carry on this proud tradition by composing a new song called "Camping Way Down Upon Where The Suwannee River Flows Through My Veins." There will be an acoustic folk version and an extended dance remix produced by DJ Florida Cracker.
Although listing songs from the 1850s about a river nobody’s heard of is, no doubt, endlessly fascinating to your readers, I would like to reluctantly leap forward in time to a more recent century. From a modern musical perspective, Jacksonville is the birthplace of southern rock because Lynyrd Skynyrd and The Allman Brothers Band both started here. And The Classics IV are another hometown band that had top ten hits like Spooky, Stormy and the lovely ballad Traces.
Other performers across the state that you might be familiar with include the pop stars Matchbox 20, shock metal man Marilyn Manson, disco KC and the Sunshine Band, rock god Tom Petty, everyone’s favorite Parrot-Head Jimmy Buffet, and jazz great Cannonball Adderly. But I can’t honestly claim any of them except Tom Petty had any perceptible influence on my musical milieu. However, in keeping with our "song shop that releases pop singles with vintage vibe ethos" I’d like to visit some of the artists from Florida who managed to score some radio hits that were part of the sonic brew that I marinated in throughout my misspent youth. Just for fun, see if you can tell which parts I totally made up!
OK - I'll give it go..and hopefully some readers will too :)
Ocala, Florida’s The Royal Guardsmen surreptitiously jumped aboard the mid-sixties' British Invasion bandwagon with their novelty hit, Snoopy vs. Red Baron. Taking a page from the Suwannee song handbook, they attempted to create a cottage industry for their cartoon-inspired compositions, following up with The Return of The Red Baron, Snoopy For President and Snoopy’s Christmas. With their uncanny knack for PR, they effectively cornered the market for songs citing a comic strip dog against a WWI German ace.
Gwen and George McCrae (from Pensacola and West Palm Beach, respectively) had a pair of dance hits back in the day. George sang a song written by KC (leader of The Sunshine Band) called Rock Your Baby. A short time later Gwen followed up with the answer tune Rockin’ Chair. Two groovy little songs that will have you rocking your baby till you’re in a rockin’ chair.
. And just to milk the tenuous connection for all it’s worth, I heard that the original lyric to Warren Zevon’s Werewolves Of London mentioned Lon Chaney, Jr. walking with the queen, holding a Chinese menu, and drinking a Fireball Whisky at Trader Vic’s in Tampa Bay. Unfortunately, that establishment closed its doors a couple of years ago, so he switched the beverage to a pina colada.
..I've just spotted the bit that you have made up. :)
The Dania Beach, Florida's singing siblings Cornelius Brothers and Sister Rose had a pair of million-sellers: the funky Treat Her Like A Lady and the sweet Too Late To Turn Back Now. I am considering writing a tribute song called "Too Late To Treat Her Like A Lady" but I’m having trouble working in a Suwannee River reference. From Tallahassee, Florida (home of my alma mater), Lobo had three Bread-like soft rock hits: Me and You and a Dog Named Boo, I’d Love You To Want Me and Don’t Expect Me To Be Your Friend. Alas, his comeback single, I’d Love Me and You To Not Be Friends, did not chart, but it did get airplay and managed to rev up a short concert tour in Japan.
I have to say Mr G Smith your wonderful grasp of the written word peppered with knowledge, chunks of humour and a few slices of self deprecation has me thinking as to whether you have in the past - or will in the future - turn your thoughts to publishing poetry and / or prose?
The lovely haiku
Offers grace and beauty in
Seventeen sylla- -
On behalf of The Nice Rooms Mr. Gunboat Smith, Many Thanks for the fascinating interview .
It’s been a pleasure speaking with you! For those that have somehow persevered through the entire interview despite my obtuse observations and ridiculous references, I cordially invite you to sample our music at http://www.gunboatdiplomats.com/ The Gunboat Diplomats web site.
Your ears might just run across something cool, interesting, or silly...maybe in one song! By the way, not only can you find our entire musical catalog at all the usual internet listening locations, you can purchase our dauntless digitized ditties at https://gunboatdiplomats.bandcamp.com/ Bandcamp for the every day low, low price of whatever you feel like paying.
Of course we’d like to fire off a twenty-one gun salute to GBD’s rotating diplomatic corps of talented performers who create our sonic concoctions in the hallowed halls of Zoe Tribe Studios. They are listed in all their glamorous glory in the Bandcamp credits for each song...although some may be under assumed names in order to maintain plausible deniability. (A smart move, if you ask me.)
And we’d be much obliged if you stopped by our https://m.facebook.com/thegunboatdiplomats Facebook page or
http://www.gunboatdiplomats.com/contact/ web site Contact page to shower us with passionate praise, inundate us with quirky questions and erudite edification, or heap upon us vast volumes of vicious vitriol.
GBD is a one stop shop for all your retro remarks and vintage vibe venting.
Thanks for inviting me into The Nice Rooms to do my affable ambassadorial act, Gary. It was a lot of fun!