Speedsters and Dopers

An Interview With Greg Di Gesu

Most new bands struggle because they lack experience. Making those first tentative steps from the basement, or the garage, find the budding musicians seeking places to play, outlets to get the word out about their sound, contacts to make connections and, most importantly, experience about how to book a show, draw and crowd, play a gig, and send everyone home ready to come back the next time.

Speedsters and Dopers, supporting the release of their debut album, "9 o'clock in the Afternoon", may have only formed as a unit a few short years ago, but the band members, notably creative and musical frontman Greg Di Gesu, already have the experience and industry wisdom to give this project a kick-start other new bands can only envy.

Playing music, and soon after writing his own, since the early 1980s, Di Gesu used his time at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey, to break into the local music scene. By 1987, he released an album with local favorites The Wooden Soldiers, and through the next decade, continued to play with that band and, later, Fishermen's Stew, releasing two records with that eclectic unit to follow-up the three CDs that were put out by the Soldiers.

Throughout this time, Di Gesu also had a real job, building a career as an accomplished engineer. He began in the early 1990s, and continued to do freelance work, largely at the Loho Studios where "9 o'clock" was recorded. His experience behind the mixing board brought him a musical education at the earphones of a who's who, including Lenny Kravitz, John Mayer, Fossil and Bernie Worrel, and exposed Di Gesu to a variety of sounds, continuing to build on his influences.

Formed in New York City in 2000, the name Speedsters and Dopers is not a description of its members, but an indication of the venues where they foresaw their music being performed: dark and smoky, lit with red lights and perfumed with incense. The music, as indicated by the 14 tracks on "9 o'clock" doesn't quite fit the image, though, and rocks and moves far more than the hippie/stoner imagery of the original intention might have suggested.

But, it's good. It's original, interesting, catchy and instantly familiar. Their live shows should become popular events as the word about the band spreads and, with luck, they should become an asset to fans around the New Brunswick scene, the regional circuit and, if the rest of the country is lucky, music lovers everywhere.

Believe it or not, Di Gesu took the time to cover all of this in his recent interview with Chorus and Verse. He would have much rather have been playing, as all good musicians would, but there'll be time for that later, when the red lights kick on.

The new CD, "9 o'clock in the Afternoon", includes the three tracks from your first EP, as well as 11 others. Were the songs from "Hold for Air" re-recorded for this LP, or did you utilize the same tracks? Did you want to do anything different with those songs for the new album?

The tracks that appear on the mini-CD are the same recordings and mixes as on the full release. The only difference being that they were re-mastered for "9 o'clock in the Afternoon".

You're playing a CD release party at Maxwell's in Hoboken, and will follow that up with several shows in New York and New Jersey to promote it. Is there a sense of excitement when fans start to finally hear the record? Do you ever have second thoughts about decisions you made while recording, or are you able to reach a point when you're fully satisfied with how each song sounds in the final mix?

I think that with these area CD release shows it's exciting because you have something that people can take home with them besides a positive live experience. That is what's great when releasing recorded music to the public. It's like sending your kid to school and waiting to hear if the kid gets accepted or made fun of. Luckily this kid we made isn't a dork! Our new kid rocks!

As far as the fastidiousness of the recordings, I must say that it is anything but that. As a recording engineer, I tend to not be super detail oriented in terms of perfected mixes. My whole thing is to get the vibe to tape and to be able to present a performance of a song that conveys a sense of time and place.

I'm not big on overdubbing or mixing for that matter, at least with my own band. If I'm working with another project, there may be a lot of overdubbing and endless mixing. With this Speedsters and Dopers release, it's been a much more Dylanesque / Velvet Underground approach. We cut these songs over a period of three separate recording sessions. Everything was recorded live at Loho Studios in NYC. There are some backing vocals I added and guitar parts that Jack added, but those overdubs are very minimal. It's accurate to say this is a live record.

As far as the mixing goes, it's even more absurd when compared with today's standards of neurotic anality. Nearly every mix on the CD is a rough mix I came across or one of many mixes I did and then stumbled on at some point. Overall, it really worked out well adding to the overall flow of the CD. It adds an interesting element of a painter's canvass to mix like this. I find it helps the timelessness of a recording when having such an approach. It's more about the performance and getting that vibe to sit within the speakers and convey that studio moment. It's not about how many dbs you moved the fader on the console. It's not about the eq settings or the amount of compression. At least not for this record and the many that I so admire. Dylan's "Highway 61 Revisited" is a classic example.

You have almost 15 years of engineering experience working in music studios. What has being involved with so many artists and recordings taught you that has carried over to producing your own music? Has the experience made it easier for you to achieve the vibe you're looking for, or do you run the risk of overproducing your sound trying to sound, or not sound, like someone else?

It's funny because with all the studio experience I have you'd be surprised at how non-technical I am.

I started recording as a musician in studios in 1985 and began engineering in 1990. After all those years of crazy projects, I still believe in the song and the performance. Getting the stuff sounding good is an added thing and can really make something amazing vs. just good.

However, a great song is still a great song even if recorded by a broken microphone. I do appreciate monster albums that use every bit of technology, but it still has to move me by the art of the songwriting.

As far as copying the sounds of others, it's not something I put my energy into. I've never been one to learn a lot of cover songs for the same reasons. It's already been done. I always opted to write my own. The studio experience lends a lot to the Zen of the moment. You can have an approach and an angle, but every day is a new day; and with the addition of many musical personalities and circumstances, it's hard to make a prediction. You have to fly with the moment.

I do, however, like to study sounds and balances of great recordings. Cutting my teeth as an engineer on those Kravitz records was quite a lesson in the study of sounds. I would sleep on the couch from working the night before and wait for Henry (Lenny's engineer and Waterfront Studios co-owner, Henry Hirsch) to come in and wake me so we could start listening to the Beatles and Led Zeppelin and all the great mentors. From there, the study of these sounds and recording techniques would be applied to Lenny's recordings. Different recording techniques and productions, of course, lend inspiration depending on the type of project you are working on.

You do freelance work at a number of different studios. Why did you choose Loho Studios in New York for recording "9 o'clock in the Afternoon"? What are the qualities that you look for in a good studio, both from the perspective of an engineer and as an artist?

After Waterfront closed its doors in 1996, I started poking around for some freelance work. Remember, I had been nicely taken care of as a six-year house engineer at Waterfront. In the age of Lenny, the bookings were coming in through the door. I rarely lacked for work and never lacked for new experiences. All kinds of sessions, all styles, all kinds of people, all the time. From a 17-piece band to a solo performer with three guitar strings!

Some of the best times of my life were spent at Waterfront. I will always be indebted with gratitude towards Henry Hirsch and David Domanich (Waterfront co-owner) for recognizing my talent and giving me the opportunity to learn and use it.

I moved shortly thereafter to Brooklyn and soon came to know Victor and Eddie Luke of Loho Studios. They were in a small basement on Lafayette St. in Manhattan. The studio had been there for many years. I think nearly 20 total! So, I started engineering for them out of that location. It was great. A small room and an old Helios recording console. Lots of good local rock / punk bands.

One of my favorite records I cut and mixed there was The Bullys, "Tonite, We Fight Again". Such a great pop punk record. (May Johnny rest in peace. He was the songwriter and guitar player as well as a fireman. He went into the towers on 9/11 and didn't come back. A great person and talent. I'll never forget making that album with him).

So you see, lots of great experiences at the old Loho. A few years later Victor and Eddie opened the current location on Clinton St. It's an amazing place. Great sounds, awesome room, outboard gear, and equipment. The vibe there is so conducive to making great records. Ask John Mayer. Ask Guided By Voices. Ask me! It's usually the studios I work out of that I choose to record my own projects at. It's a comfort and sound thing.

I always loved the history of studios with their own sounds and staff. Like Abbey Road, Sun Studios, and Ardent Studios. Loho is a studio that strives for that as well. It's my recording home and you're all invited to come over! www.lohostudios.com.

Two of the most famous artists you've worked with are Lenny Kravitz and John Mayer. Can you fill us in on what you did with those two musicians, and any impressions you had while working with them?

As far as working with Lenny Kravitz and John Mayer, my role on those records was that of assistant engineer. When working as a house engineer for a studio, there's a good chance that you will be assisting projects as well. In the case of Lenny, I had been Henry's assistant at Waterfront at that time and was learning the art of recording. I would assist Henry on those records and then do other sessions as recording engineer when Lenny wasn't booked in. My old band, the Wooden Soldiers, had been recording with Henry in 1986 at the same time he was recording "Let Love Rule" for Lenny.

A few years later John Mayer's album, "Room for Squares," was cut at Loho. In this case, John Alagia was the producer and Jeff Giuliano was the engineer. As the house engineer, it would be my duty to assist the project and keep things technically flowing. This will happen at times when an outside recording team comes into any studio. The house people become the assistants. Regardless of what the role you are in, you always learn at every session. Each one is unique with a different dynamic and music to it.

My impressions of working with Lenny Kravitz would be very different than working with John Mayer. They are different people with different musics. Lenny was already a superstar and John was on his way but not there yet.

On a musical level Lenny was great to work with since he could play any instrument. And he could really play and sing well. He's the kind of musician that brings the dynamics of sound to the microphones.

John has amazing feel as well and a great vibe not only as a songwriter but as a person too. A funny young man indeed.

Back to your own music; when Speedsters and Dopers were formed, you made a conscious decision not to play guitar, and concentrate on songwriting and singing. Why were you interested in moving in that direction, and has the experience turned out as you expected?

After Fishermen's Stew, I was feeling that this band had too much of me in it. All the writing, the production, singing, guitar playing, etc.; too much of me isn't a good thing. Ask any of my ex-girlfriends! I also started playing around with the idea of just singing up front and breaking out some of my white boy moves. I was cultivated in suburbia, I might as well embrace it.

So, this concept of me fronting a band emerged. It was through a dark opiated, smoke-filled environment that I envisioned this. Meaning, the setting by which I saw us performing and the type of music it might lean towards. You know, like red lights, incense, etc. Then the name wouldn't leave my head, Speedsters and Dopers. In some ways I really didn't want to use this name but it fit so well and was interesting and controversial enough to be remembered.

The vision of the band originally was much darker than its result. I had more of a Nick Cave / Leonard Cohen kind of thing in mind. It emerged as a much more rocking presentation though. And, by mostly singing I felt I could really articulate the vocals without worrying about the physical maintenance of playing guitar. It then became a lot easier to turn any stage into Madison Square Garden! The bottom line was that I was doing one less thing in the band.

I am happy with the results thus far although right now we are toying with the idea of expanding the band with more members.

In past projects, you utilized a large number of musicians, which you've referred to as a "revolving door". With Speedsters and Dopers, you've formed a more cohesive unit to record and perform together. Can you introduce each member of the band and how they became a part of this project?

As much as I would like to have a stable band roster, it is becoming pretty difficult based on our ages and varied commitments. Especially in the New York area, everybody is very busy. But pretty amazingly we have maintained a fairly consistent musical situation. The musicians on "9 o'clock in the Afternoon" are:

Dan Green, bass / backing vocals: Dan was a member of my old band, Fishermen's Stew. He played on the "Hand of Mouth" album. We met in New Brunswick, NJ, some years ago and I consider Dan my right hand man. He also plays with Gift Horse, Sam Bisbee, and Rain Phoenix. Dan and his girlie, Kilsy, have their own band of her namesake.

Jack Petruzzelli, crazy guitar: You may want to Google this guy. Jack and I have been playing together since the mid-80s. We are also old New Brunswick mates and great friends. Jack plays in the band when he is geographically present. A lot of his time is spent touring with the likes of Joan Osborne and Vanessa Paradis as well as his involvement with the Fab Faux and other local folks.

Billy Donohue, piano / organ / mini-moog: Billy and I met in the old days as well. Again another New Brunswick-occurrence. When I was in the Wooden Soldiers, I first met him while he was in his band, The Blases. That was circa 1986. While we were working on a trade show in Los Angeles together in 2000, I first divulged to Billy my concept of Speedsters and Dopers. After all those years we had known each other we finally played piano and guitar together at a friend's house in Venice Beach, CA. That was the planting of the seeds for this band.

Phil Cimino, drums: Finally, a native New Yorker! I met Phil through Billy. They had been in John Cale's touring band together. I love the way he plays drums. Phil is a very good thing.

Jeff Kolber, guitar: Once again, another New Brunswickite. Jeff had been a fan of the Wooden Soldiers in the '80s. He also played in some bands around New Brunswick, but I really didn't know him that well until we started playing together in NYC. Although he is no longer playing in the live band, Jeff still operates behind the scenes as our web designer, friend, and operative.

The following musicians play live with Speedsters and Dopers:

Francis Pisani, guitar: The newest addition to the band. Francis has been on the past two shows with us. A new Speedsters baby indeed! And you guessed it, he is another New Brunswick relocate.

Arlan Feiles, piano / backing vocals: Hailing originally from Los Angeles, he is the main songwriter for Dan's other band, Gift Horse. Arlan also was the musical director of Hedwig in Boston.

Arne Wendt, organ / keyboards: From the wealth of New Brunswick music comes Arne. He has played with the Mother Sound, Vehicle, and recently and with great honor on Noel Redding's last gig. He will be joining us along with Arlan on some local shows, expanding the keyboard sound.

Brad Gunyon, drums: Another member of Gift Horse and a native of Indiana. Brad has yet to join us onstage but will do so at our upcoming show at the Court Tavern with Instant Death and Gift Horse.

Since you aren't playing an instrument, how important are the contributions of the other band members to creating each song's structure? How much of the song is written by the time it is introduced to the rest of the band, and how are the groove and melody developed?

The way the songwriting is at this point is that I write all the songs. There have been instances of collaboration with my friends Godfrey Diamond and David Dreiwitz. Dan has also collaborated on some songs as well.

When the credits list all the band members as writers, those performances were completely spontaneous in the studio. They went down as they were created and everyone who played it therefore wrote it. Those songs on "9 o'clock" are "Sally Sells Seashells" and "Son of My Father". It will make you listen to them differently.

So, yes, I don't play an instrument much in a live situation by choice. There are a few songs I do play guitar and piano on to change the flavor a bit, and to give me a chance to play.

May I add that I do love to play! I rarely go a day without. Don't be misled by my role in the band as singer. At home, there are two acoustic pianos, a Wurlitzer piano, a Casio, a bunch of acoustics and electrics, a bass, and some percussive things. Oh did I say bamboo saxophone? Let's save that story for another time. Yeah, so I play as much as I can 'cause I love to and it's one of the few things that brings me into the present moment.

The songs that come to rehearsal are almost always complete. Sometimes we rework an arrangement or something, but mostly it is a complete song in lyrics, music, and structure. I write early and often! It's a cursed blessing.

For instance, right now I am answering these interview questions but I really want to go play. However, I am avoiding playing because it usually leads to writing and I don't need to write any more songs right now! They are piling up like hungry children.

Have you been comfortable with allowing other musicians to have so much input into your creative process? Has the way your band has reinterpreted your songs ever gone off in a completely different direction from what you intended? In general, has the process changed your attitude towards writing and creating music?

I am always open to anything with band members. However, I am a bit stubborn with the fact that these songs seem to be pretty complete almost every time. This has been the same process through all of the bands I have had. I do advocate other band members to write songs or bring in half-finished ideas.

I am beginning to realize that I am a very experienced songwriter and that I need to have patience and support others' endeavors towards writing. I've been writing since I was able to play enough to do so.

My first song was written in August of 1982. Most musicians I know have been playing for years before attempting to write. I am very happy with what my band mates have done with these songs. I merely write them. Someone has to play them and keep them created in the moment in front of people. That's the heaviest responsibility. I write behind closed doors hidden from the eyes and ears of others.

The band went into the studio to start recording immediately after your debut gig in New York City. How important is spontaneity to the band and how much of that are you able to bring to your live shows? Does having experienced musicians make it easier to just take to the stage and play, without having things seeming too rehearsed?

Spontaneity is a part of Speedsters and Dopers. The songs are very structured, yet the energy or feel of them may change from gig to gig. There are those moments whereby things just go into their own place and will never happen the same way again. Thankfully we have captured some of these moments in the studio on tape.

And, equally thankful, is to have these spontaneous moments occur regularly at shows. What also adds to the freshness of our shows is that we only rehearse maybe twice before a gig. And if the gigs are close in proximity, one rehearsal may satisfy a few shows.

One important thing is that all of us are always playing. Whether it be in other bands or in our own houses and apartments. Music is very much on all of our minds and hands. All of us are good friends as well and therefore we are connected on a personal level. Most came from the old New Brunswick music scene. We were all urban legends.

What are your plans moving forward for Speedsters and Dopers? What sort of gigging schedule are you looking to put together, and how much support are you hoping to get from radio stations and other media outlets for the new album?

Like any band we want to build our fan base. Booking shows out of the area are in the process. It's nice to bring the music into a new setting with new people and, most likely, cleaner air.

At present, we are in the middle of a bunch of local gigs. They have been really good performances and the growing audience has been indicative of that. Recently I walked past someone I didn't know and overheard them say, "I heard these guys are supposed to be good." That's a really good sign!

We are also continuing our media mail-outs and are starting to get the music out to radio. We are doing this ourselves with the help of our publicist, Bernadette Suski Harding. I want to add that having an Internet presence has really helped us reach a lot more people.

There's a great deal to be done when you are doing it yourself, but as the years go on I feel like I have a better understanding of how things can be done. This doesn't rule out getting on a label. There are a lot of good ones out there who work in conjunction with the artists. Some give others a bad rap. However, there are people within the mammoth industry that are pretty cool and have very musically driven interests. So there are no rules to all this stuff.

Once we have substantial press, we are going to start contacting some labels we dig. I have always firmly believed that the music will lead the way. Good music, like good news, travels.

[ Website: www.speedstersanddopers.com ]

Matt Mrowicki

Matt Mrowicki founded Chorus and Verse in 2001. He is a rock star designer and technologist, Internet professional, content creator, and entrepreneur specializing in web development, IT consulting, branding, social media and online marketing. www.imprtech.com