“We’ve actually been here four or five times. There’s a lot of rock here in Nashville. There’s a lot of blues and jazz as well as country.”
The Tonic US tour has touched down on Nashville’s riverbank. It’s a sweltering Saturday Afternoon. Lead Guitarist and songwriter Jeff Russo and Bass Player Dan Laver have their feet up in air-conditioned comfort in the front of the tour bus. Soon they head off for a soundcheck, in front of the 10,000 strong crowd which has already gathered The early birds will get a bonus. They’ll see the soundcheck and the gig.
Tonic’s debut album Lemon Parade has been swaying up and down the Billboard Hot 100 for about six months now. They have already achieved a number one position of the American alternative rock charts.
So what’s the Tonic Story? Founding member, Russo capsulizes the story so far. “This is our first album. Emerson (Hart) and I got together about 6 years ago and started writing. We did some acoustic demos. Then we did some more demos. We didn’t really have a band, it was just Emerson and I. Then we started playing at this room in LA. It was the room where the Wallflowers played. That’s where we met our drummer, and that’s where we met Dan (Rothchild) the original bass player of Tonic. We started to play and people just started to come and eventually we got signed to do a record. Then in December (I am skipping way forward here) Dan (Rothchild) exited the band and Dan (Laver) joined. We saw Dan on a Sunday and on Wednesday we were all on a plane to go do his first gig. It was whirlwind for him”.
This was no first come, first served appointment. Jeff says they had known Laver for years. “We had been friends with Dan for a couple of years. He was in a band called True and that band played with us at our very first Tonic gig. That’s when I met Dan. We had kind of a friendship along the years and when we heard Dan Rothchild was going to be leaving, the first person we thought of was Mr Laver here.” Dan puts it ever more bluntly “There was no cattle call, there was just one phone call.”
Joining an established band is often difficult for a new member. The songs have already been written, the fan base often established. It’s a bit like Mike Brady coming into his new family and having to learn to love the kids. “What a great analogy” laughs Laver. “That was beautiful. It was ok, all these lovely blond Brady girls hahaha. No, it was cool man, I knew the band, I knew the record, I had a copy of it, so I didn’t actually have to sit down and learn it, but I always liked the band since it started, so it was a very natural transition for me.”
Tonic are based in L.A., a tough market to crack especially for this band. According to Russo “In all of America, pretty much the only place that we are not successful is at home. L.A. has a very finicky taste in music. We do pretty well there, but we do much better on the East Coast and in the middle of the country. In fact, we do much better everywhere else except in L.A.. Which is very strange to us. I am actually from New York City and Dan here is from Jersey as is Emerson, so our home towns have been really great to us, but for Kevin, who is from L.A., it’s a kind of a drag cause its our home and they are not really into Tonic.”
The LA story began about 8 years ago when Dan Laver became the first to leave home. “I said bye Mum, and I moved to L.A. just because I wasted to put some distance between me and my family and start on my own. The farthest place I could think of and still be in the country was L.A.. I went there following a couple of friends of mine to pursue a career in music and some cool things happened. Now here I am sitting on a bus in Nashville with you, talking to Australia.”
Like most debut albums Lemon Parade has been years in the making. “Well, how the songwriting happened for Lemon Parade” says Russo, “Emerson had written a bunch of songs on his own, then Emerson and I sat down and wrote some more (Open Up Your Eyes, Lemon Parade), just the two of us. Then there were a couple of songs that were written by the whole band (Casual Affair, Wicked Soldier). The songs that Emerson had written had been around for a while. One of the songs we had written together had also been around for a while, another one we wrote together was written during the recording process. Some songs date back to when Emerson and I first started written together, some we did while we were recording, some are old some are new, some are borrowed some are blue. I am waxing poetic right now.”
Lemon Parade was produced by Jack Joseph Puig, a studio veteran. “He produced the Jellyfish record, he produced the Black Crowes, he produced The Freshman for The Verve Pipe. He worked with Blur and Belly. He’s been working forever. We called him Jack Joseph super genius” grins Russo. “The great thing was Jack Puig was instrumental in taking our vision, taking our mood, how we saw the music and amplifying it from what we heard in our head. We definitely went through a lot of changes. We were a different band before we went to make the record.”
Like many of our Australian pub rock bands, Tonic have had the sensibility to mould their sound before a live audience. Russo says that playing live has always been their priority. “Before we had gone to make the record, we had been gigging for about a year in L.A., pretty much at the same club every Sunday night. So we honed our skills that way. Really nothing can compare with being on the road. In 10 months, we have done 190 shows, and there is nothing better for a band than being on the road playing live because you just get better and better and better and better. I am sure that the next record we do, that will shine through, because of us playing as a band and what we do individually. You know, Emerson’s singing has gotten better, my playing, Dan’s playing, Kevin’s playing. Everyone has gotten a lot tighter as a unit, cause you put seven people in a bus for long enough and you get to know what colour underwear they wear.”
To really find out the influences of any rock band, one need look no further than the CD collection of the tour bus and evaluate the on the road playlist. The Tonic tour bus is hip to new sounds as well as classic rock, some of it even Australian. “You know my favorite record” gleams Russo “I have said this a cazillion times … Radiohead’s The Bends, I think it is just a masterpiece. Stone Temple Pilots is always on the bus, U2, Ben Folds 5”. Laver adds “I just got a copy of Let It Be (The Beatles) on CD, one by the Beach Boys, and Gerry Rafferty’s City to City, so we have been getting back to the old as well as the new. It’s all music to me, it doesn’t matter if it’s Australian, American, Irish. Its all whatever appeals to you”
Russo is the Oz rock fan. “You know I used to love the Hoodoo Gurus. Midnight Oil has never let me down and I am a big fan of a band called You Am I. I saw them a couple of times here in the States and there was very much a Who vibe. I just got a flash of Crowded House, but I think they are from New Zealand. Woodface is a masterpiece. I was a big fan of the album before that Temple Of Low Men which was awesome. I really loved Split Enz too, which was basically Crowded house anyway, or Neil’s brother I think.”
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