Interview first appeared in Examiner Feb. 21, 2010.
It all started with a fight. Okay, a strong disagreement, over who first came up with the singularly original, clever Steely Dan-esque tribute band name — Nearly Dan.
In the UK, Nearly Dan got off the ground with its first April 1997 gig, in a Stoke, England venue — after the idea came to three core band members tooling around as the Casuals back in 1995. And in Hawaii, then Seattle, the late Tim Garon (then one or two others) tried to jump-start several Steely Dan tribute band incarnations that went through a handful of different names, from the early 1990s Nearly Dan Garon came up with, supposedly on his own, to Bodhisattva, Charlemagne’s Kids, and back to Nearly Dan by 2006/2007.
Fans of both Nearly Dans took their stand, exchanged accusatory words, and eventually settled down, accepting in the end that there are currently two Nearly Dans out there in the world entertaining fans of the 1970s music icon who successfully fused various musical genres (from rock, soul and blues, to jazz) together and continue to reinvent themselves as musicians, while touring.
A commentary I wrote on December 31st of last year, Will The Real Nearly Dan Please Stand Up?, grabbed the attention of Nearly Dan-UK’s lead guitarist/vocalist Rob Rolph. He kindly left a few comments protesting that there’s any hatred from he or his band mates, while praising my “erudite” writing. I immediately contacted him for his and his band’s side of the story and learned some awesome things about this hardworking, committed band (that a lot of other bands, tribute or not, would be wise to study up on and emulate) that started off in much the same way as the Nearly Dan-Seattle band did — purely as a way to have fun with complicated Steely Dan music and share it with the masses.
Neither band does it for the fame or fortune. Let’s not kid ourselves, we’re not talking American Idol stuff here. Sometimes convincing club owners and managers that a tribute band can bring the paying audiences in can be a pain. And most Steely Dan fans tend to only perk up when they hear the hits. But once the band members hit the stage and throw down the jams till the girls say when… well, isn’t that what matters most?
Here is the story about the Steely Dan tribute band that rose up and conquered the UK, in Rob Rolph’s own words:
Welcome, Nearly Dan-UK. I know you’ve probably told the story of how you guys came up with that inventive name, but, tell it again. What were some of the runner-ups?
Thank you very much — it’s nice be here.
Back in the Jurassic, we had a little, five-piece cover band, which mutated into various Soul/Funk/Jazz incarnations over several years. The core band members have been musical and social friends since the mid/late-eighties. Drawn together, as we all liked the same music, chief of which was Steely Dan. In the latter version of [our core] band, we had ramped up the number of Steely Dan tunes in the set to at least 50 percent. Then, in 1996, when Steely Dan toured (for the first time in the UK, since the aborted tour of 1974), we got to see them play live — which was a big deal for us, believe me.
At our very next ‘Casuals’ gig, we were talking about the SD show, and we came to the conclusion that we really wanted a vehicle to play Steely Dan’s music exclusively. This is the first time the expression ‘tribute band’ was voiced (although we really think of it as a Revue). So, we decided to go away to learn several more tracks and bring them to rehearsal.
The plan was, if it sounded awful, we’d quietly pack up the gear and walk away, vowing never to speak of it again, ha! But it didn’t, we’d all done our homework thoroughly and I think we were all floored by how great these new tunes came together.
“Green Earrings” sticks out in my mind; I think I stopped playing just to listen to it (messing it up in the process, but no matter). During the early rehearsal stage, bassist Pete Bacanin came along with the name Nearly Dan, and we all decided that it was the best suggestion yet.
We had a list with all the other ideas on it… that was obviously scrapped there and then. On the list, I remember things like:
The Dan Busters (the ‘Dam Busters’ were a WW2 bomber squadron…and famous UK war movie)
Desperate Dan (an iconic comic strip cowboy in a very famous UK kids comic)
Show Biz Kids (which I liked)
There was more but they slip my mind now… middle age decrepitude (to quote D+W) setting in.
For the record, let’s clear the air and go over your band’s side of the story regarding the two Nearly Dans — the one in the UK, and the one here in the States.
Oh okay, well really, it’s an old story now and much water has passed under the bridge. But here goes: When we chose the name back in ’96, we trawled the Internet first to make sure there was no reference to any other band operating under that name. We were particular about that; we didn’t want to step on anyone’s toes, so to speak.
The late Tim Garon contacted me by e-mail in ’98 or ’99 while [he was] still living in Hawaii and sent me a jpeg poster of his band playing Hawaiian venues…his band was clearly named Bodhisattva.
He then visited the UK later that year, stayed as a guest at my home for a few days, and even got up to sing a song with Nearly Dan at the Adelphi Club in Preston. In the two days we hung out, there was no mention that his band had ever been called Nearly Dan at any time previously. A year, maybe later, he re-contacted me, and he’d moved to Seattle and was setting up another SD tribute band, and can he call it Nearly Dan? I very kindly asked him not to (several times), but he didn’t want to listen.
So yes, we were miffed and we felt our name had been hijacked. But certainly no animosity for any of the U.S. band members, who are all excellent musicians… and real nice people I’m sure, just like we are.
I’m not aware that there is a feud that continues to this day. We eventually had to accept that Tim had chosen to just ignore our polite but heartfelt request…? I accepted someone into my home and in this case, it was a naive gesture (on my part). He wouldn’t pay me back the courtesy shown.
Has it been easy to put this tribute band together, trying to find the right mix of musicians and back-up singers?
It was only made easier by the fact that, we had a core, five-member band that had played with each other consistently for nearly a decade. So that element was tight and locked-in. We did have friends in another local band with two backing vocals, and they were quickly on board. I suppose the brass section was the hardest to get right. We’ve had literally dozens of players in the section over the years, some guys were brief and some stayed a considerable time. I think now though we’re very lucky to have a little pool of pro-players from all over the UK who line up to play this gig…and they’re all great! It would be true to say we’ve had quite a few drummers in our time, but that settled down a number of years ago to two brilliant guys Bryan Hargreaves and Karl Hemmingsley, who can both rip it up.
But I suppose the real answer…is errm no, it’s not very easy.
It’s very hard to keep a large band together for so long, 13 years and counting. I think there’s something about the quality of Steely Dan’s music that playing it validates you as a musician, to yourself I mean. It gives you a real sense of achievement and pride I suppose. But [it’s a] combination having of a great love for the music, and that fact that we manage somehow to have a lot of fun along the way. It’s really not a commercial enterprise, you can’t look at it like that. The gain is musical, not financial.
It’s not easy to do covers of Steely Dan’s songs. What have been some musical challenges and accomplishments?
You’re certainly right in that respect, that’s definitely part of the allure. I don’t think we’d be remotely interested in doing a tribute to anyone else, but we thought this would really be worth it, musically.
As we often say, “There are no easy rides in this band.” Everyone is playing up to the limits of their ability. That’s really what makes it challenging, this music will never bore you as a player. Every Steely Dan song we’ve ever played has presented challenges of its own, but I would have to say there’s something special about playing a song as complex as, say “Aja,” or “Gaucho.” You might give yourself a pat on the back after either of those two.
How do you go about putting together a set list, rehearsing, doing gigs, and building on the success of the band?
When we first started out, of course, there were many months of long rehearsal nights pouring over the details of each song. Nowadays, many people tend to be surprised at how little we rehearse.
As we play so much of the entire year, the band tends to stay sharp between gigs. Plus, it’s the responsibility of each player to stay on top of his/her parts in between times. So, in fact, we usually only rehearse once or maybe twice a year. Once early in January, and maybe late summer, if needed. The only reasons for [calling a rehearsal] are when we’re putting new songs in the set, or reviving older pieces we haven’t played for some time. This is tied in with the set list; we usually play a programme of music for six months, then put some changes in. It’s nice to play a different set each time we return to a particular venue, and if this happens to be once or even twice a year, then the six-month spring clean seems to fit nicely. When choosing a set list, we all get a say as to what old or new material we might like to do, and — within reason — we’ll try anything.
Ultimately, even when it’s rehearsed up, it’s probably down to Steve Hayes (lead vocals and guitar) who has to sing it; he knows instinctively when he can sell a song properly. Plus, of course, we will gauge audience response to new material and that will determine the longevity of that particular song.
Our set lists tends to have an upbeat opening track, a varying selection of the best-known songs, a space for each player to solo, the odd obscure number, maybe a solo album track and we go out on the ‘dance-y’ crowd-pleasers.
Building band success is probably as hard as playing the material in the first place. We’ve hauled our butts all over the UK time and time again. In the early days, we’ve had to travel hundreds of miles to play to very small crowds, often failing to cover our own expenses. There are venues that don’t promote you properly, so no one turns up. It can all be very disheartening. We almost lost faith in the first few years, but we loved playing the Dan so much and it always felt worthy. We decided to use a policy of giving virtually any gig a try, only returning to the good ones, or the ones where we see potential for the future.
Gradually, over the years, we’ve built up a circuit of great gigs where (for the most part), we sell a big bunch of tickets, we have a happy and enthusiastic crowd, the band gets paid a bit, the venue turns a little profit, and everyone’s a winner!
I think the last few years have been critical. What with the worldwide financial problems, the live music scene got a whole lot tougher, venues are really struggling, some are even closing.
We decided to invest in advertising our tour dates with the UK national press, which, although very expensive, has resulted in more sell-out gigs than we’ve ever had, and we sure love that. It was a gamble, but it seems to have paid off.
What is involved in adding more Steely Dan songs, including any new stuff?
As I mentioned, we progress through the year with occasional suggestions thrown in — usually during tour bus conversations. We take a consensus opinion on several songs’ suitability nearer rehearsal time, then we’ll all go off to each learn our parts. Gary Davies (keys) will also score the brass charts (if required) for the pieces. We meet up in January and bolt it all together. For the most part, it will work out fine in that one rehearsal.
Although, we’re not afraid to shelve things that don’t seem to gel (then revisit them another time). All new songs have a playing-in period I would say; I think they reach maturity and sound fully confident after two or three gigs.
It’s strange though, we did a hefty chunk from both the “recent” SD albums, and some were quite complex songs to play, like “Janie Runaway” and “Green Book,” but they grooved well and we loved playing them. Some of our best work in fact. In spite of this, they often didn’t go down the same way as classic Steely Dan songs. Sure, the avid Dan elements are open to it, but the casual Dan listener tends to zero in directly on the older material. In some cases, you almost have to play those newer tracks just for yourselves. It’s shame in some regards, as there’s much more to Steely Dan than just the hits.
How does the band try to stand out as a Steely Dan tribute band?
For us, we’ve pretty much been the only touring SD tribute on the UK scene. To be fair, there have been, over the years, one or two other UK tributes, and they’re always good bands. You have to be good right?, to play this material. But with us, we really moved around the country a lot more; we’ve managed to get into some of the finest venues in the land and played in almost every city in the UK.
But it wasn’t by being lucky, it really was by sheer hard work and covering those miles. Many top venues balk at the idea of tribute bands. It was up to us to try to change their minds and convince them this is no ordinary tribute band. That part of it is still our biggest challenge. After 13 years, though, we are now blessed with a very good reputation, which often precedes us. We’re extremely grateful for that.
Notably, one of the ways our audiences say makes us stand out (for them), is by being personable at gigs, no egos allowed on stage. We talk to our audiences just like we’re one of them…and that’s because we are. We’re all (audience and band alike) just big ‘ole Steely Dan fans having a great night out.
What’s amazing is that, since 1997, you guys have been consistent with the gigs, the live concert recordings, and the expansive, impressive song list. That’s tough to do with the number of members in the band, plus backup singers. Scheduling rehearsals, for example, must be insane. How do you all go about this?
Thanks very much for saying so. I suppose, the amount of material we’ve done is down to adding several new songs at most rehearsals, then multiply that by 13 years and you get a lot of music. But I think the truth of it is, well for me at least, I can only keep between 20 and 30 Steely songs in my head at any one time, you know, or else other important stuff falls out of my head… like, where I live, or what my legs are for. Seriously though, I figure the middle 8 of something like “Deacon Blues” has probably 30–40 chord changes alone… phew! So I often have to go back to my old notes and sometimes re-learn a particular solo, whatever — this process is an ongoing thing.
Setting up a Nearly Dan rehearsal is a logistical nightmare, which probably explains their infrequency. I bet a hundred phone calls have to take place before the date hits the calendar. Poor Gary (Davies) I say, it’s his cross to bear. Did you say “must be insane?” Well yes, maybe we are, ha!
Has Steely Dan ever met and/or heard of Nearly Dan-UK?
We believe that Walter (and hopefully Donald) is aware of Nearly Dan UK. Well, it would be nice to think so certainly. I did get a guestbook reply from Walter in the very early days of the band, wishing us luck. That was fabulous.
If you haven’t yet met any of the Steely Dan guys, but had a chance to, what would be your dream scenario? A combined gig? A jam session?
Sadly we’ve never met either Don or Walt personally — as much as we would adore the chance, it would be hard to know quite what to say to them. I suppose “thank you” would be most appropriate.
But I did get a backstage pass to have a chat with Steely Dan Orchestra members Keith Carlock, Cyndi Mizelle, Jeff Young, and Michael Leonhart. I also had a nice, lengthy chat with Jon Herington about guitars and gear, which, for me, was joyous. Being a bit flustered possibly, I worded it real smooth (like you do) and said to him, “Guess I’ve got the same job as you Jon.” Doh! Well, not the “same,” obviously! Both of us tickled by that little faux-pas. Great players and nice people all.
Dream scenario… Oh probably to have either of them get up to play at one of our gigs… or even just be in our audience would be enough. If you’re talking pure fantasy, maybe “we” could complete the European leg of the next Steely Dan tour? (And when I snap my fingers…you’re back in the room.)
What’s the best part of performing? What is it like to be up there onstage and having the audience go wild?
Well, just playing these songs alone is incredible fun. But yes, as you say, having a bunch of Steely Dan aficionados loving what you’re doing is a truly fantastic feeling. It means a lot, as Steely Dan fans are incredibly knowledgeable and you can’t fool them; you have to be true to it. The encouragement is really inspiring, people who’ve come back over 15 times to see the band — we have some great fans for sure.
The band has a DVD coming out, featuring the October 2009 Stables gig. Is it available for purchase yet?
That’s true, shot at the fabulous Stables venue, one of England’s finest auditoriums. It’s in the video-editing stage at the moment, we’re hoping to release it within a month or so. It’s been a huge project for us, bigger than anything we’ve done before. You may wonder why we’re doing it? I suppose it represents a memento for us as a band, you know, for when we’re really old to show the grand-kids, and for those people who do come 15 times or more to see us play — something for them. We hope they like it when it’s finished.
[CBW: I hope I get an autographed copy.]
In fact, you’ve got a lot of live concert CDs going on from various gigs. This isn’t easy to arrange. Do you have a videographer in your band too? What’s involved in the making of these CDs.
Also true. We’ve done three live CDs over the years, pretty evenly spaced years apart. They all contain completely different sets, and like the DVD, they all represent a single night’s performance. They even have all the glitches left in. There are no fixes in the mix, just EQ and level, so it’s a real live performance, if you will. Which seemed the only valid way of doing them.
You’re right though, none of them was easy to arrange and where they didn’t have in-house recording facilities, we had to hire in equipment and engineers. We’d then end up with ADAT tapes, which could be mixed down into stereo masters. With 10 band opinions on offer, it’s quite difficult to get a mix everyone likes. Correct that, it’s impossible, in fact. We’ll get it finished in the end…somehow.
I’ve also noticed the band’s vast Steely Dan repertoire, including some not-so-famous tunes, like “Jack Of Speed,” “The Boston Rag,” and “Janie Runaway.” What goes into the selection of tunes, what has to stand out?
We’ve tried hard to represent as much of the Steely Dan songbook as possible. This includes finding the gems that can hide in all corners of the catalogue. With these, we try to envisage what tracks will really work as live performances. “Jack-Of-Speed” is a jumping live track, for example. I think what makes these songs stand out are slamming rhythm tracks. For instance, we’ve always hankered to play “Two against Nature” — that groove is fantastic (watch this space — for that one). But there are many others too.
The bottom line for live performances is that most Steely Dan fans want to hear their old favourites, so you have to keep the more obscure tracks to a minimum really, or else, “What killer track do you leave out to make room?” Then, of course, there are some songs you’ve just got to play, whatever night it is. (If I provided a list here, every Dan fan on the planet will be arguing until the end of time, e.g., Earrings?, Kid? etc. etc.)
You guys gig a lot for a tribute band. What’s the secret?
That’s true, we do. But it’s no secret, really. Gary (Davies) is a tenacious representative of the band, who chases gigs very hard. Plus, the band commits its free time to the enterprise, pretty much to the exclusion of everything else (and to our families, we are truly sorry).
What other future plans are in store?
We’re planning to do more festival work, hopefully. We’ve had great experiences in the past. Glastonbury was a real highlight for us. Most of all, though, we would like to gig a lot more in deepest Europe. It would be fantastic to set up three or four trips a year to those great countries, like Germany, Italy, Spain, Holland, Belgium, France, Portugal, Greece. We hope this year’s Irish mini-tour is the start of more of that.
Just like to say “thanks for asking” — best wishes everyone from Nearly Dan UK.