Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Rula Bula -- "Just" (2012)

I’m just killing time with
Reckless abandon

On my last visit to Cape Cod, I went to a part of the Cape that I rarely visit in search of someplace new to ride my bike.  

Falmouth is located in the extreme southwestern corner of Cape Cod, and is a good hour's drive from Dennis, the town where my family's house is.

Most people from my part of the Cape rarely visit Falmouth.  Don't get me wrong -- Falmouth is a perfectly nice place.  But it's not easy to get there from where I stay, and the beaches and the restaurants and the shopping in Falmouth are pretty similar to the beaches and restaurants and shopping in my part of the Cape.

There is one particular reason to go to Falmouth.  If you want to go to the island of Martha's Vineyard -- especially if you want to take your car -- Falmouth is the home to the main ferry line to Martha's Vineyard.  (The island is only about seven miles from the Woods Hole ferry dock.)

Sign at the Woods Hole ferry dock
Falmouth is also where musician Johnny Gwynn, who wrote the song "Just," grew up and where he lives today.  

I found out about Johnny and his band, Rula Bula, when I was looking for Cape Cod-related songs to feature on 2 or 3 lines.  (I had a lot of photos from my Falmouth bike ride that I wanted to use, and I needed some suitable songs to accompany them.)  

About a year ago, Johnny wrote an article for a local publication that was titled "The Perfect Cape Cod Soundtrack."  It listed ten songs that mentioned Cape Cod.

Martha's Vineyard ferry unloading truck
2 or 3 lines had already featured two of those songs: Patti Page's "Old Cape Cod," and Vampire Weekend's "Walcott."  And to tell the truth, most of the other songs in Johnny's article kind of sucked.  (Do you really think there's a chance that a quality operation like 2 or 3 lines is going to feature that weak-ass piña colada song by Rupert Holmes?  No way, Jose.)  That wasn't Johnny's fault, of course -- you can't make chicken salad out of chicken you-know-what.

When I listened to Rula Bula's 2012 EP, Harpoon, I knew my problem was solved.  I had the Cape Cod connection I needed, and all four of the songs on that EP were solid -- my only problem was picking just two to feature on 2 or 3 lines.

Before we listen to "Just," let's get acquainted with Johnny Gwynn and learn about Rula Bula.

2 or 3 lines:  Johnny, when and how did you become a musician?  Did your parents give you music lessons when you were a kid, or are you self-taught?

Gwynn:  I played a mean saxophone in my school band, but started to really get into rock music in middle school.  I started taking lessons on a ratty old guitar my sister bought at a yard sale for $5 and I quickly became obsessed, learning technique in there lessons and then listening to my favorite bands and trying to learn their songs by ear.  It was all trial and error, but I just couldn’t get enough.  My dad always complained that if I had put half as much effort into learning French in high school I’d have become fluent.  I can’t speak a lick of French after five years of studying it in high school and college, but I can figure out a song’s chords and structure after just one listen.

2 or 3 lines:  What is the first music you remember liking on the radio?  Who were your favorite groups when you were a teenager?

Gwynn:  I listened to a lot of radio, frantically hitting the scan button to land on anything that piqued my interest -- pop, rock, rap, classic rock, disco. When I was growing up there was a lot of alternative rock on the radio so I was able to hear bands like Green Day, Chumbawumba, and Third Eye Blind.  I also learned about music from my uncle.  He bought tons of CDs and would play all this really cool UK music like Oasis and Fatboy Slim that I really fell in love with even though no one else I knew was listening to it.  My uncle also gave me my first CD, Bringing Down The Horse by the Wallflowers, and I must have worn down the CD from listening to “One Headlight.”  That stuff and the '90s alt-pop-rock really stuck with me because there were songs that had grit and really rocked but could still be liked by everyone.

2 or 3 lines: Tell us about your first band and the first time you performed in public?  

Gwynn:  After only six months of playing the guitar, a friend and I decided to enter a talent show.  We were going to play a Blink 182 song and I was elected to sing.  I can’t stress enough that I was not a natural singer, but balancing singing and guitar playing kept me too occupied to be nervous.  Soon after that I joined a band called Falling To First, which stayed together for a year and a half and played five live shows.  We wrote our own songs, which was a slow process, but playing something original always charged me up.  Even if the song bombed, it was still more thrilling to play music that was all your own.  

Rula Bula's Johnny Gwynn
2 or 3 lines: How did you get from Cape Cod to Arizona?

Gwynn:  I spent a summer at the University of Southern California the summer before my senior year of high school and really fell in love with being at a big school out west, with big-time sports and great music.  I applied to a bunch of schools, and decided to go to Arizona State University.  It had all the things I liked about USC, and the Phoenix music scene had bands like the Gin Blossoms and Jimmy Eat World.  I knew no one in Arizona and had no connection to the place, but just decided I’d take the plunge.  

2 or 3 lines:  Your next stop was Manchester, England.  It's a long way from Arizona to Manchester -- what inspired that move?

Gwynn:  Arizona was great but after a few years I really wanted to go to England -- probably because of  all the Britpop music that had fueled my growing up.  I had my heart set on London until an interview with a counselor who found out I loved music.  “Oh, then you’ll love Manchester!” she said.  Oasis, Joy Division, the Smiths, the Stone Roses . . . that’s where it was at.  Right there, I gave up on London and signed up for Manchester.

2 or 3 lines:  Was Manchester the right place for you?

Gwynn:  I spent ten months in Manchester and fell in love with the city.  By chance I got involved with a small record label that put on shows around the city and got the chance to play my songs at some gigs.  Playing original songs for British kids who dug the music -- man, there was nothing better than that!

2 or 3 lines:  So tell me how Rula Bula got started -- and where you got the name for the band.

Gwynn:  I wrote a ton of stuff in Manchester and once I got back, started recording songs with my brother on drums that become the A-Sides EP I released under my own name.  But I never wanted to be a solo artist so we fleshed out the band with bass and another guitar.  We didn’t have a name for the band until our first gig.  When they asked what the name of the group was, I said “Rula Bula,” which was the name of a bar back in Tempe I would frequent when I was at Arizona State.  Turns out the name means “a raucous good time” in Gaelic, so we decided to run with it.

The Rula Bula pub in Tempe, AZ
[NOTE: The bar Johnny refers to is still going strong in downtown Tempe, which is not a place where you might expect to find an Irish pub.  By the way, there's a traditional folk band from Emyvale, Ireland, that also calls itself Rula Bula -- so don't be confused.]

2 or 3 lines:  Who writes Rula Bula's original songs?  

Gwynn:  I write the music and lyrics to all of Rula Bula’s songs. I do bounce ideas off the band or have my brother, Tyler, take the helm with forming drum beats ('cause mine are usually painfully basic) but I’ve got my hands on the whole process.

2 or 3 lines:  Describe that process -- which comes first, music or lyrics?

Gwynn:  A lot of times I’ll just pick up a guitar or random instrument and just improvise, just jam on my own.  After playing jazz and improvising most of my solos for performances, doing that sometimes just releases an interesting groove that sparks my interest.  “Just” came like that, where I was just running through scales and random riffs and I hit on that guitar line that really caught my ear.  I played it for Tyler and he said, “We gotta keep that.”  

2 or 3 lines:  You make it sound like you let the song come to you.  Do you ever get stuck when you're writing a song?

Gwynn:  If I hit a wall, I immediately put the guitar down and then pick it up again later.  Sometimes it can take months or longer to figure out where I want a song to go.  I just have to wait for another riff or chord progression to reveal itself as a good piece to add to that first riff.

Johnny Gwynn on stage
2 or 3 lines:  So the music comes first and the lyrics come second.

Gwynn:  Yes, lyrics come last.  I beat myself up over lyrics for two reasons.  First, I was an English major in college and I've got to put that degree to work somehow.  Second, I never want my lyrics to come off as clichéd or just mundane.  I want to try to bring something else to the table so I try to go out on a limb and delve a little deeper into what I’m singing.  I remember reading a quote from Aimee Mann who said that for her, she just tried to avoid clichés and write something she’s never heard before in a song.  I try to write in a conversational voice but I also try to fit in weird turns of phrase that really get your attention.  I come from a big Irish family so we have all these weird sayings and expressions that most people had never heard before.  If I can write something that kind of stops the listener in his tracks or that piques the listener's interest because it's a different way of phrasing something, mission accomplished.

2 or 3 lines:  I really like the lyric from this song about "killing time with reckless abandon."  Killing time implies inactivity, while doing something with reckless abandon implies lots of action.  The two would seem to be opposites.  But because time never stands still every moment you waste brings you one moment closer to death, killing time is just about the most foolhardy and reckless activity there is.  What inspired the lyrics for "Just"?

Gwynn:  For “Just,” I was trying to sum up the feeling of being a "townie.”  I was living on the Cape after graduating from college, working entry-level jobs, always ending up at the same bars with the same people -- you know, "same stuff, different day."  As much as you want to get out, it doesn't take long before you start to develop a little indifference.  Before you know it, two months have passed and you’ve gotten nowhere on that plan to move on.  I wanted to communicate the frustration in the staleness of that situation and how you’re just wasting time until you finally make that move.

We'll continue our conversation with Johnny Gwynn in the next 2 or 3 lines.

Click here to listen to Rula Bula's "Just":

As a special treat for all of my loyal readers, I've talked Johnny into giving you a free download of "Just."  Click here to download the song for free.

1 comment:

  1. "Irish" pubs are all over. Molly Malone's in LA is on Fairfax Ave., a few blocks south of Canter's Deli (there's a novelty song only heard on Dr. Demento, "Walk on the Kosher Side" by the Legendary Masked Wino with the line "Take a walk down Fairfax"). One night I was out in front of Molly's, and Adam Marsland comes up and says, "Hi, Bob, I'm glad you're here tonight. Evie's going to be doing one of your favorite songs." So about a third of the way through the show, Adam asks, "Is there a 70s Soul singer in the house?" (spotlight shines on Evie) "Why it's Ms. Evie Sands! Tell me Evie, do you have a song for Bob tonight?" And she answers, "I sure do!" and launches into "Don't Look Back (Don't Look Down)" The other "Irish" pub that sees the Chaos Band quite often is Brennan's in Marina del Rey. This is where the band recorded "Long Promised Road" the now collectible CD featuring the songs of Dennis and Carl Wilson, plus originals from Evie, Adam, and Alan Boyd.