The Man on Top of Rockpile
by T Max
I’m very interested in people who choose to make a living from music. Most of them have more than one source of income, using their talents to keep the money flowing in from different directions. Drummer/ guitarist/ engineer/producer Greg Dann is one of those people. He man’s Rockpile Recording (don’t let the name fool you – he records all types of music, voice overs, and readings) out of his self-built studio in Rockport, MA. He plays drums in a couple of popular cover bands, Secret Service and Funbucket, with some very talented musicians. And he’s looking for new outlets for his guitar playing.
Noise: How did you first get involved with music?
Greg Dann: My parents bought an inn when I was about five. When we first moved in it was a full service hotel with a restaurant and laundry. The soap for the laundry came in big barrels, and as an inquisitive child I found that the metal barrel tops made an awesome sound. I don’t remember being able to get my hands on one to keep for myself, but the next best thing was the giant Maxwell House coffee cans. I collected them and made little drum sets. The next natural step was elementary school band. I had a choice of instruments and of course chose the snare drum. That kept me going for a few years until an Elvis impersonator friend showed me how to play a rock beat on a set of drums in the school music room. After that I was hooked.
Noise: When did you realize that you wanted to run a recording studio?
Greg: It didn’t all happen at once. I had the opportunity to record drum tracks in a big studio in the ’80s on a couple of different occasions, so I think that planted the seed. But because of life, kids, jobs, marriage and divorce, I really didn’t see a clear view to being able to record myself. My bands at different times would have to do demos and that kept my interest, but the process was still quite a mystery to me. I started attempting to record with a little Tascam 4-track cassette deck, and was thoroughly surprised at how awful everything sounded. Using my technical education I slowly inched my way to more sophisticated systems, culminating in what I now have.
Noise: Tell me about the bands that you currently play in, what kind of gigs they do, and their members.
Greg: I currently play in and run two bands. One is Secret Service which is a general business/ wedding band, and the other is more of a bar band called Funbucket. Both are cover bands and they are very similar, but Secret Service has the addition of a keyboard player and a different bass player. That band has been in existence since 2001 and Funbucket formed around 2004. They’ve evolved over the years with some changes in personnel, but I have to say that these current line-ups are a joy and an honor to work with. These guys collectively have shared the stage with the likes of Bo Diddly, U2, Robert Ellis-Orral, Tommy Lee, New Kids on the Block, just to name a few. They’ve also been involved in the creation and/ or performance of many of the TV and radio ads that stick in your head (maybe that’s not always a good thing).
Noise: I’m sure you have an interesting story from a gig you played.
Greg: Well this has to be one of the most interesting stories. It starts out like most any other gig. My band Secret Service had been playing regularly doing functions and events. One day I received a call from a woman asking if the band would be willing to play for an event in Vermont. She said it was a party for all of the contractors who had built their new home. A couple of months later when we showed up at the property what we found was amazing. It was a full carnival set up with bumper cars and a small ferris wheel. Two huge tents sat on a multi-acre field encircled by small mountains. Caterers had prepared a wide variety of exotic foods. Their home was a custom built log cabin style with a pool. Every corner of the house was adorned with exotic and expensive furniture, appliances and woodwork. There was a hand carved pool table, a real, eight foot tall grizzly bear stuffed and standing in the living room. The hardwood floors were made of several rare, multicolored, exotic imported woods. Guests were wondering how this nice couple had come into so much wealth and one contractor suggested, shrugging, that he thought they had won the lottery. We played the gig including an impromptu personal performance at the end of the night after the full fireworks display, got paid including a huge tip, and headed off to an entire bed and breakfast that was generously provided. It was all pretty cool, and when I got the call from the same woman for another event the following year she didn’t have to twist my arm. This was to be even bigger and better than the last. She had hired planners from LA this time. U2 was too expensive for them, so they settled for Al Jarreau to play the dinner set with the River Dancers and a full bagpipe band to precede us for the dance set. About two weeks before this amazing event was to happen I received a call from the LA planner who said it was all cancelled. No more info was offered until months later when I discovered that this woman had embezzled about six million from the construction company for whom she worked as a book keeper. She was in the news, on the cover of Boston Globe Magazine, went to trial and prison.
Noise: I know that you play guitar excellently but haven’t really made use of that in your arsenal of music ability? Is there anything you’d like to see in your future on this front?
Greg: Well, thanks for the compliment! Aside from all the guitar that I play for other people in the studio I have, at times had the opportunity to play live guitar. For several years I played in a duo with Christine Baze. More recently we added a bassist and drummer and had several fun gigs. We may do it again, but I’m always looking for the right live situation to play guitar in. For now I’m just biding my time and learning my arpeggios.
Noise: What percentage of your income comes from gigging and studio work?
Greg: Since I have the worst book keeping skills I would have a tough time answering that with any sort of accuracy. I know that each year is different as gig schedules and studio projects ebb and flow, but I’d say maybe half and half.
Noise: You did some production work for a MacDonald’s commercial – tell me the story of how that came about?
Greg: I was sitting in my living room having just received a call canceling the days session when another call came from some New York agent asking if I could facilitate a 30 second spot today. I said I could and he told me that an engineer would be in touch shortly. Within a few minutes the engineer called and told me he would send a backing track, which he did. He then told me I would be getting a call from the “talent” to set up the time, etc. I heard from Cathy Richardson within a few minutes and set up a time. It turns out that she was staying in town for a gig with Jefferson Starship that night (she had replaced Grace Slick in Paul Kantners version of the band). The tune we recorded was Otis Redding’s “Try a Little Tenderness.” It wasn’t until after everything was done that I realized it was a McDonalds ad. Cathy was such a pro and totally killed it. Within about five days the ad was playing nationally.
Noise: I know I heard that McDonalds commercial with a man singing that sounded very much like Otis Redding, if it wasn’t Otis himself. Do you know the story behind that?
Greg: I only got a peripheral explanation, but my understanding of it was that the commercial was originally released with a male singer, and Otis’ family felt it was so close to his sound that it violated a usage agreement they had made. The solution was to re-record the piece (ASAP) using a female vocalist. Cathy Richardson, who was serendipitously staying nearby for a gig, was the first choice.
Noise: What has been your most complicated recording session?
Greg: Always the most difficult sessions are the ones with multiple players playing simultaneously. I built the studio to be able to do this, but you have to have your wits about you when recording on several fronts. I once had an 18 person a cappella group singing renditions of pop songs all at once. I have a pretty small space so it was impossible to have good separation between the different sections of people with their unique parts. I had to manage the mic leakage by positioning the mic’s to minimize the leakage, while still capturing a natural sound. Then at mix down it became more complicated, but in the end I used reverb, panning, and meticulous automation to get a natural sound.
Noise: Your children are decent musicians. Want to tell us something about them?
Greg: Two of my three kids play. My daughter Meg plays ukulele and guitar and performs at open mics around the area. My son Isaac started on drums when he was pretty young but never really got bitten by the bug until he was about 18 when he asked me to show him a few chords. Now he lives in Wyoming and plays in a band called BOGDOG. They play “unforgiving western slamgrass.” It’s a cross between bluegrass, classic rock, and country. I’m honestly not sure if anybody else does what they do, but it is pretty cool stuff.
Noise: Any predictions of how the current presidential administration could effect the next four years of music produced in that time?
Greg: Hmm. I would imagine the biggest impact on the industry besides people not having enough money to buy music, might be cuts to the arts, which seems to be eminent. One saving grace, though is that music is a great vehicle for protest and for raising money. Live music and recorded music can be a vehicle for fighting injustice, and I think it’s important for musicians to utilize that power constructively. I think there will be plenty of injustice to go around in the coming years.
Noise: Thanks for your thoughts and good luck with Rockpile Recording and your bands.