Esquela’s “Owl” flying high ‘upstate’
Interview with John “Chico” Finn:
1.0 Being an ‘upstate’ NY band, is it easy to identify with, or actually be influenced by, “The Band”? Well, a little of both. I can certainly identify with them as for how they got started – as Ronnie Hawkin’s band The Hawks – where they played all over Canada getting their chops down. That is what Esquela has done over the last year by playing out, doing as many gigs as we could and really getting to know one another and trust our musicianship. As far as The Band locating to Woodstock, I can understand why they did so. It is a beautiful area and fairly close to NYC .
2.0 Is there an ‘upstate’ scene today? I think there is. The farther north you go from NYC, the more affordable it is to reside. I believe you would be hard pressed to find a nice property for less than $1 million in the Woodstock area. As with the East Village now gentrifying and the new East Village becoming Williamsburg & Bushwick, the same is true here in the Catskills. There are more artists of all sorts working their way further north. The Andes Hotel (Andes, NY) is one of my favorite venues up here because they support the local scene, are always busy and they take care of the bands.
3.0 How did Esquela come together? Mainly, because of Keith Christopher, our lead guitar player. I’ve known Keith for close to fifteen years, since he was the bass player in my brother’s band, Disciples of Agriculture, and I was their manager. Soon thereafter, I started taking bass lessons from Keith and we continued this relationship and he and I would regularly team up in various other bands like TCR/Tony Clifton Revival where we only played CCR tunes with a Tony Clifton impersonator! We also played together in The El Mighty Chicos; Fate Denied Us Victory, Future Farmers of America, Pispoure and ultimately in Disciples of Agriculture. In most cases, Keith was playing guitar or drums and I would play bass. In 2008, Keith and I were riding back to the City after a gig and he asked if I wanted to hear a CD of Fela Kuti. I remember him saying “you probably won’t like it”. But he was wrong – it was so good that I think we listened to the record two times through during the trip. Fela’s music was very inspiring. I had just gotten an old version of Protools and I was messing around with it – started dropping down chords and beats and naturally brought Keith up to fill out most of the parts. I had some lyrics that I had been fooling around with…started putting them together with the songs and the next thing you knew we had a bunch of songs. My vocals were the scratch tracks and they just weren’t that good and I knew of this one really great singer in our area, Rebecca Frame. I brought her in to record as many as I could convince her to sing on. She liked some of the ones I sang on, so we left that and of course Keith did a great job on “Tin Horns”, so we left that one alone too. Once the record was coming together and Eric “Roscoe” Ambel was involved, Keith and I put a band together to play out. We knew it would be us two and Rebecca and from there it made sense to add Matt Woodin on mandolin and rhythm guitar, because he plays with Rebecca in their band, The Honest Mistakes. Richie Tousell is an old friend of Keith’s and they’ve played together a bunch over the years and the drummer who plays most of our gigs is Todd Russell who I grew up with.
4.0 How much guitar did Eric Ambel play on “The Owl Has Landed? Roscoe really did a great job at adding subtleties to the recording. I believe he added guitar tracks to most of the songs – but ones that jump out the most are in “Richie” and “Here and Now”. He also added a honky-tonk type piano on “Richie”. He added keys here or there; vocals; accordion; percussion, etc. – whatever he felt the track needed. Keith can play any instrument. He would play the drums and make the drums sound like an instrument. He added keys when needed and played the rhythm tracks as well as the leads. Backing vocals, lead vocals, tambourine; whatever we needed, he did it.
5.0 Are you happy with the way it turned out? Yes, especially after Roscoe finished with it. He took the rough parts and made it all smooth. Having never had done this before, I was very apprehensive and had self-doubt. But by having Roscoe step in and be a part of what Keith and I started, really gave me confidence that this was a nice piece of work. I am proud of it. Granted, it may not be for all or not be the most complicated musical compositions – but it came from the heart and I think that passion can translate.
6.0 What are your favorite tracks on the record? I would say “Here and Now” and “Tin Horns” . “Here and Now” was written as a tribute to my Mother, who died in a one car car accident and it was a tragic and early end to a wonderful life. She was an artist and was very influential to me. In fact, the cover art, I did in 6th grade when she was my art teacher…on the back it says “A+ well drawn and well-placed on paper – the fact that the owl is small does not detract from the drawing because of good arrangement of other objects in picture – drawing small is your style”. We had a gig last month in Milford, NY at the Hoedown in the Blowdown, and I introduced this song to the audience and for the first time I said what this song was about and how she had died in Milford, NY. None of the band new this or what the song was about. Half way during the song, I was in tears on stage. That was a tough one to play through, but it was cathartic. The band really nailed it that day. I also like the way “Tin Horns” came together. I had a rough draft of a beat and mandolin and some lyrics. The next day Keith came upstate to my house and I told him about the song but I didn’t like the melody. He thought about it and a few hours later he asked if I liked this melody. He played it for me on guitar and I immediately started recording his acoustic over what I had. He then played drums and even bass on the track. My brother stopped by and whipped up two verses to add to the song and within four hours we had a rough mix of the song. It was the definition of collaboration.
7.0 Any plans for a follow-up? Yes, after our next gig at Rodeo Bar on 10/3 – my girlfriend Wendy and I are expecting a little girl. So the band is on hiatus. However, I have another batch of songs in the hopper that Keith and I are planning on getting together for and laying down some rough drafts. My goal is to release another record in 2011.
8.0 You host a private ‘Livestock’ event annually, how was this years festivities? ’Livestock’ went great. Someone asked me: “you’ve had this festival for 8 years and never have had a fight?”. When you think about it, alcohol and hundreds of people and no fights – it is a cool thing. That is the type of festival it is. Usually whatever artists play ask to come back; Steve Wynn, Graham Parker, Jim Lauderdale, Marah, College Farm, Grainbelt, etc.. Maybe it is just the type of artists they are or the festival is cool. This year Jason Ringenberg played as “Farmer Jason” which was a hit in the amphitheatre. He also graced the stage with Grainbelt and College Farm and did a few Scorchers’ numbers.
9.0 How did you get the Nickname “Chico”? Unfortunately, I am a NY Mets fan and have been since 1977. In that era, the Mets were terrible as well. So bad that SNL would mock the Mets and they did a skit with Chico Esquela (Garret Morris) who was a Hispanic ballplayer making a comeback at baseball at the age of 42. Naturally, being an older brother who would pick on his younger weaker brother, Dan nicknamed me “Chico” and it stuck. Yes, I still follow the Mets.
10.0 Tell the truth, did you guys have to buy new pajamas for your “Hands On My Jammies” video? I’ll never tell!
Interview from www.WOBBLEHOUSE.com