Halfway to Gone
An interview with drummer Dan Gollin and guitarist Lee “Stu” Stuart
by Brian Varney
I’ve been hearing rumors of your impending demise since last year’s Emissions festival when a buddy said I shouldn’t miss your set because it was gonna be your last show.
Dan: We’re not exactly “breaking up,” but the band is not going to be a touring band anymore. Lou (Gorra, bass and vocals) was offered a day job that he just couldn’t pass up, and that doesn’t allow any flexibility for taking time off to tour. Lou and Lee decided that it wasn’t practical to have Kenny Wagner (drummer on the band’s second album, Second Season) traveling from three states away, a few days at a time for months on end, to write and record a CD with no tour to follow. So they asked me to come back, permanently this time, write and record the self-titled CD with the intention of getting together and doing shows from time to time when we can, and maybe putting out a CD once in a while. The next move for us is a big show in Detroit when the new CD finally hits the stores. There are also already ideas being thrown around for our next CD. So, no the band isn’t breaking up, but live gigs are going to be rare, and Lee’s new band, A Thousand Knives of Fire, is going to be his main focus. That band will be able to do a lot of touring.
Dan, you mentioned that didn’t play drums on Second Season and have never toured with the band. Are you considered the full-time drummer, or does the band have a rotating drum seat? Have you not toured because job, or family issues, or something else?
Stu: Danny is permanent. He can’t tour because he is a full time psychiatrist and he’s a little queer.
Dan: I’m the full-time drummer at this point, but it’s a long story. I’m Lee’s younger brother, and we’ve been playing together on and off for about 20 years. We naturally play well together. I learned about music and different bands by following his lead, so we have a lot of influences in common. When Lou and Lee decided early on during the Solarized/ATP tour that they wanted to put their own band together, I’d graduated med school and was busy toiling away in my first year of residency. So as much as they would’ve liked to have me in the band, touring was out of the question for me.
In the meantime, they asked if I’d help them write and rehearse while they looked for a drummer. After that, I just ended up filling in every time a drummer didn’t work out. First there was Ralph Bonin, who did the first four-song demo. He left and went to Harley repair school after a few months, just in time for me to end up doing the split EP with Alabama Thunderpussy, which led right into the deal for High Five. Next came Chuck Dukehart, fresh from 60-Watt Shaman, and he learned all the songs and toured behind High Five for two road trips. After tour number two, Chuck parted with the band just in time for the writing of Second Season. Kenny Wagner was available (also fresh from 60-Watt Shaman) but was in Texas, so I sat in again and helped during writing sessions until Kenny could get to NJ to do the rest. He did a great job right up until Lou’s day job offer came through. Since that put a stop to touring, and since Kenny was having a hard time getting up to Jersey to write the third CD, they felt it made sense to have me back permanently. I’ve always managed to have just enough flexibility to be available whenever I’m needed to practice, record, do a gig, or a short road trip for a week or less.
How often do people tease you with “Rock and Roll Doctor” by Black Sabbath? Rock ‘n’ roller and doctor must make for a strange blend of lifestyles, no?
Dan: I get the “Rock & Roll Doctor” thing once in a while, but it’s mostly just a big surprise to people if questions about my job come up, and then more questions. I’ve been a drummer for over 20 years and a doctor for only about the last five of those years, so I’m actually a lot more comfortable playing and hanging with musicians than professional people. I definitely have a double life, but I can sort of blend the roles and be more or less the same guy from one place to the next with a few notable differences.
The thing that’s weird about it is that although I’m pretty comfortable in both modes, there’s always a feeling of not quite fitting in completely. People at work look at me knowing that I have this “other life” as a rocker, and vice versa. It seems really incompatible to everybody, even including other doctors that I jam with on the side. Mostly, it just takes a bit of planning and some burning the candle at both ends from time to time, which I got very used to doing as a resident being on overnight calls.
Who’s the main songwriter in the band? I think the songwriting is really what sets you guys ahead of the pack of other similar-pitched bands.
Stu: The songwriting has always been a group process, with Lou writing the vocals. We both come to the table with ideas and sometimes full songs, but stuff changes and we listen to each other’s ideas. It’s a great collaboration.
Dan: There’s never been a “main songwriter.” Lou and Lee come in with ideas, and we all help to turn them into songs, though occasionally Lee or Lou will have a song pretty much completely written. It’s a pretty easy-going process most of the time. Lou and Lee had a really clear idea of what they wanted the band to sound like when they were both still in Solarized. We all have a lot of different influences that shape how we come up with ideas, but we also have a lot in common, so, in general, we tend to complement each other pretty well. Lyrics have always been Lou’s territory, since he’s the one who’s singing them. Originally, they wanted a separate frontman, but they just weren’t finding one, so Lou stepped up and tried it out. He did great, so he got the job. Our new CD has one song that I wrote lyrics for and sang on, and also a song that a friend of ours wrote some lyrics for, but otherwise, Lou handles all that stuff.
Your first release, the ATP split, was on Underdogma/Game Two before you moved to Small Stone. Did you consider or have interest from any other labels besides these? If so, what made you choose Small Stone?
Stu: We had interest from most of the “stoner rock” labels, including Man’s Ruin, but Scott at Small Stone said he’d put it out less than three months after he got it. Man’s Ruin told us 18 months and offered us less moolah! Scott really believed in us, and in a way, that made us confident. We also loved Five Horse Johnson, and they would be our labelmates. Scott also promised us artwork by Mark Dancey and that was the total clincher. Even without the art, it was a no-brainer.
What’s it like being in a band with your brother? Most of the stories I hear about brothers in bands, like the Davies brothers in the Kinks or the Conner brothers in the Screaming Trees, involve bickering, on-stage fistfights, etc.
Dan: As kids, we had a lot of problems getting along, and it was much more like the Davies or Connor brothers than it is now. By the time I started playing drums, we already had a half decent relationship, but Lee was still sort of trying to keep me at a distance, keep me from becoming friends with his friends and stuff. It didn’t work. I was too persistent. Then we both went away to college, and ever since then, we’ve been best friends. The worst it ever gets is a little heated discussion or a “fuck you!”, but it’s always pretty short-lived.
For a band made of New Jersey residents, Halfway to Gone sound very much like a Southern rock band. Are you all Jersey natives, or is there some Southern blood in the mix somewhere?
Dan: All of us are Jersey natives. Chuck and Kenny were from other states (MD and TX respectively). When Lou and Lee formed HTG, they knew exactly what they were going for, and they pretty much nailed it right away. They already had some riffs that they both liked and had tried out in Solarized, but they were shot down, and they definitely wanted a Southern rock vibe in HTG. The second concert Lee and I ever went to was a giant Southern rock festival called the Round Up in 1979 or so. It was .38 Special, Molly Hatchet, Marshall Tucker Band, Allman Brothers Band, Rossington-Collins, and the Outlaws at JFK Stadium in Philly. We were huge fans of pretty much all of those bands at the time, and that’s the kind of stuff Lee was learning when he first started playing guitar. Jim Hogan’s rejection of that sort of material in Solarized is one thing that helped create HTG. The only thing that’s really changed about the sound over three or four years is that it’s gotten tighter, faster, and more aggressive through touring. When I came back, I had catching up to do.
Tell me about A Thousand Knives of Fire, your new band.
Stu: I’m singing in A Thousand Knives of Fire. Unless someone really blows me away, I’ll probably continue to sing. I’m trying to continue where I left off with Halfway to Gone, but I do use more jazzy ideas. In this group, I intend to jam out a little more, and concentrate on my guitar playing more, but don’t expect a jerkoff session. I never really got into all that Vai, Satriani, Johnson stuff. I’d rather hear the Stones or Free. Anyway, we had a pretty cool show at SXSW and should be hitting the road with a new CD by the summer or Fall of ’04.
Which bands and albums did you cut your teeth on during your impressionable teenage years?
Stu: I listened to a lot of Kiss until I was 12. After that, it was all prog rock like Yes, ELP, and Kansas. In high school, I started playing guitar. I loved the Sex Pistols and Black Flag’s Damaged. The Dead Kennedys’ “Holiday in Cambodia” blew my mind, too. I saw the Marshall Tucker Band a couple of times and I thought they were great. Every Hendrix album, especially Band of Gypsys. Cream Live Volume 2. My main guy on guitar was Johnny Winter, and I wore out And Live and Captured Live. Oh, and I almost forgot Focus. I went through about five years of obsessive Jan Akkerman worship. I later went back and rebought some of their albums and realized, to my horror, that they were really gay.
Dan: I’ve been playing for a long time, and every time I hear something that I like, or even something I don’t particularly like but it’s memorable to me, it becomes part of my general body of musical knowledge, and I’ll use it if it’s called for. First was pop 45’s from around 1974-75. Honorable mentions: Neil Sedaka, Glenn Campbell, Captain and Tennille, Bay City Rollers, Sweet, theme from SWAT, Convoy… you get the idea. As much as I hate listening to any commercial radio these days, from the time I was about four or five years old, until the early MTV days (when they still only played videos), it was inescapable, and a lot of songs were permanently etched in my brain that I would never normally go out and buy.
The next big phase was Kiss from ’76-’78 or ’79. They were the first band I saw in concert at MSG in 1977. Other notables during that time were Kansas, Boston, and Queen. Then was a long classic rock phase: Beatles, Stones, The Who, The Doors, Hendrix, Skynyrd, Tull, Allmans, Clapton/Cream, even stuff like Arlo Guthrie crept in there. Then there was a more Southern period with Molly Hatchet, .38 Special, Outlaws, and Marshall Tucker Band. After that came prog rock like ELP, Yes, and, of course, Rush. That was the bunch of bands that gave me enough nerve to wear my parents down until they let me get a drum set. I then set about teaching myself to play by imitating all the records I could get my hands on that had basic beats on them. One of my early favorite practice albums was a K-Tel compilation with Deep Purple, Tull, Free, the Kinks, and a bunch of others on it. At the same time, I was trying to fake my way through any Rush songs off the first two live records until eventually I was doing less and less faking. I got heavier into prog rock, like King Crimson, Alan Holdsworth, UK, Zappa, the Residents and, at the same time, a ton and a half of punk and hardcore bands.
My first band was a punk band that did a lot of Clash, Dead Kennedys, Sex Pistols, and Ramones tunes. Eventually, we became an original hardcore band. I heard about five thousand other hardcore bands at various gigs for the next six years or so. Toward the end, I got into Metallica and Anthrax and a few other metal bands. I also got into jazz, fusion, and then funk: Chili Peppers first, and then Fishbone, Living Colour, James Brown, P-Funk, and bands like Primus and Faith No More. This actually lured me away from hardcore for the first time in a long time, and I made some really stupid decisions during that time about what I wanted to do musically, but after about a year, Pantera kicked me in the head and brought me back to my senses and I started playing heavier music again. I was also getting into Jane’s Addiction, Rollins Band, Soundgarden, Melvins, Jesus Lizard, Nirvana, and so on, right around the time Nirvana broke. Since then, I’ve just gotten way more deeply into all the stuff that I’ve liked over the years; more classic rock and classic metal, more jazz like Miles, Coltrane, and Ornette Coleman, and more Slayer. But most important of all is probably the incidental music from the old Little Rascals movies and Bugs Bunny cartoons. Somehow, that music is really part of me from a very early age, and it still affects me in a visceral way whenever I hear it. Silly, but true.
What other non-musical things (movies, books, TV shows, whatever) affected the way you look at the world, the way you make music, the way you think about music?
Stu: I studied a lot of psychology because I’m pretty fucking nuts. I really liked reading a lot of Freud’s work, and think he’s probably the most brilliant thinker in modern history. Oh, and Hustler.
Dan: Batman with Adam West and the comic books and every other Batman related thing that’s ever existed, including bats in general. Ultraman, Godzilla, King Kong, Godzilla vs. King Kong, Wonderama, later stuff like Star Wars, Battle of the Planets, kung fu movies by the Shaw Brothers, Bruce Lee, very early Dave Letterman shows, Stanley Kubrick movies, extremely cheap/gory horror flicks including all the Evil Dead movies, Kurt Vonnegut, Freud, and a lot of other psychoanalytic writers, and too many sculptors/painters/comic book artists to get into.
If Halfway to Gone were to cover one song from each of the six decades of rock’s existence (’50s – ’00s) that reflect the band’s view of rock history, what would they be?
Stu: ’50s: Bill Haley’s “Rock Around the Clock.” My first real gig was with the Comets, and I took the gig just to play that ripping solo!
’60s: Probably “Crossroads” by Cream. I learned the whole thing when I was in high school, solo and all.
’70s: There’s too fucking much to choose one.
’80s-’00s: There was no good music in the ’80s through now!
Dan: ’50s: “Rock Around the Clock” by Bill Haley & the Comets. That’s a no-brainer since Lee actually played with Bill Haley’s Comets. The rest are completely random songs that we’d play well.
’60s: “Born To Be Wild” by Steppenwolf
’70s: “Sweet Home Alabama” by Lynyrd Skynyrd
’80s: “Ace of Spades” by Motörhead
’90s: “Sometimes Salvation” by The Black Crowes
’00-present: “White Devil” by Suplecs
Five desert island albums?
Stu: Miles Davis Live at the Plugged Nickel, John Coltrane A Love Supreme, Jimi Hendrix Band of Gypsys, Isaac Stern Bartok Violin Concertos #1, 2, and 5, Allman Brothers Live at the Fillmore East. I’d learn to hate these albums in no time flat.
Dan: Led Zeppelin How The West Was Won, AC/DC Back In Black, Miles Davis We Want Miles, Pantera Vulgar Display of Power, Jimi Hendrix The Essential Jimi Hendrix.
If you were able to traverse time and space and choose any three bands from history to do a package tour with, which three would you choose? Please choose a year or general era for each band (i.e. Styx 1975, or whatever).
Dan: Jimi Hendrix, Led Zeppelin toward the beginning, and Black Sabbath around Master of Reality.
Stu: Lynyrd Skynyrd, Motörhead, and Black Sabbath with us headlining at Madison Square Garden. I’d tell security not to let any of the opening bands bother us in the backstage area, and I’d make Sabbath go on like two hours early just to be a dick!
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