The Inside Skinny On The Down Lo
Real True Confessions With Padre Pienbique
Generally speaking: If you put a gun to my head, held both my beer and dog hostage, and threatened to replace my car with a Toyota Prius, I would willingly listen to another rock/rap record. Otherwise, I would gladly sacrifice everything dear to me in lieu of being subjected to the musical offerings of the latest MC Bullshit freestyling over bland grooves.
Frankly, theres no end to this madness, and its only getting worse. Besides, Rage Against The Machine is back together (Hows Audioslave going, boys?) and the talent gap for this genre is closing faster than a cheerleaders legs when her Dad unexpectedly comes home.
However, an unlikely band took themselves to task and made a record that goes beyond the ho-hum of cross-collaboration of rap & rock. Minnesotas Down Lo, jammers to be sure, hooked up with Los Angeles wordsmith Deploi to make a record that actually screams of interaction, instead of well, crap.
Down Los frontman/guitarist Mark Grundhoefer, bassist Ryan Nielsen, and Will Nissen (keyboards, sax, vocals) took time out to answer questions via email about their new record, life on the road, and whatever else I made them talk about. (And yes, Oprahs definition of the phrase Down Lo is addressed.)
(Padre Note: Down Lo Drummer/Mini Me gay porn stunt-double Mike Cini is too short to reach the keyboard, so he couldnt be a part our conversation. Ill excuse him by conceding that its rude to talk with his mouth full his hands ties or whatever. He still rocks those drums- even though he needs stilts to pump the kick drum pedal.)
WHAT IS THE BIGGEST NON-MUSICAL DISASTER YOU HAVE PERSONALLY FACED ON THE ROAD?
RYAN: The biggest band disaster was the night before our Lead My Way CD release party in Eau Claire, WI, which was then the biggest day of our musical careers. Heading home after a show in Rock Island, IL, our van engine blew up in Davenport (IA) at about 3 am. After getting towed to the dealership in town, waiting hours for it to open at a nearby McDonald’s, and getting the van checked out, we were quoted $5,000 for a new engine.
Keep in mind, we were in Iowa, we had to pick up our brand new CDs in Minneapolis, and we had to get to Eau Claire for our first CD release party. We had the van towed 100 miles to Mark’s aunt’s place (thanks to AAA), and rode 4 deep in a U-Haul all day. We pulled into Eau Claire at 10pm and played a kick ass show.
My biggest personal disaster was the night before Campout Roots Festival two years ago. I had been bar hopping on my bike and was wasted. Trying to jump on and ride home, the chain got tangled and I fell off breaking my collarbone. I made a cabdriver put my bike in his trunk and drive me home. I went to work the next morning, which at that time was loading a van and delivering about a thousand pounds worth of bulk coffee.
After two hours of loading my coffee orders with my left arm hanging limp, and my eyes welling up with tears, I decided to go to the hospital. Five hours later, after x-rays, a sling, and a stockpile of painkillers, I was off to play Campout Roots Festival. It went well considering, but I had to play the next couple of months with a broken collarbone. FUCK! I don’t think it healed quite right. On the bright side, that was my last day of real work. YAY!!!
WILL: The day in question is simultaneously the worst and subsequently the best day in the bands history up to that point.
We had finished playing a pretty slow night in Rock Island, IL in February of 2006 and had intentions of making the 6+ hour drive back to the Cities that night. The van, we assumed, was running fine and was at a healthy 120,000 miles at that point. We made it to Davenport, IA and heard some nasty sounds coming out of the engine. We pull over and onto a residential street where the van is putting along at about 5 miles/hour and sounds like rounds of shotgun shells are going off under the hood.
Mark and Mike wandered back to the interstate through the rain to see what exit we pulled off on. We got AAA out there to help us out. The guy shows up and looks surprised to see four guys in a van with a loaded trailer expecting him to tow them to van heaven where all problems would be fixed and we could be on our merry way. He brings us, slowly, to the closed and locked gate of a Ford dealership just outside Davenport and takes off. Its about 5am at this point and the only food around is the golden archesthis was the beginning of the end.
We wake up in the van at about 7:30am to a mechanic knocking on the window wondering why were parked here. He drives the van the half a block in the dealership and comes back with a troubled look on his face. He seems to think (and later turned out to be true) that weve cracked the engine block and need a new engine. We are very skeptical of this guy in Davenport, at a dealership no less, telling us we have to spring $3000+ on a new engine when all we need to do is get back on the road. So we make some calls and come up with the following plan
We tow the van 50 miles down the highway on a flatbed to a relatives farm and leave it there for an undetermined amount of time. Ryan rides with the driver (a large man who Ryan said smelled like beer and slurred his speech) and waits for the three of us to show up. Mark, Mike and myself rent a U-Haul van and are set to pick the trailer up and take off. But since Ryan is with the van he has the van keys which, of course, have the trailer hitch key (icing on the cake). So we convince the dealership to cut off the lock so we can just get the fuck out of there (at this point theyre just taking pity on us and our situation), but as theyre cutting the lock one guy notices one of our trailer tires has a huge flap of rubber sticking out and is about to blow. They all look at us like were lucky to be alive and highly recommend we get that replaced, luckily theres a Firestone just down the road.
Just so everyone knows: Its about noon at this point and we have to drive 6+ hours to the Cities to pick up the first pressing of our debut album, Lead My Way (an important occasion at the time), then drive an hour and a half to Eau Claire for the first CD release show.
So, we head to the Firestone in a large, empty U-Haul truck towing a small, loaded trailer to get a new tire. The tire was actually fairly cheap and they had us back on the road in about 15 minutes- the one bright spot on the day thus far. We pick Ryan up at the relatives house down the highway and set off into the sun.
Although this U-Haul truck has an enormous storage capacity, the actual cab is only meant to seat two people. And adhering to the many carbon monoxide warnings posted throughout the back of the truck, the four of us reluctantly pile into the tiny cab and give up the idea of sprawling out and sleeping in the spacious and empty U-Haul storage world.
Six hours later, I feel like I know the guys better than I care to. We show up at the house in St Paul, stop by the studio and get the CDs and were on our way to Eau Claire.Although were late as shit (we were late for our standards at the timewhich was late), the manager of the House of Rock Joey G is happy to see us, we rocked out to a great crowd in one of our favorite towns to play, and we released our first Down Lo album that night.
Touching moral to the story: Sometimes you go through hell to get to where youre going, and when you get there, the hellish shit makes the prize at the end all the more meaningful. Yay
The van is doing alright now. We had a used engine put into Doris by some old motorhead friends of Mark and Ryan in Northfield, and after a couple months of borrowing everyone elses tour-capable vehicle she was back on the roadand still going strong at 215,000 miles.
MARK: My sister got in a car accident last Sept. I was sleeping in Chicago, and got the call at 3am- she was in a head on collision and was in critical state. All said and done, through the encouragement of my parents and friends, I decided to stay on the tour until I got home on Saturday.
It was real tough in the hours before the show the night after it happened in Milwaukee: Feeling real helpless and upset about the situation.
When I did see my sister, she told me that I did the right thing, and that’s what she wanted me to do.
WHAT IS THE BIGGEST MUSICAL DISASTER YOUVE FACED ON THE ROAD?
RYAN: Five minutes before our set at Bella Luna festival, the input jack on my bass broke, and I had to borrow a random bass for the set. It was one of the biggest sets we ever had, and I had to play someone else’s bass. I pulled it off alright, but I wish I had my own bass.
(Soul Coughing frontman) Mike Doughty played like shit after us, and that made me feel better.
WILL: No specific disasters come to mind. Every show has its quirks and weird shit going on, especially involving the crowd. And were usually good about maintaining a good degree of professionalism and composure when were playing. But when tempers flare and personal shit works its way onstage, it can make for a long night
MARK: The last time we where in Chicago, the bar changed owners the day before the show. So I had called the bar and worked it out so we could still do the show.
We got there and (drummer) Mike Cini didnt have his ID. The new owner had the nerve to say that if we had a certified check for 200,000 dollars that he would let Cini play. We ended up having to call up our old drummer Logan Shutts, and sure enough, the dude lives 15 minutes away and came right down.
So Cini was a spectator through the glass in the back that night, and it twas a long, long night.
WHAT WAS YOUR BEST SHOW IN THE LAST SIX MONTHS? WHY? WAS IT YOU OR THE BAND?
RYAN: Harvest Festival was probably our best show in the last 6 months. It was a peak, and finale, of all the shows and festivals we’d played over the summer. The crowd was wild, and the energy was intense. Ive had better shows personally, but as a band we reached new musical peaks.
WILL: This past summer was great for the band as a whole. We got to play some high profile sets at some great festivals that put us in front of a lot of new people. But our set for Harvest Fest at Harmony Park was the highlight of the last six months for me.
I grew up going to Harmony Park in high school and dreamed of playing on the main stage where I had seen SCI, the Wu and Panic rock out for thousands of people. When Down Lo got the slot to play Friday night on the main stage we were all pretty excited.
The set started a little after 6pm, the weather was gorgeous after raining all night and the sun was creeping down through the branches of the massive oaks that hover over the camping area. Its always a hell of a lot more fun to play music when the sound on stage is bangin (we know: weve played way to many shitting-sounding stages) and that stage at Harmony is one of the best. The band was on, the crowd seemed to come out of the trees and by the end of the set I was looking out on a sea of smiling faces urging us on the rock the fuck out.
That night (as what seems to be the norm at Harmony Park) we partied hard, enjoyed the music and everyone we talked was just as psyched as we were about the set. It was a great way to cap off the summer touring.
MARK: I think Harvest Fest was my favorite: The vibe was just amazing I think it was the band, reacting to a crowd that was so ready to rock!
AS A YOUNG BAND HITTING THE ROAD, WHAT IS THE BIGGEST CHALLENGE, BESIDES MONEY?
RYAN: The biggest challenge is staying positive in a music industry that wants to fuck you in the ass, and maintaining a high energy ‘give it all you’ve got’ performance no matter what the circumstances.
This is something we pride ourselves on, night after night. We do it for the love of the music, and the fans. We don’t do it to spend twelve hours in a van every day, hoping it won’t break down in bumblefuck Nebraska again. We don’t do it for the asshole bar owner that decides not to charge a cover when that’s the only money coming to us, and then decides to charge us for the drinks that were supposed to be free. We don’t even do it to get arrested for having an empty pipe. As long as we have ourselves, and our fans, we’ll lay it all on the line every night no matter what. The bumps in the road may slow us down a little, but we’re still going to get where we need to be. It may take years, but we’ll get there… eventually. Oh yeah, the two W’s help; Weed & Whiskey (Evan Williams to be exact).
MARK: Just not killing each other. When you spend so much time with the same people, it can be a real challenge to keep spirits high. Tight quarters, in cars, hotels, back rooms, small stages, bad monitor mixes can all get on a guys nerves.
WILL: Well, you took the number one challenge, so the next hardest thing to deal with on the road is keeping the group together. Being in close quarters for extended periods of time with any group of people is hard enough, not to mention having your livelihood depend on working with that group (especially with something as meaningful and intensely important to us as music) and the goal being to work with the same people for years and years. But this is why Down Lo works so well (Ill get to that later).
I always tell people that the hardest part in getting a band together, keeping it together, and doing it full time is getting the right group of people. Not everyone has to get along all the time (that would be a miracle) but everyone needs to share the same goal, the same vision and have a similar work ethic to make everything come together and work through the bullshit.
This group has been through so much shit together that I dont think anything can derail this train. As with any kind of organization (business, band, personal), egos need to be set aside, petty differences and disagreements need to be put down and the overall group needs to come together to work for the greater goal of making itwhich brings us to the next question.
DO YOU BELIEVE YOU CAN MAKE IT? IF YES, DEFINE MAKING IT
RYAN: In some respects, I feel we’ve already made it on some level. It’s been over two years of full time touring, and we’ve managed to sustain without the necessity of a day job. Granted, we all have to find other means of making money because we’ve yet to make any cash in pocket, but the band pays the rent, bills, and expenses on the road. I’m broke as hell, but I don’t have to do anything but play. The only cash I really need to scrape together is for food, booze, and other ‘extra curricular’ activities. However, I will really feel we’ve ‘made it’ when I actually get a paycheck out of the deal. Anything beyond that is gravy. For now, I’m happy with the little commune we’ve created.
MARK: Yes. I think we can make it: We are making it happen, and have been.
Making it in the music business to me involves the following:
1. Playing our music the way we want to play it. No outside influences, no big sums of money coming our way with strings attached on how the band should sound, no executive producers looking over our shoulder saying No, play it like this.
2. Touring hard but not all year round. In 2006 Down Lo played over 175 shows and were on pace to play more in 2007. Dont get me wrong, I love touring. I love showing up in a different city each night, with a new crowd to play for and a different room to play. But it gets tiring and wears on you after several years of doing it all the time. So if we can tour hard when we tour but have chunks of time off in between, that would be the ideal situation for me. But we have to get the big crowds out in order to do that
3. Have money in my pocket. Besides music business related work, none of us work jobs outside the band. This was our goal from the start and it continues to be our goal. While our financial situation is still very tight we are able to maintain a permanent residence for all the guys, pay for all expenses on the road and tour to new markets (which is essential if you want to grow as a band). When the day comes where we can pocket some personal money for working our asses off, Ill be a happy man.
In a way I think this group has already made it. We have shown that we can deal with each other on a personal level on the road and that we truly love to be around each other and play music together. That seems to be the biggest hurdle in keeping a band together. I dont what it is but this band has been through some shit together and come out on top and with a greater understanding and unity about where were going and what we want to do than ever before.
And as far as talent goes, I dont think Ive ever played with a more talented group of guys. Weve built an amazing onstage chemistry with each other and when we hit the stage relaxed and ready to go I think we can hang and rock with any band out there.
MARK: Making it is to reach people with music that means something, and creating an environment where people can experience it, ya know- getting involved, remembering it, and take something from it to their life.
NOW THAT DOWN LOS FIRST CD HAS BEEN OUT A WHILE, WHAT DO YOU THINK OF IT NOW- PERSONALLY AND PUBLIC-PERCEPTION WISE?
RYAN: I knew when we created ‘Lead My Way’ it was going to be something I was going to be proud of for the rest of my life. I’ve heard it a thousand times and I still like it. As far as public perception is concerned, I’ve yet to receive any bad reviews. I hear more about how it never leaves people’s CD players, and musically speaking, after a couple of years touring, we’re much more solid, and more evolved as a band. ‘Lead My Way’ shows exactly where we were at that time, and still comes off well.
WILL: I like how Ryan has put it. When you record you play how and what youre playing at that specific moment in your musical career. And thats pretty much what Lead My Way is. It was an opportunity for us to put songs we had been playing for awhile on disc and write some new tracks people hadnt heard before.
Looking back I think we definitely sounded green in the studio. But the foundations were there for improvement and I think its a good first album. Weve gotten great responses from fans and the public in general, but also some good criticism that I think weve taken to heart and improved on in this next album with Deploi.
This band has the ability and desire to play many different styles (otherwise we get bored onstageyou gotta keep it interesting), and that being said, each album we put out will be different from the last oneso get ready.
MARK: I think that Lead My Way is a great statement for those songs and the time we recorded them. And I think it’s standing the test of time well. Many fans tell me on and on about how it’s there favorite disc and they’ve been turning friends on it.
I’m not sure what its public perception is. You?
ME LIKE! DOWN LO MAKE GOOD RECORD! ARRRGGGHHHH!
*WHAT ARE YOUR THOUGHTS ON THE NEW CD WITH DEPLOI? *
RYAN: I’m really excited to get In Our World into the public ears. It’s an avenue we’ve been working on for a while, but didn’t have the chance to record until now. It’s just another project to show our musical diversity. As a band, we like to incorporate many different styles, and this shows that. We’ve been collaborating with Deploi for years now, and this summer was the perfect opportunity to record everything we had worked on. In some ways ‘In Our World’ is a continuation of what we started with ‘Lead My Way’. ‘Work’, which features Deploi, is the last track on the disc, and our first recording together. ‘In Our World’ is collectively more of a funk/hip-hop vibe though. It’s worth a listen, if you don’t mind my saying so.
WILL: I am really excited about this album. Its got a very different approach and style than Lead My Way but it still has a distinctly Down Lo sound. And Deploi is an amazing lyricist and is incredibly efficient in the studio, its always great playing with him and it has been a great experience recording with him. Plus, being able to throw something new to people and mix things up a bit is always good. Youve got to keep it interesting and keep people coming back wondering what will happen this time. Deploi gives us a chance to do that.
Well see how the public reacts. Some people wont like it, some people will, thats just how it goes.
MARK: I think that it’s another avenue of music that Down Lo goes down, and is truly in the spirit of collaboration. Im excited for Down Lo fans to hear it. It’s been a pleasure working with a talent such as Deploi. Lyrically, I have grown as an artist and developed the ability to free style- rhyme/sing. It’s been amazing.
HOW DID THE WRITING CHANGE WHEN WORKING WITH DEPLOI?
RYAN: Rather than making a ‘Down Lo’ record featuring Deploi, we wanted to make a ‘Down Lo/Deploi’ record. Some of the tunes, we brought to the table, some of the tunes Deploi had already written, and some were written together just for the record. With these elements combined, ‘In Our World’ sounds like one collective effort between the five of us, rather than one artist simply featuring another.
WILL: This new album is interesting because it features tracks that Down Lo brought to table, Deploi brought to the table and songs we all wrote together. Deplois lyrical style and Down Los musical style go well together so it really hasnt been difficult to put songs together that sound good, are cohesive and that are in line with where we think our sound and style is going.WHEN I GOOGLED ‘DOWN LO’, THIS POPPED UP: What is the ‘Down Low’ or ‘DL’? Men who discreetly have sex with other men while in sexual relationships with women are said to be on the ‘down low’ (or ‘dl’ for short). Often these men do not consider themselves gay or bisexual and their female partners are not aware that they have sex with other men, thus the term ‘down low’ or ‘in hiding’. WHILE THERE’S CERTAINLY NOTHING WRONG WITH THIS, THE COMMONLY ACCEPTED MEANING OF THE WORD DOESN’T ACCURATELY DESCRIBE THE INTENTIONS OF FOUR WHITE MINNESOTA BOYS PLAYING JAM MUSIC. WHAT GIVES?
RYAN: First of all, I would like to point out that when you google ‘Down Lo’ our website is the first search result. Then it says ‘Did you mean ‘Down Low?’‘, and provides a separate search result. This clearly sets ‘Down Lo’ as an entirely different entity from this definition of ‘Down Low’. (NO, IT DOESNT- PADRE)
Second of all, I would like to know exactly when this expression was coined. It seems like a relatively new term, and I wouldn’t be surprised if we’ve been around longer. I came up with the name ‘Down Lo’ during a stoned brainstorming session, and had no clue of the alternate meaning. It’s pretty funny though. I just thought it had a nice ring to it. Besides, if we were really ‘Down Low’, I think we would have a much better draw in Chicago. Last time, we only had 14 paid through the door.
WILL: Since Mike probably wont submit answers for this interview (hes not the best with computers), Ill say for the record that he isnt from Minnesota, hes from upper Michigan. And hes damn proud of it.
(Padre Note: Lions fan, stunt double, and drummer- Cant this guy ever catch a break?)
WILL: As for the name, we were struggling to come up with one before our first gig (this was back when we had our first drummer Logan) and Ryan came up with Down Lo. At the time we hadnt heard of the now Oprah-ized meaning applied to the term, so we didnt think anything of it. But people ask about it now from time to time, more like theyre just making sure were aware of the reference. But like you said, there isnt a lot of common ground between four Upper Midwest white guys playing jam music and the down low, so we dont worry about it.
YOU GUYS ARE HITTING THE ROAD PRETTY HARD. WHAT’S YOUR FAVORITE NON-MINNEAPOLIS VENUE?
RYAN: It’s not too far out of the cities, but my favorite venue is Harmony Park. It has to do with the fact that I grew up going to Big Wu Family Reunions, and Harvest festivals at Harmony. It feels like home to me. I always wanted to be a part of that scene musically. There is nothing better than the crowd energy at good family outdoor festival. Especially in the mid-west. It’s that atmosphere that allows you to excel to levels, and play things you never would have otherwise. For years I had wanted to play Harmony, and, over the last couple years, have had the chance on multiple occasions.
WILL: Every venue has its pros and cons. Some places are raging parties every time we play, but your ears are blown out and you feel like you smoked two packs of cigarettes by the end of the night. And some have great sound and nice stages, but the vibe just isnt all there.
Right now I dont really have a favorite spot, but anywhere that has everything mentioned above is always a fun time. Ive always liked playing the High Noon Saloon in Madison, the House of Rock in Eau Claire has been a staple on our schedule for years, and the Aggie Theater in Fort Collins, CO is always a blast.
WITH DOWN LO IN THE JAM SCENE AND DEPLOI IN THE RAP/HIP-HOP SIDE OF THE COIN, WHO DO YOU THINK ‘IN OUR WORLD’ WILL APPEAL TO THE MOST?
RYAN: One of the reasons for recording ‘In Our World’ was to bring our music to a market we’d been exposed to very minimally. We wanted to do this in a way that would appeal to our existing crowd, as well as the hip hop crowd we want to attract.
On the other hand, we want to bring more hip hop with a good message (it does exist) into the jam scene. All in all, the goal is to bring our music, and our message, to as many people as possible while hopefully transcending musical barriers people create between genres. With that said, I would like to start working on a face melting, bass heavy, metal album. ‘Hey Padre, are you interested?’
YES! BUT WITH YOU ROCKING THE FACE-MELTING BASS, ILL AUDITION ON COW-BELL.
DO YOU HAVE A MESSAGE FOR YOUR FANS OUT THERE NOW AND POTENTIAL FANS DOWN THE ROAD?
WILL: Our goal at every show is to throw a party and rock the fuck out whether there are 10 people there or 1000. The band feeds off the crowd just as much as you feed off us. The best shows weve had are when the crowd simultaneously guides and follows the music were playing.
The Midwest has a great music scene and were trying to do our part to build it up and bring it to the other parts of the country. Help spread the word. When you come to a show be kind to one another. Were all a part of the same community and were all brothers and sisters in this world. Lifes fucked up at times and music is something that can universally bring people together and give a personal, emotional and spiritual release on a grand scale. So lets keep it going.
GET THE INSIDE SKINNY ON THE NEW DOWN LO/DEPLOI CD AND CHECK OUT EXPANDER ON THEIR MYSPACE SITE.