Dana Monteith and The Ominous Seapods Lost Baggage
Though the Ominous Seapods started as college students at SUNY Plattsburgh, the sextet cites New York's Capital District as their musical home base. Quickly migrating downstate after gradation, The Seapods, along with moe., Moon Boot Lover, and Yolk, turned clubs like Bogie's and Valentines into bankable jamband stomping grounds. Layering the Capital District's flair for punk into their up tempo jams, the Ominous Seapods seemed to define the area's mid-1990s jambands, who favored traditional guitar jams over trance, bluegrass, and jazz. Building a niche throughout upstate and western New York, the Seapods remained a popular club attraction throughout the 1990s, often sharing the stage with moe. and using egg-beaters and rubber chickens as stage props during their "oratory theater" experiments.
All strong personalities, the Ominous Seapods' lineup remained consistent for most of their career: drummer Ted Marotta, bassist Tom Pirozzi, keyboardist Brian Mangini, and guitarists Dana Monteith and Max Verna. But by the new millennium, the Ominous Seapods slowly started to split. In 1998, Verna exited the group, playing sporadic shows and engaging in a variety of non-musical endeavors. Adding longtime collaborator Todd Pasternak to their lineup, the Ominous Seapods continued to perform, releasing The Superman Curse in 2000 and touring heavily for the rest of the year. Ironically, the band, which launched its career at the edge of Canada, played its final show in Mexico in July of 2001.
Though fans clamored for a Seapods reunion, each member seemed busy with outside musical projects. Notably, Mangini and Pirozzi played in Albany jamband Raisinhead and, Pirozzi, along with Pasternak, performed in the Lo Faber Band's Henry House rock-opera. Monteith also launched a successful career as an acoustic singer-songwriting, playing in various settings throughout the Capital Region. Surprisingly, the Seapods decided to reunite in February 2003, playing shows at two frequent haunts: Valentine's and Saranac Lake's Winter Carnival at Water Hole #3. Oddly enough, the new Seapods lineup included both Verna and Pasternak, combining two eras of Seapods' material.
After the success of their brief February reunion run, the Seapods reunited this November for performances at the Bridge Street Music Hall in Syracuse and No Moore Lounge in New York City. But these two performances were anything but traditional family reunions. With Marotta opting not to join in, Rasin Head drummer Scott Apicelli was brought onboard and moe. guitarist Al Schnier sat in at the No Moore Lounge for Verna, who was unable to perform at the group's Saturday night show.
Jambands.com spoke with Monteith with during Winter Carnival about his recent reunion run and the Seapods' current status (for info on his upcoming solo dates visit Danamonteith.com)
MG- The Ominous Seapods’ February reunion grew out of the Saranac Lake Winter Carnival, an annual Seapods stop in their heyday. What was the catalyst for this reunion run?
DM- We had a great time doing those February shows, and we wanted to do something in Syracuse where we had played a lot and in New York City as well. So it was an extension of that and I think we'll probably continue to do shows here and there. It's still fun music; we all feel that its good stuff that we enjoy playing. It's nice around the holiday time. Last time we played it was around Winter Carnival up in Saranac Lake. We had been playing Water Hole for a long time.
MG- Did you rehearse extensively as a group for your February and November gigs?
DM- We did a couple of rehearsals particularly for these [November] shows, because we had a new drummer, so it was a whole new thing. It was funny for me, having been around the longest at that point, to think about how many different drummers we've played with in various lineups of the Ominous Seapods. It's beginning to feel like Spinal Tap or something. Ted's life was moving in other directions. He wasn't feeling like he could take part in these past two shows. I had a good time playing with Scott, which takes it to a whole other musical level. Drummers are like the pitchers in a band. I like playing with Scott to see what type of rhythmic curveballs he can throw.
MG- How did you come in contact with Scott?
DM- He's from the [New York] Capital District, and Todd and Brian had been playing with him in Raisinhead. He's been a stalwart drummer on the scene around the Albany-area and owns a studio Brian and Todd have used.
MG- Did you find it hard recapturing the Ominous Seapods energy?
DM- For me, I had to almost relearn the electric guitar. I have been playing strictly acoustic these days, so it was definitely like let's set up all the old effects and pedals and see if it works.' I've mostly just been playing my twelve string and six-string guitars. All the gigs I have been doing have been way more country and bluegrass influenced. Todd brought his laptop to the rehearsals and we were going online and checking lyrics, digging through all the archives and CDs. It was kind of like riding a bike. After you've done it, it starts to come back to you. The rehearsals were fun. Because it's always been an open- ended proposition, we could see what kind of new things can happen. We also pulled out some songs we hadn't played in a while and we were like holy shit that was the best thing ever.' There is this song "The Old GP" which was on our first CD Econobrain. It was one of those tunes we played every night for years and years and then we stopped playing it. But when we brought it back, we were like that song is really good.' We played it better than we ever did. We've finally matured to the point where we can nail it. It was the type of thing that ten years ago, when we wrote it, it was way beyond our reach. It was the kind of tune fans had requested in February, so we gave it to them
MG- Did you ever consider adding your solo canon to the Seapods current repertoire or did you decide to just revisit the band’s classic material?
DM- It was more revisiting what I used to be doing, which was fun. It's such a separate bag from what I am doing now. It was fun to just go crazy. I had the amplifier cranked way the fuck up and all the pedals set up. It was like how much noise and mischief can I create?' In a way, that's what it was all about with the Seapods.
MG- During the Ominous Seapods’ Saturday performance, moe.‘s Al Schnier sat in for Max Verna. Did you rehearse with Al before the show?
DM- We didn't have any rehearsals, but he had CDs and, basically, learned the heads to the tunes. It worked really well. We basically tossed in right on the BBQ and let in fry. Some of the tunes went pretty far out. We had this cello player Dave Eggar, who played with Lo Faber Band, Todd, and myself, and he sat in on "Bong Hits and Porn." We pretty much went right off the deep-end with that one.
MG- Did you take a similar approach to practicing with Max?
DM- We rehearsed with Max that day for two hours. We all had a bunch of CDs and we learned the stuff, and Tom and Brian rehearsed with Scott. It was easy to click back in again with what we had done in February.
MG- How do you feel Max and Al’s styles’ changed the group’s sound during your two most recent shows?
DM- Saturday had more of a free-form thing. Max is a great player, but Saturday night was a lot more new and experimental than Friday. In a way, Friday was like reliving our youth, while Saturday was something new. The Saturday night show, when Al from moe. played with us, was all about mischief and chaos. It was like this Ominous Seapods Collective, a whole other band. Friday was more of controlled chaos. There was more mischief. I think we went way further out on Saturday as a band and, in different places, because we had a totally new voice.
MG- In what area did the group particularly focus their rehearsals?
DM- I guess the improvisation. That's where the new stuff happens. There is a "zen focus" to improvisation. You want that to be the focus, but you don't want to spend hours practicing it.
MG- Did you find the Seapods’ February and November shows were different experiences?
DM- They were very different experiences. The February shows really stretched, but we stretched even further this time. People seemed to be moved more this time. In February, there was a sense of running excitement- like a roller coaster ride. These shows were more like we were in the cockpit of a plane. We knew that we could do it again and make it work. That adds a certain level of confidence. The first time it was like well this could totally suck or it can be brilliant.' It's nice to know there are people out there that are still interested and that we can still have fun with it. The music is still vibrant. That's the best feeling-to know that the stuff we had created still holds water.
MG- The "Albany strain" of jambands always seemed more rooted in rock than their peers. Do you feel your hometown contributed to this rock-based sound?
DM- There has always been a big punk scene in this area. That's the vibe of living in upstate New York. There is the "psychedelic thing" and the "balls-to-the walls rock thing." People in this area always love rock and stuff. I remember when I first moved to the area, I was more into the "acoustic thing" and the "mellow thing," but when I moved into Albany, I was exposed to punk rock. There was this place called the QE2 where Primus and the Red Hot Chllie Peppers were playing. Every alternative band played through here, so that was a big influence on the area, and that spread to the other bands living here at the time.
MG- moe. and the Ominous Seapods helped spearhead Albany’s mid-1990s jamband revival. What was it like being a part of that burrowing scene?
DM- This area was definitely a very fertile thing in the mid-1990s. It's still a fertile music scene, but it's a different music scene now. At one point it was hard to believe, you'd go out on the road and everyone was from this area. The current jamband scene, as we know it, was still pretty young in the mid-1990s, so it was this wild thing. You could have moe. and Moonboot Lover, and Ominous Seapods playing a gig in front of 50 people. That was a big thing-Conehead Buddha was here, Yolk played this area all the time.
MG- What brought so many young jambands to Albany in the mid-1990s?
DM- It's a very accessible city. It's a non-pretentious area, so it was an easy place to go out and bust your nuts against the wall. You could get people coming out, and they weren't pretentious, but they also weren't an easy audience to win over either. It was a great testing ground. If you could win over the audience in this area, it set you up for moving on to other areas. Plus, it's an extremely accessible transportation center. It's three hours from everything, so in the Northeast it's really the hub. That's what led moe. here and the Seapods here, and that's why Moonboot was in the area. Still everyone plays through, but the scene here has changed. There are still a lot of young jambands, but there's also a pretty big rockabilly thing that is going on in this area, and there is a singer-songwriter thing that is bolstered by places like Cafena in Saratoga and The Larkin in Albany. The music scene has changed more into that "Americana-type" thing.
MG- Your current music seems to combine jam-rock and this Americana revival?
I started playing with an upright bass player named John Rice. We do mostly new stuff of mine. Sometimes we'll do "Bong-hits and Porn" because it's such an absurd thing to do acoustic. Like in November, I was playing with Dave Eggar and we did this acoustic guitar and cello "Bong-Hits and Porn" suite. It was off the hook. It was like how far out can we take this stuff acoustically?'
MG- A few years ago you organized a Gram Parsons tribute at Valentine’s in Albany. Parsons seems to have influenced the city’s current Americana revival.
DM- He's a huge influence on what I am doing now writing-wise. Lo Faber turned me onto Gram Parsons in the mid-1990s, but I didn't get it at the time. I always liked Neil Young and Bob Dylan, but I hadn't dived into Americana that much. Then I got into Wilco and Sun Volt and thought, why don't I gives Gram Parsons a try?' Sometimes, I'll do his "Hickory Wind" or "Return of the Grievous Angel" in concert.
MG- Does your solo work retain the Ominous Seapods’ theatrics?
DM- It's there, but it's more subtle. But with Eggar, we try to make music that's more interesting than two guys hanging over their instruments. There is a certain stage presence we try to project with it. It's about having a good sense of humor. Maybe it's not so dramatic, but there is a subtle aspect to it. I call it "truck-stop love ballads." Eggar comes from this classical background; he's a real serious musician. One night we are doing "Bong Hits and Porn," the most tongue-and-cheek song I ever wrote, and, the next night, this guy is playing Carnegie Hall.
MG- Did the Seapods current reunion-run place a great deal of emphasis on theatrics?
DM- Max and I didn't do too much on the theatrical bend in Syracuse. Even when the Seapods were in our "regular season" there wasn't so much theatrics. A lot of times, early on, there would be theatrics, after that it was more of a choice moment. I don't think we did much in the way of theatrics this time around. In February, we got into the whole "belly-bucking" shtick again. Max and I, when we were hitting it, certain things would happen. But there would have to be a certain vibe. We were more into the improvisational side of things this time around.
MG- Before these two reunion-runs, had the Seapods ever played with three guitarists?
DM- Occasionally we had played with Todd, which was the irony of the whole deal, because he became the band's next guitarist. We always joked that when we do the "Seapods Orchestra" [he'd] come on. So in a way it was a self-fulfilling prophecy.
MG- How did the Seapods sound adapt to three guitarists?
DM- Playing with three guitarist makes for the great joke that we were The Outlaws: the ultimate triple-guitar band. It's like this cascading war of triple-guitars. The interplay works well, everyone has a good ear. If was there was a lot going on, we'd try to find other spaces. It's syncopated music. It leads me back to the Talking Heads' Remain in Light album, which is amazingly deep in syncopation. There are so many rhythmic things going on and so many melodic things. With that many people playing, if everyone is listening, you can get into that type of thing, which is always how I envisioned the Seapods playing: this multi-level syncopated funked-out groove.
MG- From perspective it seems like you guys are having more fun playing together now then when Ominous Seapods was your main creative outlet.
DM- There is none of the other baggage. We weren't forcing it — we were doing it because we loved it—and that's why we started to do it. We were able to get back to that and there is a freedom that allows you. Sometimes when you are just gunning for it, you tend to lose track of that [love]. The key thing to succeeding in music is keeping track of why you do it. It's just not about money or glory. Those are always great things to happen, and I think that's something you always desire at some point, but you have to love playing. I think at the end of Seapods, we didn't really have that anymore.