Featured Column:One Under: A Candid Conversation with Johnny Polansky
In My Life
In a world consumed by statistics and numbers, the axiom that says that the whole is equal to the sum of its parts still remains true. When we talk of mathematical equations, the numbers have to add up or the hypothesis will be proven to be incorrect. In sports teams, a collection of superstar athletes does not ensure success unless they are all working unselfishly together. In bands, the one truth that is a good barometer in determining success or failure usually involves the ability of the members of the group to work effectively together for the betterment of all the parties. You cannot consistently make great music if the musicians are not in sync. There are always exceptions to the rule, but in the end, a professional working environment in a band where there is mutual respect for everyone’s talents and contributions will certainly help to ensure success.
One Under is a six piece band based in Columbus, Ohio. They are comprised of musicians who have been working at their craft for many years. The members of the band are: Michele Iannicello (aka Mike Cello aka Cello) who is the lead guitarist, songwriter and co-songwriter for One Under; Rob McCormick who plays keyboards and vocals has been playing piano for over 24 years; Ed McGee Guitar/Vocals/Lyricist, who is known to the jamband community through his work with ekoostic hookah; drummer Seth Kafoure who has played with many central Ohio groups and has also performed on a national level; Pat Kenney on bass has been a veteran of many bands and finally Johnny Polansky who met Ed McGee in 1999 and also performed with him for ekoostik hookah until they both left to join One Under is the percussionist for this band.
In my life, I have seen countless bands seemingly destined for stardom come up short and quickly fade from sight. Other bands with similar talents often find ways to succeed seemingly in spite of themselves. Many times, the differentiation between success and failure lies in the way the band members work together. I recently had the opportunity to speak with Johnny Polansky, who is the percussionist with his band One Under. We spoke about the band, their upcoming new CD and of course, Johnny’s views of the world of music. His enthusiasm and dedication to the band made me think of how refreshing it is to hear a person speak so glowingly of his colleagues and with such dedication to making the entire band a success.
MG: It sounds like things are good in Columbus.
JP: I can’t complain. The band is trudging forward, we are enjoying ourselves. In my twenty years in the music business, I am enjoying myself more than at anytime in my life. I feel like a kid again.
MG: When I was first asked to interview you, I did my usual research and of course found out that you and the guys in the band have been in the business a long time. All of us, after being in a profession for many years, settle into routines, make a decent living and the idea of radical change in those routines usually causes most people to stick with what they are used to and not make a change. What caused you to take on this project at this point in your life?
JP: There is a basic truth that a person with a creative mind can’t sit still for long periods at a time. As you know, I was playing in a pretty established band, but creatively I felt that we had gotten to a stagnant place. I felt for myself that it wasn’t just about going out there and playing gigs and getting paychecks and going through the motions. For me, I wanted a lot more than that. I needed a much deeper sense of a mission. I really wanted to be connected to the songwriting and I felt that I was getting further and further away from that. When this situation came up, I kind of likened the opportunity to a sports analogy. I am a big sports fan and I come from Pittsburgh. You know, many of those teams I saw there had certain chemistry. And when I started playing with this ensemble, it was experience that made me understand about all those successful teams I watched and heard about for years when the manager or coach would say that their championship team had chemistry. And when One Under came together, we kind of looked around the room and collectively we all said how good we all felt about playing music together.
MG : Clearly, you could have remained with a more established band, pick up a paycheck and be none the worse, so I give you a lot of credit for making the change.
JP: All of us could have gone in many different directions. I had a lot of opportunities for myself as well as the other guys in the band. Especially being a percussionist and being a sideman, you can step in and out of many situations. It would have been easy for me to work with some established bands and pick and choose where I wanted to go and dial it in for a paycheck. But for me, being with these guys has given me a real strong drive and a sense of satisfaction by putting my musical voice on this music we’ve created.
MG: It sure sounds like you’re enjoying yourself. So many people don’t have that sense of satisfaction with what they do for a living and it’s refreshing to hear your enthusiasm for your work.
JP: Yeah, you’re absolutely right. I think that maybe all of us were stuck in that place and we all came together because of that. For example, Mike Cello the guitar player was possibly getting ready to move to California. He was looking for a change of scenery. Ed and I were in hookah. For us, it was dwindling down to less playing time. Everything and everyone associated with this band kind of just came together at the same time. There is a real openness with this band. Nothing related to the music is passed over. Everyone’s ideas are immediately taken into consideration. I know that all the guys in this band had experienced some degrees of creative censorship in the bands used to playing with.
MG: With that sense of purpose, you are in essence controlling your destiny.
MG: That being said and I accept your premise that you have a talented group of musicians, loving each other, respecting each other and being democratic and open in your selection of material. How does being based in Columbus, which is not a center of the music business, affect your journey to success? Does this impact you in any way as opposed to being in NY, LA, Nashville, etc?
JP: I actually feel that it does impact us, but it impacts us in a positive way. We can be in any number of cities like NYC, Chicago, St. Louis, Cleveland, DC, Kansas City, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, Detroit, etc that are within a 9 to 11 hour parameter from Columbus. And as you know, the cost of living here is no way near the cost of living in most of those other places so I think we have the best of both worlds.
MG: Accepted, but how do you deal with the fact that all the big-time record companies are based other cities than Columbus and since ultimately you want those companies to hear your stuff, how does that happen for a new band like One Under?
JP: You and I because of our age, come from a different thought process than what is done today in the music business. The traditional way a band used to get heard by a record company is no longer the norm. I’m not exactly sure that you have to be in any specific city for a record company to hear your material. The internet and the new technology have changed all of that.
MG: You’re right because the days of an aspiring band going with demos in hand up to the record company in NY or LA to see the guy in the shiny suit who you know is picking your pocket, but has the power to make you a recording star is being quickly replaced by a more do-it-yourself attitude that has been fueled by technology and the internet. In relation to that, I see you guys are independently releasing an album soon.
JP: Yeah, right here in Columbus, we have a financial backer who has given us the backing to structure a traditional record deal in a most untraditional manner. I mean we don’t have the traditional baggage that goes along with the record deals of the past. We are able to accomplish with this debut CD some of the things that a band would have with a record company deal and still maintain pretty much everything an artist would want.
MG: Johnny, you’ve been in this business and you’ve seen the good, the bad and the ugly. If you can somehow work at your craft, make the kind of music that satisfies you all and make few bucks while being backed by a local person who is not looking to mortgage your collective souls, then you’ re doing quite well.
JP: Not only that, but every guy in this band brings an additional skill to the table. We have guys in the band who know graphics & layout. There are also guys who know engineering, mastering and production. At this stage in our lives, we not only have musical talent, but we also bring a lot of other tools in our toolbox. Skills we have all developed over the years are now available for all of us to use. That being said, we have a drummer that is 25 years old, but this guy has chops well beyond his years.
MG: Sounds like you have a really nice situation that you have developed for yourself.
JP: It’s beautiful. As you know, over the years, I have played in any number of bands and Ed and I played with hookah for the past eight years together. I can now see that both of our personalities due to this kind of creative environment have changed to a more positive place. We feel loose, we feel good, we can say and discuss things that maybe for all the guys were difficult to say in previous bands. It’s an unbelievable feeling to get to rehearsal and suggest something and have everyone say “let’s try it.” You know, not every idea is a gem, but to know that your colleagues will give your idea a shot makes you feel good about yourself and good about them. We really go by the philosophy of “No Stone Unturned.” We are always willing to give every idea a try.
MG: How does your touring schedule look for the rest of the year?
JP: We have an active touring schedule. One of the nice things about our shows is the audience. We have found that when our show is over, many of the people stick around to talk with us. It’s a very fulfilling feeling inside when you realize that people are listening to original material and think enough of the music to stick around after the show and talk about it with the band members.
MG: When they wait until the show is over and speak with you, what type of comments do they make?
JP: I know it becomes more and more difficult to do so, but in my opinion I think it is important to connect with your audience on many levels. I take everything with a grain of salt and when I read something that’s been written or hear about something that has been said about us. But I take the good with the bad and consider it all feedback. I put it all in the mix. I appreciate it when I see someone who has been to a number of our shows who may say that the band wasn’t as good that night as they were a month before. I may say that we felt good on stage, but I do appreciate someone’s opinion. Sometimes that’s better than the guy who tells you that was the greatest show he’s ever heard. When I went to music school, I quickly learned that I have no idea what someone else hears with their own ears and I must be aware of that. Therefore, I don’t take personal offense to someone’s criticism of my music. Maybe the tune we played was not satisfying to their ears. All of this brings me back to the original premise which is that I really enjoy going out there and speaking to people. We’ve really had very little negative feedback. It’s actually precious moments with your audience when you are able to connect with them.
MG: I agree with you and sometimes artists forget who is buying their records.
JP: Absolutely. I am reminded of the day I left court after my divorce and I had a gig to play that night. Nobody in that room cared about my troubles. They came to see a show and forget their troubles. My job was to entertain them and they paid money to see me. Hopefully, I didn’t disappoint them that night.
MG: So you better be smiling.
JP: Exactly, and I feel that sense of obligation to provide them with entertainment. That’s my job and also for them to know that they made my day as well.
MG: When do you expect the new CD to be released?
JP: We’re looking at late summer, probably September. Given the level of experience of the band, our pre-production work has enabled us to go into the studio and move quickly through the songs so no time is wasted there. We are extremely efficient and therefore our creativity is able to come out in the music because we already know the game plan going in. You know, if you have to go over a song many times in the studio, the initial energy is often lost.
MG: Given this preparation, would you characterize this record as a “live” recording?
JP: I feel like it was. I really feel that we have a certain magic about this record. The passion is still there and you can feel it when you hear the record. But more to the point, you have to be a little weird to continually stay in this business. We all have that passion and that diligence. Yeah, we’re six guys who get into a van, play a gig in Boston and drive home again. We do it because we love to do it. The fire still burns to do what it takes to be successful. I feel successful already. I’ve been with these guys about a year and a half. I have reached milestones and accomplishments that I didn’t reach in the other bands I was with so I am feeling good about this group. I am really proud of what we have accomplished so far. I am proud of the group and I am proud of the wonderful civility we have been able to maintain within the members of the group.