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Published: 2008/09/23
by David Schultz

Licorice: Counting Up A Million Grains Of Sand

Inside Licorice’s cozy rehearsal space in Williamsburg, a trendy section of Brooklyn that has become a hotbed of activity for emerging bands of all genres, I am listening to Licorice from an unusual vantage point: I am practically sitting in the middle of them. From this rare perspective, the various elements that make Licorice an intriguing young band become crystal clear: a student of many guitar styles, David Lott glides between bluesy Clapton-styled riffs and Santana-tinged sustained notes; on the drums, Josh Bloom shows his aptitude for heavy rock and roll drumbeats but also the agility for tapping out intricately plotted beats more familiar to the jazz scene; Matt Epstein hardly remains complacent, constantly working through complicated, remarkably involved runs on his bass and to round everything out, Chad Dinzes provides a potent mix of rich keyboard rolls and angular counterpunching melodies. It’s an exhibition of such exceptional technical proficiency, it’s a bit daunting to be sitting within its midst.

On this rainy weekday evening, Licorice’s rehearsal is sporadically interrupted by a raging lightning storm that has not only distracted them from getting down to business, it has sent the crowd from Death Cab For Cutie’s outdoors show at the nearby McCarren Pool scurrying for shelter. The tempest raging outside perfectly matches the intensity of the band. At the close of their rehearsal in which they run work through some new material and test out some ideas, Licorice winds down their night by talking to about A Million Grains Of Sand, their recently released EP, their thoughts on jamming’s place within their live performances and the difficulties presented to a young band trying to get heard on a national level.

A Million Grains Of Sand is a marvelous compilation that combines longtime live staples like “What’s Your Status In London” and “Freeze” with relatively newer compositions like “All Kings Fall” and “Bunnies.” “Our goal for the EP was to take the songs that we’ve been working on and make the best version of that song that we could,” explains Lott. “We wanted to encapsulate it without giving you the stretched-out stage version.” All preconceptions of the songs were put to the wayside upon entering the studio, a mindset that resulted in the wonderful additions of horns, strings and African rhythms, sounds that up until now were relatively foreign to the band. “We didn’t want to record a show,” says Bloom. “We wanted to do a real CD.”

“We went in with the idea that we were going to open ourselves to ideas that we didn’t even have at the time,” recalls Epstein, citing as examples the horns of “Freeze” and the “intricately layered one man orchestra” for the EP’s title track. “I don’t think we had a specific direction where we were going with “A Million Grains Of Sand,” explains Lott of the lushly textured track that opens the album. “We decided to experiment a bunch and build off of the different parts that were propelling that song. I don’t think any of us anticipated that what we got from it was what we were going to get out of it. We’re all pretty psyched how that came out.” Noting the evolution of some of the songs, Bloom is excited about the new potentialities that have arisen. “It’s kind of like a reset,” he explains. “After we record it, we go back to how do we best present this song live. It puts us in reverse.”

Licorice gives credit to their producer Josh Kessler for bringing out their best inside the studio. “Josh just gelled with us. He was like a 5th member of the band,” says Lott. “He was our first outside perspective ever,” relates Dinzes. “He gave us an honest intellectual insider perspective,” adds Bloom. “He had his vision of what some songs should sound like and it taught us to trust somebody from outside the band,” continues Epstein. “Everything he did was so meticulous and right, especially on “A Million Grains of Sand,” notes Lott of the different view Kessler had on their sprawling multi-part live opus. Dinzes agrees. “He really changed the tone of the song.” To illustrate the point, Lott plays a tape on which cellist Dave Eggar creates a one-man orchestra, overlaying new parts on top of each other until there’s a virtual ocean of classical music. “Even when things didn’t sound like they were right,” says Lott. “He had a vision.”

Upon its release in late April, the EP received a proper fete at New York City’s Knitting Factory before a packed house eager to help the band celebrate their debut recording. For the evening, Kessler came out of the producer’s chair to augment Licorice’s traditional four-man setup and Eggar recreated the strings that give depth to songs like “Bunnies.” In playing the EP live, the new ruffles added to the songs in the studio played out wonderfully and they saved the only change from Grains Of Sand’s arrangements for the very end. On the EP, the glorious coda that customarily closes the live version of “A Million Grains Of Sand” is truncated to a short snippet; at the Knitting Factory, Licorice tore into the crescendo laden instrumental, extending it with a powerful jam reminiscent of the Jerry Garcia Band’s version of “Dear Prudence.”

Like most bands that get painted with the jamband brush, they question whether the label truly applies, wryly offering to play “Stash” for me to establish their bona fides. They each have their own thoughts on the topic. “I think one of our jamband aspects is our mainstream type of approach, which is more accessible,” opines Epstein. “I don’t agree,” counters Dinzes. “I don’t think that’s necessarily a jamband thing. I think that comes more from a love of R&B and funk and soul.” Lott, the band’s levelheaded mediator, finds the middle ground. “Our music,” he says before pausing for a moment. “We wouldn’t be in a band – the four of us – if it didn’t have a pulse to it. That’s how we feel naturally about music.”

On the surface, Licorice’s roots seem to spring from Meropoix, the band Epstein and Lott played in while at The University of Michigan. However, the ties that bind Licorice run much deeper, a six degrees of separation with intertwining connections comparable to those of the characters on Lost with a summer camp replacing the show’s island. Dinzes, the one member with no connection to the summer camp, shakes his head and gets a slightly embarrassed look when the summer camp comes up. “Don’t put any of this camp shit in there,” he deadpans. “We want to look cool.” Lott reflects on this and asks me to write that this is the point of the interview when he went out of the room to go do heroin. (He didn’t).

For a band that’s comfortable with complex jazzy excursions and intricately plotted instrumental breaks, there’s a dedication to the songwriting craft. “We’re a unique songwriting unit,” explains Lott. “We create good songs; they have good lyrical value, a good pulse and good musicality to them. When we approach songwriting, we approach it really organically; I don’t mean that in a cheesy way, I mean that in the truest way possible.” The dedication to songcraft makes it way into Licorice’s live performances. “We’re not going to hit you with 30 minute versions of the songs,” says Bloom. “We can do that though,” he says with pride. “We’ve been meddling with finding the happy medium between structured tunes and jamming out,” points out Dinzes. “We’re able to play the structured songs but we take it a little further, jam them out a little longer.” “We have songs that are natural platforms for improvisation and songs that if we were to jam out of them it would be contrived,” says Lott. Bloom though explains it concisely. “All our tunes aren’t a set up for that one groove.”

The discussion turns to whether developing a distinctive sound, as a band or as a musician, is a boon or bane with moe. and their exceptional musicianship becoming a recurring example. “I think Licorice has a sound,” says Lott while we’re bantering the question around. “I don’t think I’ve reached the point where I have an individual sound. It’s the moe. thing,” he continues. “I can hear moe. a mile away and know that it’s moe. but if Chuck Garvey was in a band with 50 other musicians and all I was doing was listening, I don’t think I would be able to tell that that’s Chuck Garvey from moe.,’ he explains. “I don’t mean that to sound disrespectful,” he clarifies. “He’s an incredible guitar player.”

“We can develop the Licorice sound but it would only be enhanced by all of us developing our own sound,” continues Lott. “If Josh played in a style that separated himself from all other drummers and it was also conducive to what we were doing, I think that would only enhance what makes us Licorice. I don’t think we should be discouraged by the fact that there’s an ego to finding your own personal sound when you’re in a band.” “I agree wholeheartedly,” chimes in Dinzes. “It’s always better as a collective,” he adds. “I would love to have a tone synonymous with who I am,” says Lott. “People would hear me and say, That’s Dave Lott. I don’t like him but I know exactly what he sounds like and that’s him,” he relates with no small amount of self-deprecation. “That’s a goal.”

Knowing that they have a sound is one thing, describing it another. “We’re still working on that,” says Epstein, suggesting that as a writer, perhaps that may be my job. Dinzes and Bloom are eager to help out. “We’re like a jellyfish,” Dinzes says from behind his keyboards. “Early Soundgarden . . . early Offspring,” offers a playfully sarcastic Bloom. “I would describe it as fucking intense,” declares Lott, cutting to the chase. “We’re not a happy, doodly band. When we’re jamming, its not ecstasy jamming; it’s pretty intense. It comes from our love of fusion the super heavy Miles Davis stuff. We love that. I’m not saying we get to the Miles level but we reach an intense point.” The mention of jazz fusion brings an excited response from the band. “Our best moments are when were in a heavy fusion mode,” says Dinzes.

Sitting in the practice room while Licorice warms up and experiments with some new ideas, you get a fine appreciation for the way the band works together in exploring grooves and playing off of each other. For practical and ideological reasons, Licorice are not fans of the lengthy jam break, a surprise given their fine proficiency for improvisation. “We try and take an intellectual approach to jamming,” explains Lott. “If we’re going to jam lets make it purposeful. Let’s not take 20 minutes to find our way so that we can have one minute of glory. Let’s either decide to go in a direction and do it together or just cut it off. We’ve been forced to discipline ourselves,” he explains. “If we have a 40 minute set, we’re not going to play “Status in London” for 20 of them. Having such time restrictions forced us to get tight fast. We had to make ourselves go right to the peak of a jam. That’s four to five years of playing together and drilling hard at it. Even now, it’s a lot more work.” In playing with the likes of Herbie Hancock, Larry Coryell and Roy Hargrove, Licorice has been able to see some of the jazz greats up close. “I would love to be at the point where we’ve earned the respect of the audience so that we can improvise for them,” reveals Lott. “I’m not a jazz musician. I don’t have jazz chops. For me to be able to improvise, I feel I need to earn their respect and that we need to earn it as a band. We’re not Phish. It doesn’t work that way for us.”

Licorice takes their music seriously but not everything about the band is fraught with gravity. Anyone who has heard them play “Say It (Your Mom’s A Vegetarian),” their skewed interpretation of Blink 182’s “All The Small Things” – which contains the gloriously bent taunt of “your mama, she eats tofu” would be hard pressed to say Licorice is a band that takes themselves too seriously. Shortly after the Knitting Factory celebration, Licorice returned to The Baggott Inn, the venue they consider to be their birthing grounds. Like most of the long-standing venues in New York City, the Baggott was closing their doors and Licorice returned for one final show. They didn’t go so far as to work The Doors’ “The End” into the set list but they did infuse a potentially maudlin night with a sense of whimsy, covering The Rolling Stones’ “The Last Time” and Tom Petty’s “Time To Move On” before concluding with a singalong version of “End Of The Road” that had everyone on their feet swaying and singing like it was prom night, not caring about whether it was hip to be carrying on like this to the strains of a Boyz II Men cover.

With gas prices greatly hindering touring schedules, bands like Licorice must confront the issue of attracting interest without the option of bringing the music to the people. Can it be done without hitting the road? “Theoretically, I think so,” says Dinzes. “I think just having the album gets the music legitimately out there. Before the EP, it was a live track here and a live track there,” explains Lott. “We’ve played The Blue Note on New Year’s Eve, we’ve opened for Deep Banana Blackout at the Bowery Ballroom, we’ve headlined at Sullivan Hall, we’ve played BAM,” lists Lott, rightfully proud of Licorice’s significant local triumphs. “I think it is possible to achieve success without getting on the road and I think that we’re doing it. We’ve always taken the time to say to each other that if it never goes any further, we’ve played The Blue Note and sold it out. People would die to play on that stage and we’ve sold it out four times.”

Licorice hasn’t been exclusively confined to the Metropolitan area, having become regulars at the Telluride Jazz Celebration in Colorado. “More than anything, I think it’s taught us that while New York is a Mecca for music, it’s not the most advantageous place to begin a career,” confesses Lott. “There’s so much music that people aren’t thumbing through the Village Voice thinking, Let’s go check out this band, I’ve never heard of them.’ New York’s an amazing place once people know who you are and people are going to come see you but to try and make it here, it’s a really hard market.” In some ways Telluride has been an oasis. “Telluride has pushed us,” explains Lott. “We realize there are receptive audiences in other markets. It’s a huge eye opener to leave the city and play a place like Telluride. People stay after the show to stand at the stage and talk to us about how much fun they just had.” “It reminds you that it’s possible,” says Bloom of going westward. “It’s kind of like a concert refresher.”

Lott believes that the hesitance to rush to the road has served Licorice well in the long run. “I honestly believe if we had gotten in a van and hit the road four years ago, we would not be a band today,” he contends. “Back then, we weren’t musicians enough to do that. As for myself, I needed the build up to study and that’s opened up my ability to write more. I think all of us have had that we were sort of late bloomers. We needed that time to mature: we get along really well and we share responsibility well,” explains Lott. “We fight well.”

Having already made significant inroads into their local New York club scene, Licorice is staring down the barrel of the conundrum faced by all young bands: to tour or not to tour? “We want to get out on the road as much as we can,” says Epstein and Dinzes in unison. “Everyone wants to do as much as possible. We’re really doing a very grass roots campaign,” explains Epstein. “We’re doing everything we can without getting in a van,” says Dinzes. As touring seems to be the foundation of most bands success, at what point do you pack up the van and get on the road? “That’s the question,” says Dinzes, laughing a bit. “We have to jump the shark a little bit to make it work,” reasons Bloom. “But it’s not a reality . . . yet.”

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