Juniper Road And Beyond: A Conversation With Dishwalla And Chatting With The Shift/FSP's Frankie Stephens

Dishwalla l-r: Justin Fox, George Pendergast, Rodney Cravens, Jim Wood and Scot Alexander
Dishwalla l-r: Justin Fox, George Pendergast, Rodney Cravens, Jim Wood and Scot Alexander

A Conversation with (Almost All Of) Dishwalla

Mike Ragogna: Rodney and Scot, it took ten years but Dishwalla finally has a new album, Juniper Road. What took you guys so long?

Rodney Browning Cravens: After taking a break and getting a new band member, it just took some time to get everything together and we wanted to make sure we did everything right. We were out reconnecting with our fans on tour and getting to know our new "sound" as Dishwalla.

George Pendergast: Timing, really. The band had been writing as a group and independently for years but it seemed like now was a good time to get everything percolating that had been brewing for a while and say this is who we are right now. When we had the opportunity to take a few weeks and lock ourselves down, everything clicked and came out way better than even imagined.

Jim Wood: In the years since the last album, everyone has relocated to different states, built successful businesses, and expanded their families. It’s not as easy to get everyone in the same room these days unless we are doing a show somewhere.

MR: Dishwalla’s gone through personnel shakeups but retained most of the original lineup. Before we get into vocalist Justin Fox’s entry and evolution with the group, how would you look at the band’s growth over the years, especially considering your history of having recordings on every third soundtrack during your early days?

RBC: We are continually getting better at our craft as anyone would do if you stick with it and stay true to it.  We're definitely getting better at recording. One of our goals on Juniper Road was to capture that live energy and the essence of what happens at a live show. We feel like we pulled it off and it's my favorite Dishwalla record to date because of it.

GP: I was happy to come back to the group after a serious injury. Rodney and I were volunteer parents at our kids pre-school and when our former agent called to see if we could get together for a Wallflowers, Matchbox 20 show. That was when Dishwalla 2.0 started. We were luck to have had Jim work with Sylvia Massey recording a band Justin was in.  He said I think this guy can pull and pull it he does. As far as soundtracks go I'm sure there are more to come and so thankful for the ones already out there!

JW: After weathering so much industry BS and internal drama over the years, we have really reconnected to why we love to play music. We have much more fun these days and that speaks for itself in the music. 

MR: What did Justin add to the group’s initial sound and mission? Justin, what do you think you added and what’s the story behind your joining?

RBC: Justin is a really musical guy and he brought a fresh take on what's going on in rock right now. Every guy in the band is creative, and Justin is a little younger than us and was actually a fan of ours growing up, so it's an interesting perspective.

GP: For me, it's an edge I was always missing. It's a fun that should be had if this is what you decide to do with your life. He talks to the crowd like they're old friends and let's them in in a way that Dishwalla never did before. Performance feels more like a giant house party. All of our fans have noticed that we look like we're enjoying ourselves more than ever and his presence is huge part of that.

JW: Justin is not only an extremely talented singer, he is a true performer that brings the audience into our world.  There's no glass wall between us and them.  

JF: I think I mostly brought a completely different perspective to the band. A "don't take yourself so seriously, it's just rock music," approach. I mostly want to see if everyone's smiling and having fun at the shows. How I joined... I had been friends with the band for a number of years prior to jumping on the mic. Actually, they did some pre-production work for the last self-titled album at my studio in Montecito. In 2006, Jim co-produced my prior band's second album with Sylvia Massy up in Weed, California. So...yada, yada, yada...I was in the band.

MR: So fill us in about Juniper Road’s lead single, “Give Me A Sign.”

RBC: This is one of those songs that pays tribute to our core Dishwalla sound, while also sounding fresh. It sounds recognizable, but just a little different. It has the Dishwalla pop sensibilities and "big chorus" with an underlying raw, rock live aspect to it.

JW: “Give Me a Sign” is about waiting for the world to give you what you know you can't live without.  

JF: I love this song, it ended up sounding huge. It's a recording I think everyone in the band can be proud of. I think it's the perfect blend of classic Dishwalla with the forward looking flavor of this new record, a perfect segue into this record and the future. 

MR: What are the songwriting and musical arrangement processes like these days?

RBC: It's kind of the same as it's always been, we’re a five-man collaborating machine. It's part of what makes our band so good and part of what makes it challenging at the same time.

GP: Pretty much the same as always. No idea ever comes in complete. It's a waste of time knowing it will get edited by one if not all five of us by the time we're through. This is the rub and also the way we get our sound. It may hurt a bit getting there but in the end, it's worth it. 

JW: Since we live in different states, the songwriting for this record was a little different than in the past. We still did our traditional style of getting everyone in the room and working through ideas, but for a shorter time compared to how we used to do it. The rest of the time we were collaborating online. We tied all of the different ideas together for the record at the Joshua Tree sessions.  

JF: Because we all live in different places, we rely heavily on the great technology available these days to collaborate. Any one of us can write and record an idea and immediately have the other guys jump in the session to collaborate. I've even had some FaceTime writing sessions a few times when inspiration struck.

Dishwalla / <em>Juniper Road</em>
Dishwalla / Juniper Road

MR: What was it like writing and recording the project in Eric Burdon’s Joshua Tree retreat house? Do you have any interesting stories?

RBC: It was super-inspiring. Not only is the desert and the whole landscape completely beautiful, but the way Eric has installed artifacts from years of touring around the world is incredible. We were surrounded by the lands’ natural beauty and all that art and it made it's way into the music. It was the perfect place for this project and for us to make a new Dishwalla record.

GP: “House Of The Rising Sun” was the first video I saw where I went. “Oh man, that's rock...” To have met him, recorded at his house and just wandered his art-covered property, mind blowing.   

JW: One of the nights of the Joshua Tree sessions, we were watching one of the presidential debates and everyone was getting super-depressed. George suggested that we go out to the patio and jam instead and by the end of the evening, we had recorded “Miles Away.” Music is real and it always wins.  

JF: It was a crazy concept we came up with hanging out at Eric Burdon's house one night. The whole idea of spending the next few months in a soundproof, over-air-conditioned, sterile space, was a bummer. We were trying to make art, after all! Eric's wife and manager, Marianna Burdon, is always the person to brainstorm with when you want to come up with something special. They were gracious enough to offer their desert retreat for the experience. The memories that stand out the most to me overall from our time there were the warm nights. We would record with all the windows and doors open until the wee hours of the morning, amps and drums at full volume, billowing into the abyss of the black desert air. No neighbors. It was fantastic and way better than a traditional studio experience.

MR: Overall, how did you approach recording Juniper Road? Were there any necessary accommodations made or new techniques used?

JW: We were able to take advantage of the latest tech for this record. Sylvia Massy has an incredible collection of vintage recording gear that we are used to using to make records, but now, much of that can be recreated by software that really does work like the real thing. That let us build a top-flight studio in the desert in less than eight hours and get on to making music.  

JF: Our goals going in—capture the live vibe, don't over rehearse anything, and don't make it too perfect! There were times when I would want to re-sing something because my voice was breaking in the dry high desert air but the band made me leave it all in there. I think music overall has become too perfect these days. So much so that it's forgettable. White noise. This record is imperfectly perfect.  

MR: Do you have a couple of behind the scenes stories on the creation or recording of any of the album’s material?

JF: My favorite story now from the recording process was when we had spent a fortune and months planning the Joshua Tree recording sessions to every intricate detail, we were halted in our tracks by the smallest oversight. When you travel out to a remote location like the desert to record such as we did, you are virtually landing on the moon and must bring everything you might possibly need with you. Every wire, screw, connector, and guitar string. Everything, big or small, expensive or cheap, none more important than the other in the recording chain. Never was that more apparent than on the first morning after we landed after spending the entire night setting up the truckloads of gear. Everything was hooked up and accounted for except one stupid power cable! This power cable was special of course and connected to the central recording interface directly. Without this one stupid cable, the entire setup wouldn't work! No album. I felt immediately sick to my stomach. Luckily, after what felt like a thousand phone calls, I was able to find a replacement at a music shop three hours away. So I jumped in the car and drove like the wind.

MR: What was the most challenging about recording Juniper Road versus how you used to record albums?

JW: We used to hole up in a studio for months at a time to make Dishwalla records. Now we are lucky to get a few days together. On the flip side, there is something that is very good about that. I learned from working with Sylvia how that kind of pressure can bring out an energy and focus that you can't get when you have all the time in the world.  This album is raw and alive and we didn't know how it was going to turn out until the last day.  

MR: Back in 2015, Dishwalla celebrated Pet Your Friend’s twentieth anniversary. What are your thoughts these days about that album’s “Counting Blue Cars” and the rest of your early hits?

RBC: Well, of course, we are extremely proud of it. Sometimes when I listen back to that record, it's like looking at old photographs of yourself in high school. Nowadays, I think of it as just a moment of time, and where we were at that point, we're certainly not the same musicians now.

GP: I think I only wish without regret, that I would have known how big it was. The insiders in the industry are quick to remind you that this is great but what's next so you pick up that mentality. 

MR: George, what’s the update on your non-profit music program for youth, Rockshop Academy?

GP: It's still operating and serving area teens as a place of instruction and also community center. The first band we worked with in 2009, drummer Brennan Benko, just signed a record deal with The Heirs and has been touring the world, so [I’m] very proud of him and our other many talented kids. 

MR: What advice do you have for new artists?

RBC: I guess my advice would be to really like the nature of the work and to really dive in. There is no guarantee anything  is going to happen. Write from the heart and put it all out there.

GP: You never know what will be the most important or last gig so play them all as if they were. 

JW:  Do what you like not what you think other people will like.  

JF: You're not going to be the people you see on TV right out of the gate. It's okay to have a lot of bad gigs, sour notes, and cruel reviews. Just keep playing and love what you do. Eventually, something with happen.

MR: What keeps Dishwalla going?

RBC: Our love for what we have all created together and we really enjoy what we do. Our path is something we all want to see through to the end. Whatever that means.

GP: We all love playing music first and love playing together. 

JW: We love to make music, and people around the world tell us they love to hear it. Our fans make Dishwalla what it is.

JF: Surprisingly, I think the band has more to say musically. There are more places in the world we still haven't toured. At the end of the day, music is what we'd all rather be making instead of adulting.

Frankie Stephens
Frankie Stephens

A Conversation with Guitarist Frankie Stephens

Mike Ragogna: Frankie, what is the music scene like in Florida these days?

Frank Stephens: Certainly, not what it once was. Many club venues are gone and karaoke and acoustic solo and duo acts have taken over what remains of the club scene. Some clubs still have live bands but they are few and far between. I do see a large blues community now that is still going strong, but the overall music scene has shrunk, [with] certainly less clubs and venues than when we first moved here. We've hooked up with some of the good remaining club owners and we also play special events.  

MR: Currently, you’re working on two separate projects, The Shift Band, which is blues rock, and The Frankie Stephens Project, which is technical, progressive rock. Why do you use two different genres for your music?

FS:  My tastes and playing styles have always been diverse. I listen to everything, jazz, blues, rock, and progressive. For example, Steely Dan, Robin Trower to Dream Theater and Zeppelin, and I enjoy playing those different styles as well. Whether it be guitar or keyboards, instruments can be used in a variety of different ways and with a variety of different tones. I love exploring that. I get bored doing one thing. I had co-written before but my first real writing project was when I met our singer [for The Shift], Stephanie Scolaro. Prior to that, I had never really written complete songs from A-Z. We wrote and recorded a blues rock album and I really enjoyed completing an album in that genre. Then, while Stephanie was doing some other recording projects, I decided to explore the progressive guitar genre. I was always a fan of Steve Vai, Joe Satriani, etc., so I tried my hand at writing and recording in that genre. I eventually put that material on the internet, and that's how I was discovered by Derek Sherinian. The opportunity to record with him was an honor and an unbelievable learning experience. That's when I dove head first into the progressive rock world and that's how I ended up with two projects in two different genres.

MR: What is your creative process like for these genres?

FS: Writing blues-rock with Stephanie is something that comes very easy. I don't have that chemistry with everyone, but we just work really well together, musically and lyrically. Working with Derek on the progressive rock was a completely different animal. He was touring with Planet X, Billy Idol, and Black Country Communion, so our sessions were done sporadically, when he was home for a few weeks and not on tour. These sessions had to be completed within a certain time frame. That musically pushed me to my limits and I reached levels of playing and writing that I did not know I had. I've never been under the gun before, but there I was. Working with someone of his caliber was inspiring beyond belief and I had to really dig deep. I am very proud of that work and the opportunity to play with these big league players. He suggested Brian Tichy for the drum tracks and he is just an amazing drummer. Whether writing for that project or the blues rock project, it cannot be turned on or off at will. It takes a clear mind, focus and a lot of inspiration. Obviously, getting to record with Derek inspired me to new levels. I've also been inspired by my family, my friends, my band, a movie, a concert, a new instrument, or other artist releases, etc. Once I get in that inspired mode, I turn on the recorder because it flows like water and can shut off at any time. I capture as much as I can.

MR: You are originally from New York. What initially brought you to Florida?

FS: Yes, Annette my lovely wife and bass player and I are originally from long Island.  I felt like a small fish in a big sea musically up there. In my prior bands in New York, it was tough finding personalities that would gel together, hard edge attitudes were everywhere. I ran ads in the local music magazine and found some great talent, Joey Fulco, Joe Stump were some of the top musicians I played with. Those guys are still playing and doing awesome. However, the average life span of a band was a few months; musicians were constantly in and out. We traveled to Florida a couple of times and the lifestyle seemed more laid back. Getting out of the rat race was very appealing and the music scene seemed wide open. Annette was playing guitar at the time but I convinced her to switch to bass, that way we'd only need a drummer to complete a band. We found work and good musicians very quickly, and ended up playing regularly and eventually in a professional touring band. We toured the southeast in a bus, and never had a week off, that was great experience. After coming back to Tampa, we met Stephanie our singer and Scott Daly our drummer, super great people and amazing musicians. They are truly like family. We've been with them now since the early ’90s.

MR: Recently, you toured New York as The Shift and California as The Frankie Stephens Project. How do you reconcile your fan bases between the two groups and what is the philosophy behind your approach to performing live in 2017 versus 1992?

FS: The Shift band is more a mainstream approach, certainly easier to book. We do a heavy blues-rock based original set and some pro-level covers. When we play New York, friends and family come out of the woodwork and it's always an amazing event. FSP is a more niche genre, progressive rock material is not suited for most clubs. It's a special event concert or showcase type genre, definitely harder to book and put together. We'll do festivals and showcases with FSP. My good friend Joey Fulco and his amazingly talented family of musicians put on a big festival in California each year and we are really excited to be a part of that. It's really a blast to jet across the country to do a gig with a dozen or so other bands. Locally, I've networked with some other progressive players to put together shows in the future and the response has been very positive. We have to stick together to get any exposure in that genre. As far as playing live, we have live clips from 1992; we played some big venues—The Ritz Theater in Ybor and Crossover. When I look at our recent 2017 clips, our approach has not changed much. Every gig should be played as if it's Madison Square Garden, otherwise you are cheating the audience. We always take that approach. I promote our bands by saying, "Book a concert, not just another bar band." Our energy level and playing style are always on concert mode.

MR: What’s the mission with each band?

FS: With The Shift Band, we are highlighting Stephanie's incredible voice as well as the songwriting. It's balanced, but the focus in a band environment is the group, vocals, lyrics, and songwriting. With FSP, I keep the project focused on guitar and intense musicianship. We play heavy blues-rock and progressive. I really love heavy blues-rock. I was very much influenced by Robin Trower when I was younger. I wasn't sure that genre would go anywhere these days, and then along came Bonomassa and proved that it could still be very successful. If I had to pick only one, that's my genre, that's my sweet spot.

MR: You live in Tampa. Over the years, how have you interacted with the local musicians, club scene, and recording studios?

FS: Morrisound Studio is where I did most of my recording. I write and record demos at home but Jim and those guys are amazing. I've also done guitar and keyboard session work there for other acts and musicians. They've had many national acts recording in there, it's a top notch facility. I've met some incredible talent here in Tampa; Damon Fowler, Ed Wright—originally from Long Island, like us—Chris Walker... They’re all absolutely incredible blues guitar players. Todd Grubbs is another progressive guitarist that is insanely talented, I love his stuff. We, of course, met Stephanie our vocalist who is a Tampa native, and our drummer Scott Daly, who is originally from Indiana, down here. We've also been lucky to meet some great club owners that still support local live music. During once stretch, we played without a break for six years which was awesome. We also had gigs on the calendar for a year in advance, thanks to Bernie O'Brien, may God rest his soul. He once booked The Shift Band for an entire year and regularly booked us six months at a time. He owned three clubs and was a truly amazing supporter of local live music.  

MR: Over the years, Florida has exported major recording and live acts, especially Gloria Estefan, Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers, Pat Travers, The Outlaws, Jimmy Buffett, and boy bands like NSYNC and The Backstreet Boys. Also Melanie and Rick Derringer live there. But it’s been a while since a major act emerged from the state. Do you see any major bands breaking through or acts on the horizon?

FS: I think there is incredible talent in the Tampa area. The thing about blues and blues-rock is that it's timeless; it isn't tied to a particular era or fad. Robin Trower, Pat Travers, Rick Derringer are still going strong because blues based rock lives on. The local guys I mentioned before are really strong, Damon Fowler has already broken in to the National blues scene. Ed Wright is a mind blowing blues guitarist, slide player, and songwriter. Chris Walker has got a very unique writing and guitar style. In the progressive genre, Todd Grubbs is an amazing guitarist. I could see any or all of these guys becoming major acts.

MR: What else are you working on beyond The Shift and The Frank Stephens Project?

FS: I am working on a contemporary jazz guitar instrumental CD; I've got about nine songs completed. Many rock and progressive guitarists explore this lighter side. I find it refreshing and quite Zen. After the technical heavy stuff, working within the jazz style keeps me balanced and it tests me musically in other ways. That clean jazz guitar sound requires a completely different approach as compared to the ripping, blazing, overdriven sound of progressive rock. Also, Annette and I are adapting to the music scene changes. We are working up a progressive acoustic duo. This way we can work at some of these venues that no longer book bands, just acoustic acts. I was reluctant to do an acoustic act but we tried the progressive approach and it really clicked.

MR: What advice do you have for new artists?

FS: Keep playing live and recording, never stop. Get yourself and your music in front of as many people as possible. That's how I got my foot in the door and was able to work with some "A" list musicians. If I stayed home and never played live and never put my recorded work on the internet, I would never have had these opportunities.

MR: What was the best advice ever given to you?

FS: If you work hard and keep doing what you love for long enough, you are bound to be successful.

MR: Are you ever tempted to move back to Long Island? What keeps you in Tampa, Florida?

FS: Wow, a loaded question. Yes, the music scene up there is always very tempting. It's not what it once was but it is still thriving as compared to other areas of the country. We've played on Long Island and I've gone into Manhattan to see some musicians and great shows. The proximity to the city makes me miss Long Island and that scene. However, the price of living up there and the businesses I'm tied to down here makes relocating difficult. With that said, I never say never.