One of the great things about going to concerts is the unexpected surprise. Clearly, concertgoers arrive at their respective venue to hear one artist in particular. But fans are also treated to one or two warm-up acts before the headliner takes the stage. And every now and then, the warm-up act makes an impact every bit as great as the anticipated act. That’s what happened to me when I saw The Tea Club as they opened for Bent Knee and Thank You Scientist. I walked into the club obsessed with two bands. I walked out obsessed with three.
The Tea Club (vocalists/guitarists Daniel and Patrick McGowan; bassist Jamie Wolff; keyboardist Joe Dorsey; and drummer Dan Monda) are one of those bands not easily put in a musical box. People will no doubt try to classify them as progressive rock, which is true to a certain extent. I tend to see them more as a “gateway” band, serving as an ideal bridge between pop, prog, and just a splash of psychedelica. Their sense of melody and harmony is rock solid, which makes songs with long instrumental passages completely hum-able to those who worry about such things. While this happens, it is more than a little easy to find the band’s sound transporting the listener to a different realm of being. Chemical stimulants are not necessary.
The band was new to me, but they have been churning out albums at a steady pace since 2008, when they released General Winter’s Secret Museum. A strong sound has only gotten stronger with time and experience. When I caught them, they were touring behind their 2019 effort, If/When, from which they played the first five tracks that evening. “Transformative” is an overused word in the prog community, yet I couldn’t help but use the word to describe what was being played. The seven songs on the album vary in length from just under three to just short of 28 minutes, and run the emotional gamut from head-banging to heartbreaking. They are the ultimate musical stew, allowing each influential element to be heard while blending them into an individual overall sound.
No one dominates the performance. The Tea Club is a true band effort. There is no weak link. Every part, every sound, every member matters. To lose one is to lose a key element of the group’s sound. They are a truly symbiotic band. Chemistry can be faked in the studio to create a dynamic sound. But this cannot be done on stage. The members of this band truly vibe with one another. Their joy is infectious, coming right off the stage and into the crowd, next to none of whom found anything on their phones interesting during the band’s set.
Perhaps the craziest thing from my concert experience happened long after the show. There was no doubt in my mind I had to introduce myself to this band, and let them know I would be following their work, starting with the CDs I would purchase that evening (I bought copies of If/When and Quickly Quickly Quickly. Don’t ask me to pick a favorite.) Not only was I greeted with genuine warmth and appreciation, but I received the flattering compliment of, “Hey, we know you! We follow you on Facebook!” Go figure.
In true Tea Club fashion, more than one member of the band contributed to answers to my questions. Monda (whom I reached out to first) felt he was not the best person to articulate the responses he felt were needed. I’m sure he would have done fine, but having the rest of the band chime in actually made things even more interesting. Their willingness to participate is much appreciated.
From their assorted homes in and around Philadelphia, Pennsylvania (where they await relief from the COVID-19 virus lockdown), The Tea Club answered Seven Questions from CirdecSongs.
CirdecSongs: The Tea Club does a remarkable job of juggling a lot of musical influences and turning them into cohesive pieces. How would you describe the band’s songwriting process?
Dan McGowan: I have a deep proclivity to want to live in fantasy. Songwriting is probably the healthiest way for me to open those gates of fantasy and bring something back of value to reality. When I’m sitting there with a guitar or a keyboard, or I’m writing lyrics in my head, it really is like I’ve opened a gateway to another world. It’s like what C.S. Lewis described as “joy”. It’s sacred to me. So we take it very seriously to try and make sure that the songs keep that joyful and inspired feel as we layer things on top. Sometimes that happens in an instant and it just comes together like magic. Other times it’s serious, frustrating work. But we’re all dedicated to making the songs as good as they can be and making sure that the person who wrote the song loves what we’re doing. As a songwriter, I am EXTREMELY fortunate that all my bandmates — Pat, Jamie, Monda, and Joe — are so willing to respect that and trust my vision when I bring them a song.
Pat McGowan: Thank you for the compliment, Cedric. Yeah, I’m in agreement with Dan. Logistically, the process usually starts with a couple chords, some words, or a melody that Dan or I come up with at home. We’ll show it to each other and dream up some stuff to play together and then make a recording. We’ll send that to the rest of the band and then try the song out with everyone at the next rehearsal. That’s often when things really start moving, because playing together live in a room is such a unique and unpredictable experience that the song typically ends up going in unexpected directions. We’ll make another recording with everyone playing, take it home, and keep working on it until we feel like it’s done. We’ve also had the privilege of working with two great producers (Tim Gilles and Jeff Aderman) over the years who have helped us with the arrangement and refinement process.
Recently we’ve been experimenting with different approaches and incorporating songs from everyone in the band. Jamie and Joe have brought some new material which we’ve been working on, and it’s turning out really awesome!
Joe Dorsey: The songs usually begin simple, with a chord progression or some sort of vocal melody, and we will construct the songs around these. Sometimes the songs almost instantaneously exist, but sometimes they take months to develop. We do not have one particular process that we follow to create, but we do draw heavily on mutual musical influences if we want to develop a particular style for that song. Although some of our music can be technical and lengthy, the writing comes more from the heart than the head, I think.
Your band, while writing many epic length pieces, still maintains a solid sense of melody and harmony, almost like a pop band. Where does this influence come from, and how do you go about working it into what borders on more progressive-type music, which is not normally known for such a thing?
Dan McGowan: I always think about what makes (Yes’s) “Close To the Edge” just SO damn great, and I believe that it’s those vocal melodies. Beautiful, memorable, and utterly SINGABLE. That’s what I believe is the secret power in the best progressive rock: to have extremely deep and imaginative music with vocal melodies that are FUN to sing. When I realized that, it gave me a whole new perspective on how and WHY to sing in a band. It has to be fun, and when I say “fun,” I don’t mean like “party.” I mean fun like it’s enjoyable and you WANT to do it. Jon Anderson did that so well. “The Gates of Delirium” isn’t much of a party song, but it’s an absolute pleasure to sing “Soon, oh soon the light …” You can hear it when a singer isn’t having fun singing the songs.
Pat McGowan: I think Dan and I have had great melodies programmed into our brains since childhood. Growing up we listened to lots of pop music like the Beatles, Elton John, and U2 with our family. We also listened to a lot of popular classical music which, in my opinion, boasts some of the most memorable melodies of all time. Like Dan, when I discovered Yes and King Crimson, I fell in love with how they made exciting, ambitious, sometimes orchestral sounding rock music but still anchored it all with a strong sense of melody. I just thought that was the coolest thing, and I didn’t hear a lot of other artists doing it. So when we started writing our own music, melody seemed to happen pretty naturally and we went with it! We felt like it set us apart in some ways and we got a lot of encouragement from listeners. Writing a memorable melody is actually pretty tough to do so we enjoy the challenge and hopefully continue to get better at it. I can definitely get into more challenging or atonal kinds of music but I don’t think it’s in my DNA to write it.
Joe Dorsey: We have always been interested in long-form styles of music composition, but we also fully embrace styles and structures found in pop music. For me personally, when we were writing “Creature,” I found myself drawing influence from Sufjan Stevens’ “Impossible Soul.” He did an incredible job of incorporating the melodic and pop structures within a long composition. Many of the synthetic and electronic elements of that record (The Age of Adz) played a big roll in influencing my approach to the keys on If/When.
How do you define your place within the music industry?
Pat McGowan: That’s an interesting question. I don’t know that I have a great answer, but I’ll give it a shot. It seems to me like the music industry right now exists in two parts: the entertainment part, which is the most visible; and the artistic part, which is considerably smaller yet still potent. There’s lots of talent all around, and there are occasionally people who are able to inhabit both sides. But I think The Tea Club right now is happily living in the woods of the artist commune toiling away at their craft by moonlight. It might not always be that way and maybe we’ll live in both worlds someday but for the moment we’re happy to make art on our own terms and have an outlet to share it with others.
How is the band dealing with being forced to come off the road due to the Coronavirus?
Dan McGowan: It’s just an unbelievable bummer. At first it was an inconvenience, then it was really frightening, and now I’m actually angry. The best thing to do now is work on new material. I’m definitely feeling hungry for that. I know people have been doing livestreaming concerts and stuff like that lately, but I find that to be even more intimidating than performing in front of a live audience because of how revealed it is and that recording will exist somewhere forever, and I can be a perfectionist when it comes to performing. So I’m a little resistant to that. But I’m sure we’ll do it eventually.
Pat McGowan: We’re doing a number of things, but I’d say we’re mainly taking the time off to write new music. We’ve been making demos and sending ideas to each other and it’s been great. I mean, it’s hard to say much of anything is great in the midst of this shitstorm, but we’re trying to make the most of what time we’ve been given.
What, above all, do you want listeners to get out of your music?
Dan McGowan: Healing. No matter how small or temporary. I believe music can have healing properties. I’ve always been drawn to music that can do that, and I actively try to recreate that with my own music.
Pat McGowan: Along the same lines as Dan, I’d say Hope. In my life I have had music give me hope. If we have been able to give anyone even a glimmer of hope with our music, then it’s all been a wild success.
What has surprised you most during The Tea Club’s tenure?
Dan McGowan: My own capacity to adapt, and not be destroyed by teenage ambition and the disappointment that accompanied it. When I was 16, I wanted to be the next Beatles. When I was 20, I figured I could “settle” for being the next Radiohead. When I was 24, I was willing to settle for being the next Genesis. And so on and so on until now I’m 34 and by all accounts, 16 year old Dan McGowan would see me as having failed to become famous and wealthy. But I don’t feel like a failure at all!
Slowly, over the past 15 years or so, I’ve been able to “let the dead wood burn off,” so to speak. I realized that ambition to be recognized as “great” will NOT save me. In fact, the very small amount of recognition and admiration I’ve received is actually uncomfortable and comes with problems of its own. I realized that The Tea Club is a worthy thing to continue to dedicate my life to for reasons other than “making it” or “getting signed” or “becoming a rock star.” It’s about connection and expression. I love to write music and explore imagination and spirituality, and connect with my brother and my bandmates and the people who appreciate our music. I’m so happy just to put out an album that I’m proud of and tour with bands who are also trying to make some art and connect with people. 2019 was the greatest year of my life. THIS year, on the other hand, is off to a rough start.
Pat McGowan: I can agree with Dan here. We released our first record over ten years ago and we had already been making music for years before that. In some ways it feels like we’ve been doing this for a long time but in other ways it feels like we’re just getting started. That’s surprising to me and a good feeling to have after a decade in. Having a destination is great, but the process might be where most of the magic is.
What is the plan of attack once things return to some semblance of normal?
Dan McGowan: I just really want to record another album. There are four or five songs we have floating around right now that are reason enough to make another Tea Club album. I think they’re some of the best songs we’ve ever written.
Pat McGowan: Yes, I’m excited about the new material too, and depending on how things play out, we hope to get into the studio fairly soon. We’re also working on some new videos, one of which will hopefully be finished in the next month or so. It’s going to be really cool, so we’re excited about that. As far as performing goes, I don’t know how long it’ll be before we can start thinking about touring again. So very strange how quickly things have shifted, but whenever it seems viable we’ll gladly get back to the grind. Stay tuned. Good things are coming!
Joe Dorsey: Full-frontal assault, with a clandestine flanking from the southwest. We plan to march at noon on the first day following revelations of antibodies. We shall speak with General Winter further before executing the attack. Dr. Abraham will be ready for lamination shall I fall.
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Sounds a bit like U2 crossed with Peter Gabriel. I like it and shall listen to more (have just bookmarked it on youtube, to do just that. Thanks.
I like to listen to this sort of music when I’m painting (art, not walls!) That’s when I can relax enough to get into newer stuff.
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