An Interview with Dale by Jud Cost
courtesy of Bucketfull of Brains, U.K.To paraphrase U.S. President Richard Nixon, Dale Duncan wants to make one thing perfectly clear: Map Of Wyoming is not an alt.country band. Duncan's right of course. The occasional presence of pedal steel guitar on his band's debut album "Round Trip" does not a country band make. Nobody ever lumped American Music Club in with the No Depression crowd just because Mark Eitzel's boys employed the pedal steel magic of Bruce Kaphan. If you're familiar with the pedigree of Duncan and John Stuart - The Map's songwriter/vocalist and drummer, respectively - the tip-off might be the finely crafted songs. Both players hooked up with Hector Penalosa and Richard Chase in September of 1984 to form Flying Color, a band whose glowing sphere of influence may be stronger now than ever. When punk turned into hardcore in the early 80s, the stage was set for Flying Color to surf the wake of the Los Angeles neo-psychedelic movement known as the Paisley Underground and this San Francisco foursome concocted timeless songs that soared like doves. Except for a six-year sabbatical in the early 90s, Duncan has been knee-deep ever since in a Northern California music scene that produced perennial Bucketfull faves like AMC and Chris von Sneidern. CVS, himself, joined Flying Color as things were beginning to unravel and has been with Map Of Wyoming since day one. Nursing a drink in a neighborhood watering hole called the Make Out Room - the same Mission District joint where Bucketfull editor Terry Hermon and I saw the Map play back in March - Duncan is itching to bring you up to speed on what he's been doing for the past two decades.
BOB: Was it just the four of you from the start in Flying Color?
DD: It was Hector Penalosa - I'd gone to see the Zeros a bunch at the Mabuhay (Gardens, SF punk club) and Barrington Hall in Berkeley , Richard Chase, John Stuart, and me. I'd known John from the punk days from these various little combos we'd played in, like Green Tambourine, which also had Chuck Prophet and Mark Olson who was later in the Jayhawks. They'd last about four gigs. And then I had this band called Love Circus.
BOB: Wow, that was you? I saw you play the
Varsity Theatre in Palo
DD:Yeah, with the Three O'Clock. We used to open for a lot of the Paisly Underground bands around here. That was the band that made me realise I could do the music thing. I got into it through punk rock, but then punk rock became a uniform. When I started going to shows (in the late 70s) it was hippies and punks and freaks all together and it was exciting. But in short order, it turned into this kinda military thing, and I got back into 60s music again. Hearing the Paisley Underground bands really inspired me too. I'd gone to LA in the summer of '82 and seen the Salvation Army (pre-Three O'Clock) and the Dream Syndicate.
BOB:How did the Flying Color guys meet up?
DD: I knew John (Stuart). He was another East Bay kid from Contra Costa and we'd see each other going to punk shows. We'd be the only two New Wave freaks on the train. So we started rooming together. Then in September of '84 I heard from Kevin Hunter of Wire Train, who knew Hector, that Flying Color were looking for a rhythm guitar player. I had one rehearsal and they really liked me. The story has it that their drummer John Silvers, who had been in the Dils, said, "We've gotta talk about this Dale guy." And Richard (Chase) says, "No, we've gotta talk about you." And then they fired him. He thought I wasn't making the cut. So I said, "My roommate's a drummer." It was really quick. The chemistry was obvious right away.
BOB: How soon before you played live?
DD: We had a show within a month, down in Monterey - five people there on a rainy night. Then we played in Oakland at this office party of Hector's girlfriend. But our next gig was on a weekend night at the Mabuhay, with the band of the brother of our manager: The Three Mouse Guitars. It was the tail end of the Mabuhay in '84. We got good press. People liked us and we got a lot of opening slots.
BOB: What was the concept behind Flying Color?
DD: We were really into writing songs. I'd come to it from the California psychedelic thing. The Buffalo Springfield was my favourite band. Flying Color was supposed to be a song band. We all liked the Beatles. They encouraged my songwriting right from the beginning, I had never really written songs. I'd written riffs in Love Circus. So I brought a song to the band and right away it was. "Those are good chords." It was very encouraging. Then "Dear Friend", which was our hit, or whatever, was written within four months of the band getting together. It was a KUSF hit demo tape two weeks later.
BOB:I saw you with American Music Club in 1987 at The VIS, but the best show I ever saw you play was in 1986 with Green On Red at a place called The Farm, under the freeway overpass near Potrero Avenue.
DD:Yeah, that was good one. We had decided to put on our won shows out there - at least five or six. We did our first demo with Kevin Army, but we weren't real happy with it. We began recording with Tom Mallon in January and he really liked the band. He was this heroic guy to me, from the punk bands he'd recorded like the Toiling Midgets. It was real stimulating to have this guy who'd recorded every band in town suddenly be giving us free recording time.
BOB: I've spoken with people Mallon worked with - like Eitzel and Indian Bingo - who raved about the guy, how he spurred them on togreater heights.
DD: Later that was one of the things that split the band up. Mallon and I had this real connection, but Hector never had the strongest work ethic, even to this day. We almost had a Flying Color reunion recently, but it didn't happen for that reason. Richard's on an island in the Indian Ocean right now, so that slows us down a little too. Richard was a big fan of Tom's as well. To be working with somebody who'd offered to put us on his record label (Grifter) was inspiring, Tom said, "Screw this making demo tapes for everybody," and started to have this vision of making really great records, part of which came from his working with Erik Jacobsen.
BOB: You mean the Karma Sutra guy who produced the Lovin' Spoonful, the Charlatans and Sopwith Camel?
DD: Right. When Erik signed Chris Isaak he decided to go old school and use the cool local stuido - and Tom's was the place. Tom and I were both big Tim Hardin fans, and Erik produced all those Tim Hardin records. And the Lovin' Spoonful too, of course, and Norman Greenbaum. So here was this icon from the era that we loved, working with Tom. He was to Tom like Tom was to us: a mentor. So, the early AMC records and the Flying Color were made in the context of "OK, I have this great studio, I know what I'm doing, and you guys write good songs. Let's make a great record." That was very conscious. We were trying to make a masterpiece.
BOB:Why didn't the EP come out on Grifter?
DD: Our demo tape got put out by Cryptovision, a New York label who'd seen us opening for Let's Active at Wolfgang's. They put it out just as Tom made the decision to do the album on his label. In the fall of '85 we went to New York and played Folk City, Maxwell's,Tramps, and the Bitter End. At Folk City we played right between Eugene Chardbourne and the Del-Lords. That was a weird bill. Strangely enough, the Map's Tom Heyman used to be in Go To Blazes, who were produced by Eric Ambel of the Del-Lords. So, yeah, everything was good. We were unstoppable. We had energy. We were getting good gigs.
BOB: OK, so what stopped it?
DD: What stopped it was that the record took a while to make. We'd done a tour of the Northwest in '87. Then, right in the middle of finishing the album, Hector started getting antsy. He was getting tired of the process, and he wanted to make more of a rock record. I think Hector felt marginalized by Tom too. There was this power dynamic going on. Then there was a lull for the band. I remember Hector complaining about that. To keep the band together, I made this gesture to Hector - letting go of our manager Eric Beckman, an old friend of mine who'd done a really good job. It was one of the hardest things I've ever had to do. And then there was Richard, who wrote some of the best songs on the record but didn't sing any of them. His voice didn't work in the studio as a lead vocal. So he began to feel alienated by that .
BOB: Personnel changes were in the wind?
DD:We were about to go on tour and Richard, who'd had a volatile summer, just told us, "I can't go." Right about then CvS (Chris von Sneidern), who'd been coming to our shows since 1985 when he walked into our dressing room when we opened for the Lyres at Berkeley Square and said, "You guys were great, but I should be in your band too." He was nineteen and real uppity. So we sang Flamin' Groovies songs and Beatles songs on acoustic guitar and just hit it off with the guy. Chris was real tight with Hector. Rather than bring one of my old friends, Chuck Prophet, into the band and make it three to one (against Hector), we'd bring in Chris and make it two to two. Also CvS was a brunette rather than a blonde (Chuck). Hector was very slavish to that Beatles look (laughs).
BOB:Were you still touring much?
DD:We did a couple of tours into the spring of '88, culminating with us opening for Smokey Robinson in Missoula, Montana. We met this guy up there who used to manage Green River (who turned into Soundgarden and Pearl Jam) , he liked the band and booked us with the Young Fresh Fellows. He booked Smokey into the college in Missoula and got us a thousand bucks for the opening slot.
BOB: How did Flying Color finally go off the tracks?
DD: That summer, back home everything got weird. Tom, at first, wasn't really fond of Chris' songs. And Hector and I had divergent views. I was getting into this folkie/country thing and he wanted to rock. Then we found out that Hector, behind our backs, had registered the name of the band. John went down to the Hall of Records to check it out. When we found out about that, John and I quit the band for about two weeks. Then we had this big showdown. Hector said, "Look, I'll fix it." We had one recording session after that. He came in with sunglasses on and it was all so tense. Noboby was talking. The next day, Hector called and said he quit. There was this awkward period afterwards where we wanted to keep playing but we didn't know if we should keep the name. Chris was so excited to be in the band. He was younger and getting more energised and I was burnt out. My mojo was low. I kept thinking, "Do I really want to be successful at this anyway?"
BOB: I saw you play a pretty ho-hum show at the Full Moon Saloon in the summer of 1989. Things couldn't have lasted much longer.
DD: In February of 1990 we played our final show at the Hotel Utah. It's funny, because almost seven years to the day we played our first show as Map Of Wyoming, also at the Hotel Utah. In the meantime I travelled all over Mexico. I got into making furniture. I'd always been kind of a scrappy carpenter: I just got away from the whole music thing. For the longest time it was clear in my mind that I was done with it. It was part of my past.
BOB: What got you back into it again
DD: In '96 I went to Mexico by myself and when I came back home I picked up the guitar, for no real reason, and I wrote a song. I'd always had a guitar in the house to doodle with. So I dusted off the four-track and made a simple little tape of it. But first I recorded Smokey Robinson's "Tracks Of My Tears" , kind of as an exercise.
BOB: How did you begin to assemble what would become Map Of Wyoming?
DD: Sometime that same week, out of the blue, Hector called and said this Spanish label (Munster) had got in touch and were reissuing the Flying Color album and they wanted us to do some liner notes. Then a couple of days later, Chris called and told me he was building a home studio (Ordophon-Upon-Avon) and if I'd help him finish it we could make a record. We'd do a barter thing. It was like boom, boom, boom. So, that summer we started building the studio. Then John came down - he'd been living in Alaska - and Chris and John and I rehearsed. Four songs from the Map Of Wyoming record were recorded the first time we got together. It was so good we decided to make a whole CD. By the next spring, our friends kept asking when we were going to play live. And when we played our first show - as Dale, Chris & John - I realised, "OK, I can't stop doing this."
BOB: How did Map Of Wyoming wind up with this country-tinged sound?
DD: For one thing, I think it suits an older man a little better than pure pop. It's an easier hat to wear. And what's funny is that I really don't think it's that much country anyway. I think of it more as that California sound. My favourite songwriters have always been John Lennon and Neil Young - obvious influences. Then I can get into Nick Drake or Paul Westerberg in his heyday. I've always liked songs that have good melodies and guitars that are emotional.
BOB:Do you feel any allegiance to those alt.country "No Depression" bands?
DD: Not really but we get tied in with that all the time. It's not my cup of tea, I think it's a little slavish. Not that I don't like those bands. There's a song on the new record that sounds a little like Johnny Nash's "I Can See Clearly" and another that's atmospheric: just piano, pedal steel and no drums - and a melody.
BOB: Bill Doss of Olivia Tremor Control told me recently he'd bought some country-ish material to the band - who had always sworn "anything goes" - and they told him, "That doesn't sound much like the Olivias."
DD: The beauty of Map Of Wyoming is that I feel free to do anything I want. In Flying Color it was always so competitive: "My songs, your songs." But now it's clear that this is my project and these are my songs. There's a song on the album "Caroline" that sounds kind of power pop. A funny story about that song. I write half-songs all the time, but the ones that come out are the ones where I can listen to the demo over and over again and still like it. It has to move me in some way and have emotional weight to it. But "Caroline" was just this melody I had in my head for a couple of weeks. Part of me kept saying, "Dale, you can't write a song called "Caroline". There's been so many of 'em." And then I thought, screw it, I'm gonna write a little pop song. It was the only one on the record. I asked my mom, who's very intuitive, and she said that's the ony one she didn't like. Which made me laugh because she's so smart. That's the one that's kind of a phony. I'm not gonna knock the song but there's not much heart in it. I was tyring to be a Brill Building guy.
BOB:Are you happy with your current personnel?
DD: Chris is a great supporting player and he's
free to do his own stuff anytime.
BOB: That's funny because what I like most about your stuff is it sounds like you've thought about it for a while.
DD: It's easy to simulate music. You and I could go up to my house right now, and you could bang on something, I'd play some chords, and we'd make up some words, and we could call it music. But I like the idea of nurturing it - stewing on something. I encourage people in bands to listen to their rehearsal tapes. Playing music is so visceral it's easy to feel good about what you're doing at the moment. But records are meant to be listened to. When you get to the point where you can listen to what you've done and then listen to it a week later and still like it, you can trust that. It's probably good ~