By L. Kent Wolgamott
---- — A couple decades ago, the acoustic duo of Michael Gurley and Joie Calio decided they wanted to rock.
“We started looking for drummers,” Gurley said. “We probably went through seven or eight drummers in a six-month span. It was kind of Spinal Tap-ish. They didn’t blow up, but they didn’t last long. Then we found Phil.”
Calio was working at Geffen Records and was introduced to drummer Phil Leavitt. She and Gurley asked him to try out with them.
“We stood up, plugged in and he sat down,” Gurley said. “We started jamming in E. It just sounded powerful and there was space. We pulled it back down, got soft and built it back up again. We went on for eight, nine minutes. Then it was, ‘Whatever that was, it works.’”
Leavitt joined the duo and Dada was born. The band is now celebrating the 20th anniversary of its debut album, 1992’s “Puzzle,” with a fall tour that brings them to Londonderry and Boston.
The tour promises shows with plenty of songs from “Puzzle,” including the breakthrough single “Dizz Nee Land.” Dada won’t be playing the record in its entirety, however.
“We’re going to also drag out other deep tracks, things we haven’t played for 20 years,” Gurley said. “I think people are going to dig that.”
A few songs are deep enough that they were rarely – if ever – performed by Dada back in the day.
“Take a song like ‘Spinning My Wheels’, which we hardly ever played, at least I don’t remember playing it much,” Gurley said. “Phil said, ‘Let’s each pick a couple songs we’ve never done. That one got picked. There’s a lot of falsetto in it and I didn’t think we’d be able to do it, or that’s what I thought in the past.”
The first time through,though, it sounded great, he said. And they wondered why they hadn’t performed the song all along.
The musicians aren’t planning to play a lot of new music, however.
“We’ve got a couple new things, we’ll play one or two a night,” Gurley said. “But we’ve just got so much stuff (people) want
to hear and it’s an anniversary show. We don’t have a record to promote. So we won’t be playing a lot of new songs. But we’re always writing as a band. Just during these rehearsals, we’ve come up with two, three new pieces. Because we know each other so well, we can just kind of do it.”
Dada has toured steadily over the last 20 years and now is known as much for its live shows as for its recordings. Those concerts can be Springsteen-ian in length, a dramatic contrast with Dada shows 20 years ago.
“When ‘Puzzle’ came out, as a band, we had 12 songs and a cover,” Gurley said. “Our set was 75 minutes, max. Now it’s open-ended. We could go for an hour-and-a-half, two hours and just keep going. There’s a lot of improvisation in it now. It’s evolved some.”
In fact, over the years they’ve become more of a jam band than a song band, according to Gurley.
“We come out of the Beatles, the Stones, the good rock bands,” he said “But we’re also big fans of instrumentalists, of guys like John Lee Hooker, B.B. King and Jeff Beck. I really am fortunate to be in a band as a sole guitar player with no keyboard player.”
Twenty years after the trio’s debut, Dada is set apart from the vast majority of it early ‘90s contemporaries, most of whom have broken up or faded away. Gurley is quick to acknowledge that his band is a rarity, one of the few bands of its era still working.
“It’s really a small number, it’s like one of out of 50 I’d guess,” Gurley said. “We’re tight as friends. We really enjoy playing together....We know that no matter what we do, this is probably the best thing we’ll ever do.”
That best thing wouldn’t have happened without producer Ken Scott. One of the handful of engineers who worked with The Beatles, Scott had produced David Bowie, Supertramp and Devo when he introduced himself to Dada.
“He came up to us after a show and said, ‘I’d like to record you guys,” Gurley said. “But you’ll have to sign something that says if this helps you get a record deal, I get to do the record.’ For us it was ‘Hell yeah, Ken Scott.’”
The recordings the band did with Scott led to a deal with I.R.S. Records and “Puzzle,” which became a hit right out of the box.
Even so, Gurley said, Dada is lucky it came along when record companies were still record companies.
“I really like the fact that we came up at a time when there were A&R guys and record companies that would develop a band,” Gurley said. “They would take a baby band, remember that term, and let you develop. I like the days when there was a record company behind you. It was cool.”
The days of artist development and support for multiple albums are long gone, wiped out as downloading changed the music business and major record labels shifted to trying to get big hits from its acts immediately and no longer had the patience or resources to let acts develop an audience.
Gurley doesn’t have much sympathy for the record industry.
“They kind of screwed up,” he said. “They saw it coming and didn’t do anything about it. Film and television were real comfortable about it. I know for a fact people at the record companies said, ‘People aren’t going to buy records off their computers.’ They were cocky and they paid for it.”
Dada’s last major label record, a self-titled album, was released on MCA in 1998, about the time Gurley said the labels started to crumble. Any future releases, and he promises there will be one, will likely be released independently.
For now, Gurley is happy to be out on the road, making music with his friends and continuing a ride that he has never believed would end.
“I never thought I wouldn’t be doing it,” he said. “I never thought I’d stop doing it because even when it was happening I knew this was the most important thing that ever happened to me and the biggest thing. I feel fortunate that we’re all still in the world and still making music.”
If You Go What: Dada with Alexis Babini. When: 7 p.m., Sunday, Nov. 3. Where: Tupelo Music Hall, 2 Young Road, Londonderry How: Tickets are $25. Call 603-437-5100 or visit www.tupelohalllondonderry.com/. AND When: 8 p.m., Saturday, Nov. 2. Where: Hard Rock Cafe, 22-24 Clinton St., Boston. How: Tickets are $20 in advance; $25 at door. Call 617-424-7625 or visit www.hardrock.com.