By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Alice Laussade
By Scott Reitz
Listen to enough musicians talk about being musicians, with their anecdotes about shows with a dozen people in the audience and broken-down vans in faraway places and scraping up enough cash to record a few songs, and it won't be long before you've heard them all. Fact is, there aren't very many to hear; the same set of stories has been circulating since there were bands around to tell stories about being in bands.
Spend enough time listening to these tales, and it becomes a bit like watching a television show you've seen dozens of times, hundreds maybe, one of the shows that's on an endless loop of syndicated reruns, repeating at all hours of the day on a handful of channels. You can watch 10 episodes in a row and never once see a plot you don't know better than your own name and birth date. Watch another 10 and you can beat the jokes to their punch lines without breaking a sweat.
Every once in a while, an ace appears from the middle of the deck, and you're sucked into the game against your better judgment. Most of the time, however, you end up last in line, expecting to drink from a well that's only deep enough for a single sip.
Which brings us here: Sitting around a table at the XPO Lounge on a Thursday night, a round of beers in front of them, the members of El Gato--singer-guitarist John Vineyard, guitarist-keyboard player John Eugene Burgmeier, drummer Kevin Dotolo and bassist-keyboard player Evan Hisey--talk about how long it took them to record their first full-length, We're Birds. How they went into a studio in July 1999 and didn't have a finished album in their hands until a year and a half later. How they disappeared so deeply into that studio, and a couple of other ones in the area, even some of their friends didn't know the band was still around. How they weren't sure themselves if the group would make it through the recording sessions.
"I knew it was gonna take a lot of time to record, but I didn't think it would be so spread out," Vineyard begins. "We had problems getting back into the studio, you know, it being booked up. And also, we didn't have enough money to get back in. We didn't know it would take a year and a half, but once we kind of got going on it a little bit, I think we started realizing that if we keep going at this pace, it's not going to be out for a long time."
At first, the story Vineyard and the other members of El Gato are telling doesn't seem as if it really belongs to them. Not if you pay attention to it closely, think about it with all the names and dates removed. If you listen only to facts of the case, it could be any number of bands and musicians in the starring roles, not just Vineyard, Burgmeier, Dotolo and Hisey.
If you keep listening, it becomes impossible to separate the story from the tellers. Because it wasn't just anyone working full-time jobs during the day so they could be a full-time band at night. It wasn't just anyone turning paycheck cash into studio credit, or driving back from a show in Oklahoma in the middle of the night so they could go to work in the morning. If things didn't work out, if they couldn't find enough money to finish the record the way they wanted to, if they got too frustrated to continue, it wouldn't be someone else's failure. It would belong only to the four guys who call themselves El Gato.
More than anything else, the four members of El Gato were the only ones who had to wait four years between records, all the while believing they had good songs, and they had a good album, if they could only finish it. They'd quickly moved past the five songs that turned up on Everybody's a Piñata in 1998. Letting people know about it was something else entirely.
"It was a big disappointment," Dotolo says. "Last South by Southwest, we applied for it last year, and we didn't get accepted. And it was almost like, why would they even accept us? We don't have anything out. Yeah, it was very discouraging."
"And we knew we had the songs under our belts," Hisey adds. "But we didn't have a way to prove it to anyone."
"Not that we didn't want to sell our old CD, but we'd play all these new songs, and people would come up and be like, 'Hey, I really liked that last song you played. Is it on your CD?'" Vineyard says. "And we'd say, 'No, it's on our next one. Should be out in about a year and a half.'" He laughs. "So that was really frustrating."
They concede it was worth the frustration, and it's not hard to agree after hearing the results. You can hear every second of studio time on the 14 tracks, each song bringing down an avalanche of sounds on top of the strong, simple melodies, closely resembling the "pianos on crutches playing crippled music" that Vineyard sings about on "Pianos on Crutches." The crippled music doesn't just come from the pianos, but the guitars and keyboards and more guitars and more keyboards and more everything that El Gato drapes on each song. It all collides on the way to the choruses, the bass and drums showing everyone the way without sticking around to hold their hands. We're Birds is a breathless album, with the naïveté of a kid singing along with his favorite song and the confidence to pile an orchestra on top of the Marshall stacks, Rock and Pop written in capital letters on a billboard.