The following Q&A recently appeared on NewBeats.com:
Bill McGarvey: Singer/Songwriter/Drummer
by David Chiu
Let's face it-drummers undeservedly get a bad rep thanks to the endless inside music jokes about them. But can you make fun of the most popular drummers of rock who also stepped behind the kit as vocalists: Phil Collins, Don Henley, Chris Mars, Karen Carpenter, and of course, Ringo Starr. Okay, sure, you may think.
Now you can add Bill McGarvey to that illustrious company. Bill McGarvey? you may ask. He may not be a big name..not yet anyway, but he is arguably the first drummer/singer/songwriter that hit rock and pop music where he plays the drums (specifically the cocktail drums) and sing simultaneously. McGarvey is also a first-rate songwriter in the tradition of the great singer/songwriters before him, capturing slice-of-life stories in three- and four-minute intimate and joyously infectious pop songs.
McGarvey is originally from Philadelphia (he wrote his first song "Big Brown Bear" at the age of 8) and who later moved to New York City to try his hand at music. He had been in a drummer in several bands before he decided to he just didn't want to be the person keeping time. Along the way he started to sing and write his songs. Together with friend Stephen Dima's, McGarvey formed the band Valentine Smith that released critically-acclaimed three records.
Subsequently McGarvey wanted to make a more homespun record and did so, mainly playing all the instruments himself. The result is the brilliant Tell Your Mother, a collection of songs that recalls the nostalgia of '60s and '70s AM pop radio, and it's got Lennon and McCartney, Burt Bacharach, and Brian Wilson all over it. Hooks abound are on the album from the very pop-friendly tracks of "Settle Down," "5 O'Clock Hero," and "Stay," to the intimate mellow tracks like on the lovely "Hang On," the shimmering "Look What You've Done to Me," and the soulful "Now." He even recounts an encounter with the famous Ms. Magazine editor in "Standing Next to Gloria Steinem. Touches of violin, piano, and acoustic guitar complements McGarvey's percussion to what is an already organic-sounding record. It can be said he is the American equivalent to David Gray.
McGarvey took some time out to speak to NewBeats about his music and life story.
1. When you first got into music, did you have a fair idea of what you wanted to be-a musician first (i.e. drummer) or a singer/songwriter?
I tried piano lessons when I was in grade school just like a lot of kids and I hated it, but when I got a little older and started getting interested in music as a teenager I was a bit scared off from the guitar/piano thing. We had an old Slingerland snare drum at home that an family friend had given my Dad, and I just started playing on that with a couple of plastic buckets in my bedroom. It sounds like one of those clichéd old drummer jokes, but I wanted to be in a band so badly, and I thought the only way I would be able to do it would be as a drummer. I had no plans or goals other than to be a part of something musical--as a drummer, singer, kazoo-ist--it didn't matter.
2. Who did you listen to growing up and did they have an influence on your music and sound?
My family had one of those Capehart console stereos (my folks still have it) down in the front hallway and there wasn't a lot of enthusiasm in the house for playing anything but my parents' show tunes and the Godspell album on it. I didn't have my own stereo until I was 18 and I didn't own many records either so I spent a lot of time listening to my am/fm clock radio. FM rock radio and top 40 radio from the late 70s early 80s made a big impression on me. I think my imagination was sparked by songs more than artists early on. The first album I ever bought was Damn the Torpedoes by Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers and that had a HUGE impact on me. I wore the album out I played it so much.
3. Is it true that you tapped to the beat of Nick Gilder's "Hot Child in the City "(a great song by the way) in the family car that got the ball rolling for you in wanting to get a drum set?
I was a big dashboard tapper back in the day--drove my parents crazy. I remember thinking that was the coolest song when I was in grade school. I also remember seeing him on the Merv Griffin show when that came out. As I said I was more into songs at the time so I didn't try to follow where Mr. Gilder's career went after that. But songs like that or from the Cars’ and The Knack's first records definitely got into my head and made me want to ask for a drumset for two Xmas's in a row until my parents finally relented and bought me an old used drum kit.
4. Being that you are a veteran rock drummer, and you can tell me if I am off base or not making sense, you recorded an album Tell Your Mother that sounds very intricate in contrast to probably unleashing, footstomping beats or something heavy; the sound of the record is very intimate and warm.
Yes. Tell Your Mother is a much more intimate record in large part because I decided to use a very small cocktail drumset to record it with. The small size of the drums makes it difficult to get to big a sound. To give you an example: normally the kick drum on a standard drum kit is 22" big, the cocktail kick drum is only 16" so there is a big difference in sound. I was very conscious of getting away from any sort of BIG overproduced sound. I felt like I was introducing myself as a singer songwriter and I wanted the recordings to have a more personal feel.
5. Your lyrics are divided between personal experiences ("I Hear Voices," "Look What You've Done To Me") and observations ("Gloria Steinem," "Jericho Smile"). What makes an interesting subject for a song? Does songwriting come natural for you?
I wish I could say that songwriting comes really easily to me, at times it does but I often spend a lot of time waiting and working for the right idea to come. Part of that has to do with your first question what makes for an interesting subject for a song? The fact of the matter is I don't know the answer to that. Some songwriters are able to write a song about anything at all--like their favorite toothbrush for example. I admire people that are able to write that prolifically, but I don't think I can emulate their approach. I find it hard to write about trivial things sometimes, I guess I don't feel that everything deserves a song. One of the things I try to work on is being able to find song ideas in people, places and situations I wouldn't normally look to.
Sometimes the ideas come very easily. I knew I was going to write a song entitled "Standing Next to Gloria Steinem" the same I day I saw her on the train. I remember writing the idea down in a little book I carried with me as soon as I got out of the subway. I hear voices also came very quickly, but "Look What You1ve Done to Me" and "Jericho Smile" came a lot less easily.
6. On the album, what is your favorite track why?
It changes all the time, but I think "That's What You Get" would be one that I keep coming back to. It was the first song I wrote after the break up of my old band so it marked new territory for me. I recorded the demo for it on an 8 track cassette machine and played everything except bass (Thomas Novembre from my band, the Good Thieves played bass) and working like that sort of set the stage for making the whole record.
7. Early on in your career, what made you decide to go to New York and make your mark in music rather than in Philly?
Impatience I guess. I felt like if I was going to find out if I could survive in the music business I might as well go to either New York or LA and see what I was up against. I've always loved Philadelphia -- most of my family still lives there, but I think I felt that no matter how good I got there I'd always be wondering what was happening in New York so I just decided to move there and see what happens.
8. Because you had that one bout of stage fright when you performed Marine Corps Hymn, you entered a period you called Off White. Did you really consider becoming a basketball player or a priest? What changed your mind?
Of course! If I wasn't going to be a pianist I figured I might as well pursue my other passions and at the time I wanted to play with Julius 'Dr. J' Erving on the 76ers. The priest thing is probably incomprehensible to anyone who wasn't raised in a strict Irish Catholic household. As far as what changed my mind, I don't really know. Once I got bitten by the music bug it was hard to let go.
9. What is the Big Brown animal song trilogy?
It's my earliest songwriting attempts. Actually calling it songwriting is giving it too much weight. I was just a fidgety little 9-year-old kid who liked to walk around the house singing too loud and once I got on a roll with "Big Brown Bear" the final 2 parts of the trilogy sort of took care of themselves.
10. After playing in several bands, what made you decide to want to emerge from the drum kit prior to forming Valentine Smith?
I was tired of playing drums in good bands that had potential but eventually broke up, so I figured that I'd rather invest my time in a project that was my own. I also felt that writing songs would be challenging in ways that playing drums wasn't. I just loved the feeling of putting words together and finishing a song. I still love it. It's always a thrill to get inspired by an idea and eventually finish a song.
11. Obviously I am not a drummer; is it challenging to play the cocktail drums and sing at the same time, having to concentrate on the beats and the lyrics?
Singing and playing the drums is a bit precarious to begin with, but standing up while playing the cocktail drums as well makes it even more difficult. My band tells me I play too loud, so maybe I'm overcompensating for my lack of comfort.
12. Do you think that by being the first singer/songwriter/drummer you are setting trend for other musicians who think of themselves as just more than someone who provides the backbeat?
Not necessarily, but I do think drummers tend to approach songs and music differently than guitarists and keyboard players do. As a drummer you tend to always accompany other people. As a result a lot of drummers become very aware of why one song works and another one doesn't. They are aware of song structure in ways that other players who are concerned with hitting the right chords etc may not be. That can help develop an economy of style in a drummer's repertoire that is very helpful in writing songs.
13. What can we expect from a live show from you? What's the setup like?
My live band (The Good Thieves) includes a violinist/flautist (Kimberly Nordling Curtin); two guitars (Thomas Novembre & Eric dePicciotto) and a bass player (William Paris). Eric also takes over on drums for part of the set when I go out front and play acoustic guitar. Our live shows tend to cover the new CD pretty faithfully for a while before we veer of into a slightly louder approach toward the end of the night.
14. What is next for Bill McGarvey after recording an accomplished album? What are your goals and hopes?
I really want to get Tell Your Mother out to a larger audience, by playing bigger and better shows and hopefully getting some sort of European licensing deal so we can travel and play a bit oversees. I'd love to tour more of the US as well.