‘THE GREAT AMERICAN ROBBER BARONS’
24th September 2013
|The Great American Robber Barons, Great American Music Hall, August 10th, 2013|
San Francisco, CA - Left to Right: Keith Dion, Diana Mangano, Robert Pendergrast
1 Tell us a bit about your background – where you were born, a bit about your family and early life -
Answer - I grew up in Southern California, my father was a Major in the USMC, so I spent most of my early childhood living on US Military bases on the West Coast. When my father returned from two tours of duty during the Vietnam War he retired and we emigrated to New Zealand where I then spent the next fifteen years or so before moving back to San Francisco CA in 1985
2 You have always been interested in music? Tell us about that -
Answer - It all started for me back when I was a kid – growing up in the late 1960’s in Southern CA – my two favourite groups without question were Arthur Lee and Love from LA and The Jimi Hendrix Experience from London – both of course multi-racial groups fronted by African Americans.
Both of these bands were so stylish and innovative and the fact that both played an amalgamation of styles from jazz to rock, folk and blues, made for a very lasting impression on me. Both led to me wanting to be a professional musician from the get go.
Fast forward 25 + years or so and with a great sense of serendipity, I ended up meeting, and then working with members of both groups – Noel Redding, bass player in The Jimi Hendrix Experience and Arthur Lee, the charismatic leader of Love. Eventually I was to be Noel’s North American band leader and manager and I produced several albums for him over the years. Playing with him and then producing these records and my relationships with these English record companies led directly to me producing two albums for Arthur Lee and then touring or opening shows for him in San Francisco afterwards.
|Arthur Lee from Love|
3 When did you finally become involved in the industry seriously?
Answer - My first professional groups were in Auckland New Zealand in my early 20’s. In a nutshell I was always more interested in becoming an original songwriter and record producer, not just “learning chops” and being in cover bands. Every band I’ve ever been in has been an original, song writing based group trying to get record deals and have “hits”. This started in the early 1980’s and the NZ bands were Tomorrow’s Partys, Martial Law and The Ponsonby DCs. All successful bands, who got record deals, did national tours opening for, or appearing on large music festival bills with very big international touring acts like The Psychedelic Furs, The Eurythmics, The Pretenders, Talking Heads, INXS, Split Enz, Ice House and several others. All of this experience made it very easy for me to join really good local bands in San Francisco when I moved there in 1985 – I quickly joined the top local group, The Ophelias who were then immediately signed to Rough Trade Records UK, where we quickly had two National College Radio Top 10 albums – just prior to that, I had also secured a USA distribution deal for my last New Zealand group The Ponsonby DCs first album and also produced and released two compilations of the twenty two top New Zealand groups from this era called Unexplored and from the Flying Nun label – Tuatara. All five of these albums went National College Radio Top 10 within a two year time frame. To say my head was spinning from all this would be an understatement. To then have all the money and royalties ripped off by the labels and distributors certainly opened my eyes to this “business” I’d finally found myself engulfed in and took several years and lots of lawyers and legal fees to sort out.
|The Ponsonbys DCs 1st Album|
|Tomorrow's Partys Tour Poster|
|Martial Law Positive EP|
4 How did you get started in ‘The Great American Robber Barons’?
Answer - I’d met the great drummer Prairie Prince (The Tubes, Todd Rundgren, Jefferson Starship, George Harrison, Ronnie Wood, XTC etc.) quite a while ago through mutual friends of The Tubes. I didn’t start playing with him though until about four or five years ago, through a mutual singer-songwriter friend named Geoff Knoop. Geoff was putting his own group called Love Not Dead together and had Prairie lined up as the drummer, as well as Prairie’s long-time partner, vocalist Diana Mangano from The Jefferson Starship as one of the featured singers. As bass guitar was my first instrument, I was asked to join as the bass player and to help with the song writing, arranging and production. It was a really great band as Geoff was a multi-instrumentalist and had some very good material. We recorded at least two full albums at legendary Hyde Street Studios in SF and Expressions over in Berkeley, where we also did a live multi camera concert/web broadcast. All of this is in the can and ready to go too – Geoff and I have recently been discussing finally getting around to finishing up the final mixing and getting it all released.
|Geoff Knoop - Love Not Dead|
|Prairie Prince with The Tubes|
To make this long story short – while I was working with Geoff in Love Not Dead, I started writing more material for the 3rd Ponsonby DCs album You Don’t Know the Half of It, as well as other material for what I thought was starting to sound like my first solo album. Believe it or not, this was the first time I’d started singing or even writing my own lyrics. I’d already had established good personal and professional relationships with both Diana and Prairie and when I asked them to help me start recording these songs, they jumped right in. Twelve songs were recorded for the new Ponsonby DCs album with Prairie on drums, and then another ten or so for the “solo” project with both Diana and Prairie. This last batch ended up being the basis for forming The Great American Robber Barons and those tracks wound up being released first as the current Reno Nevada and Other Songs of Gambling, Vice and Betrayal album. I then took the new Ponsonby DCs tracks back over to New Zealand and with the other DCs, we recorded all the overdubs and did the final mixing. That album is probably next in line for release, or may be simultaneously released with the best of the Love Not Dead material.
5 How were you ‘discovered’?
Answer - Discovered? Still working on that one I'm afraid to say! Though I’d been in some pretty high profile bands in New Zealand – Tomorrow’s Partys, Martial Law and The Ponsonby DCs, it wasn’t really until I moved back to San Francisco in 1985 that all this recognition started flying around. To put it all in perspective, the first Ponsonby DCs album was released and was a USA National College Radio hit and getting great, high profile national reviews in the USA before the album had even been released in New Zealand! That made a big impression over there I can assure you. The Ponsonby DCs ended up being the first alternative, post punk band to get a North American release – even before the more widely known Flying Nun label groups of the time. It all just started snow balling from there. I then got additional USA record companies and distributors interested in the two New Zealand Compilation albums, which was our attempt to start The New Zealand Invasion, of North America. I then joined The Ophelias and got signed to Rough Trade Records UK – all within one year.
|Unexplored USA LP Cover|
|Keith Dion Live at Sweetwaters Festival NZ 1984|
|Tuatara USA LP Cover|
6 How did you choose the band’s name? How did it come about?
Answer - One of the first of the batch of new songs I’d just written was called At the Hands of the Robber Barons – about the financial chicanery that seems to be engulfing the world at present. We’re just all at the hands of these white collar Wall Street criminals, right ? As the project and the album progressed, it seemed that this was either going to be my “solo” album, or it was going to be a real group. In the alternative, post-punk music world, there really aren’t too many “solo” artists out there. That seems to me to be more of something you’d find in the jazz, or the high- brow classical world, right ? You know – like The Larry Fitzgerald Osbourne Octet or something. So once we started doing gigs, it seemed to make more sense to come up with a good original band name, and the name The Robber Barons was suggested by a few really good friends. It didn’t take me too long to find out through the internet that there had already been a couple of Robber Barons out there already, including some Heavy Metal cover band out of Cleveland Ohio. The last thing I would want to do would be to piss off a Heavy Metal cover band out of Cleveland though, right? So we added the “Great” to the band name and took it from there: The Great American Robber Barons.
Cover Artwork for Reno Nevada - The Great American Robber Barons
7 Have you encountered many obstacles along the way thus far? If so, how have you overcome them?
Answer - Getting back to all of that great initial success I had when first landing in San Francisco in 1985 – getting multiple record and distribution deals, having several high profile releases and lots of radio airplay and hits – it didn’t take me too long to figure out that the bigger the success you had in the music business and the more money that was at stake, then the bigger the criminals and rip offs you had to deal with.
Here’s a short quote from Chapter 2 of the book I’m currently writing called 'Snapshots of Heaven and Hell - Surviving the Music Business and Living to Tell the Tale!' It deals with what I went through, having just arrived in San Francisco from New Zealand in the late 1980’s, landing multiple record deals and having a slew of hit records with several groups – and having ALL the money ripped off and then having to spend even more money on lawyers to go after the dirt bag record distributors and companies who ripped off all the loot:
“So - 5 albums and a major label single, all put out in just over 2 years. All of them commercial and critical successes, with loads of air play and rave reviews across the print media. The Ponsonby DCs and The Ophelias then started getting interest from major US record companies and it all seemed like the trajectory would never end. How much longer could this great string of luck continue? Not long was the answer……..
"The North American record industry is made up of a series of major and minor record companies, who funnel their releases through a series of distributors. The distributors, get the product into the various chains and stores across the country, and then get a 90 - 120 day “window” to have the shops sell them, return them or order more. If the records sell immediately, the distributors still get to keep the money until the end of the 120 day timeframe. If the records sell out, then the distributors must pay back the record companies before getting in any new product. Or, they can sell the records and just keep your money, using it like an interest free bank - and that’s what they did to us.
"In a nutshell, we paid for and pressed all the “hit” records, and the distributors sold them and kept the money. All the albums ended up in court with us suing the distributors who had sold the records and broke the contracts. All the records: The Ponsonby DCs, The 2 New Zealand compilation albums that I produced – Tuatara and Unexplored and the first two Ophelias albums. All critical and commercial successes, all the money ripped off. The rip offs continued with the 900 Ponsonby DCs albums that were shipped back to New Zealand, as well as the National NZ Top 20 single put out by WEA over there. All the records were sold, and I never saw a penny of the money for any of them until some of the legal action got resolved many years later. As far as Rough Trade Records UK were concerned, I couldn’t even get an accounting out of them, let alone my share of the royalties for The Ophelias records and then they went bankrupt taking down most of their acts with them. What a joke ! We also ended up being “on the hook” to pay back some of the investors who had financed this entire operation in the first place. Welcome to the music business!”
8 Your music has been compared with such notables as Nick Cave and Kylie Minogue, along with ‘The Byrds’, ‘The Clash’, Lou Reed and Richard and Mimi Farina? How does that make you feel?
Answer - Great ! All of these artists are true originals, not wanting to, nor sounding like anyone else. We get the Nick Cave reference because of my deeeeeep voice and the Richard and Mimi comparison because the song Reno Nevada was originally written and recorded by them - and we’re a vocal duo of course. If there’s one goal I’ve had as a singer songwriter, it’s to try and be completely original. To come up with my own style and not try and sound like anyone else. All of these artists also seem to be a combination of the new and the old, sophisticated and primitive – mostly at the same time. If you can’t find your true voice, then why even bother to do this? I’ve never been in any type of a cover or tribute band and never will. If I had to play covers all night, I think I’d shoot myself.
9 You were in several bands prior to ‘The Great American Robber Barons’ – tell us about that -
Answer - Well we've already discussed my early New Zealand bands – Tomorrow’s Partys, Martial Law and the still ongoing Ponsonby DCs, but here’s some more on The Ophelias, a San Francisco based alternative folk rock band with a very traditional English folk bent. I was lucky enough to audition for them right away – they were led by multi-instrumentalist singer-songwriter Leslie Medford. This band was especially unique, in that Leslie’s focus for the group’s repertoire was based on a very literary and Shakespearian spin on the English Folk Tradition, kick started in the modern era by Bert Jansch, Fairport Convention, Davey Graham, Nick Drake and John Martyn.
|Original Martial Law Line Up - Jay Foulkes, Keith Dion,|
Phil Jellicich, Dave Marshall, Tony Dugan
|Ponsonby DCs - Chris Watts, Jay Foulkes, Gavin Buxton, Keith Dion|
This was a revelation as Leslie was to share some of the secrets of the styles of these guys with me – the odd time signature changes, the open and modal guitar tunings and the traditional and stylistic approach to the ancient and mid-evil English lyrical tradition. People would remark that it was almost like we’d just stepped out of Sherwood Forest or something. Not too surprisingly, The Ophelias shot straight to the top of the local San Francisco music scene – without really trying or so it seemed at the time.
|Ophelias, Live in SF 1987|
|The Night of Halloween LP Cover|
|L-R - Geoffrey Armour, Leslie Medford, Terry von Blankers, Keith Dion|
Insert from Self-Titled Debut Album: The Ophelias
After the financial and legal fiascos with the record companies and leaving the group, I briefly took some time off from all this wonderful business, developed a high tech career in telecommunications and relocated to Los Angeles. It wasn’t too long though, before I started writing more songs and started two pretty good new bands down there. First Winter in Venice with two very great singers – Lisa Gonzales and Richard Stump and then 3:05 AM – led by a really great singer named Kyle Scott. Both groups also shared a really good mandolin player - Patrick Fahey, a good friend and colleague of David Grissman of The Gerry Garcia Band fame.
|Winter In Venice - Patrick Fahey, Lisa Gonzalez, Richard Stump|
Venice CA, 1993
|3.05 AM in San Francisco - Artie West, Marco Villalbos, Keith Dion,|
Kyle Scott, Patrick Fahey, 1997
Even though we’d done some great recording sessions with some good material, Winter in Venice broke up before we could release our first album. 3:05 AM started up pretty much right away with me using several of the new songs from Winter in Venice with the new group. We started doing some more recording sessions in LA and even used the horn section from Ray Charles’ touring band on the title track for our first album - I Don’t Hear Jimmy Page. The big break for 3:05 AM came after I moved back to San Francisco from LA, when things really went to the next level when I was invited to London in September of 1997 as the guest of Noel Redding and Jimi Hendrix' long time English girlfriend, Kathy Etchingham (who had introduced me initially to Noel) for the unveiling of a prestigious London Blue Plaque, by the British Heritage Society honouring the house Jimi shared with Kathy in Notting Hill Gate, London in the late 1960s. The first plague for a rock star in the UK.
|Noel Redding, Kathy Etchingham, Pete Townsend -|
Jimi Hendrix Blue Plaque Ceremony 1997
It was there that I suggested to Noel that I could manage and book him on some high profile West Coast tour dates, as well as supply his backing group and opening act – 3:05 AM. Well one tour led to another and after several West Coast dates and some others that I worked with him in London playing with his European band – consisting of Mick Avery from The Kinks, Eric Bell from Thin Lizzy and Dave Clarke, I’d stockpiled enough professionally recorded and filmed concerts to put together the first of the UK record releases for Noel Redding and 3:05 AM – West Cork Tuning.
|London with The Noel Redding Group: Keith Dion, Dave Clark,|
Mick Avery, Eric Bell 1998
So now I’m a staff producer for these English based record companies. As a reward for me placing these Arthur Lee and Noel Redding releases, they then put out the first edition of the 3:05 AM studio album recorded in both LA and SF – I Don’t Hear Jimmy Page.
Three More Releases:
I Don't Hear Jimmy Page
|Arthur Lee and Love|
Back on the Scene
|An Israli unauthorized edition of West Cork Tuning called|
'West Coast Experience'
Simultaneous to this new release by the DCs, was the studio album of my new San Francisco based group Corsica with my new song writing partner Brad Orgeron. This group was the follow up to 3:05 AM and was to include several members of 3:05 AM, drummer Marco Villalobos, bassist Artie West and sax player Willy Seekamp. Our new album Sight of the Sun was released with That’s What All The Girls Say in North America and New Zealand, with both albums getting great reviews and being added to hundreds of North American reporting CMJ reporting College Radio Stations. We recorded and wrote so much quality material with Brad that there’s at least one additional new studio album in the can and ready to go too – to be titled Of Ocean Born.
Sight of The Sun
|The Ponsonby DCs:|
That's What All The Girls Say!
|Unreleased Corcisa studio follow up album:|
Of Ocean Born
10 What inspires you?
Answer - With the lyrics anyway - from people I’ve met, or conversations and situations that I see or hear. Having moved to and then grown up in New Zealand in the 1970’s also gave me a somewhat different exposure to music than I’d been accustomed to in Southern CA. It was there that I first heard all those great English folk guitarists like Bert Jansch, Davey Graham, Nick Drake and John Martyn. Names not usually known by my North American musical peers. I was also lucky enough to have seen Bert Jansch and John Martyn on a number of occasions during their New Zealand tours of the late 1970’s and 1980’s and had purchased most of their key records and had tried to absorb their unique styles. Inspiration by osmosis if you will. All this would come in handy later when I joined The Ophelias in San Francisco too.
Also later on, being around Noel and his famous and talented friends and others that I’ve worked with helped me to understand the importance of just being yourself – not trying to mimic the playing styles, records, song writing or music of anyone else. To have your own voice and style. That’s what was important. Did any major talents get to where they were by trying to sound like anyone else? Hardly.
11 You have also written about your early life. What are your plans and hopes for this?
Answer - As you know through our earlier conversations, I’m the survivor of some pretty heavy child hood abuse – mainly because of the untreated PTSD my father was suffering from as a victim of the Vietnam War. This story/treatment, seems to be getting a lot of attention from people who have read it and it looks like it stands a good chance of being developed further - perhaps a whole book or even as a film of some type.
12 What do you feel makes you different from other artists?
Answer - The fact that we seem to be able to hit everything – music performance, song writing, filmmaking and writing. It’s all the same thing to me, there shouldn’t be any boundaries between these forms. I’ve been lucky as I’ve had a leg up as a filmmaker too, as most of our best music videos have been completed using my father’s 8mm home movie footage that he shot during the 1960’s including stuff from the Vietnam war. Having Diana Mangano from The Jefferson Starship as our lead vocalist certainly doesn’t hurt either!
13 What are your plans and hopes for the band for the future?
Answer - Right away, the plan is for more exposure of our music videos at Film Festivals. Some of them have just been submitted to some pretty high profile film festivals in LA - it will be great if we make the cut and they get screened – better than a gig if you ask me and a whole lot easier too. We’re also working on some very big appearances coming up soon too – as we may start working with Jimi Hendrix’ other bassist Billy Cox with his current group The Band of Gypsy Experience on a West Coast tour together. We’re going to try and accomplish with Billy what we did with Noel Redding – high profile gigs, recording and filming of the concert. I should have thought about this years ago actually, as I was originally introduced to Billy by my associations with Noel back then
|Billy Cox -|
from Jimi Hendrix' Band of Gypsys period
There’s also been interest in completing a Noel Redding biographical film/DVD from the hours of video and tape we have of him, for broadcast and film festival release. If so we’re likely to include a CD of still unissued studio and live audio tracks we recorded with him. Here's a link to the trailer from the forthcoming documentary.
There’s also been some very recent interest by the BBC and new UK record company contacts for CD and DVD projects for unreleased Arthur Lee and Love projects too, so there’s a lot of stuff going on right now. If we can pull all these projects together and include The Great American Robber Barons in the mix we will be on our way.
At our recent show at The Great American Music Hall, we appeared with Mike Wilhelm of the original San Francisco Psychedelic ballroom group – The Charlatans and later of The Flaming Groovies. I used to watch Mike when I briefly visited San Francisco in 1976, with his then line up Loose Gravel. I reminded him of seeing him play at this funky place in North Beach called Gulliver’s Saloon, when the biggest barroom brawl EVER broke out and Loose Gravel just kept on playing. I reminded him of this night and he remembered it like it was last week. So I went home and wrote a song about it, called Showdown At Gulliver’s Saloon and the next thing you know, I’m up at Mike’s home studio in Clear Lake, recording it and three more of my newest songs with him. We’ll probably start doing some local shows around San Francisco with his new group Mike Wilhelm and The Hired Guns too, to promote Showdown At Gulliver’s Saloon. Here’s a preview of the lyrics – it’s all true !
Showdown at Gulliver’s Saloon
Words and Music – Keith Dion August 25th, 2013
I was eighteen didn’t know a thing
Out on the street living on a string
Loose Gravel showed me all I know
Even let me on stage for a blow
The first time I played in San Francisco
The showdown that night was quite a fight
One for the books oh what a night
It started off a small dispute
About some girl and some missing loot
Or something about the way Fred cut the toot
They knocked him out and he came back
Smashed the glass behind barkeep Jack
Knocked out his teeth what was this beef
The devil seemed to come out of his soul
And I wished I was home back in San Antoine
Right on Columbus Loose Gravel played
Every night we stayed and drank and prayed
Every night a fight and now this I write
Against the drunks they’d take a stand
And you know they were one hell of a band
Here’s to Mike and all the other bands
That seemed to come from some distant land
They played for us each day and night
Kept on playing all around the fights
The broken glass and the knocked out lights
Here’s to all the wayward sons
Gulliver’s Tavern and the other ones
They played guitars and we watched the fights
When Loose Gravel jammed night after night
You know it was always a hell of a sight
We wanted just to hear the songs
Have a drink and maybe pass the bong
Toothless Fred couldn’t stop them then
That night of the August full summer moon
The showdown at old Gulliver’s Saloon
If I had the chance I’d go again
To old North Beach and see the band
Round the corner from Grant and Green
Every night a different crazy scene
Back to that time and that famous room
And the showdown at old Gulliver’s Saloon
The showdown at old Gulliver’s Saloon
It’s show time ! At Gulliver’s Saloon
C + P 3:05 AM Music, BMI 2013
|Solo with The Hired Guns|
|Poster Great American Music Hall August 2013 -|
Benefit for Lonnie Turner of The Steve Miller Band