I've had the distinct misfortune of knowing Tobi D'Amore since elementary school. We played ThunderCats together, joined the marching band together (hey, when your high school of 300 kids has over 100 members in the band, you know something's going on there) and went on dates together. He even got suckered into being in my wedding, an occasion which prodded him -- like so many life events he's schlepped through -- to write a song.
So to say that I know the guy pretty well is a profound understatement. Which is most likely the reason why he approached me to pick his brain -- or what's left of it, at any rate -- about his start in New York City's vastly overpopulated music scene and the impetus, since the earliest days I've known him, to write and perform that magical thing we call music.
Our conversation actually started at the end of the story, when he rather excitedly told me about how he had lined up a gig at Irving Plaza, a venue, he explained, which was "two levels" above his band's (oh, they're called the Bone Chimes, by the way) current station.
So, how did you manage to land Irving Plaza?
It's been a pretty long road to Irving Plaza. I started playing solo, after a few short stays with other bands on bass and trumpet, in 2008. I was awful. I was terrified to get on stage, which is something I had never experienced before. Playing in front of an audience was nothing new to me, since I have been in front of people as a musician since I was two. This was something different -- something new. I quickly realized what the "something" was: For the first time, I was the one to blame if you didn't like what you saw. For the first time, the music was written by me. The song was written by me. The lyrics were by me. So, if you didn't like what you saw, there was only me to blame. That's how I looked at it for a long time. Scary. But giving up is not in my nature; I knew it was just a matter of time before I got comfortable in my new role as a "front man."
And how did you manage to pull that off?
I practiced all the time. I was the worst roomie and neighbor in NYC. After a few gigs solo, I got my own rehearsal space and found, with an "office" to go to, it was easier to work. Not as many ears prying when there are 30 spaces around you with someone trying to get better.
And this is a period in your musical evolution that lasted for...?
That's how it went for almost two years. Even my first album was practically done solo. I even spent a few weeks alone in a cabin down in Roanoke, Virginia to work on my playing, singing and writing. My buddy John played drums, but I had to play everything else since there was no band. I was getting better, but I still lacked the confidence to go for it when I was up there. John and my close friends cheered me on, but I always felt behind.
When 453 Days [his first album] was released [in 2010], I felt like I had a product to share. I could walk up to friends who were musicians and say, "Listen to this. If you like the direction I'm going, maybe we can play sometime." There were a few takers here and there, yet still no one stuck.
Finally I met Vinny while I was "jobbing" around between bands. I was playing trumpet a fair amount, and he played in a band (Thunderbang!) that was looking for horns. I signed on. After a while with them, I asked Vinny if he wanted to play drums with me on my stuff. He jumped in.
With a drummer on board (for now), I was ready to look for a bass player. The Bone Chimes ended up going through, I think, four before we finally found Tom almost a year-and-a-half later. Until Tom, I just kept getting any bass player I could. Then, through friends, we found Sarah (violin) and, luckily, she had an incredible voice, to boot. We had the start of the Bone Chimes.
Okay. So solo, first album, then the Bone Chimes. What was the next step after that?
Well, time past, and we got better. We still had a rotation of musicians, which was kinda frustrating because I was really working hard at making everyone happy and I was always trying to prove to them that I was getting better and that I was gonna continue to work my ass off for this project. We rehearsed as much as I could get them in a room together.
Finally we got our first "break." This is still pre-Tom and Ben (sax and keys). We got a gig at Arlene's Grocery through a friend of mine that bartended there. Bartenders are the most powerful people in NYC. I truly believe that. We meet so many people every day, and these people that I have met in the last few years over in the bar have been instrumental in the success of The Bone Chimes. [laughs] Instrumental!
Oh, God. [laughs]
The gig went well. There were a few moments where I actually felt like I knew what I was doing as a front man. I still wasn't good enough, though.
We continued to work and gig. Bass players came and went. Then Tom was there! A previous bass player I had brought in recommended him. Vinny and Tom got right in a groove. It went well right off. I didn't hurt that they were both from Strong Island (Long Island). So now we had four [members]: me, Sarah, Tom and Vinny.
Since Sarah is a working actor, she was leaving a lot. That sucked for me, because I felt naked again. When she was there, I didn't feel like I had to carry as much of the load. I worked with Ben at the same bar for a little while before I invited him to play with Thunderbang! Then, when Sarah left for a show, I asked him to fill in. Ben killed it!
We had The Bone Chimes.
(Photo credit: Rose Hogan)
And then you had Irving Plaza?
No. That's when I really started to push my songwriting and trying to play up to the level of the rest of the band. They are fucking great players. I didn't -- and sometimes still don't -- feel up to par with them.
We played a couple of residencies at Arlene's Grocery and played a few other spots around town, getting our shit together. Around that time, we finally got our own rehearsal space, so I wouldn't have to pay an hourly rate anymore.
I gotta stop here and just knock home how much work this all is. The part you see -- the five percent you see -- the show, that's the easy part. The management, practicing, writing, arguing (in a good way), booking, schmoozing, boozing and social networking is the other 95 percent you don't see. That's what I was doing. All by myself, until these four great people decided to join together to make a band.
(Band... it's a really wonderful thing when you think of what that word actually means, when it comes to a group of people.)
So, you networked.
So, I networked. I practiced. We practiced. They -- my bandmates -- let me be bad. You gotta be bad before you can be good, and to get good, you have to experiment and try things. I would actually get stressed about rehearsals because I felt like I was holding us back. You'll have to ask them what kept them around.
We decided it was time to record an album. And not just an album -- our debut album. In the Muck is comprised of a few songs we had been playing for the preceding almost two years and a few brand-new songs that were only really a few months old and not polished when we went into the Bunker Studio with Steve Wall [their engineer].
Recording is great, but it also really sucks! You hear everything. But because of that, you learn so much about what you don't need to do. [You'll say] "I sure am playing too much there," or "Wow! That violin part is actually the star in that section. We need to back off and let her through." There are times you need to push and times you need to take an extra second to really look at the bigger picture, which is a skill as much as playing an instrument is. It's tough not to play sometimes.
I remember friends of ours in high school who had their own garage bands saying the same thing -- about each other. [laughs]
Yeah! It's true, very true.
Now you have this album, In the Muck. After this comes...?
Well, we released the album on June 11, 2013, to a great, sold-out crowd at Arlene's. I consider that show our coming-out party. We stopped being "Tobi D'Amore and the Bone Chimes" that show (and for the album); we officially changed the name to just "The Bone Chimes," and it felt great to have a family. I feel safe now. I have them and they have me.
For better or worse.
[laughs] We were drawing bigger crowds for the year or so before the release, and venues would always ask us the day after a show when we wanted to come back, but things started rolling a little with the album release. We made more contacts. I made sure I always had CDs on me to sell or give out as a business card. Our Facebook page was getting a lot more traffic -- all of our social network pages were (I currently maintain nine, I think.)
We were then asked to open for the Dirty Pearls, who had toured with Lady Gaga last year before she had to have surgery. (I don't know the details of the surgery, so don't ask.) They did a residency at Arlene's and asked us to play. We played the show and killed it.
Now we are here.
At Irving Plaza.
The Pearls asked us to open Irving Plaza on December 21,2013. Actually, Tommy London asked us. He's the lead singer of the Dirty Pearls and a friend of mine. We opened for them at Arlene's Grocery partially because I am a friend/co-worker of his. We drew well, and then he asked us to open for them at Irving. We will, and we will kill again.
Next up for us in October, before Irving, is CMJ [Music Marathon].
We also got a shout-out on The Huffington Post, which has made our social network bump.