State Street Scribe
by Jeff Wing
Something truly indescribable is happening in downtown Santa Barbara. That was the rumor, anyway. As any local knows, something indescribable erupting in downtown Santa Barbara is about as likely as a huge radioactive lizard savaging the beloved It’s a Small World attraction with crimson fire and mayhem. I was intrigued but skeptical. Had some disruptive outlier really managed to push through the permeable, potpourri-scented force field that surrounds our pleasant little town to rattle the ferns and startle the wheatgrass crowd? And, like, what is this thing? A rock band? Well, yes and no. More like a metal-bending glitter bomb from the 6th dimension. There. Does that clear things up? Oh, and they call themselves The Dtease.
A Clean, Well-Lighted Explosion
Whiskey’s on a Friday night is a glowing hole punched into the darkness and we fall gladly in through the door. Outside, a tastefully forged wrought iron Whiskey Richard’s sign announces the club with almost artisanal tact, but cross the threshold and the soul of the club envelopes you like a warm, ribcage-ratting blanket. The opening band, Retrodemon, is wrapping up its roaring and surprisingly melodic set with a bombastic flourish, grinning revelers in front of the stage surging back and forth like sea grass at storm tide.
In the break between bands the audience, amid happy shouting and high-fives, repairs to the bar to refresh, possibly with one of the club’s reported 100 varieties of whiskey and a hops chaser. On the dance floor, what looks like a wounded android is coolly surveying the goings on as a handful of guys fuss over it in prep for the coming assault, and every so often one catches a glimpse of sharkskin suit slipping between the shadows. The crowd quiets as the tension builds. The infrequently seen and somewhat mysterioso Dtease have a reputation; you don’t go out to a club to see a Dtease show. You go there to be a Dtease show.
Release the Genie
Suddenly a tuneful sonic blast (the Dtease Theme, it turns out) comes soaring out of the PA and everyone takes a drink as if bracing for something. There is movement from behind me in the crowd and I turn in time to see a guy saunter by in chains and bondage garb, urged on by an attractive and near-naked young maiden with a cat o’ nine-tails; my first indication that I won’t be hearing an ABBA cover this evening. And so it begins.
The following 40 minutes feel like uncorking the most seriously ADHD genie ever bottled. The crowd will morph from a mob in slack-jawed wonder to a delirious throng whose whirling madness is inseparable from that of the “band”.
This constantly cresting wave of a show will combine intense interlocking chops, bolt-loosening audio, lasers, fog, limbs-akimbo crowd surfing, a bikini-fueled pillow fight and snowstorm of feathers, an airborne flying saucer, a glitter tsunami, an electrified singer doing the Wah-Watusi on Whiskey’s crowded bar, some Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval S&M, and an unfortunate egg-headed alien “gray” tossed helplessly about the crowd in an ill-advised “Welcome to Earth” ritual. If I’m not mistaken, this is the dictionary definition of Mayhem. Throughout the set the place is completely unhinged (one might even say “liberated”), audience and band intermingling enflamed chakras in a shitstorm of pure kinetic Happy until the feedback loop feels like it will blow the doors off the place.
Those who’d hoped for more of a Captain and Tennille vibe are right out of luck. Though there is a Yogurtland nearby if you need to douse the fire. Welcome to planet Dtease.
Kick Ass And You Shall Receive
So. Dtease. Really? The name calls to mind a well-documented physical condition characterized by irregular heart rate, shaking, shivering, sweating, seizures, and incoherent hollering. Check.
“The underlying premise is permission to go crazy at a Dtease show.” Wilson Gil, singer (for lack of a better term), is reclined uneasily in an easy chair at Rose Lane Studios, a state-of-the-art recording palace hidden like the BatCave in a nondescript Carpinteria industrial park. The Dtease—Wilson Gil (lead vocals and inspiring gymnastics), Sammy McPherson (shredding lead guitar), Josh McDonough (axe ninja), Terry Luna (controlled-explosion bass ) and Mike Sharpe (Bam-Bam)—commune here regularly with a soft-spoken, storied impresario/audio pioneer named Sjoerd Koppert, a Dutchman with a dangerous twinkle in the eye and School of Classic Rock pedigree that can make a writer’s thinning hair stand on end.
If you don’t know Mr. Koppert by name, you’re surely familiar with some of the company he’s been keeping since around the time the Beatles played Shea Stadium in ’65. At that historic gig, the variously amused and frightened Fab Four were so deafened by the unbroken screaming of 55,000 fans that Lennon (of course) took the occasion to speak laughing gibberish to the packed house, to Paul’s typical mild consternation. The crummy audio at that show— and many many others of the period—would become the glowing totem at the center of Koppert’s later crusade.
In the mid-sixties, the young Koppert (his own band signed to Polydor) might not have guessed that his future would include game-changing solutions to these grand-scale audio issues. Today he is, among many other things, Rose Lane Studios’ proprietor and father, and a (quietly) larger-than-life figure in the rock firmament. And he has taken a shine to the Dtease. It seems they remind him of something he thought had gone from the world.
Here’s the thing; the Dtease unpack a full-blown roof-raising, wall-to-wall, eye-goggling Rock ‘n Roll Circus in whatever space they’re given, and the audience is in the glitter-drenched center ring. How this is done is anybody’s guess. The Dtease in the wild throes of a gig seem individually larger than life-sized up there, viewed through laser-adorned fog in their shimmering suits. When Wilson is having an ecstatic onstage seizure, or is being passed around the club on the upraised hands of the maddened congregants like a flailing messiah, the band leaning into their instruments with Justice League of America postures and slamming out a seamless, gravel-crushing soundtrack, Dtease seems almost a test-tube creation—a perfect rock n’ roll mutant-machine, grown in a lab and unleashed on a world starved for action.
“I would always rather see a new band trying really hard than an established band being bored onstage,” Sjoerd explains with a grin. “Someone told me this band had an incredible live show. I went to see them and I was immediately sold. If you look at my background and the bands I’ve worked with, apart from Floyd where everything was about the sound and the lights, the other bands like The Who, and even Yes—most of the bands I’ve worked with kicked ass live. The Dtease bring that back.”
Mismatched Super Heroes Save Petticoat Junction
The band, for all its unfiltered octane, looks like a drawer full of mismatched silverware, and that may be its strength. They were clearly not assembled by the production team that built One Direction. Sammy is an 8-foot tall Will Ferrell type who speaks with the locution of a schoolteacher, and is onstage a gyrating, shredding madman in space-shades. What’s more, he can also take Gil’s obtuse riff-descriptions (“…okay, I’m hearing nee-do-nee-do-da-da-da-nee-do..”) and turn them into actual musical figures. “Thanks to Sam I can actually improve my songwriting without having to become a better guitar player,” Wilson laughs.
Terry brings the bottom-end-ass-moving-hammer-blow to the soundtrack, summoning those propulsive chops from an unexpected place. “I was coming from an alt-country band and had been playing upright bass with a lot of technical stage stuff, lifting the bass into the air. Country is about the fundamentals…it seems like simple music but it’s really really f*****g hard to play traditional. You have to keep it uniform, and all those rules that seem like they would restrict you actually expand your vocabulary. You apply all those country rules to a rock beat and suddenly it just sounds more dynamic. And,” he concludes matter-of-factly, “I was ready to play fast and hard. Dtease is it.”
Mike is a mellow, beefy blonde teddy bear; polite, deferential, quick with a laugh. When he sidles quietly behind the kit, though, he becomes a pneumatic Hammer O’ the G*ds. So to speak. Oh, and he ritually smashes his kit to smithereens at the end of every show—a practice that once drew curious commentary from none other than former Megadeth drummer Nick Menza [RIP] . He came to one of their shows and approached Mike afterwards and said “What the fuck was that all about?! You do that every show?” “Yeah,” Mike answered without blinking. Never a reckless wrecking ball, Sharpe recently upgraded to pricey cymbals he is loathe to bang up at show’s close, so he devised a drum riser that allows him to screw the cymbal stands down. The precious metal stays standing as he splinters the rest of the kit; sensible demolition.
Josh at a glance throws off a goodly amount of Surfer Gamma. His sympathetic features and Jesus hair would not look out of place bathed in the beatifying light of Heaven. He is, on the other hand, the former Death Metal guitarist whose highly technical speed-fretting nearly cost him his tendon health once upon a time. Who knew?
That leaves us Wilson Gil, Dtease’s hood ornament and spiritual papa. He sums up the Dtease philosophy at (or near, anyway) the top of his lungs.
“Sure, come in and dance your ass off, feel FREE!” Gil shouts, leaning forward and spreading his hands, “But dig deeper and the show is about fighting power! Fighting oppression! Being on an equal footing, being okay with your body, being okay with sex, being okay with loving everybody! These are the higher concepts and truths that we all aspire to.” Murmured assent from the guys. Wilson’s not done. “The Dtease are at their best when the whole thing heats up and we’re all about to come APART, and that’s when the crazy shit begins to HAPPEN!” General laughter. “And you know what? When we get to that place it’s one big thing, and the Dtease is everybody, and not just the band.” There is a pin-drop silence, which Gil reads in a heartbeat. “Okay, that’s my spiel.” The band erupts in warm but raucous laughter. Note to self: these guys are a family.
Laszlo and the Dream Revival
In 2011 Gil was coming off several nonstop, exhausting years of on-and-off touring throughout Europe with his Speed-Americana outfit, the Willful Sinners; a band that had grown organically out of his countrified Bakersfield upbringing and later love affair with punk. Crushed cowboy hat, sleeveless t-shirts, tattoos, amps, and the abiding love of a European audience that has always been enamored of that America that wears it’s frontier heart on its sleeve—the Sinners were embraced everywhere they went. After endlessly touring the Continent for years, Gil’s band landed some final gigs playing military bases in forward positions in Iraq and Afghanistan. The band would don helmets and flak jackets and fly from gig to gig (base to base, that is) in Blackhawk helicopters over active territory.
Back in the States exhausted, spent, and disillusioned by The Wars, even as he and the band had come to love and respect the soldiers doing the country’s hardest work so far from home, Gil fleetingly thought of calling it quits in music and leaving the U.S. for a time. Planning to hole up in Santa Barbara for the summer, save some dough and beat it out of the country down to Costa Rica where he’d built a place, he met a guy, a change agent, really; another musician named Laszlo. In a nutshell, this guy somehow saw something in Gil’s story and outlook, and took the wheel. This new musician pal infused him with a renewed spirit, to Gil’s own surprise. They ended up forming the Dtease together, but maybe more importantly “Laz” feverishly talked Gil back into the rock ‘n roll sunlight.
“He was really damn the torpedoes about it,“ Gils says now. “He said to me ‘You still have a lot to give. Just tell me what you need and I’ll help you get it going. Let’s do this!’” They began auditioning people for an as yet undefined punk band which Gil figured would at least keep his chops sharp while he decided whether or not to head south, as planned. Then, as if by kismet, it all started to fall together. Wilson met Sammy McPherson, whose mad skills and desire to fly fit the newish band like a glove. Band manager Cate Imperio came aboard and was instrumental in launching and defining the band’s glam-grenade persona as they grew into a working outfit, she working hard to shape and define the look, attitude, and explosive expressionism that so floors today’s audiences. And as band manager Cate brought another talent to the table. She worked the shows, taking up the cat o’ nine-tails and dancing in her skivvies with professionalism and verve.
“Between the 60s and 70s the equipment became huge. In the mid-sixties we were touring with a little van with equipment in the back. In the early seventies we had semi trucks,” he laughs. “And even then, at first we had the same crews, the same number of people!”
Sjoerd Koppert. In some circles this is a household name, despite the absence of a helpful vowel between the two consonants that begin it. Sjoerd (pronounced like the latter half of “assured”) hails from The Netherlands, but since the late sixties has been all over the map, so to speak, seeing much of the civilized world from behind, and in some ways within, a mixing board. In short, Koppert has worked with the biggest acts from the gilded age of classic rock. The Who, The Doors, Jefferson Airplane, the Beach Boys, Pink Floyd, Elton, The Stones—Koppert has mixed them all. Perhaps more significant are his contributions to large-scale live sound design, and his pioneering of stereo and quadraphonic mixes in huge-venue live music. Making a soccer stadium ring with something like the clarity and fidelity of a carpeted living room—that’s a challenge Koppert took early on, and conquered. To the benefit of live music lovers everywhere.
“There were no PA systems when I started,” Koppert reminds me. “The biggest PA systems you could get at that time were boxes with five 12-inch speakers in them. Which sounded absolutely horrible. When the Beatles played Shea Stadium (in 1965), they had to borrow a PA from Peter Noone of Herman’s Hermits because he had four of those boxes. It was a joke.”
Koppert’s own audio achievements so bowled over the industry at one point that a coveted six-page NME (New Musical Express) review of Golden Earring’s world tour-wrapping concert in London focused mainly on the concert’s sound. Koppert’s sound. The band was chagrined. “The guys are old friends of mine, but one of them in particular didn’t like it,” he says with a rueful smile.
So where does Dtease fit into all this? Sjoerd has plans. To date he is overseeing video production for the band, and two albums (as they used to call them) worth of material have been recorded and mastered. The Dtease are in the pipeline for a waiting world.
“I want to bring back that intensity. I want to show people how it used to be. It’s hard work if you want to grab the audience. These guys do that. The objective is a long tour, but we have to get the word out to allow that to happen. These are experienced, solid guys, really great people. And they can play!”
Gil is on a roll tonight. Something about him calls to mind Dennis Hopper in Apocalypse now—a sort of amped troubadour. “The show lets us talk about things that are transcendent,” he nearly shouts, his thin rock ‘n roll torso twisting and twitching in the chair. “It’s a transcendence that is built into the vibe of the show, man! We’ll have dancers doing different bits that in the show look wild and crazy, but when you look back on that stuff in the context of what the songs are saying…there is a ‘there’ there.”
I picture the cat o’ nine tails and arch my eyebrows.
“Rock ‘n Roll isn’t happening any more,” blurts out Bettina Pavone, the band’s Media Manager. “These guys have tapped into that old school Rock ‘n Roll. They’ve distilled it. Stooges, MC5, Bowie. I’d lost faith.” Gil’s eyes flash.
Several days later, Gil and I are on the phone. The previous weekend, the Dtease had played a packed club in SLO. I have him on speaker and his excited hollering is causing my cheap Silvertone acoustic to hum in sympathy where it leans against the bookshelf. “The energy was just OFF THE HOOK! I was surfin’ the top of the crowd…pretty soon it was just this big movement. Transcendence! Then something happened.” He pauses; a first.
“This one kid was so moved—he was on crutches. He made it through the middle of this surging crowd all the way to the front of the stage, I don’t know how. And then I saw that he only had one leg. He managed to get up there on the stage with me, handed his crutches off to someone and leaned into the crowd. He…he crowd surfed from the front to the back of the room, and it was so f*****g powerful, the look on his face! The place came unglued!” Another pause. “It was like, in that moment he was made whole. We were all him, and he was us. And he was me! Everyone in the place went wild, but so f*****g connected. It blew my f*****g mind!” Wilson Gil’s megaphone voice cracks for the first time; another form of music. “It was unreal. It was everything I live to do.”
*Check out The Dtease April 28 at M8RX, 409 State St, Santa Barbara, CA. Call (805) 957-4111 for more info.