April 23, 2011
By Amy Powell
It is ten minutes to six o’clock as I pull my car into the gated parking lot of Audio Box Studios in San Francisco. I see two members of the band, Guella, standing in the puddle-ridden parking lot. One member has a dog, who I formally meet minutes after his slobbery nose is sniffing my pant leg. I greet the two of four members as the final two arrive. The band quickly pull gear – guitars, pedal board, and a few neatly wrapped cables – out of their trunks and we run inside as it starts to rain. Guella’s new drummer, Dan McGivern calls to Morrison, his curious Australian Shepard who is drinking water from one of the parking lot puddles.
The studio’s heavy metal door opens to a long white hallway of pad-locked doors, scuffed walls, plywood floors, and miscellaneous promotion posters tacked to the walls. Faint sounds of drum beats and MC lyrics echo down the lonely hallway – I am reminded of a scene from The Shining. Guella shares their studio with another band, which allows them to practice two nights a week. As the band – guitar/vocals, David Taus, keyboard/vocals, Taylor Garland, bass, Jeff Hunt, and drummer, Dan McGivern – set-up and tune their instruments, they talk about their recent happenings, and crack a couple beers to sip throughout practice.
“Ready? Let’s get a list down and warm up,” asserts ring leader Taus. He is talking into a live microphone and plucking his guitar lightly. The band quickly discusses what songs need work, pick three titles, and start “jamming.” Positioned in a close circle, they face each other so they can talk and watch each other play. As the warm-up continues, I examine the space. Colored Christmas lights hang from one end of the room to the other. Two white boards are mounted on opposite walls and are littered with set lists, notes, song names (36 original, 11 covers) and scribbled music chords. The room contains posters featuring Phish, Metallica, The Beatles, and Pantera (which is posted on the ceiling). Morrison is roaming slowly around amplifiers and chords. There is a fan in the corner, next to the second drum set, but tonight a heater is favored in the chilly, well-soundproofed room.
Guella stops their “jam” to work on the selected “need work” songs. They verbally go over each song as a project, discussing beginning notes, chorus, instrumental transitions, and breaks. Their rapport is light as they share jokes and laughs during debate. Now they play. Taus calls “chorus,” “verse,” and “instrumental,” to McGivern (Guella’s newest member by 2 months) to help him perfect one of the band’s hits, “Log Cabin.” On second run-through McGivern closes his eyes, listens, and samples different rhythms through each section of the song. He is getting it. “The ending still needs work,” states Taus, “Let’s run through one more time for good luck.”
Next song up is “The Corner,” featuring a Gospel tone with heavy organ and meaningful lyrics. Guella plays, stops, plays, and decides the guitar tone needs to be “simpler.” Garland suggests to Taus, “Just play notes. Strum with relaxed flow instead of tight with the beat.” First, the band runs through the entire song several times to get Taus comfortable with a “simpler” riff. Hesitant about the toned down melody, Taus takes solo time to finesse and fine tune his sound. Garland calls out song lyrics, “I’m not anywhere, if I’m not right where I am,” and Morrison is asleep next to Hunt’s feet. On the final run through, the band looks happy, and Taus is optimistic when the rest of the members are in favor of the guitar’s new melody. They eagerly agree on the revised guitar riff and move on.
“Ben Beever” is the next and final practice song. The band runs through this jam piece (one of the newest in their repertoire) with ease. It starts as a full and powerful song, that tones down to a calm and melodic progression, to crescendo into a fierce Phish tribute. Garland gently delivers the lyrics, “Darkness gonna give way to light…we will come full circle before too long.” The band has perfected their technique for this song, but they need to find a vision. Each member makes their suggestion for improvement. Garland comments on what the song’s image should portray to the audience. Hunt and Taus discuss their visions of how the song is meant to sound to the audience and how they hope the audience will reciprocate to each variation. The discussion fazes out, and they are ready to move to the next part of practice.
Thirty five minutes left, it is time for a “scrimmage.” The band creates a set-list and one encore song to run through – “Jesus Oh My,” “Ghouls and Goblins,” “Gumbo,” “Fearlessly,” “Doom,” “Patience and Balance,” with “Log Cabin” as an encore. Throughout “scrimmage” the band is lose, well-oiled, and show-ready. Each song brings more improvisation and experimentation with technique, sound, and vocals. The 10×15 studio space is filled with a unified sound that groves, hiccups, and energizes. Morrison is now awake, standing at my feet. I look to the band, Guella is having fun.
As I thank and hug each band member good-bye – I am grateful for the opportunity – I look once more around the organized clutter that Guella calls “home.” As I walk back down the nondescript hallway, the beautiful lyrics repeat in my head, “Look at all the pretty things we built.” And I see, Guella has built a pretty music-making machine, with passion, friendship, and soul as their fuel.