California alternative rock mainstays Dishwalla are truly living their rock ‘n’ roll dreams. Throughout the ’90s, Dishwalla made a name for themselves with their acclaimed debut album, “Pet Your Friends,” which lit up the charts and the airwaves in 1996 with their smash hit single, “Counting Blue Cars.” With a gritty attitude and edgy musicianship reminiscent of past music legends, Dishwalla’s Alt-Rock sound was enough for music fans to crown “Counting Blue Cars” one of the most requested songs of that year. The track earned the band a Billboard Award for Best Rock Song for 1996 as well as two ASCAP Awards for Rock Track of the Year in both 1996 and 1997, driving “Pet Your Friends” to sell more than a million copies worldwide. Dishwalla continued to tour heavily throughout the late ’90s and the early 2000s, and released further successful albums in the likes of “Opaline” (2002), “Live … Greetings From The Flow State” (2003) and their self-titled album “Dishwalla” (2005). Over the span of their two decades-long career, Dishwalla survived the usual drama of personnel and record label changes and saw their music help define the sound of a generation. Their music is timeless and the recurrent airplay of “Counting Blue Cars” on Triple A and Hot A.C. radio is a testament to this.
Touted by fans and industry alike as one of the best live bands to come out of the ’90s, Dishwalla has returned to write the next chapter in their amazing story. At their core, Dishwalla remain as passionate about music as the day they picked up their instruments and found themselves anxious to create new music for themselves and their dedicated fanbase. It didn’t take long before the members of Dishwalla began to pour their blood, sweat and tears into the sessions that would lead to the band’s first full-length studio release in more than 10 years. In early 2017, Dishwalla launched a successful Pledge Music campaign to give their diehard fanbase an early taste of the album and other unique opportunities. “Juniper Road” is a triumphant return to form for the band. Blending elements of classic sounding Dishwalla anthems along with a modern edge, the band touches on every aspect of growth while staying true to its roots.
Jason Price of Icon Vs. Icon recently caught up with Dishwalla’s George Pendergast to discuss his life in music, the formation of Dishwalla, their evolution as a band and the making of ‘Juniper Road.’
Music has been a huge part of your life. How did the journey begin?
I started drumming at 5 years old. According to my parents, I asked for a while before that. It was something I really wanted to do and I probably didn’t even think about any long term goals at that point. I had a great drum teacher by the name of Mike Ray, who owned a place called Mike’s Drum Shop. He was really into funk and it was the 1970s, so there was some incredible music happening. It probably wouldn’t have been what a 5-year-old kid would have picked but it was really cool to grow up playing that stuff!
Many years later, you formed Dishwalla. How did the ball get rolling when it came to the formation?
We had all played together in the same scene but in different bands from the time we were 13 or 14 until the time we all hooked up together. I wouldn’t say it was a combination of bands because none of the bands were the same style. It was the end of a few bands but it started with Rodney [Browning Cravens] coming over to record with the singer and I. Then I had this bass player in another band who was already in a couple of other projects and was super reluctant. He was like, “Man, I’m just too busy and I have too much going on.” That was Scot [Alexander]. We played around in that band for a few years between here and LA. It was a bunch of kids that grew up together and the individual bands just kind of got sick of each other! So, when Rodney came over to record, the singer was like, “Hey, check this guy out! He’s pretty rad on the guitar.” He was pretty good but he had a singer with him. We were like, “OK, what do we do with this? We don’t need two lead singers.” We ended up pairing it down to Rodney and the two of us and then Scot came along. We added Jim [Wood] because on the first record the singer played keys and then Jim was with us live but that guy is like more than a fifth of the band. He’s a heck of a writer and does all of the technical stuff as far as making all the weird sounds we have on records happen live. [laughs]
Here you are, years later, and Dishwalla has come a long way since those early years. What are the keys to longevity for a band like this one?
I think we really enjoy what we are doing and we have for a long time! When you have highs and lows over the course of a career and you keep coming back, even during the low times and you enjoy what you are doing, you realize why you are doing it. It’s like me starting drumming when I was 5 years old, it wasn’t because I was looking forward to the high points of my career, it was because I truly enjoyed drumming. We love playing music together and that’s one of the reasons this new record came together. We had been working on it, working on it and working on it and sending files back and forth but we noticed that when we are all in the room together playing, that is the magic of this band!
“Juniper Road” is Dishwalla’s fifth studio album. What goals or aspirations did you have for the record?
There was a lot. All of us wanted to have something new to be playing. We are super grateful and appreciative of what we have and we’re not one of those bands that hates our single. We love “Counting Blue Cars.” We wanted to do something new and we didn’t want to just phone it in. We had that conversation of, “We can put some chords together with a couple of grooves and throw a lyric over the top of it and call it a day.” We didn’t want to do that. We wanted to make sure it was really, really good. I think that we really pushed each other in a really good way. We started sending things to each other with the attitude of, “Ya know what? I don’t really care if you like this. Here’s a song do you like it or not?” [laughs] It started this snowball effect where we would look at what we had and would say, “Okay, how do we finish this? We’ve been playing around with these ideas between each other. How do we get this final push?”
The quest to finish the album led the band to Eric Burdon’s Joshua Tree retreat house. What was that experience like for the band?
It was 24/7 writing and recording, so that part of it was awesome! We knew we needed to get out of town because we have too many distractions if we stay at home. We knew we had to get away and sequester ourselves. Justin [Fox] has been friends with Eric Burdon for years and they offered their house. They said, “The house is empty out in Joshua Tree, why don’t you guys go set up out there and play?” Both Jim and Justin are amazing studio guys, so they built a recording studio. There was nothing in the house, so we brought all of our gear and built a recording studio. We just dove in from there!
Justin Fox has been the lead vocalist for Dishwalla for a decade now. How did you cross paths with him and what does he bring to the table creatively?
He had been friends with the band forever. A lot of the recording, tracking and early songwriting, as in the early 2000s, would be done at his studio. He was a buddy of the band for a long time. He had recorded with his band with Jim who worked for Sylvia Massy. They were up in Northern California at the studio when Justin came in and Jim was super impressed with him. Really, at the time, we weren’t even shopping; it was just a mutual admiration for songwriting. Then we got an offer to play a show, which was the first round of things where someone said, “Hey, let’s put these guys with these other bands from the ‘90s.” It was The Wallflowers, Matchbox 20 and us. At that point, we had already agreed to play and then there was a shift in the band. That was when we said, “OK, how do we do this show?” I remember our agent said to us, “Listen, if Justin goes there and you guys do this show and no one says anything to anybody — Then we are golden!” [laughs] So, we got out and the first thing the guy does is walk out on stage, walk right to the very edge of it and puts his arms out! Everybody cheered! We thought, “Wow! This guy owns this! It’s insane!” He’s just had that from the very first show. When we got that under our belt, no one complained, everyone loved the show and we got back home, we said, “OK … Now what do we do?” [laughs] It’s funny to me that we spent a couple of weeks wondering what we were going to do. I was kind of in the background going, “Wouldn’t we just have that guy who stoked out 10,000 people at Rock Fest be the guy?” [laughs] All of a sudden he was the guy and we went out and started doing the tours from having a song like ours. Then it came time for the writing and that’s when he really solidified his position in the band.
How have things changed and stayed the same when it comes to songwriting for Dishwalla?
I think that it kind of went back to where it was in the beginning. Dishwalla was never a singer/songwriter band. There was never one guy who said, “My name is Tom but I’m going to call this Skinny Puppy. I’m going to write everything but it’s going to look like we’re a band.” It was always someone having a couple of chords, a lyric idea or a groove and then we would get in the room and play. Then we would discover the pocket for the drums, then the bass plays around that and then, all of a sudden, it would just become obvious how it was going to sound like Dishwalla. I think Rodney calls it The Dishwalla Chopping Block. You basically don’t get to, as much as you would love to, have a conversation beforehand and say, “No one gets to say anything about this song idea.” Nobody can help themselves, right? Because we all produce stuff on our own, so we all have that ear. We are all songwriters and we write lyrics, so the idea will come in and pretty soon there is a guy saying, “Ya know, I think we could do a pre-chorus like this … ” Then another guy goes, “We need a bridge. Here’s what I think it should be … ” Then another guy says, “I want to change that lyric melody line in the third verse because we need to vary it up a little bit.” The next thing you know, it’s not the song you brought in but it’s better because everyone has put their two cents in. It’s great because it’s not a two cents band where you are like, “OK, great. Now we have to listen to this guy’s two cents!” Ya know what I mean? [laughs]
You lived with the album for a while now. Looking back on the process of bringing “Juniper Road” to life, what challenges did you face?
I think this will become one of the most notorious stories between myself and Jim. [laughs] On the very last day of recording, I think we had a half-hour left of recording time for drum tracks that were supposed to all be demos but half of them are on the record and this one was for sure, Jim says, “Hey, I want you to check this idea out.” I’m kind of a guy who likes to play a groove through 75% of something and have it change about 25% of the time. With this, there was a different beat here, then the next verse has a different beat, then the pre-chorus has a different beat and the chorus has a different beat! I was like, “Dude, come on! This is schizophrenic drumming. I hate this. I would never do this.” He was like, “I know but I can hear you doing this. Can you just do this?” So, I have steam coming out of my ears, I’m calling him names and he’s used to that! [laughs] I’m writing stuff down, making notes and I have the whole chart out. I put it up on the music stand and say, “OK … Go!” I do this track and I am just furious at the end! I do this big ol’ gnarly fill, throw my sticks down and I’m done! I look over at him and all the guys are cheering! That was the first time I ever played it, the first take and that is what we kept for the record! [laughs] Afterwards, we are talking the next day, and I say, “Yeah, I guess I just have to get really pissed off and I’ll get a really good take.” Scot goes, “That’s weird, dude. I was thinking maybe if you charted everything out you would get really good takes the first time!” [laughs] I was like, “Oh yeah, I guess you can look at it that way too, huh?” [laughs]
That leads to my next question. Looking back on your career, how have you evolved as an artist?
I don’t know if you know this but I didn’t play with the band for awhile because I had a really bad nerve injury. I dislocated my elbow and it rested on a couple of nerves and wore them down for a bit. My left arm decided it would go sideways instead of up and down at certain spots. I had to learn how to play left handed on the high hats and kind of play like a left handed drummer or what they call open, if you’re a drum nerd! [laughs] I’ve done that for a long time but there are a lot of things I used to be able that I could no longer do just because I didn’t have the technique developed with my left hand to do it. Then, I started watching some of the drummers that I love, respect and think are some of the best drummers in the world. Many of them have this technique with their left hands where they will rest it on their leg and use their wrists to get a nice pop out of the snare that way. I play some of the softer stuff the old way, like a right handed person, and when it starts to get loud, then I play left handed on the high hat. That’s been a true evolution! It’s hard to remember which way I am playing sometimes when I come out of a fill! [laughs]
You have seen the music industry change exponentially through the years. What excites you most about the music industry today?
I have to say it is always the live shows! For the bands, it’s becoming one of the most important things because you sell the most merchandise and make pretty good money if you are playing good shows. Then there is still, especially at our level, the fact that you aren’t just happening on this show. You are coming to this show for a reason. You are coming to the show because you like one or all of the bands on the bill. That’s great because you have a house full of fans! When you are playing to a packed house full of fans, it’s truly amazing!
What does the future hold for Dishwalla? Are you focusing on another album? Hopefully, we won’t have to wait quite as long next time!
No, I don’t think you are going to have to! I think, if anything, we are going to have to hold each other back because we have opened the floodgates. I think we feel a lot safer around each other to share the ideas that, in the past, we might have held back thinking, “I don’t know if these guys are going to like this.” I think we have a lot more trust in each other after this last recording process. I think each one of us trusts the other guys implicitly on what their viewpoint is and that no one is just trying to get their two cents in. We all really respect each other and I think that will be a good thing moving forward. I’m hoping we can get new material out. The way it’s done now, you can keep doing that and release something every couple of months if you want to!
You also do amazing work outside of the band with the Rockshop Academy. What can you tell us about it?
Rockshop Academy is kind of like a School of Rock. The way it started was that Rodney, Alastair Greene, who played for Alan Parsons for years, and I were all teaching here. I would hear all of these young, 13- to 17-year-old shredder guitar players coming out of these rooms. They would take a break or have a lesson that didn’t show up and would hear this amazing young drummer. We were having these conversations about how when we were kids there were fewer teenagers that were really super, adult level good playing instruments and now each of us had 20 to 30 students who were all really good! I mean, what the heck is that?! [laughs] Kids don’t have as much music in schools, so their parents say, “What instrument do you want to play?” The schools were really good about staying traditional and saying, “You are going to play violin, cello or clarinet.” At home, you have someone from my generation with a kid saying, “I want to play electric guitar.” Great! “I will get you an electric guitar.” There was no, “Nope. It’s got to be flute!” All of a sudden you were inundated with kids playing guitar and drums because they chose these instruments. We started asking the kids who they jammed with and they said, “I don’t do that.” So much of what you are teaching applies to when you are playing with other people. For example, with drums, there are hardly any solo drummers. Right? [laughs] The idea of doing this matchmaking of young players came up in the form of starting this rock camp. It started slow and grew to be this really big thing! I was just telling one of the kids that I have gone the most this summer of any of the summers I have run the camp. I find that I’m about to say something when I am here and one of my counselors will step up and say exactly what I was going to say in the same way. Then I look at everyone that works here and I’m thinking, “That kid has been coming around here since he was a senior in high school as a counselor to this group and now he is my right hand man at 22 years old. The other kid, who is 18 years old, has been coming here since he was 10. Then another kid who is getting community service for high school has been my drum student since he was 8 and now he’s 16.” Right when I was about to say, “Hold on a second. I’m talking to the students … ” I’m realizing these students are now the people who are saying what I have been saying to the next generation. I just step back and think, “Wow. Here’s another thing I didn’t expect to happen!” It’s been great to watch these kids form bands, play all over town and become teachers themselves as a career. It’s been a really cool thing! To go way back, we were saying that the people we played with as teenagers are the reasons we are still playing music, have good records and have toured the world! It was a great way to say, “If you believe in something and work really hard at it, it can happen.” I can tell you the names of 30 people who I was a teenager with who have toured the world and made money playing music!
With that said, what is the best lesson we can take from your journey?
It comes down to staying true to your love of playing. If you don’t love everything about what this is as a career, then don’t do it because there are other things you can do to make money. Playing music for a living is one of the hardest ways. You really have to make sure you love doing it. That’s not to be confused with the idea of, “Do what you love and the money will come.” I think you really need to be good at it and have success at it to stay with it as far as what you do with your life. With that said, never stop playing music for fun! It’s called playing music! It’s not called stressing music, working music or accounting music! [laughs] It’s called playing music and that’s something I try to reiterate over and over to my students, my bandmates and myself!
That’s awesome! Thanks so much for your time today, George! I wish you continued success!
Thanks, Jason! Take care!