Uncle Pumpkin just celebrated the release of their latest opus, Goodbye Radio, with a show at Arlene Grocery in NYC. Not only was the place packed but it pulled in great reviews as well. The band is the brainchild of Dan Grennes, a respected veteran of the local music scene, and he’s joined in the group by Sean Driscoll, Shinya Miyamoto, and Michael Aarons. I caught up with Dan during a break from his “day job,” which is touring as the bassist in the road production of the Green Day hit Broadway show, American Idiot.
How would you describe the eclectic sound of Uncle Pumpkin?
If you took the offspring of the Beatles and Led Zeppelin, and mated them with some late ‘70s mod groups like Elvis Costello, Joe Jackson, and XTC, you would be in the basic ballpark of Uncle Pumpkin. It is always tough to describe music with words because it puts ideas in people's heads before they have even heard it, so I always try to tell people to listen for themselves before judging or labeling.
How did the band get together?
I had been writing songs for many years and they started out in a bluesy/funky direction, but they started to morph into more melodic songs and started going in more of a Beatles kind of direction. Once I had written enough songs in that style, I decided to assemble a band. Although it was all my material, I didn't want to make it a solo project. In this day and age, I can't think of any new rock bands that use someone's name in the band as opposed to using a band name, and somehow it didn't seem right to call it the Dan Grennes Band.
How does the writing process work for the band?
I guess since I do the writing, I am the Pete Townshend of the group. I think any creative process, like writing, works differently for everyone. It usually doesn't work for me to sit down at a desk and decide I am going to write a song. I usually have to wait for an idea to pop in my head, and then I build it up and nurture it from there. The best ideas often come to me when I am walking, traveling, or hiking near my mountain cottage. There's something about fresh air and new surroundings that gets the juices flowing.
I think the great thing about this band is the diversity of our influences. I bring my British Invasion-meets-mod-power-pop derived songs to the guys and let them all put their personal stamps on them. It's exciting to see the songs blossom into something completely different sometimes. Sean and Michael just automatically come up with guitar parts they hear as if they telepathically knew what I was going for when I didn't really even know myself.
Where did the name come from?
The name Uncle Pumpkin came out of a dream I had. I woke up with the chorus of “Hey Uncle Pumpkin” in my head and I grabbed a guitar to figure it out before I forgot it. I had no idea who Uncle Pumpkin was or what it meant, but the music came together like the second side of Abbey Road with little parts of songs segueing from one into another, and I thought Uncle Pumpkin sounded like a character John Lennon might have come up with, such as Mean Mr. Mustard. He evolved in my mind into a twisted old recluse that no one was really sure about. He could just be a quiet guy, or he could be a serial killer; no one could be sure. It's the mystery that made him interesting to me. I think that happens to a lot of us when we dream. There are a lot of images and ideas up for interpretation which our imaginations can take in any number of directions after we are awake and thinking outside of our subconscious.
How do you balance Uncle Pumpkin with being on road with American Idiot?
We are all based out of New York City and most of our gigs so far have been in that area. While out on tour with American Idiot, I am always using my free time to work on anything related to Uncle Pumpkin. The band is my creative outlet and I get so much joy and inspiration from it. Whenever I don't have that outlet, I can get really depressed—like a part of me has died. It's like a liver or a pancreas, I can't survive without it.
What are your goals for the band?
I don't set them anymore. The best way to keep things organic is to ignore what is going on in the Top 40 world, or with whatever is popular at the time. If you try to write to make money, you will always sound like someone else. I think that has become the biggest problem with popular music, especially in the rock world. There hasn't been a significant change in rock music that has been in the limelight since the Seattle grunge scene hit in the early ‘90s.
The major record labels haven't had the balls to put out anything fresh-sounding ever since then. It seems like even today, most of the band’s sounds can be traced back to Pearl Jam, Nirvana, or U2. Back in the ‘70s and ‘80s, you had bands like the Talking Heads coming out of nowhere that sounded like nothing we've ever heard before, because somebody saw the genius in them and took the time to develop and break them on radio and TV. But now that the major labels are caving in from bad decisions, greed, and fighting the internet instead of embracing it, and radio is dying, it is becoming an interesting time for music. It is much harder to be heard, but it is so much easier to record and release an album. I think overall it is a good thing and it may give way to a rebirth of pop and rock music. It's just not as much about the money anymore.
You can check out Uncle Pumpkin at unclepumpkin.com, facebook.com/unclepumpkinrocks, and reverbnation.com/unclepumpkin. You can also get the music from iTunes and Spotify.