Breaking Common Ground: An interview with (some of) the dudes of Strictly Ballroom

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Strictly Ballroom

Emo bands have long been a spring board that yields serious musicianship across genres.  Whether that is a result of maturity or changing tastes is perhaps a product of the individual musician.  But, it goes without saying that Strictly Ballroom, the dynamic and innovative melodic hardcore band that was the product of one particular group of young men, yielded some of the most significant players the indie rock landscape has known. 

The brainchild of Chris Gunst (guitar/vocals) and Jimmy Tamborello (bass/vocals), who were both KXLU DJs in college and started Strictly Ballroom in 1994, the band’s members have continued to make waves with both with each other and others outside of the brotherhood in a staggering list of indie rock heavies.  Jimmy Tamborello went on to DNTEL, Figurine and The Postal Service, while Chis Gunst played in Beachwood Sparks, Mystic Chords of Memory, and The Tyde. Paul Larson contributed with Athalia, The Minor Canon, The Georgia Sand, and played live and recorded with DNTEL as well as contributing guitar to Beachwood Sparks’ Make the Cowboy Robots Cry EP, which Tamborello recorded.  Jimi Hey took part in Beachwood Sparks, Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti, All Night Radio, Indian Jewelry, The Rapture, Devendra Banhart, and more while Koji Motonishi,  Jose Salguero, Ian MacKinnon, Jimmy LaValle (of The Album Leaf/Tristeza) and Chris Hathwell (Festival of Dead Deer/Moving Units)  contributed to the indie rock lexicon in their own unique ways. 

Ghettoblaster caught wind of the release of Strictly Ballroom’s Collected Recordings (1994-1999) (Tenderness Records), pulls together the LP, 7 inches, comp songs and unreleased songs that the band had access to, to ask questions about the band’s origins and contributions.  And Chris Gunst, Jimmy Tamborello, Paul Larson, and Ian MacKinnon obliged.  This is what they said about the band…

 What was it that originally catalyzed you guys and made you want to form Strictly Ballroom? 

Chris and I met in college and became close friends really quickly and bonded over music.  We were both involved in the radio station at the school and were going to shows all the time and so it made sense to start playing music together, too. -JT

A lot of our early friendship was based on being music DJs at KXLU, going to shows, listening to music and it seemed to just extend from that. Wanting to be a part of the shows we were going to, be involved.  For me personally, it felt good to just play with other people in a room, even if it was just our dorm room at first. -CG

Who was the fan of Christian Bale to blame for the name??

We were in a video store with some friends and I think someone just saw the video and suggested it as a band name.  I really liked that movie, but we didn’t name the band that because of our love for the movie, I think it just sounded good. -JT

Jimmy told the story about right I think.  After the fact and finding out it was this rigid dance form and the music was kind of chaotic at first was a good opposition.  But I definitely didn’t think about that at first, more of an afterthought, justification.  -CG

What bands were really influencing or challenging Strictly Ballroom’s approach and output?

In the beginning, Chris and I were really excited about the arty emo hardcore stuff going on, stuff like Gravity Records, bands like Evergreen, Lync, Unwound… As we played together a lot of other influences came into the equation… definitely the post-rock stuff of the time, Kill Rock Stars and K bands. -JT

Early influences…Jimmy got down on Gravity records, Kill Rock Stars groups-Lync, Evergreen, Antioch Arrow, Drive Like Jehu and seeing shows live where the band members would seem to put every ounce of energy into playing the songs in a cathartic cosmic howl.  As a young person who held a lot inside it was liberating and actually calming to scream and shake and go crazy on the stage.  Other influences at the time were Slint, Red House Painters, Seam, and friends like Boys Life and Modest Mouse, and Nuzzle. It seemed that once we started to play shows at meet like-minded friends who had bands things just grew.  Also being DJs at KXLU and being exposed to all sorts of music from punk to electronic/dance music really influenced our styles as well. -CG

I joined the band at a transitional point… I was listening to Slint, Polvo, Christie Front Drive, Afghan Whigs, Mudhoney, Television and bands of that sort, if that is a “sort.” But I think that our diverse, contrasting tastes coupled with our trust, love and enthusiasm for each other fueled us creatively more than any outside source. -PL

Under what circumstances did the project end?

We went through a lot of phases. Near the end it turned into a band called Arca but at that point we were maybe getting more interested in other projects. I don’t really remember when or how we decided to quit. -JT

Just got into doing different stuff.  We are all still friends and it didn’t end because of disagreements or anything, it just kind of evaporated.  I wish it didn’t. -CG

What was your proudest accomplishment with the band?

I thought we had some triumphant live shows at our peak. Especially I remember a few opening for Modest Mouse where it felt like we were doing something exciting. -JT

For me it was just being together with my friends and doing something special with our time together.  I just loved practicing, hanging out and going on tour. -CG

Driving 15 hours in the fall of 1997, sliding on wet unchained tires in the dead of night in a Toyota 4Runner with a U-Haul trailer full of gear, through a blizzard, defying death on dark slippery roads to arrive in Las Vegas, Nevada, safe, almost sane, ready to drink and gamble through the morning, waiting for our hotel room to be ready. Or playing Nintendo, in what used to be Marvin Gaye’s bedroom, overlooking the live room at Dave Jerden’s Eldorado Studios whilst recording Hide Here Forever. -PL

Totally agree with what everybody else said. I’d also say that I’m pretty proud of what everybody went on to do, too. Chris with Beachwood Sparks and Mystic Chords of Memory. Jimmy with Dntel, Figurine, The Postal Service. Paul with Athalia, The Minor Canon and his new group, The Georgia Sand. Jimi Hey playing with countless artists. The other folks too… They’ve all done some really impressive things, musically. I think that’s kind of unique. -IM

The Sub Pop singles club songs were recorded in ’97, but not released until 2001.  What happened there?

Tony Kiewel at Sub Pop was a friend of ours (and fellow KXLU DJ), so he’d heard that song over the years. I can’t remember what instigated its release.  Oh and it was recorded as part of my school thesis, so initially it hadn’t been recorded with a real release in mind. -JT

I think we also may have originally earmarked “Fire” for a third Jabberjaw (local LA club we used to play all the time) compilation after we had recorded it. But, Jabberjaw soon closed down and they scrapped the release. -IM

I received my copy of the Strictly Ballroom CD from a friend I’d made on an emo listserv in the late ‘90s named Paul Fischer.  He had a label called Better Looking. Was there an affiliation there or was he just a fan?

Yeah! He was a friend and also a KXLU DJ. Pretty much everybody in our world was involved with KXLU somehow. -JT 

The “Collected Recordings” record isn’t every song Strictly Ballroom recorded is it?  If so, are there any songs you are super bummed to have lost over the years?

I think it is every song, save for a couple recordings we couldn’t find.  It’s sad, most of my favorite songs, the ones we were doing after Hide Here Forever, never got recorded. -JT

We had a batch of songs we were working on and playing right towards the end when Chris Hathwell was playing with us that I really liked. Jimmy had some tapes of practices that contain some of those songs.  I think there is an electronic sketch of one of them on the collected recordings.  There was a great remix of the song “A Picture” that Jimmy did that I wish was on there. -CG

So many “lost” tracks that never saw the light of day. -PL

Yeah, there are a couple tracks that we actually recorded that are missing. And most of the songs we were doing towards the end never got recorded. But there are a couple YouTube videos of the band performing some of those live that showed up online a couple years ago. -IM

Chris and others went on to do Beachwood Sparks, which seemed like an entirely different universe to me musically.  Did the shift to that sound just come naturally with maturity?  I saw BS open for Black Crowes, by the way.  What was that tour like?

Yeah, it came after Jimmy and I both played in the LA band Further for a while, which were guys we met playing shows with Strictly Ballroom and they had a friend who was also a KXLU DJ.  I formed it with Brent Rademaker from Further after they stopped playing.  It grew naturally as my taste of music broadened.  It seems all bands coalesce with a particular kind of sound that all of the disparate influences of each band member search for common ground.  

I’m glad you saw a show on that tour.  I thought we were pretty strong around that time.  The tour was long and we struggled a bit to keep up in our van while they had buses and trucks that could go through the night.  We never missed a show though.  It was fun, but also eye opening into what kind of day to day “job” being a touring rock band is like and at that time, I was starting to think that it (being in a full on touring band) may not be for me long term. -CG

Now with the big Postal Service reunion and dates this Summer it seems like now would be the prime time to release this hoping to attract some folks that missed the band originally.  This is not a coincidence, right?

Ian’s been putting this together over the last couple years, since before we started planning the Postal Service stuff. It is coincidental. -JT

The idea of doing a Strictly Ballroom retrospective had been floating around for a bit and all the pieces came together in a coincidental fashion with The Postal Service 10 year anniversary. -IM

Although I know that this is probably completely unlikely (but I didn’t expect to see Refused and Texas Is The Reason ever tour again in any real way either), what are the chances of a Strictly Ballroom tour or reunion date?

I think there might be a reunion but it’ll just be for us in a practice space where we try to remember our parts and mostly play joke songs. I hope at least!! We’ve talked about it… but I’d be shocked if we ever got it together enough to play in front of other people. -JT

I have dreams about it that we do, but either the band before us is playing all our songs or the guitar and microphone never seem loud enough.  I think we will make music together again because you only have so many relationships in this life that can birth creativity.  I am not sure if it will be a SB reunion but maybe something new but I’m all for playing together again in a room and laughing. -CG

Chris, Ian, and Jimmy are some of the best people/musicians I know. I would jump at the opportunity to play with them again. -PL

Yeah, I’m in agreement with what everyone else said. Maybe we’ll meet up at Paul’s studio in LA at some point and play. It’d be fun. –IM

(Check out the MP3 for “Escape Plan #4” here: http://www.riotactmedia.com/mp3/Escape%20Plan-4.mp3.)

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