Ekoostik Hookah is a hard band to find sitting still.
On the heels of the release of a second live album, Sharp in the Flats, and a successful West Coast run, the band is currently making preparations for another Hookahville festival (this installment featuring Ratdog and Jazz Mandolin Project) and keeping an eye on their June trip to Jamaica, where they will headline High Times’ Jamm-aica ’99.
In the meantime, they continue to do what they do best: play live to their growing fan base. I spent an hour with the band (Dave Katz, piano, guitar and vocals; Ed McGee, guitar and vocals; Eric Lanese, drums and vocals; Cliff Starbuck, bass and vocals; and Steve Sweeney, lead guitar and vocals) prior to their 3/24 show opening for Banyan, during which the members of the group opened up about the songwriting process, being an independent band, and setting themselves apart to the listening public.
Todd Justus: The consensus among your fan base is that the band seems to have taken things up a notch or stepped up to a higher level. Has that been a conscious decision the band has made, or is it a result of playing together?
Dave Katz: I think the emergence of Ed has been a big part of it. We were pretty much flat before he came in.
Ed McGee: He’s being sarcastic. I’d say it’s been getting used to the new set-up and it’s just that we keep playing. We play so much that if we didn’t improve, well we’d be pretty pathetic. If you did anything as much as we do this and didn’t improve, you’ve got some serious problems.
Cliff Starbuck: Doing the same thing, it would be so fucking boring. We have to keep changing it and improving it for it to stay fun for us, you know?
TJ: Does that evolve just through playing?
CS: I’d like to think it’s just the way it evolves.
EM: It’s like little things everyday, like what can we do this week or tonight that’s going to be something different. And then it stacks up eventually and I think for me it feels very gradual to the point where I don’t even notice any change. Then someone that hasn’t seen us in three months has this wildly different perception of the show and I’m actually like, “tell me how,” because I don’t even know what it could be that sounds so different.
DK: It’s kind of like watching a flower grow. If you see it all the time you don’t notice it.
TJ: Do you find that some of the songs you continually play have changed dramatically or evolved into something different?
DK: Some do, some don’t.
Steve Sweeney: Backwoods Rose.
DK: (laughing) Backwoods does.
CS: With Walk Real Slow, for example, we decided to make it fast a few years ago and then Steve changed the feel of his guitar part that starts it and that really sort of gave us all a different feel. We just fell into this different kind of groove with it, and it has a whole different feel now. No one said, “let’s make this a different feel,” it just kind of popped into Steve’s head and we all followed along.
EM: Plus, we’ve been experimenting with new places to throw in segues. We’ll have songs where we never really did much other than play that song, and now we like to try to squeeze other songs into parts of songs and we experiment with that a little bit, so that changes things up.
TJ: How much of the setlist is pre-planned and how much is improvisational?
Eric Lanese: It’s 100 percent improv.
DK: If anything, we think of songs we’re not going to play, just because we may have played that the night before or something like that.
EM: It’s like, “what did we play the last time we were here,” and we try not to do that.
TJ: You’ve been widely considered a grassroots, word-of-mouth band. Have you thought about exploring a label?
TJ: What are some of the reasons behind that?
DK: (laughing) Got all night? “No” may be inaccurate. Maybe if we had the perfect deal offered to us, which would mean millions of dollars in support and promo money, and that’s realistically not going to happen.
SS: It’s artistic freedom also.
DK: So it’d be that and the risk of being married to the label.
EM: And who wants to jump for a label? We have a hard enough time jumping for each other.
CS: It’s not even really that necessary anymore. Most bands are independent and people can find them. If someone wants to find a band, they can find them on the internet.
EL: With the technology of the internet’s new wave distribution systems, the record companies look to me like they’re on their way out.
DK: And I think if record companies don’t change the way they deal with bands, then they’ll definitely be on the way out. They’ve got to be shaking in their boots right now with all of the technology that’s coming out to let you make your own cds.
EL: The record stores are going to be obsolete.
EM: And it’s a great feeling that any reward we get, or any big shows or our Hookahville festival, if there’s anything that seems to be a successful object, we can fully glean it as our own accomplishment. There’s nobody pushing it out there, it was all us. It’s nice to divide up the success between just us and not have to say, “well, those guys did it.”
TJ: Cliff mentioned the internet. I know your website has over 100,000 hits and your fan list-serve is very active and popular. Do you have any comments on how your fans are using the internet to stay involved?
EM: A cool thing they’re doing is keeping track of the setlists on the list-serve. To some people it’s like, “what’s the big deal?” but since we do change our setlists all the time, all of these people are really interested and I think this might be the first time it’s been so effectively managed. It’s created a cool sort of sub-community of friends, too, who’ve never met each other. I see it all the time. They’re meeting each other at the shows or trading tapes and getting rides from each other and all kinds of things that we would like to think are part of the friendly atmosphere we’d like to have at all of our shows anyway, and it’s happening outside now because of the internet.