Keith Streng (The Fleshtones), Eddie Munoz (The Plimsouls), Clem Burke (Blondie), Michael Giblin (Cherry Twister), and Josh Kantor (The Baseball Project) make up The Split Squad. They describe themselves as ‘America’s least famous Supergroup!’. A band of heroes, in my world.
Another Cinderella is The Split Squad’s 2nd album. What an outstanding, excellent record to end 2021 with.
SweetSweetMusicBlog spoke with Michael Giblin.
What was the moment you knew you were on to something?
The genesis of the band was basically, “Let’s get together and see if we can have some fun together”. The only expectation was a good time making music together. However, in the first sessions, listening to a playback, producer Scott McCaughey turned to engineer Dave Minehan and said, “Clem is NOT phoning it in, is he…”. That just lit a giant fire under everyone to try and keep up with him.
How did this record come together?
The band has been together for almost ten years now, but this is only our 2nd full-length album. That’s because, given the band’s nature, we get a limited amount of time together when many busy schedules align. We usually spend that time touring, because we love to play together.
So this record is a pandemic record, and it has a colorful and meandering story, as I’m sure many pandemic records do. Even though I have done it a lot in the past, I’ve gotten to the point where I DO NOT like to record and produce my own songs. I prefer to have an external voice in that role. So we started doing demos for a number of songs, to give to folks who would be interested in producing. We had a couple of near-misses with some people, mostly from scheduling.
So I listened closely to the demos, and realized that the basic tracks were generally all quite good, and that we had at least half an album of basics already done. So I bit the bullet and decided to just forge ahead on our own. We booked some shows in the first week of March 2020, and planned to do a little more recording around those.
However, that was exactly when the world fell apart, and all our shows were cancelled. So this afforded us the time to complete all of the basic tracking we’d need. But then it wasn’t until late summer, when the country opened up again, and we could get together for overdubs and such.
Same with mixing. We did it all around the few moments of respite that the pandemic allowed us to have. I’m amazed that it holds together so well, as a group of songs, because there are at least 5 that started out as pure demos. If the pandemic hadn’t forced us into the studio, we’d still be probably trying to pull together the demos!
The meaning of success has changed over the years. What would success look like for the new record?
We just hope that it serves as a good tool to allow us to keep playing together in front of people, because that’s what we really love to do.
How great is the urge to stay creative? To keep writing songs and lyrics?
I’d love to say I’m one of those “I just HAVE to write all the time!” people, but I’m not. I’m an inspirational writer, not a grind-it-out person, for the most part. So I write when lightning strikes, and I don’t when it doesn’t. Having said that, I quite often go through periods of “that’s it, I’m empty” self-doubt, but then eventually, the inspiration always manages to find it’s way back.
As an artist, you chose to show your emotions to the world. Is it always comfortable to do so?
NOOOOO. As a writer, I pay very close attention to point of view in a song, and I quite often write in 3rd person; as an outsider looking in.
That helps me to “bare my soul” without it necessarily being about ME. I also like to write from the point of view of defined characters, like in “Trying to Get Back To My Baby” on the new album.
It really all depends on the song, but going all the way back to Cherry Twister, those are techniques that have served me quite well.
You can pick 3 co-writers to write new songs with. Who? … and Why?
Pete Townshend, Elvis Costello, and Peter Case. The first two are obvious, if anyone knows anything about me and my musical history. As for Peter Case, while The Plimsouls are definitely an important point on my musical compass, I am a huge devotee of ALL of his work. For my money, he is perhaps the greatest songwriter presently walking the earth.
What’s the gig you will always remember? And why?
Keeping it just to The Split Squad, we did a festival in Spain a few years ago, and they told us we were scheduled to go on at 1:00 AM. It was a public, free festival in the town square, and we thought “1:00AM!?!? This is gonna suck!”
However, when we hit the stage (at about 1:45!!), we were met by 5000 totally wired, drunken, wonderfully crazy Spaniards. When Clem switches into “Arena Mode”, it’s a glorious thing to behold, and that’s all it took, regardless of the hour.
Lyrics are too often taken for granted. What is the line of text or are the lines of text that you hope listeners will remember? And why?
While most of The Split Squad’s songs are not intended to be overly “literary” (I often refer to our sound as “Big Dumb Rock”), perhaps the most heavy lyric in our catalog is “I Can’t Remember”. It’s written like a breakup/lost love song, but it’s actually about my own personal state of mind after the death of my wife from leukemia in 2010. Her illness was very brief and intense, and she passed quickly and unexpectedly. The lines “I can’t remember the day you went away/I can’t remember the last thing you did say” are borne from the fact that I cannot remember what her last words actually were, because we didn’t expect her to pass when she did. It’s intended to remind myself (and anyone who listens) that those moments that you WANT to hold onto forever may go by so quickly that you don’t notice them. So pay attention…
When was the last time you thought ‘I just wrote a hit!’?
Well, given that I haven’t listened to mainstream radio for many years, I’d have to say, in the radio station of my mind, it would have to be “Hey DJ”, the first track on the new album. Of course, in my mind’s radio station, Cheap Trick and The Plimsouls take the place of Journey and Def Leppard, so take that with a grain of salt.
Cassettes are back. Which 5 five songs would make your first mixtape?
That’s a tough answer, because the band is quite eclectic. For a good sampling of The Split Squad, it would be “Now Hear This”, “Showstopper”, “I Can’t Remember”, “Hey DJ”, and “Bigger Than Heroin”. That gets you Guitar Mayhem, Heavy Rock, Soul, Power-pop, and Psychedelia!
Playing music in front of a crowd. What’s all the fun about?
With The Split Squad, we don’t do things exactly the same way each time. Especially Clem. He like to stretch out and change things up quite a bit, so the songs are constantly evolving. And he totally feeds off of audiences and environments to do that. Eddie, as well, is a bit of a wild card. He will at times play things so out of left field it makes us forget what we are doing. Keith, especially, is constantly marvelling at what Eddie comes up with on the fly.
You can’t control the way people ‘hear’ your music. But if you could make them aware of certain aspects, you think, set your songs apart. What would they be?
One of the things I have always tried to showcase in this band is the breadth of everyone’s musical vocabulary and stylistic reach. We could, conceivably, play a song in any style, from straight garage-punk, to New Orleans R&B, because there is at least someone in the band who is great at THAT style. We can always make it sound like us, but on both of our albums, there are at least a half-dozen different stylistic checkpoints.
Suppose you were to introduce your music to new listeners through three songs. Which songs would those be and why?
Again, tough because of the broad, eclectic nature, but “Now Hear This”, which showcases the incredible guitar firepower that we have, “Hey DJ”, which plays to the power-pop side of all of us, and “I Cant’ Remember”, which is a straight-up soul song.
If you could tour the world with two other bands, who would you ask, and why?
Assuming you mean still active bands, I would say The Fleshtones and Wilco/Jeff Tweedy. I have toured with both in the past, and I’d pick The Fleshtones because they are 4 of the most erudite, epicurean fellows you’ll ever meet. They know where the best place to eat or get a great cocktail is in EVERY city in the world. As for Wilco/Tweedy, I toured with Jeff in 2015, as part of the Minus 5, and their operation is so incredibly professional and respectful, from top to bottom, and their audiences are so warm and receptive to other acts on the bill. They set an extremely high bar in that regard, and it was a joy to be a part of it.
What compliment you once received will you never forget?
I’m not sure I’d call it a compliment, but because I’m a singing bass player, I get a lot of (fairly lazy) people assuming that I’m a Geddy Lee/Rush fan. I’m not. At all.
Those magical moments when you’re working in the studio. Which moment was the most magical?
While everyone in this band is more than capable of producing those kinds of moments (and have on several occasions), the winner on this record would have to go to Clem. The “Bolero” section, at the end of “Invisible Lightning” was a completely unrehearsed, spur of the moment thing. We finished the take, and Clem just launched into it, without saying anything to aynone. We fell in behind him (and then cleaned it up later), but listening back to the raw take, everyone was just laughing hysterically, beause it was so brilliant, and spontaneous.
What place do you occupy in the music industry?
Oh man, I have a LOT to say about this. Far more than you’d like devote this blog to! But this is an interesting and difficult time for people who make rock music that are “of a certain age”. Unless you want to trade in flat out nostalgia (DO NOT get me started on tribute bands), making rock music with and for people over the age of 40 is a very steep uphill climb these days. Basically, people at large of that age don’t want to hear music they don’t already know. The mainstream music industry, of course, ignores us, because of our ages (which it has ALWAYS done. That’s nothing new), so unless you already have a devoted audience, cultivated from decades of hard work, catching the ear of people who don’t already know you is a very daunting task. It’s a bit of a cliche, but Europe continues to be a place that is significantly more open to that than the US. So like many acts “of a certain age”, we look there first for audiences to embrace and inspire us.
If you could pick three singers to sing harmony vocals on your next record, who would you ask?
Marti Jones (who did sing on a Parallax Project album), Harry Nilsson, and David Bowie (for that amazing counterpoint singing he was so great at, like on “Space Oddity”)
The record is done, the music is out. Is the best fun done now or is it just beginning?
Well, since we enjoy playing together so much, I would have to say “No, the fun is definitely not over!” Hopefully the state of the world lets us get on with that!