The World According To Totem

(a HearNowLive interview with Dave K., October 2010)

Totem is a unique 5 piece that is as elusive as a band as they are individuals.

They pop up on the radar screen every couple of years and disappear back in the recording studio for a couple of more. When they come back out of their shell it’s like a freight train blasting through club to club with the determination to take over the hearts and minds of music fans everywhere. The playing is earnest and the lyrics are honest. Ten years deep and still rocking they have a big gig coming up at the Middle East downstairs with fellow rockers Aux & Travel info and coming off the heels of a Sold out record release party at Church, this show is shaping up to be a defining moment in Totem’s long storied career. I sat down with lyricist Dave Kaslauskas and discussed the past, present and future of Totem.

MK: Dave I have to be honest when I first heard the EP I was pleasantly surprised because I had seen the bombast of your live shows and I got something completely different when I heard the record. How do you decide what you record and how you interpret that recording on stage?

DK: First Mark, I would really like to thank you for listening and for the incredible support you and the entire HNL team have shown us, everyone in Totem truly appreciates it.
Well, we have always considered the two elements to be completely separate from the other. There is live and there is recording. Live, we always try to come out swinging, maintaining high energy without entirely compromising the emotional flow of the songs. As a result, our live sets tend to gravitate toward our heavier selections. We want to keep the audience engaged, and from experience, we have found that the best way for that is to keep coming at you. When we are in the studio, it’s just a completely different animal and we can take different chances and approaches to songs and delivery. Hopefully while remaining just as engaging to the audience.

MK: I would describe your new self titled EP as acoustic base psychedelic folk rock and the music and lyrics are very attainable. What were you guys going for on this EP?

DK: When we first decided to go back into the studio to record, we created a list of some of our favorite songs that we believed would be great to record properly. Black Sheep was number one on that list. The song had always been a live favorite and we just knew recording it would be a blast. Grateful and Prospect Hill were newer songs Gary and I had completed, so we really wanted to include them so we could elevate them from their demos. Some Things Missing and Under You were both recorded for our album Those Along The Way, but we believed we could do better versions of the songs and see them through to what we had fully envisioned. There were more songs that were planned for the EP, but sadly, financial constraints made it impossible for us to include all the tracks we had wanted. We worked for 5 months on the EP and are really proud of the results. In the end, we wanted an EP that sonically sounded great and at the same time was a solid representation of the eclectic nature of us as individuals, as well as, a band.

MK: Let’s go back to the beginning for a minute so that we can paint a picture. When did the band form? And just how many records have you released? What has kept you guys together for so long without changing line-ups?

DK: Totem formed around 1995/96. Prior to that, Gary Alex (vocals,guitar), Doug Reilly (Drums) and myself were involved with a band called Crazy Frank. We were all from the same hometown of Norwell, Ma. and all grew up attending the same high school. Even Lee Alex (Bass) played in Crazy Frank at one point as drummer prior to Doug joining. After Crazy Frank disbanded, Gary and I decided that we did not want to stop creating music. We needed to write for our own sanity and self expression, if for nothing else. Gary had some music he had written and asked if I would attempt to write some words over the top. That became our very first song that we ever wrote together titled Get Carried Away. We asked Doug if he would continue playing drums with us and he enthusiastically agreed. All we needed was a bass player. Incredibly, Lee, who is an amazing drummer, agreed to learn the bass in order to get Totem off the ground. Within months of learning the bass, Lee was recording our first album and has been our bass player ever since. Translating the songs we were working on to a live environment demanded an additional guitar player, so we added Mark Matta from Martha’s Vineyard and the line up was solidified. In recent months, we have included an additional live element with our good friend Kevin Abdullah joining us on keys. Totem has 2 full albums 25 and Those Along The Way, a live album called Improved Quality, and a self titled EP. All can be listened to for free or purchased from our website and/or band camp. I believe the key to our longevity is that we are truly friends. We have all known each other since we were kids and have grown up and experienced so much together. Regardless of what happens with music, we will first and foremost be friends. Luckily, thus far, we have been able to maintain that relationship while juggling careers and family, along with the music. We have found a common thread that ties us together as brothers and are incredibly fortunate to have been able to share in the experience of Totem.

MK: What is the band’s major influences? The difference between Prospect Hill & Black Sheep is worlds apart so obviously the influences must be all over the place.

DK: As far as bands and music that we collectively can enjoy together and that may share a common influence within all of us…The Beatles, Pink Floyd, Jane’s Addiction and Tool. Gary and I also share a love of lo-fi artists such as Grandaddy, Sparklehorse, and Elliott Smith. I believe it’s almost beyond influences and more about who we are as people that really comes across in our music. Our songs represent us. The songs can be sensitive or aggressive, loud or soft, cheerful or depressing. They are and always will be emotional. Those are the types of bands that impress us and the type of music we enjoy and appreciate the most. Not one pulse or genre, but challenging and eclectic, thought provoking and moving. We really hope we are accomplishing that very same thing with our recorded music and live performances.

MK: I take the song Grateful as being a thank you to someone special but I’m not sure who that is? Is it the fans, yourselves or someone that has meant something more to someone in the band?

DK: Grateful was written for anyone that you love. Anyone that you cherish in this world, Grateful is about them. Life is fragile and unpredictable, overwhelming and often sad. Yet, there can be so much beauty and happiness found within the people you love, your friends, your family. I didn’t want to take anything or anyone for granted. I wanted to write words to thank them for that love and to let them know how incredibly important they are in my life and how grateful I am to share in each moment.

MK: With so many diverse individuals in the band how does the songwriting dynamic work within the band?

DK: Gary and I are the predominant songwriters. Ever since we started, the process has pretty much been the same as far as songwriting. Gary will usually present me with a 4-track instrumental of new material. I listen to those demos and either write words along or see if existing poetry I have may fit accordingly. The process can go the other way as well, where I will present Gary with a poem and he will come back with music written around it. I would say it’s a 70/30 split with a majority of the lyrics being created on top of Gary’s instrumental tracks. Gary and I will record 4-Track demos of the songs while editing each other where we see necessary. Fortunately for Gary and I, we have a great relationship which is not overtly sensitive to criticism or suggestion. Gary and I have been so lucky to have found one another as song writing partners. I would think it is rare for a relationship to work for as long as our’s, basically communicating through different languages, Gary through music and me through poetry. Yet from two separate forms of expression, we have been able to truly collaborate and create a catalog of songs that I am incredibly proud of and hope people can listen to and find some enjoyment or value. And that’s not to say Gary and I are complete dictators. Everyone in the band contributes artistically to the songs when in the recording studio and obviously during our live show. We are all fully engaged in the process.

MK: You recorded this EP at 37’ Productions, how did the recording process work this time and did you have someone guiding and producing you through the process?

DK: We recorded at 37’ Productions with our good friend Sean McLaughlin. Sean has basically recorded and mixed every studio recording Totem has ever done. Sean is an amazing engineer and a thoughtful producer. We had a pretty clear vision of how we wanted the songs to sound and the arrangements themselves were all basically complete. We just started knocking out sessions over time and were basically completed within 5 months. Again, Sean is a friend we have known and worked with for years, so the working relationship is pretty consistent. We all bounce ideas off of one another and suggestions are always welcome to improve the over all presentation or aesthetic of the song. It is also incredibly helpful that Gary is very knowledgeable of the recording process, equipment, and engineering. If there is a sound or an emotion to convey, Sean and Gary can usually put their minds together and technically accomplish the sound we are searching for. Sean has been with us from the very start, and you can see how he has grown in his art as we have grown in ours, and I believe the sound of this new EP reflects this progression. I would also like to mention that the cd was mastered by the incomparable Jeff Lipton at Peerless Mastering, with the assistance on Maria Rice. We have also worked with Jeff in the past and his expertise and atmosphere is unmatched. For us, Sean and Jeff have been incredible engineers to work with and key players in capturing our sound and enabling us to fully hear our songs come to fruition.

MK: The song Black Sheep is literally just that on the record, it’s loud and heavy and somehow it fits nicely on the record how did this song come to be on the ep?

DK: Black Sheep has been with Gary prior to even Totem. The song has been a live staple since our very first show as a band. For us, there is just something about the energy of that song that is like no other. As I said, we have been playing it for years, but the only recorded versions we had of the song were the original 4-Track demo, performed by Gary and Lee and a live version we recorded for our cd Improved Quality. We knew that once we were going back into the studio that we just had to record a proper version of Black Sheep. It is by far our heaviest performance and the music has so much life, there is vast opportunity to really get lost within the song. Live, the song just explodes so we worked diligently to achieve the same energy on the recorded EP version. We were all really excited with the results on the EP and it remains a live favorite for the band, as well as, our audience.

MK: I feel like the closing track Under You a perfect way to end the EP and to me it is the most anthem-like song I have heard you guys write. What were you all going for on this?

DK: Under You was basically written completely by Gary. I contributed with lyrics, but the majority of the song is his. I can say that collectively, Under You always had that “roll credits” feeling for us. The perfect song to conclude a movie soundtrack. We wanted to record the song so it would just feel incredibly warm to the listener. We love to play it live after Black Sheep, so we organized the sequence on the EP the very same way. The listener rises out of the auditory assault of Black Sheep and into the warmth of Under You . The contrast of the chaos of Black Sheep’s finale into the inviting, opening chords of Under You, it just feels like we’ve traveled through something together and now we are home. As a result, Under You is frequently our last song during the live set and a fitting way to say goodnight.

MK: What’s in store for the future of Totem?

DK: In our immediate future we have several big shows already booked. Saturday October 9th at The Middle East Down, Saturday October 30th at Precinct, Wednesday November 24th at the Tinker’s Son in Norwell (a rare hometown show) and then Saturday January 8th for a free birthday show at Church. We would love to continue to play one or two shows a month, alternating between Boston and the South Shore. The EP was just released at the end of the summer, so we will continue to promote the songs and have already received some airplay on 92.5 The River and 100.7 WZLX Boston Emissions. The past year has just been incredible for us. From recording a new EP, to receiving radio play for the very first time, having the good fortune of playing to sold out venues from Boston to the South Shore and now capping it off with a show at The Middle East Downstairs. It is just an incredible honor for us and we are so thankful for the year we have had. Gary and I are also in the early stages of writing a new collection of songs to be considered for our next EP, hopefully to be completed within the following year.

You can see Totem rocking club to club in October at the Middle East Downstairs on October 9th and at Hear Now Live’s annual Halloween Hangover V at Precinct on October 30th. Don’t miss out on a mind changing experience!
Totem is Gary Alex, Dave Kaslauskas, Lee Alex, Mark Matta & Doug Reilly.

Un-carefully, Unedited by Mark Kaye

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