Speakeasy Tiger earned its current buzz the old-fashioned way - by working hard and writing great music
Kyle Simmons wasted no time making things happen when she first felt the call of music. "I started writing as a solo artist when I was fourteen, released a record at the age of sixteen, and then at the age of eighteen signed with a label."
Now frontwoman of Speakeasy Tiger, Simmons is beginning to see the fruits of her labor. Her band, which just finished its latest record, The Public, has generated a substantial buzz that has resulted in some label interest, consistent radio play and an invitation to perform at the Monolith Festival this fall. "I think a lot of people would be surprised how well your career can go — or anything you want to do in life — if you put the extra amount of time into it," says Simmons of her act's recent success. "And I think there's a big difference between a hobby and something you strive to live off."
Simmons began sowing the seeds for this harvest with Girl Named Kyle, her previous band, in which she played acoustic guitar and Pete Schmidt, current keytarist for Speakeasy Tiger, played piano. The pair met when Schmidt was the janitor of her middle school and Simmons came across him playing piano in the school's auditorium. "Yeah, we started recording demos in high school in his apartment," recalls Simmons, laughing, "when I was, like, old enough for it to be safe for me to go there." The two soon formed Girl Named Kyle and went on to record two records with session musicians who were brought in at the label's behest.
"It was more about money than it was about the time and effort that it really needed to come out correctly," says Simmons, noting that this approach didn't suit her. "It was very, 'I'm a 65-year-old drummer drumming on this girl's record. I don't connect to her. I didn't listen. I never saw it. I'm just playing through the songs.' I don't like to talk poorly about anybody, but I think I was very young and didn't necessarily do what I needed to do to stand up and know what I wanted."
Simmons and Schmidt eventually decided to put together a five-piece band to try to replicate the sound of the record. One of the members they recruited was Lauren Gale, who now plays bass in Speakeasy. "I promoted [Simmons's] first headlining show at the Bluebird," recalls Gale. "And she and I just kind of became friends. And so, like, nine days before this show at the Gothic, she had decided to assemble a band to kind of emulate the sound of the record, and she was like, 'Lauren, you play bass, right?' She had never heard me play bass before. So I just jumped on and then played the Gothic show nine days later, and that was like the scariest thing I've ever done in my life."
Although the extent of Gale's bassist experience amounted to six months of playing some five years previous, she lived up to the challenge. "Lauren was just better at playing bass than running promotion," jokes Simmons.
While Gale, Schmidt and Simmons still work together, the other two members Simmons recruited didn't fare so well. About a year later, they were "respectfully released." It wasn't the working relationship that prompted that decision, but a desire to take the project to a new level. "It was just a different level of commitment," Simmons explains. "Everyone has their different idea of what it takes to be successful."
On the heels of the split with the other two, the three remaining members dissolved Girl Named Kyle and auditioned two new players for what they visualized as a more rock-oriented project, Speakeasy Tiger. Guitarist Tavis Alley and drummer Luke Gordon soon joined the fold. Both came from backgrounds playing metal — an interesting addition to three musicians who had made their name playing what was essentially folk rock.
"My first mildly successful band was metal," says Gordon, "and I played metal for about three years. Speakeasy Tiger was a 180-degree turnaround from what I had been doing before, completely different. Even the way I set up my drum kit I changed when I joined this band, just to make myself change the way that I played drums."
Alley took a more adaptive approach. "I always like to fool around with my older influence and stuff," he notes, "and sometimes a lot of that comes out and I can just kind of transpose it and make it something new, and then it'll fit with the band. When I first joined the band, I had to kind of train my mind to not think in metal mode like the way it used to."
Despite the odd mixture, Gordon and Alley agree that it was the level of commitment of the other three that drew them to the band, which has made a habit of playing every show it can get, promoting relentlessly and practicing three days a week, four hours a day. "We disperse all our work evenly," says Gordon. "I think that was the biggest attraction to me, is that everybody here cares and wants to do this; they want to make a living off this."
Part of the work that ended up being dispersed was songwriting duties. Whereas Simmons and Schmidt had once written most of the material, the new band began writing songs as a group. "One weekend, everyone had left town, and Pete and I were in town together," Simmons remembers, "and we spent the weekend, just Pete and I, writing just kind of how we normally do it, just feeling out how to get certain ideas to the other three. But then it just automatically happened. It was almost easier to have all five of us involved than it was for one or two of us to write, which developed a really cool sound, because everyone came at it with a different angle."
The shift happened almost immediately. "One thing I remember specifically about the collaborative process," says Gale, "is the first time I played with Tavis, he had learned the songs from our EP, and it was like, 'Cool, well let's just jam.' So we started jamming, and that's went we started writing 'She Says' (from The Public). I had this bass line, and he came up with something else, and it was just, boom — that was it. It was like the first time we ever even played together, we started writing a song that wound up on our record."
The new approach to songwriting produced some radically different songs from what Girl Named Kyle had been producing. For one thing, Schmidt slowly but surely brought his love of dance music to the band by shifting ever further away from piano and toward the synth-playing he had been cultivating on his own since the days of Girl Named Kyle. "For years," says Schmidt, "I spent hours upon hours sitting in my apartment, trying to make my own dance music.
The effort eventually paid off, as he was able to apply this new approach to Speakeasy Tiger while it was still developing. "I think, at first, I was very fearful of that," Simmons confesses. "Like, 'Whoa, we're not going to a rave — bring it down a notch.'"
But Schmidt won her over in the end, and synthesizers figure prominently into the dance-rock sound of The Public, aided by the disco-style drum-machine beats of Gordon, the driving bass lines of Gale and the near-side-of-butt-rock guitar playing of Alley, which he insists is completely unintentional ("It's funny you say that, because I never listen to any of those bands").
Together the members of Speakeasy Tiger have crafted the kind of zeitgeist sound that only the right instincts can create, with a sheen that comes from unyielding hours of polishing. And Simmons and company have no plans to stop working now.
"I think if anything, we're working harder now that the record is finished," says Simmons, "and I think it's because you have to. If you don't, there's no way you're going to survive."
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