Q&A with Tammy Ealom of Dressy Bessy
Denver's Dressy Bessy was first profiled in Westword a decade ago; click here to read the original piece. However, Tammy Ealom, who fronts the group, is as creatively vibrant and vital as ever. She makes that clear in "After an Extended break, Dressy Bessy's Tammy Ealom Feels Like She's Starting Over," a new feature in the October 16 edition, which is timed to correspond with the band's Saturday, October 18 CD-release performance at the Bluebird Theater, as well as in the wide-ranging Q&A below.
The conversation begins with Ealom, speaking from a tour stop in New Jersey, looking back on the period represented by the earlier article, albeit in a hazy manner. (She says the group got started in late 1997 when it actually germinated the previous year.) From there, she gabs about her early musical turn in the late, lamented Denver act 40th Day; her nascent songwriting experiments, aided immeasurably by John Hill, her significant other, who's also a member of the Apples in Stereo; her love of photography, complete with descriptions of shots used in the packaging for Holler and Stomp, the outfit's latest album; the hip-hop spelling of the new disc's "Simple Girlz," and her unexpected grounding in R&B; her decision to take an extended break following the lengthy tour for the 2005 CD Electrified; an amusingly painful anecdote about Red Rocks; the trouble with drummers; the two players added to the lineup for the band's current series of dates; and her hope that she's still rocking ten years hence.
No one should bet against her.
Westword (Michael Roberts): Where are you right now?
Tammy Ealom: We’re in the middle of New Jersey. We’re in Jackson at our bass player Rob’s parents’ house. We played Asbury Park last night. You know, Bruce Springsteen and all that stuff.
WW: Did you bring out a Springsteen cover for the occasion?
TE: No, but I did put a bandana around my leg (laughs).
WW: I just looked back to see when Westword’s first major Dressy Bessy profile ran, and it was July 1998. So happy ten-year anniversary.
TE: Thank you! (Laughs.)
WW: You guys had been together about a year before then, right?
TE: Let me think back. I think we formed at the end of ’97, and we had our first show, I think, in January of ’98. We just started making noise, and here we are, still doing it.
WW: Does it seem like it’s been that long?
TE: No, it doesn’t, because this is just what we do. It feels like we’re just getting started. It feels like that with every release: Like, “Here we go again. Let’s do it!” It’s fresh and exciting. You never know what to expect. You just go out and rock, you know? I’m not in this to be a rock star. I just want to go out and rock people’s socks off. I rock my own off, too. It’s good exercise.
WW: Before Dressy Bessy formed, you were in a band that a lot of local music fans probably remember: 40th Day.
WW: That band’s music had virtually nothing in common with the kind of music you’ve gone on to make in Dressy Bessy. Is that one of the reasons you decided to move on? It just didn’t fit your personality?
TE: Basically. 40th Day had been around for something like ten years before I joined, so I was coming in at the tail end of it. I just auditioned for the band for the fun of it – like, “Sure, okay, I’ll do it. Okay, cool.” And I found out I had a knack for melody and an idea for song arrangements. And toward the end, they started using more guitar stuff. Jim Nasi mainly played bass for them, but toward the end, he picked up a guitar, and Mindy [Weinberg] was doing more bass stuff. So we did have more rock songs coming out. But I didn’t have any control of arrangements or parts of songs or anything like that, and that’s basically why I moved on and learned how to play guitar real quick. I had an idea how songs should go in my head, anyway, and the only way to get them out was just to break off, do it.
WW: When you started writing songs, were you surprised by what came out? Or was it more like the clouds parted and the sun shone and you realized this was what you were supposed to be doing in the first place?
TE: Yeah, that’s kind of it. For me, I grew up in a crafts family. My mom always did crafts and it all fits in with that. It’s like doing crocheting or something. You’re making something that’s useful in the end.
WW: I also came across an interview you did with another publication in which you said the first song you ever wrote was called “Mr. Man.” Is that right?
TE: Oh, yeah. [Sings] “Hey, there, Mr. Man. Where you going…” Yeah, totally. That’s a good one, actually. I should bring that one back. I don’t think we ever recorded it.
WW: What’s it about?
TE: John. John and I had been dating since before the band started. The Apples were touring a lot when we first started dating, and that was kind of hard. But he bought me a guitar for my birthday and left me a four-track, showed me how to use it, and I wrote songs about him (laughs).
WW: So he’s Mr. Man?
TE: He’s Mr. Man! He’s still the man (laughs).
WW: You were also very involved in photography back then, and you’ve certainly gotten a chance since then to use those skills on all your albums. Have you done any other professional photography over the years, too?
TE: I wouldn’t say professional. I’ve shot a few friends’ bands in town. But I shoot. I’m constantly taking pictures. I get my friends to come over and do art projects. I have this thing I’ve been doing where, say, I take a picture of you with a guitar, and then we switch your outfit and put a wig on you and then we see what your character does when you’re holding a bass. And then I cut you all out and put you in a band. It’s pretty fun. I’m constantly shooting. I have to. I get depressed if I don’t. That’s part of my existence, also.
WW: The new album has a very elaborate graphic design. Is putting something like that together as much fun for you as making the music that goes in it?
TE: Absolutely. It’s all intertwined. It all starts around the same time. If I’m working on a song and I start feeling, like, well, I’m sort of sick of this, I’ll start working on the visual aspect of it. And sometimes that’ll inspire me to go back and finish the song.
WW: So you might be stuck and you go out and take a photo, and that picture might be the key to unlocking the rest of the song?
TE: Yeah, totally. And taking a photograph and working that into the artwork, too. On the new album, all the stuff in there, that’s all building materials and architecture from around Denver.
WW: Where did you shoot?
TE: I live in Congress Park, that neighborhood, and when you walk down the alleys and see the buildings, it feels like you’re in another country, almost – like you’re in London or something. The front of people’s houses are all manicured and polished, but in the back, there are all these stacks of bricks, you know, and purple window frames that have been purple since the ‘70s. So I just took photos of that, mainly in my neighborhood, in the Congress Park area. Very inspiring.
WW: When your band first got started, there weren’t many other Denver bands that were making a big impression nationally, but that’s changed lately. Have you noticed that now when you say you’re from Denver, people perk up in ways they might not have years ago?
TE: Yeah, but not necessarily because of the music scene. Just because people are traveling to Denver and checking it out and loving our climate. Just loving the whole city. Going, “Oh my God, I’ve always wanted to move to Denver.”
WW: Has that accelerated at all since the convention and all the attention the city got because of that?
TE: Yeah, it has, I think. Just those television images. It’s so beautiful in Denver. It’s kind of unfortunate people are figuring that out, because I kind of enjoyed it just being for us (laughs). People have always asked, “What’s the scene like in Denver?” And I’ve been like, “I don’t know. I just stay in my basement and make my own scene.” That’s been kind of the draw to living in Denver. There’s not been a scene for me. You can just eat well, hang out with your cats and make good music.
WW: I noticed that the Apples still list Denver as home, too. Does that make John the root of the tree?
TE: I guess so. He’s definitely the hardest working, and hardest rocking, man in the music business. He just got off of a couple-year run with the Apples and their last album, and he went straight into this one. He’s in charge. He knows what he’s doing and keeps everybody in line. So he’s definitely the rock of the band – although he’s got a lot of roll, too.
WW: You guys have a pretty large discography at this point. How would you say the band’s sound has evolved over the years?
TE: I’ve personally gotten more comfortable with my songwriting, my message, my voice. We’re on our fourth drummer here now, and that changes things a little bit. But I think we’ve just gotten better, and it takes time for a band to really figure out and become good at what they have to offer. And I think that’s what we’re doing.
WW: Every review you get seems to focus on the bright pop aspects of the music, but you’ve mentioned “rocking” a couple of times in this conversation. It seems to me you rock harder than you used to. Do you think so, too?
TE: Maybe. Some of it has to do with just being more comfortable and more confident, and just having the right players, you know? When you have a stinker in the band who’s holding you back, it’s kind of hard to pull it all together.
WW: I’m guessing you don’t want to name any names…
TE: I don’t think we need to. We’ll just leave it at that. But I’ve definitely gotten better at just being me.
WW: One thing you guys have never been accused of being hip-hop, which is why the spelling of “Simple Girlz” stood out. Or is that song as close as you get to rap?
TE: I don’t know. I just started listening to the Sex Pistols five years ago. I came up on New Edition and Prince and stuff like that. I’ve definitely got a little soul in me, and I think that’s coming out more and more, too. When I first started playing in a band, I was obsessed with ‘60s music, and I still am. I just went back and tried to find it all and listen to it all. But now, I’m listening to a lot of ‘70s stuff: funk and rock. So we’re pretty hip-hop! That’s right!
WW: When you sat down to start putting together the new album, did you have an overall theme or approach in mind? Or do you look at the songs you’ve written over a certain period of time and see which ones fit together?
TE: Each album, the songs that come out are the album. But for this one – well, we toured behind Electrified for pretty much two years, and when we came home, I was fed up with the music business and touring. Not that I was going to quit, but I just needed to be home and not be thinking about a new record. So when I started coming up with these songs, there was no release date or any record looming ahead. I could just sit down and sing about my cat and work it out, or sing about what it’s like to be on the road. In the past, songs have usually come because there was some sort of animosity or turmoil going on in my life and it made me feel better to get it out in a song. But with this album, there wasn’t any of that, to be honest. I was just happy to be home, be in Colorado, and be there for a while. Because we’d been at it fucking hard for ten years: record after record, tour after tour. I just felt like people can’t give themselves a break. You’ve got to keep pushing, and I’m not sure why. It’s just something in my heart: “You can’t stop, you can’t stop. Go!” And I finally let myself stop, and I love the results.
WW: So how long a gap was it?
TE: Two years? A year and a half?
WW: A year and a half out of the rush of the music business?
TE: Yeah – and just sort of reflecting on what else is important to me and putting it into song. It was cool.
WW: Did the break make you feel reenergized?
TE: Absolutely. It’s a whole new day.
WW: Less than a month ago, you guys played the Monolith Festival. Was that your first time to play Red Rocks?
TE: No, we played Film on the Rocks back in… 2004?
WW: I imagine that venue means a lot to you guys. You’ve probably seen a lot of shows there over the years…
TE: Oh, yeah. I took my daughter to see No Doubt there. I don’t know how many years ago that was. I actually broke my collarbone there at a Blues Traveler show. That’s a pretty funny story…
WW: Let’s hear it.
TE: Well, I was living in Colorado Springs and I was hanging with a pseudo-hippie crowd, I suppose. And some friends had tickets to Blues Traveler at Red Rocks, and I had the car – so I was like, “Sure, I’ll go.” I didn’t have a ticket, but I said, “I’ll go.” It’s fun to hang out in the parking lot anyway. And we get there, and after some excessive drinking, my friends decided they were going to go in, and this kid Josh and I, neither one of us had tickets – so we had this bright idea that we were going to rush the gates. And you know how they’ve got two sides and there’s someone taking tickets on each side? We just ran through, both of us, and split up and went down the stairs on each side. And as soon as I hit that top landing, my flip-flop flipped under my foot because the part that fits between your toes broke. And I flew down that first flight of stairs and landed on my shoulder. I flew head first. It could have been really, really bad. The adrenaline was going: I just jumped up and ran into the crowd and got lost, because I didn’t want to get caught.
So we’re hanging out, and I’m thinking, “Man, this really hurts.” I kept stretching my arm. There was no more drinking at this point; I was really hurting. So I went up to the EMTs, and they said, “Oh, just stretch it out. You probably pulled something.” So I stayed for the concert, stretching and da-da-da. And then afterward, I’m driving home and my friends are all passed out. And I’m like, I need to get to a hospital and figure this out. And I friggin’ broke my collarbone.
WW: Did you go to the hospital the next day?
TE: No, I went that night, at like, three in the morning or something. Once I got everybody home, I called my mom to come get me. I was like, “Mom, come help me.” And it was Blues Traveler! I didn’t even know their music. It was like, what the hell?
WW: Can you listen to Blues Traveler now without feeling a sharp pain in your shoulder?
TE: I don’t know. I haven’t listened to them for a while. I’ll put some on and let you know (laughs). Holy shit, that was horrible. Stupid, stupid girl…
WW: On your current tour, you’re mostly playing clubs and theaters, right?
WW: What are the best and the worst things about playing those types of venues?
TE: I love little rock clubs where you’re at about floor level, because it’s a little more intimate and you can actually feel the energy coming off of people. Because you can see them, versus a taller stage where the lights are in your eyes and you can just see silhouettes – and you think people are moving but you’re not sure. Of course, there can sometimes be sound guys who think they know everything and they really don’t know anything… I don’t want to go too far into that, either. I don’t want to start slamming everybody.
WW: On the last album, you had success placing some songs on soundtracks, and you got the opportunity to play on the Conan O’Brien show. Anything like that in the offing this time around?
TE: It’s coming. But it’s been about three years since we put an album out, and when you wait that long, we’ve discovered, and with all the fucking bands there are right now, we’re just breaking through again. You basically have to start again – like, “Here we are! We’re Dressy Bessy! Check us out!” This is kind of our get-warmed-up, get-back-in-the-swing sort of tour. There is stuff in the works, stuff coming up, but we’ve got three years worth of work to make up for with this album. So we’re just getting started.
WW: On the tour thus far, have you been seeing some familiar faces coming out?
TE: Yeah, definitely. And everybody seems to be loving the songs on the new album. They’re coming across really well.
WW: Are you enjoying the band as much now as you ever did?
TE: I think I’m enjoying it more.
WW: Why do you think that is?
TE: Well, for one thing, we have a couple of new touring members. Craig Gilbert, who is our drummer – he recorded on Electrified and Holler and Stomp – he’s a family man. He’s got two little kids and he just bought a greeting-card business, so he can’t tour as extensively as we need to. So we grabbed a couple of friends from home.
WW: Who are they?
TE: The drummer is James Barone. He plays in Mothership. He’s a young guy, 24, and he’s really eager and really good, and really easy to play with. In the past, I’ve had trouble finding drummers who respect my vision and my idea of how beats should fit into a song. I’ve always had that trouble. With this album, I built all of the beats. That was one of the reasons I wanted to get away for a while. I was like, I want to show the world I know what I’m talking about. And there’s also Paul Garcia. He’s doing keyboards and backing vocals and third guitar, percussion. Filling in all the blanks. He’s a songwriter, too, and his band is called Pacific Pride. They’ve done a few shows around town. It’s cool. Neither one of them have really toured at all. They’re finding out, “Wow, this isn’t just a big vacation.” It’s good for them for the future – for if they decide they want to go this route or not.
Everybody’s just fitting in and letting me be in charge, which has always been a problem, too. I’m not bossy, but I definitely know how the songs are supposed to go. Who better? So I’m much happier. I feel like we’re gelling really well and there’s no weird personality things that will nip you in the butt six weeks later. Like, “Fuck! I hate you!” And that can affect your performance and everything. So we’re really good. We’re a kick-ass band right now.
WW: I guess we might as well schedule that twentieth anniversary Westword profile right now…
TE: There we go! That’s what I’m talkin’ about!