In a warehouse in Kensington, stuffed with Halloween decorations, woodworking equipment, and a turtle pond, Gringo Motel finds space for their practice sessions.
It’s an odd place for a band with an odd history. Forced to move out of their former recording studio when the building was shut down after a murder, the band is now tucked away in a tiny makeshift room covered in plastic sheets (think Dexter‘s Kill Room, but with musical instruments). There, they record albums about chickens and romantic betrayal, and see a rotating lineup of musicians that changes from gig to gig.
Give me some background on Gringo Motel.
Tom Scheponik (founder): It started out 15 years ago. It was basically just me. I came up with all these ideas. Soundtrack stuff, Mexican influence, Day of the Dead soundscapes. And I started recording. I play all these instruments, and I’d slowly get people involved. But I couldn’t get people to commit. Because every good musician is always in another project. So the whole idea of Gringo Motel is just people who stop by and play for a while. No commitment, you can leave whenever you want. So people show up, they’re good enough that they can learn pretty fast, almost like jazz. Mark’s been playing the longest, since about 2006. Gary’s only played one gig with us, but it’s been a couple months.
It always changes. I have two or three other people on the backburner, that play different instruments, like accordion, a second guitar. I’ll pick a date, say I’ll want to put this show on. Sometimes I have ideas of what I want to do, based on who can be available. I’ve done a solo, a two piece, to up to six pieces.
So you’re basically the Blues Brothers. You drive around and pick people up.
Tom: To a point. I answered one Craigslist ad from a trumpet player, and I was so excited. He was kinda timid. He was doing good with me, but every time I brought him into a band situation he was absolutely terrible. I was kind of glad he moved away, because I didn’t have to kick him out of the band. I like having a different lineup for every show, based on who can make it.
What got each of you into music?
Richard Breazzano (drums): My mom put herself through college playing piano, so I was just always around it.
Tom: My dad was a musician. He got me playing piano at five. He taught me clarinet. I was like a prodigy, that’s all I did was play music. My whole family did too but then my sister gave it up and my brother switched over to the drums. I was the only one to actually continue.
Gary Zampini (bass): I was the fourth grade.
I bet you were all cool in school.
Tom: I wouldn’t say clarinet is cool. And being first chair, I wouldn’t say that’s cool either.
What do you guys do outside of the band?
Mark Gallagher (tenor and baritone sax): I’m married, I have a daughter four years old.
Gary: Work, surfing, I fix cars, play in other bands, just like the rest of us.
Tom: We’re all in like four different bands. I’m a recording engineer, so I work in music all day, and I do art, and I cook. Everything’s a creative process.
Rich: I say too much. I work a lot. I do a lot of ornamental and architectural stuff. I have a record collection, still sit in front of speakers like I’m five years old. That’s my day.
What about musical influences for each of you?
Rich: The Muppet Show. We all had The Muppet Show. Who did not have that when they were growing up? For the record, Gary raised his hand.
Gary: I played a lot of classical music when I was young. So it was a different instrument. I don’t know how the two are related except how you hear them. Rock, punk, pop, jazz. Go down the line. I have trouble spending time on anything in particular, I have a short attention span.
Tom: I grew up not in a rock scene at all. I didn’t listen to the radio. I listed to Eastern European music, polka music, mariachi music, surf music, classical soundtracks like tangos, flamenco. I think my first cassette I had was Run DMC, and it was a copy. I would just get records from my sister. She had a weird collection. If you looked at her, she was a Q102 type person, but I guess she was going through a phase.
Mark: My mom listened to all the good rock and roll. Like The Beatles, Grateful Dead, Steppenwolf, The Guess Who, Chicago. And then my dad listened to Rachmaninoff, Andy Williams and Gordon Lightfoot. So it was a lot of classical influence from one side, and rock and roll influence from the other side.
Gary: My mom would just go to the record store and ask what’s popular now, and get gifts like Metallica, and the next one would be the Bee Gees. She didn’t know what they are, who they are.
Rich: We’re pretty much all on the same wavelength. Mom being a piano player, she would listen to Mozart, but also rock and roll. My dad, he was more the old school Italian style anthem music. So it was all over the place. And my mom was into The Stones, The Beatles, but then she’d listen to Mozart. And as a staple, my babysitter for a really long time – it was Star Wars, the theme song, and the other side was 2001, and she would sit me down and put it on and I would just sit and listen to it. The soundscapes of that, especially classical music, it’s insane. You have three different instruments making a chord, and you hear it all, it’s pretty cool. And you get beat up a lot in high school for talking about stuff like that.
I saw on your website you’re working on your fourth album, how did that go?
Tom: Since there’s a lot of projects going on in the space, I do pretty much all the recording. I play a lot of the instruments, but I do try to get people to come in and play some of the parts. So the vision is not just mine. We had a hiatus because we lost our space from a murder that happened. What was funny was I was there the next morning early in the morning, the side of the building was closed off and I didn’t even know, I just walked in and was recording for four hours.
So you returned to the scene of the crime?
Tom: I did. It happened an hour after we left. But now we’re back on track and we’re tweaking the album, it’s almost done. It’s like working on a piece of art, when is it finished? It could be done, and you’re just fed up with it. I’m not at that point yet. I’m getting some more ideas. It should be coming out by summer.
Does this one have a crazy story?
Tom: They all do. People write and sing about politics, and I like coming up with intriguing stories about animals, and love triangles between a bull and a child and a rooster. It goes back to the circus theme, like the last album. It’s about a bird town, and a bird circus, you have these bird hit men. It’s like the mafia, but done in a Mexican Day of the Dead type feel. There’s a bearded lady, but it’s a bird. It’s basically a bird circus.
Mark: I don’t know if you’re familiar with the term – bird circus.
Rich: This is what’s going on in Tom’s head while he’s playing guitar.
Tom: It’s a different way to look at it, but I guess it is social issues and class. It’s such a serious album. It’s a story about El Sombrero, a Mexican folk figure. He’s like a Zorro figure. He’s a practical joker, and he goes around, and when women aren’t looking he’ll braid their hair while they’re sleeping, or steal something, or move cups around. It’s really stupid practical jokes. When the women aren’t around, he’ll braid the horses. There’s all these characters in the town, and the story is based around that.
What are you looking forward to most about playing Art for the Cash Poor?
Tom: I like Art for the Cash Poor. We’ve done it three years in a row. The whole idea of Gringo Motel when it first started was to combine art and music. I used to do painting. I still do. All the art on the covers are all the paintings I’ve done.
Rich: We’re also a jinxed band. We’ve had massive injuries happen to us before gigs.
Tom: His first gig at the Rotunda, it was a packed show, City Paper writeup and everything. He got a piece of metal jammed in his eye.
Rich: It was a work accident.
Tom: It was bad. And then we played another outdoor show for the Kensington food co-op. The building had industrial windows. Mark comes out, steps in dog waste, trips and hits his head so it’s bleeding.
Mark: It was not all one fluid motion. If I could only be so graceful. I hit my head, cut it open, was bleeding profusely. They gave me a bright blue band-aid, I proceeded to warm up facing the wall so I could hear myself. And realized I was standing in a heap of dog waste on the ground. And everyone’s yelling at me, ‘Come on it’s time to go.’ So I proceeded to play while wiping waste off my one foot.
Rich: But don’t forget about the second dog pile, which made the night. You stepped in it again. You were a few beers in at that point.
Tom: I’ve only had the microphone collapse on my hand. It’s my band and I’ve got nothing.
Because you take people out.
Rich: Why can’t we get musicians? They’re all short term. A lot of car accidents and weird stuff happens…
Do you have anything you want to add?
Rich: Mark plays the saxophone, Gary plays the bass, Tom plays everything. Except for the accordion and the saw.
Mark: And Rich plays the drums.
Rich: Badly. But being that I use very little setup, you really only have to flap your arms. Start slow, learn the middle.
Mark: Watch out for the cues.
Gary: Remember that there are cues.
Rich: I have a really bad habit of not opening my eyes.
Mark: I try to cue him and his eyes are closed.
So Mark sweats blood, Rich sleeps. It’s a good act.
Tom: We don’t know what Gary does yet. I’m sure it’s gonna be great. We can’t wait to see it.
Gringo Motel will be playing Art for the Cash Poor 15 on Sunday, June 15, 4 pm at Crane Arts. Click here for further details on the weekend, or buy tickets to the preview party benefiting AIDS Fund, June 13, 5:30 – 9 pm.