Joey DeGraw interview
September 8, 2009 by Beatweek
iProng Magazine talks with Joey DeGraw, who has recently released his new album Say Something Strong…
interview by Bill Palmer
Never afraid to say what he’s really thinking, singer-songwriter-guitarist and New York City bar owner Joey DeGraw has just released his sophomore album Say Something Strong which showcases his own brand of gritty (and often cynical) roots rock. While it’s not uncommon to visit The National Underground on Houston Street and find him out front chatting with patrons, Joey and I recently caught up with each other by phone while he was in the middle of promoting an album that was a long time in the making…
This is your first new record in four years. Does it feel like a relief to finally have it out the door and be able to say “here’s my new record”?
Oh My God, you have no idea. First of all, I made the whole thing on my own dime, on my own time, which sucked because I had to wait. It’s pretty much on my own dime and other people’s time. That’s what it really was, because I didn’t have the budget to have a studio on lockdown. Took me two years to make this record.
I remember you told me awhile ago about some of the plans for this album. I guess that was a couple years ago.
Yeah, so long, you know, forget about it. And it was a lot of money. I had to spend a lot of money out of my pocket, like I could afford it. Thank God for, like, voiceovers and shit. But you live life in between making your record, and I ended up opening the bar, just a ton of shit.
Let me ask you about The National Underground. Was opening a bar something you’ve always wanted to do, or was that a more recent ambition?
I always wanted to have a bar. Why not? Music venue. Especially in New York, where my brother [Gavin DeGraw] and I were consistently playing. It seems like we were making everybody else an awful lot of money when we would play there and have our after parties and what-not, so it made sense for us to have our own place and promote our own music, and other people’s music that we liked. The only obstacle now is dealing with the city of New York and their taxes and shit like that, you know?
There are a lot of music venues in New York. If you were pitching The National Underground to someone, what would you say makes it different than the one down the street?
Well there’s not that many music clubs in New York anymore, for live music. And one of the things that makes ours the most different is we don’t have a cover charge. We pay the bands. We don’t have a cover charge upstairs. We do have a cover charge downstairs, but that’s more like original music, some of it hit and miss. The upstairs is a home run every night.
I notice your new album is listed in iTunes as “copyright National Underground.” Can you see building that as a brand?
Of course, that’s the goal. There’s a television show in the works, based out of the bar, that follows my career and my brother’s career. There’s a product line we would like to sell besides our cheeseburgers, hamburgers, chicken, stuff like that. We’d like to have our own line of product. Our secret spice that we use for the burgers, stuff like that. Why not?
How important is it to you that you own this record, as opposed to being involved with a major or even someone else’s indie label?
The thing was, I wanted to make the record I wanted. And after I made it, then it was like okay, somebody help me, please? For me it was just about having artistic freedom as far as making the record. But after I made the record, I needed help from people that know how to work records.
When I look at the album cover I see that you’ve lined up the name “Say Something Strong” so that it spells out “SOS” and you’re also taking a piece of tape off of your mouth. What’s the symbolism of both of those things?
Well I think the whole record, looking back at the songs, there’s a common thread which is kind of disdain with the political correctness that goes on with the world and how you’ve got to be so afraid to speak your mind cause you may offend somebody. You look for things that motivate you as a songwriter, and “motivate” is not always a great word. It might be a great result, but motivate means that you could be motivated by somebody doing something bad or pissing you off, or having to live a certain way. It could be motivating for somebody to be gay to move to New York so they could live their life the way they wanted to live, as opposed to living in their small town. That’s not necessarily a good thing, being forced out of your area. But, you know, motivation comes from a lot of different places.
It would be easy to pin you as a cynic, by listening to the record and even by talking with you. Do you think of yourself as a cynic in general?
Probably, yeah. Definitely. I mean I’m optimistic as far as having big goals, but I’m cynical in government, I’m cynical in society in a lot of ways. I’m definitely cynical.
The opening track Waving At No One, are you the type that just hates all politicians in general, is this a song that could be thrown at any politician?
The inspiration actually came from when I was watching Hillary Clinton marching in a parade, and she looked like a fucking bobblehead to me. I was like look at this, are you kidding me? She’s waving at nobody. She’s not even waving at anyone, you know? So that’s where I came up with the idea for the song. But yeah, it certainly applies to all politicians. Let me fucking use you to get to what I want, to get to where I want to be, you know? People do that on a lot of different levels, not just in politics, you know. If you look into it too cynically, you could say that I’m using you to get press to promote my record, or you’re using me to get attention for your business.
There are new versions of some of your earlier songs on here. What made you decide to remake some of your own popular songs, like Our Own Time, for this record?
Well the producer of the record was like, “Hey man, in the whole grand scheme of things, you really didn’t sell shit. And if this record’s gonna get the kind of attention we’re kind of hoping it gets, then why would you give up on these songs? I’d like to redo them. They’re better live than they are on the record.” And I was like fine, I’ll definitely redo them. I said I’d like to make two records then, cause I have so much material. So we said alright, we’ll start with this one and then we’ll redo these four or five songs on this record, then we’ll move on and do another one if we’re happy with how it came out.
You’ve toured with your brother as part of his band, but in Europe you were opening for him. The two of you are very different as musicians, probably a lot more different that someone might think if they were just going to see two brothers. Some people are going to show up to see you, others are going to show up to see him, are you guys able to win over each other’s audiences when you’re each doing your own set?
Yeah, definitely. Live especially. It seems like a lot of the people that enjoy me, or enjoy my brother, really enjoy just strong live performances. And the music is not a million miles away. Obviously mine is grittier. It’s probably more Americana roots rock, more Tom Petty influenced, I would say. But they love his stuff too, you know. He’s impressive live. It’s not easy to do what he does. Running the risk of sounding arrogant, I think that people see what I’m doing as real, also. When I open up for him, they’re like “Hey, this guy’s good,” you know?
Last time I saw you, you had just gotten an iPhone. Are you still enjoying it?
Yeah. I mean there are certain cellular frustrations that I sometimes take out on the iPhone that are more AT&T’s fault, I’m sure. But the iPhone is an extremely competent, capable phone, and the restrictions from it are generally more my own technical incapabilities than the phone’s options.