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Gary Epps interview
By Ben Ohmart
(more articles from this author)
2000-08-27
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Gary writes songs, sings them, and struggles to be heard in a nation of thousands of other struggling, singing songwriters. What makes Him so different? Perhaps it's his dedication, his constant gigging, and being liked by a few fans. Couldn't hurt!

[Ben Ohmart] Some songwriters feel forced into performing, thinking 'well, who Else is gonna sing my wares?' Which side of the singer-songwriter coin do you favor? Why is that?

[Gary Epps] From time to time I have entertained the idea of placing a song with a well-known artist and have pursued that to some degree. I think on the whole, though, that I write tunes for me to sing. It would be silly to say that I wouldn't want a tune, let's say, on a Don Henley album. I think all writers want success on some level and nothing says success quite like money does. For the time being, as I have for quite a few years now,( 20 yrs. or more!!!) I have been okay with playing out doing primarily cover tunes with enough of my stuff sprinkled in to feel like I'm makin' progress. It is a difficult battle mentally sometimes when you get a cold response to something you have worked really hard on and then have the club go wild over something like "Old Time Rock and Roll." I guess I don't feel the singer-songwriter label applies adequately to what I do because I'm a decent guitar player and I'm developing some reasonably good production and keyboard skills as well. If pushed to pick a side of the previous coin, I'd choose songwriter and that's primarily due to an on-going struggle I have with feeling good about what I do vocally. While I do like the way my voice records, I often wish that I had more range and stronger technical abilities.

[Ben] What's your approach to songwriting? Wake up in the middle of the night, pound away on the keyboard? Or do you keep a Post-It pad and pencil strapped to your forearm always?

[Gary] Actually, neither of those scenarios has ever occurred in my household. I guess different tunes come in different ways. Occasionally, I will be struck with an intense desire to say something in particular, usually to do with people I love, and write a song in a couple of hours. Oddly enough, these tunes are often some of the stronger ones that I've written. I guess it's the passion that sets them apart. The song "In Her Tears," which is on my new CD, is an example of one of these. At other times, I will start with a certain feel or rhythm and work with a chord progression over that until I'm struck with something that is hopefully unique. These songs always take longer and are generally weaker lyrically because they are more forced, in that I have to seek subject matter and develop the song from there. Probably the most common way I write is to find a single line lyrically that works well with a progression and build on that. This can also take a while but if I like what's happening my motivation stays high and I might finish a tune in a few days. Usually, however, arrangement and all takes place over a period of months and I'll have a few things goin' at once. It always amazes me how different a song might turn out after it goes through the process from demo to final mix. Sometimes what I thought would work great sucks and some simple idea I gave absolutely no credence to makes the song.

[Ben] Now that you're a couple cds into The Biz, what do you think of the constant chore of song plugging? How do you keep driving yourself to excel?

[Gary] This is where I really fall down on the job. Continuous pitching is time-consuming and disheartening all at once. I'll go through a period where I'll send a bunch of stuff out and sit and wait for some response. Often there is no response which is frustrating. Also, the business part, to me, is somewhat of a bore. I'll find myself worrying too much about trends and what I'm hearing on the radio (if I can stand to listen to it) which is detrimental to my process. And that's because I'm not 20 years old. Okay, let's be honest, I'm not 30 years old. I think for most of us, the popular music of our youth, forms the biggest part of our tastes as we go through life. I have always liked "pop" music, although I certainly have made my forays into more eclectic genres, and I am driven by what I feel is a pop sensibility but this doesn't carry over into the business world.

[Ben] Hopes? Dreams? Ambitions? What are you shooting for in the short run, and the long run?

[Gary] My band, "NO REGRETS" has been together for almost eight years now, having the same members for most of that time. Unfortunately, or maybe not so unfortunately, things are changing and I'm looking for a couple of new members. The band continues to work and, in the short run, I intend to keep it doing so. Of course, I'll throw in my stuff and sell CD's from the stage. In the long run, I guess I still dream about having that major hit that would bring recognition and fortune. What is nice is that I'm pretty darn comfortable with the way my life is now. I have a wonderful family and a very supportive spouse who pushes me more than I push myself when it comes to my music. But to shift gears and go out on the road for any extended period of time would take a lot of sacrifice. I guess I'll cross that bridge when it appears and, in the mean time, keep writing, pitching, and recording.

[Ben] I sure like your 'Fascination' song. Do you have any personal favorites? What are the stories behind them?

[Gary] Actually 'Fascination' is one of my favorite tunes on the CD too. I guess it fulfills my need for expression of the jazz influence I got from my dad who was a professional trumpet player. This is a straight-up love song that is asking a simple question. Is this real? "Legend In This Town" is another one of my favorites. This was written about a homeless guy who I used to see frequently. He obviously had some mental health issues, but it intrigued me to contemplate what it would be like to live his life. "Stephen's Song" was written after a close friend of mine died of cancer. I guess I felt a need to, on some level, honor his life in a way that was important to me. I have mixed feelings about this type of tune as far as commercial value because they are so personal but I think ultimately people can relate and if they can relate they might like it.

[Ben] Is it possible to have a favorite song and say 'Gee, I don't know if this will be a hit', and then you pick a single to promote that you don't personally care as much for? You're going to have to play your Hits more than your misses. Or do you let the audiences decide for you?

[Gary] I definitely have had songs that I felt real good about on a musicianship level and had it fall flat with an audience. I try to not take that too hard and remember that people rarely like anything the first time around and a big part of how radio works is the repetition. In a live situation you don't have the luxury of multiple listenings which makes the music "grow on you" as occurs with big time radio. A lot of the tunes that become hits these days are created by the companies that promote them. Britney Spears' latest album, for example, had so much promo up front, including all-day programs on VH1 and Disney, that the day the CD hit the stores the hits were there. In my opinion, and maybe the opinion of many others, I don't feel the material warrants that kind of success. But hey, that is the business, and that is how it has always been to some degree. (Anyone, remember "New Kids On The Block?") Anyway, to be more specific, it would be nice to get to the point some day where I actually had to decide what song was going to be the single, i.e., get that record deal.

[Ben] How far does/should promotional thinking go into song construction? I've heard horror stories about the corporate suits telling bands/artists how long a should be, how to get key words into the songs, exactly how many ballads should be on the cd, etc. Do you find yourself doing Any of this yet?

[Gary] It shouldn't, but of course it does. Oh yeah, I have considered pop form in my writing for a long time although I didn't always. Most of my tunes these days have typical verse, chorus, verse, chorus, bridge, chorus type structure. Some of my earlier work was actually much more adventurous structurally and I even wrote a few instrumentals, except for maybe a bridge or middle section with a vocal. A song I wrote that was mostly instrumental called "Too Few Answers" received a fair amount of airplay on a station in the Chico area and that tune had that type of structure. I'm trying to keep my stuff well under four minutes these days but it doesn't always happen. That is most likely due to the fact that I still like guitar solos. God knows you don't hear a lot of solos in most of the stuff on the radio today.

[Ben] How about dousing us with your favorite gig story?

[Gary] Oh, have I got a gig story for you! Let's see if it translates into the bizarre scenario it was. I guess it's probably been ten years or more when the band I was working with at the time, "Three Fingers," was called to do something quite unusual. Apparently the new manager of a Shell gas station right off the I-5 freeway near Sacramento, California thought it would be a good idea to have a little rock band to celebrate the station opening. Yep, they set us up right on the islands there. People would pull in and look at us like we were from another planet. Can you imagine ZZ Top's "La Grange" blaring at you when you get out of your car and reach for the unleaded? It was embarrassing. What a musician will do for a hundred bucks sometimes is pretty pathetic. But hey, it makes for a great story.

[Ben] I notice on the website you said you're seeking a regular bass player. Have you found him yet, or does your site need a real update? Speaking of bass, do you really Need one? I know the bass is good for musically keeping the direction of the song, but sometimes I can't even Hear the bass on an album. Or is it a case of you'd know if you Didn't hear him?

[Gary] In the world of the gigging local musician the web site ALWAYS needs an update, but on that bass player front, yep, we are still looking. I've played with an extremely talented bassist/vocalist for some 8 years, so he has set the bar pretty high on this one. Bass is definitely important for establishing that powerful bottom end with the drummer's kick that is crucial for my music and every rock song ever written. I think it's fair to say that if a bass player isn't present on a track or, worse, if the bass player is awful, you'd definitely know something was amiss.

[Ben] How about a plug for yourself, Gary? What's on the horizon? What do you need to say that hasn't yet been said?

[Gary] I've got some radio interviews scheduled in the bay area and they're going to incorporate my CD into their playlists. What do I need to say that hasn't yet been said? Check out my web site: www.garyeppsmusic.com, get on our email list, and, for the love of independently produced music, buy my CD, "Fascination." You'll find information on how to do that at my web site. Also, for the "No Regrets" fans in the Sacramento Valley, we"ll be scheduling more gigs in the area so keep an eye out for us. Thanks a lot, Ben, for taking the time to ask great questions. It was cathartic and reminded me of why I do what I do. musically yours, Gary


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