Dada works 'Puzzle' 20 years later

Feb 7, 2013

In real life, 20 years is a long time. In rock ’n’ roll, it’s more like dog years: few bands stand the test of that much time unless they’re in the midst of a Hall of Fame career.

Then there’s Dada. The group earned a fiercely loyal following with their debut album “Puzzle” in 1992, and are in the middle of a six-week tour, their first since 2004. They play the Mad Frog in Clifton Tuesday night.

The centerpiece of “Puzzle” is “Dizz Knee Land,” an exquisite piece of hard pop that features the unique guitar work of Michael Gurley, the thumping bass of Joie Calio and the ferocious drumming of Phil Leavitt. It earned some radio play, but the timing wasn’t good. Music fans were being seduced by Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” and bands that leaned on strong harmonies and weren’t from Seattle were lost in the grunge shuffle.

“A lot of our fans would ask why we weren’t more popular,” Gurley laughs during a conversation before the group hit the road. “We actually have a thing when we start talking about it, we say, ‘No we shouldn’t talk about that.’

“We’ve boiled it down to mistakes were made. But there were so many things. Grunge was really big and we’re not a grunge band … that music was really popular, but we weren’t about to change our sound to become a grunge band.”

Dada stayed the course it set on “Puzzle,” which also features such standouts as “Dim,” “Dorina” and “Dog,” plus more tunes that don’t begin with D. They released a new record every two years through 1998 before taking time for other projects. In 2004, they toured behind “How to be Found.”

Although Dada is an on-and-off project these days, the 20th anniversary was a strong lure.

“It’s certainly a milestone and an achievement for any band to last 20 years,” Leavitt says on the band’s website. “So that’s really why I wanted to commemorate it because no matter the size of the career, if you can stick together and still have a desire to play music together after 20 years, you have accomplished something.”

Calio seconds that emotion.

“This tour will be about a reset in a way. Right now, I think Dada is about digging into our roots, examining and celebrating – enjoying it a little bit more.”

Those roots go back to Saratoga, Calif., where Gurley and Calio grew up. Oddly, they didn’t play music together in their Bay Area hometown, but connected after moving to Los Angeles independently of each other.

“I got into writing songs when I was about 18,” Gurley says, recounting his musical evolution that began when his uncle gave him a ukulele at age 7. “Looking back, I had to write about 250 songs before I wrote a really good one. It was a weird time, the ’80s, and my songs were so wordy and filled with stupid (stuff).”

What followed was the familiar odyssey of years spent chasing the rock star dream. Talent isn’t the arbiter of success. It’s more likely that luck, hard work and determination are the deciding factors.

“It took a lot of different bands and then hooking up with Joie as songwriting partners to really start writing good songs,” Gurley says. “We decided, let’s just write, write, write every day. I lived a block away from Joie at the time so we could get together a lot.

“We discovered our voices sounded good together, and we said, ‘Wow, we have this cool harmony thing going here.’ We were both huge Simon & Garfunkel fans and Beatles fans. When we finally played our first gig, people liked it.”

That wasn’t the first time Gurley enjoyed first-gig success.

“I was in a band at age 13 and we had to play a whole set for a junior high dance,” he says. “We didn’t know how many songs we needed for a gig, so we learned 10 or so. But the kids wanted to slow dance, these seventh- and eighth-graders, so we played ‘Stairway to Heaven’ nine times that night.

“That was their favorite song and they wanted to slow dance to it. You don’t think of it as bad showmanship because you don’t know any better. You think, they want it, we’ll play it. I had just learned it the day before.”

Gurley and his compadres are still happy to play fans’ favorites, but for the tour they spent time practicing songs that are rarely requested as well.

“We’re going to be dipping into some deep tracks,” he says. “We were playing  ‘Spinning My Wheels’ (from 1998’s self-titled album) today. I’m sure you’ll get the ‘Dizz Knee Lands,’ the ‘Dorinas’ and the ‘Dims,’ but we’re working up stuff that we haven’t played in a long time so that should be interesting.”

One of the perks of being an underexposed cult favorite is the fact that people are thrilled just to have the chance to share the same air. The bond between band and audience is 20 years strong, so Dada gets the benefit of playing what they choose.

Besides, it’s not like the deep tracks sound like anyone who charted big in 1992, such as Right Said Fred, Billy Ray Cyrus or Sir Mix A-lot. Dada songs have their own recognizable DNA.

“It was always my dream to have a band that had a sound,” Gurley says. “I remember touring that first record and going into radio stations and talking about the Dada sound, and saying, ‘Wow, we really do have our own sound, that is so cool.’

“I think there is less of that today than when you think back to the ’60s or ’70s. You take Jack Bruce out of Cream, you take John Bonham out of Zeppelin, you take Pete Townshend out of the Who, the individual players were so important back then. … You take any of those guys out of the band and you have a completely different sound. That’s why I am a band man.”

The same can be said for the band’s fans.

Mad Frog, 1 E. McMillan St., Clifton. 513-784-9119; or