“IF YOU FOCUS ON POSITIVE THINGS, THE UNIVERSE JUST MIGHT PROVIDE THEM TO YOU”
It was a sunny afternoon in Auckland, New Zealand. Dave Gibson, at the time a former musician, sat at his desk at the merchandise business he started a few years before.
The pursuit had allowed him three years “on spreadsheets, doing logistical bullshit.” His confidence was shot, his connection to work had withered, if not severed altogether. He had become, slowly and regrettably, “a nasty dude…a bit of a grumpy motherfucker.”
Enter Dave’s younger brother, Dan. Broke, frustrated and disenchanted with a stagnant music career of his own, Dan came to Dave’s office announcing that he, too, was finished and “considering getting a proper career job.”
That was all the older brother needed. “At the time I couldn’t help myself out of my rut, but I could help him. I said, ‘No way. You can’t do that, you’re too good at music. I’ll hire you, we’ll make demos of the songs floating in your head.” With Dave’s wife, Sarah, a singer/songwriter as well, the three would form a band. “And that’s how it happened. Just through that one afternoon.”
Fast-forward a few years and their band, Streets of Laredo, has settled in Brooklyn and picked up a few members, releasing their debut album in 2014 and playing gigs around the world, including the coveted Governor’s Ball Music Festival in NYC. Most recently, Streets recorded their second album, this time with veteran music producer John Agnello (Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan, Patti Smith, Kurt Vile), which they plan to release this spring.
The situation was serendipitous, as Dave put it, and speaks to the potential power of reciprocal motivation and support. Both brothers admit it would not have happened if not for the other guy. A story of rollicking and adventurous risk, the Gibson brothers’ example reminds us of how the decision to hang on can make quite a difference.
THE J: What is it like having your family, creativity, and career so closely linked?
DAVE GIBSON: It’s a big advantage – people I love all supporting each other.
[Dave calls out to someone walking by]
Just gotta say hello to Tommy. Hey Tommy! Wanted to give you some massive congratulations. I’m so happy for you, I read about you in the paper.
Tommy: Thanks so much. Dave, this is my wife. Dave’s an amazing musician.
[they have a quick conversation, Tommy leaves]
DAVE: That guy’s interesting. We met him at KAVE. Tommy Wallach. His book just got on the bestseller list. It’s cool to see him three years ago typing away, and now he’s here.
But, to your question. I’d been in a different band for 10 years. Touring a lot. Music’s a big part of my life. I wanted that to continue, but I also didn’t want it to take me away from my loved ones.
My wife’s a musician, a singer/songwriter. My little brother too. It came together.
If you focus on positive things, the universe just might provide them to you.
My brother and I started jamming on songs, our old bands had come to an end.
It happened in a natural way.
We’d always talked about songwriting. Dan saw me in bands and knew he could do it too. I wanted Dan to have his own life, his own success, without thinking I was always in the shadows.
We had to learn how to work together. The first year was really tough, we were stressed. I had to learn how to treat him as an equal, not as a little brother.
That was a great learning experience. He got to grow as well, become the awesome guy that he his.
[Dave’s phone rings] – Hey baby, how you doing? Sweet, I’m just doing an interview. Yeah, it’s all good. Alright baby, love you. [Phone call ends]
Dan and I understand each other. We know what the other is gonna do. Same thing with my wife. But you have to be careful not to just treat them as bandmates.
THE J: How do you approach the struggles of being a musician?
DAVE: A revelation I had. For three years before I moved to New York, I had given up on music. I was burnt out. The life had gone out of it, creativity wise.
During that time, I started a merch company. Band merchandise. Basically, I was just on spreadsheets doing logistical bull shit for three years.
I lost all my belief in myself, which was quite scary. I told myself I’d had my shot and it was over.
Which is a pretty depressing thing, because it’s hard to start believing in yourself again.
I realized I was miserable if I wasn’t’ actively involved in making music.
So it was really simple for me. I have to be creating music. Regardless of whether I’m that good at it, or if it ends up succeeding, I just gotta do it.
I reckon I’ll be a bitter old man if I don’t create music. It keeps me going.
THE J: What are you hoping to achieve?
DAVE: My goal is to be able to have a sustainable life. Get up in the morning, play music.
I don’t have massive aspirations to be a millionaire, I just want to be able to make music, go out, have a drink, and play some shows.
THE J: What is it about music that makes you feel you have to do it?
DAVE: It just feels like this is what I do. I like the connection you get when you play songs to an audience and you know they’re able to get something out of it.
I love being able to express myself in an interesting way.
I love the fact that there is loads more to learn. Just when you think you know everything, you realize you don’t know anything.
I love how easy it can be, but also how hard it can be. You can spend four months on a song, and nothing happens.
Other times, you stumble out of the shower and you’ve got something genius.
I love the insanely crazy life it affords us. I get to hang out with all these ragamuffins and renegades. None of us would really fit in this society without something like music.
Now we’re encouraged to be exactly ourselves. All our weaknesses, it works in music.
THE J: What’s it like being surrounded by artists?
DAVE: Sean McMahon, Bird Courage guys. These guys have the honest hearts of artists.
It’s been awesome meeting all these people. Super good for us. Good for our soul. I saw Bird Courage on the subway. They were playing real, beautiful music. That was three days into being here. I introduced myself.
We started stalking them on Twitter. They gave us our first show. We went on our first tour together.
We went up the east coast in the heart of winter. Freezing cold, super dangerous driving.
We all gravitated toward each other instantly.
Bang – all of the sudden we had this little crew.
My favorite time of New York was that time. It was a season that came and went fast. We got really busy, touring most of last year. When we weren’t touring we were just working our asses off.
But when we first got here, we had this magical little pocket of six months. We were doing shows, Tommy was writing his book.
I’m writing a song about it now, that time. It’s the strongest concept I’ve had for a song in a long time. I don’t know how it’s gonna pan out, and I don’t care. It just needs to be written.
THE J: Is that usually your method – write something when it needs to be written?
DAVE: We’re all different. The idea will come to me. I tend to find some chords I like, a melody will start to come, phrases, but not real words. I’ll sit on that for quite a while.
Basically gibberish, but I like the way it sounds. Eventually the song will tell me what it’s meant to be about.
Maybe a key word will pop up. Then I’ll start to work backwards, with the tone and vibe and quality.
I’ll realize it’s a love song about my wife, about Bushwick, or whatever.
Everyone does it real different. Sarah starts hard-out with lyrics.
THE J: Your first album, it’s about adventuring to a new place? There’s optimism, levity.
DAVE: The lyrics and quality of those songs were really informed by moving here (to NY).
Music is weird, it doesn’t operate on normal time. After the fact, you realize what the song is about. It’s like it’s been processed through your consciousness. It’s about some kind of yearning.
THE J: It starts as an expression, a response to experience, then you figure out what you’re trying to say?
DAVE: Yeah, like Girlfriend we thought felt like a standard love song. We’ve found, now, the real love interest is New York. And what a fuckin’ bitch she can be. She’s beautiful. But she can be really troublesome. That’s my take on that song.
THE J: How’d you get into music?
[Dave’s phone rings. He answers and hangs up.]
DAVE: The only people that ever call me, ever, are bullshit telemarketing things. Besides my wife, my only calls are from telemarketers.
I’m always hopeful. Maybe it’s some interesting phone call. Maybe it’s a good thing, a good call.
I felt something with music real early.
I was forced to play instruments as a kid, which I didn’t like at the time. Recorder, piano, trumpet. I wish I’d stayed with trumpet and piano. At thirteen I clicked with the drums.
I was kinda good at it. All the sudden it felt like I was gonna find myself.
I was a music guy. Happened instantly. Cool! That’s me.
Parents thought the trumpet was a more valid art form, but I just wanted to play Guns n’ Roses and Nirvana.
Most kids, if they don’t have parents forcing them to do something that takes effort, like music, they wont’ do it.
When you start you’re so shit, it’s not super inspiring. So you’ll just stop.
Basically all you gotta do is just stick with it. You have talent, you work hard, you’ll get better.
THE J: That’s admirable – the heart it takes to go through the struggle, finding an opening.
DAVE: Yeah, so much was happening, it was so hopeful. Before the record deal, before the manager. Once you get it, then you gotta prove yourself. You gotta deliver.
That’s another thing we try to do in this band, we don’t always succeed. Based on my past experience, ambition can be so dangerous.
You can stop seeing the woods from the trees, when you always have a new goal to reach.
It’s always just out of sight. If you’re waiting to be happy until you get there, it’s always not there.
Just enjoy the trip. Whatever the fuck this thing ends up being, I just hope to God we can enjoy it while it’s happening.
THE J: When you had given up on music, how were you feeling?
DAVE: Mad. Just mad. If you give up on your dreams, bitterness and madness can sneak in real slow. You don’t notice it.
Then you realize three years later: “Fuck. I’m a nasty dude. I’m a bit of a grumpy motherfucker.”
The hard part is how to get out of that. It happened sneakily.
THE J: How did you get out?
DG: What happened for me was super lucky. It was a weird, beautiful thing.
Me and Dan really helped each other.
Dan comes in to my office saying he’s had enough of music, he’s sick of being broke, all his friends are buying houses. He’s saying: “What am I doing with my life? This is stupid.”
He was considering getting a proper career job.
At the time I couldn’t help myself out of my rut, but I could help him.
He’s my little bro and I care about him.
I said “No way. You can’t do that, you’re too good at music. I’ll hire you, we’ll make demos of the songs floating in your head.”
In the act of helping him, he did the same exact thing for me.
We made the original Streets of Laredo demo and started playing for people.
Then, poof – you believe in yourself a little bit more than you did a month ago, then bit by bit I managed to turn around, from having lost all belief in my ability, to feeling confident, to saying:
“Fuck it, let’s hop in a plane and move to America and start again.”
I couldn’t have done that by myself.
It was a serendipitous situation where my younger brother was about to make the same mistake I had.
I was young enough, it was still fresh in my mind.
I said: “No, you’re too young. I’ll help you.”
And that’s how it happened. Just through that one afternoon.
THE J: It seems easier to see things objectively when they’re happening to someone else.
DAVE: Exactly. It’s a touching story for me. We’re best friends and we‘ve been having this crazy adventure together.
Most brothers don’t see each other. Or they see each other at Christmas or Thanksgiving.
I feel very lucky to have this ridiculous adventure, even though it’s tough.
New York is tough. You keep getting knocked down. You keep getting up. You punch me again, yup, cool – you get right back up. It’s like that Rocky thing, “it ain’t how hard you hit; it’s about how hard you can get hit, and keep moving forward.”
That’s a good movie, that Rocky.
THE J: What keeps you moving forward?
DAVE: I know what my life is like without music. I don’t really have a choice.
Everyone has stress. Whether you work at Home Depot or you’re a hotshot film director. Humans feel stress. So I stopped worrying about trying not to have stress in my life.
THE J: What music lit you up originally?
DAVE: John Lennon’s Imagine. Just felt so good. Hey Jude. Really obsessed by that. If I like a song I’ll listen to it 25 times in a row.
Paul Simon, Cat Stevens, Johnny Cash, The Beatles, Billy Joel, Elton John. Not super cool to say, but these are what I loved when I was young.
I was 15 in 1990, it was a special time. Grunge had this insane affect on every young person. Doesn’t happen like that any more.
Information about music was so narrow. You were given a portfolio by the gatekeepers – the record labels, MTV.
“You like rock? Here are the five options we present to you. Oh you like hip-hop, you say? Here are five options.”
With grunge, over night, everyone changed the way they dressed. I got really into that Seattle stuff. I was also really in to The Pixies, The Cure, Weezer.
I loved Paul Simon. He’s something special.
THE J: What is it about him?
DAVE: He’s a great storyteller. He has a great ability to balance slice-of-life everyday stories with poetic things that have the gravity of the sun that’ll crush you.
That’s really important in art, to know how much sugar you need vs. how much salt.
It’s all about balance.
Lyrically, he’s got that down. Bang. You could just have that and you’d be good. He’s also got fantastic melodies. And his hooks – killer. .
He takes these really interesting influences and expresses them in a brand new fashion.Graceland opened up the whole world to African music, a lot of world music.
It needed to be expressed in a pop kind of way, which he’s a genius at.
Everyone had given up on him. He had two records that were flops. He was amazing in the ‘60s with Simon & Garfunkle, but everyone was saying he was done. Record label didn’t give a shit what he was up to.
Then he makes a defining record of the 80’s, 20 years later.
THE J: The endurance is so impressive. He could have said “I’m too old, my ship has sailed.”
DAVE: I had said that. Then I had that weird situation with Dan. Now I live in Bushwick like an 18 year-old student.
[Dave takes a call]
Hey Dan Gibbo! Good bro, how you doing? Cool – come by, we’re doing an interview. Yea man, cool.
Dan’s gonna pop by.
THE J: When you’re creating, how much do your influences come through?
DAVE: You learn from the influences. We balance two things: The old and the new.
The old part is our influences, the new part is that it’s now, and it’s expressed through us, with a unique outlook.
New Zealand is an isolated country.
Growing up in the ‘80s and ‘90s, we felt like we were at the bottom of the planet. It’s quite an interesting thing to grow up in this isolated place.
A unique perspective. We’ve got that. That’s ours.
No one can copy that. We try to be honest with it.
Hopefully we’re good enough songwriters to represent that uniqueness.
This is good, this conversation is making me quite excited to go write some more music.
THE J: Art seems to build on itself. One expression is built on a previous one.
You respond to influences, making sense of your experience. And that will be different for you than for the next person. And it’ll keep building. Do you agree?
DAVE: And the great thing about any kind of art – quite often these things just kind of seep in by osmosis. It comes into your subconscious, it sits there, then it gets spat out. It’s different and interesting.
[Dan Gibson arrives]
DAVE: What’s up Danny Gibs?
[Dan and Dave discuss logistics of recording, tour planning]
[Dave gets a call from Sarah]
Hey what’s up baby? Yeah I’m at Tutu’s, are you close by? Walk by, stop in. OK bubba, I’ll see you soon. You’re real beautiful, I’m still overwhelmed by what you did this weekend and what my little brother did. I can’t even express it. (They threw him a surprise birthday party.)
THE J: Dan, I heard about the origins, how you decided to go for it.
DAN GIBSON: I don’t think I could have done it without Dave. It’s hard work, man. It’s quite tough doing a band. It’s quite nice to have that dude who can put on the gas when you’re tired.
DAVE: We only played one show in New Zealand before we moved here. The band was just an idea. But me, Dan, and Sarah made a demo and quite liked it.
To put our hearts and souls into it, we had to go to New York.
DAN: It’s amazing how it comes together. All the songs (on Volume I & II) tell a beautiful story – us leaving New Zealand, having a real hard time in New York, then a door opening.
We’re all together going through it. We’re expressing it through our songs. The songs worked together to form a real strong narrative.
About the record, I reckon that’s what I like most – it takes you on a bit of a journey.
THE J: There’s a punch behind it.
DAVE: There’s definitely a punch behind it. Us getting punched, and us punching back.
[Dave and Dan discuss more band/business logistics]
DAN: It’s a real struggle. It’s amazing how many obstacles come up when you’re trying to do something you love. But the pay-off is amazing.
THE J: What are the obstacles?
DAN: Trying to pay rent, keep the band together, keep everybody happy.
DAVE: Keeping seven people together, motivated by these insane dreams.
For this thing to work, seven people need to succeed. I don’t like to think about it too much.
DAN: There’s a Neil Young story about his band. He said: “These guys got in the van”, and that’s the band.
He crossed the border and drove to LA. A lot of people didn’t get in the van. People he respects, great musicians, songwriters, but it comes down to a simple thing: did you get in the van?
DAVE: We go on tour, we come back broke. Financially, they don’t make sense. But there’s the opportunity. We have to do it. You have to sacrifice.
Some people just say: “That doesn’t make sense, I’m not gonna get in the van.”
DAN: People that have done great things, it never made sense. When you’re doing something safe and calculated, you kind of know the result.
But when you’re going for something that’s bigger than yourself, it doesn’t make sense all the time. It’s not safe.
We’re the people that get in the van.
The idea, the dream, the vision, excites us more than the alternative. It’s always going to excite me more.
I’d rather do what I love.
THE J: How do you keep morale up?
DAN: The guys are amazing, a real positive group. They believe in it, they enjoy playing the music. It’s hard to find personalities that fit together. At the moment it’s perfect.
The energy is high. Everybody knows each other well.
DAVE: The most important thing is the band not imploding. If you’ve got an ounce of talent, and you keep going, you’ll be alright, I reckon.
THE J: What can you say about the new album?
DAN: It’s a new story. It’s always changing, life’s changing. We’re becoming better songwriters, too, which is exciting. We don’t want to do the same record again.
DAVE: We’re really into String Theory. It’s all based on vibrations.
The idea that everything is made through different vibrations is quite a nice notion for a musician. Cool, I can dig that.
[Dave sees his wife and bandmate, Sarah, approaching]
There’s my beautiful wife! Look at her – so beautiful! Reading a book.
Hey beauty! How you doing my love? You’re working hard today.
Oh I love her.
[The conversation came to a close because Dave was simply too distracted by Sarah.]