When writing about music, clichés are all but unavoidable. While music writers are often culpable, grasping for convenient ways to pigeonhole artists or contextualize them among predominate trends, the musicians themselves—or when applicable, their media arms—are equally responsible for offering overblown, inaccurate, or most often euphemistic characterizations of the artist’s work. A common example that comes in various forms: the adage “Fill-in-band-name-here’s work ‘spans the spectrum’ or ‘encompasses a vast range of styles.’”
But when it comes to Jacksonville-based ensemble, Dovetonsil’s 2015 release—the two disc, two-hour plus, 33-track “Chant Unchant”—use of such a cliche really is unavoidable. The album finds the band deftly spanning the spectrum and, I’ll be damned, encompassing a vast range of styles from funk and blues to riff-heavy rock, a crooning jazz number, and even one track that sounds like a deep-cut from prominent Canadian prog trio, Rush.
As the brainchild of longtime music-scribe John Citrone, Dovetonsil’s diversity of approach is fitting. Citrone spent decades writing about a vast range of styles (damnit!) for alt publications in Orlando and Northeast Florida. And, as Citrone tells it, his nearly 30 years as a music journalist played an “invaluable” role in determining his musical direction.
“It put me on the phone and face-to-face with musicians and artists for whom I have deep respect and reverence, but it also forced me to research music and people I had no concern for and at times, didn’t even like,” Citrone told Void in a broad-ranging email discussion. “It opened my eyes and ears to worlds that I would have otherwise overlooked. I have hundreds of anecdotes to share, too many for this space, but I will tell you this: Angus Young is a boring interview, Sammy Hagar was completely honest about writing filler songs for his albums, Diane Schuur was gracious and open about her blindness and her weight issues, and Les Claypool still thinks Fishbone was one of the greatest live bands ever. So do I.”
With a 7-piece iteration of Dovetonsil back in action after a brief hiatus, Citrone’s ready to add to his already impressive catalog (which already includes nearly 25-years of output) with plans for a new album called “Exotica” that will, again, span the spectrum (F***!) encompassing lounge, exotica, and surf. The band will be performing songs from “Chant Unchant” and Citrone’s extensive back catalog, with a show planned for Nighthawks on Saturday, Aug. 4.
In the interview below, we asked Citrone about the formation and evolution of Dovetonsil, the band’s revelrous live shows (which incorporate performance art), and his ever-evolving approach to crafting a songs in a vast range of styles.
What’s the latest on Dovetonsil? The group was on hiatus (a mystery, I understand). What brings the group back to the fore? Why now?
The mystery began 25 years ago when the band was first put together. I had, as any 25-year-old musician would, aspirations of landing a record deal and touring. I had gotten close with a grunge band I was in in Orlando called Black Cats & Bottle Rockets. The age-old story of being shopped to labels and having representation, blah blah blah. I had gotten a taste and was hoping my original project would have legs as well. Of course, keeping an original band together is difficult enough, but my move to Jacksonville in 1995 meant I needed to find new musicians to continue. This led to two decades of line-up changes and “mysterious” hiatuses, not unlike the last year, when one of our guitarists left for the Pacific Northwest. It takes time to rebuild.
Can you talk about the evolution of this project? You started it in Orlando more than two decades ago. How has the music changed? How has your approach changed?
When I first put the band together, I was inexperienced as a songwriter and bandleader, but desperately wanted to do it, so I just jumped in. Over the years, I have become a pretty proficient songwriter and composer — I work commerically in television, musical theater and even theme park shows — but I make a clear distinction between my original and my commercial work. Dovetonsil is truly an experimental band, but not in the way Stockhausen or John Cage are experimental. We’re not necessarily breaking new ground, but we are challenging the listener by juxtaposing any and all styles sometimes within one song.
The problem with this approach is that most listeners can’t bridge the gap. They hear a song in one style, and hope the next song will resemble it, but it won’t. That next song might be a bluegrass number with a thrash metal chorus, or pop song with a prog-rock middle or straight jazz. It a weeding out process to a degree. I’m not saying I want to lose any portion of a potential audience, but I also want to be sure that I am being true to my creative self and that the audience is in it for the long haul. Couple this with the performance art we incorporate into our live performances, and the numerous improvisational sections, and you have set up an obstacle course for the listener. Some people enjoy obstacle courses, being challenged by art and music. Those are the people to whom I’d like to appeal.
The music and my approach to it has only changed in one way. As I become a better songwriter, the songs become stronger, and it becomes easier to bring into the world what’s in my head. Technology has also made this easier. Since I have built my own studio in my backyard, it’s a plug-and-play situation. Power up and I am writing and recording. In the old days, 25 years ago, I had to book and pay for studio time and an engineer, which meant recording demos on a smaller device and hoping the inspiration and finances would still be there when studio time opened up.
Can you talk about your songwriting process? How does a particular idea for a tune or melody or lyric then get applied to a style or approach?
It’s funny that you pulled out “Morpheus Blues” as an example, and it serves to answer your question in part. I wrote that song for the first Dovetonsil release, “Mushrooms and Bugshoes,” which was my first attempt at a coherent musical. But it never made the record. I was never quite happy with the lyrical content or the overall structure. So over the years we would perform it live, and each lead singer would take a stab at writing the lyrics. As I was working on “Chant/Unchant,” I resurrected it, wrote lyrics I was finally happy with, and added that proggy Rush section in the middle.
“Chant/Unchant” was the manifestation of a five-year creative explosion in my life. My child, who was born in October of 2006, on the very night I put the last coat of paint on my studio walls, became the focus of my life through her toddler stage, and I wasn’t very productive musically during that time. During those years, I also left the journalism game and became a fulltime musician, which was very stressful for me and my family. By the time I felt we had some security and stability again, I had dozens of songs rolling around in my head. They came out on my last two albums.
My process varies depending on the objective. If I am writing commercially, the client’s vision is paramount. I am beholden to them. But my personal creative process is wide open. I accept anything as worthy of experimentation until I have exhausted all of the possibilites. I also have the luxury of being competent on many instruments, so writing is a literal process for me. I am playing to tape my ideas, as opposed to earlier in my life when I would have to dictate to another musician what was to be played. I think all music is valid and important, and I never put up any barriers to what I am hearing in my head.
What’s more, I have a tendency to couple goofy lyrics with complex musical pieces or cheesy pop melodies with dark and serious themes. I should point out that I am well aware that many outside the music business percieve what I and other local musicans do as a hobby. But that in no way reduces my commitment to producing quality, highly original art. I gave up on the idea of the “record deal” years ago, as if such a thing even exists anymore, I have have never been happier or more productive.
You were a music writer for many years and, as such, I know you had to dig into a range of music in order to speak about it with authority. I wondered if you ever discovered a style, or gained a new appreciation for an artist that then informed the music you create. Any anecdotes come to mind?
I have to say that my nearly 30 years as a music journalist was invaluable to me in both my personal and musical life. It put me on the phone and face-to-face with musicians and artists for whom I have deep respect and reverence, but it also forced me to research music and people I had no concern for and at times, didn’t even like. It opened my eyes and ears to worlds that I would have otherwise overlooked. I have hundreds of anecdotes to share, too many for this space, but I will tell you this: Angus Young is a boring interview, Sammy Hagar was completely honest about writing filler songs for his albums, Diane Schuur was gracious and open about her blindness and her weight issues, and Les Claypool still thinks Fishbone was one of the greatest live bands ever. So do I.
Can you talk about this lineup of musicians you’re performing with? What does this collection of individuals allow you to do that maybe you couldn’t do in the past?
This is the largest lineup I have ever had. Dovetonsil has varied from a four-piece to the current seven-piece. Getting people to play your original music for little or no pay, and then asking them to do stupid stuff on stage, is daunting. Sometimes you sacrifice musicianship for willingness. In the past, all of my bands have been very good, and I appreciate dearly the time each of those musicians spent with me. But the current lineup is the best combination of musicial skill and willingness to get stupid.
Both of our lead vocalists — Pilar Arevalo and Aaron DeCicco — are top-notch singers and composers in their own right. The guitarists are also monsters. Danny Strickland has an abstract approach that adds depth to some already intricate pieces. And Bert Mingea, who has been around the scene for years, is a straight-up badass. They can play with great feel and still manage the most complex sections of my music. Bassist Buck Colson is a progressive metalhead who somehow has a grasp of lighter styles and feels. We’ve been playing together for years so we lock easily. And our newest addition, keyboardist Tracy Gallavan, has a willingness to get it right that I rarely see. She is working hard at getting up to speed on all of the complex instrumentals, and she’s nailing it.
And they are all somehow willing to do the most insane shit/stuff (I prefer shit, but you’re the editor) on stage. It really is the perfect combinaton of high-level technical proficiency, deep-pocket feel and absolute absurdity.
I’ve never seen a Dovetonsil performance, but I’m intrigued by the prospect of a performance art element. How does that play out with this group? And why, as the main songwriter/composer of the material is it important to you that the music is performed this way?
The performance-art aspect stems from a deeper personality problem, something I have trouble controlling, and that is my insatiable need for attention combined with my love of theater. I spend a huge portion of my personal life performing, be it in public or alone at home. I occasionally engage in what I call “Stop Light Theater,” when at red light or stop sign, I will jump out of my car and do … something. Once I saw a guy driving a steamroller on the side of the road. I jumped out and hit a three-point stance in front of him, like a football player. He got a kick out of it. This happens less frequently these days, as the potential for being shot to death is much higher.
I’ve always been a fan of artists who take risks, as I don’t think art and society can progress without these risk takers. There is always room for staid and boring music. People love that shit. But I’m more interested in adventure, and I think people, when they are surprised, may be taken aback or even offended in the moment, but when they look back on that moment, it resonates. They tell other people about the crazy thing they witnessed, and that has a longer shelf life than seeing Standard Issue Singer Number 150 rehash the same old crap you’ve been hearing for the past 40 years. Nothing really happens.
I put my band at great risk sometimes, but the result speaks for itself. It’s about the experience, the event, that moment that is unlike any other. For example, for a show many years ago, I hired a guy to attack the band on stage, ranting about how we were all going to Hell. He got right in our faces screaming and waving a Bible at us, and no one, not the band or the bar staff — only one bouncer for safety’s sake — was aware. My bass player and an audience member grabbed the guy and threw him on the sidewalk outside, stopping short of beating the daylights out of him. You don’t forget moments like that, even if they are manufactured.
I think making people uncomfortable is important. If you are not made to feel out of place, out of sorts from time to time, you’ll never change your mind about anything. You fail to see things in a different way. It’s all just the same old comfortable day-to-day. Same food, same people, same music. It’s boring, unchallenging and unproductive. And you’ll never be comfortable with feeling uncomfortable. That’s a major problem right now with our culture in general. We are all so uncomfortable with the “other side” that we don’t know how to handle it. It’s another word for fear. We fear what we don’t know, what we don’t understand. And we process it through our defenses. But if we embrace that discomfort from time to time, and allow it to play out, we may have a better understanding of ourselves and others. That’s what I think good, challenging art can do. But the audience has to be open to it to a degree.
And plans for a new release? What can we expect in the coming months/year?
I have just begun work on a new album, which will be titled “Exotica.” I hope for it to be an album of lounge, exotica and surf music, but as with everything else that I attempt, it may turn into something completely unrelated. And I plan on a Dovetonsil show every three months. Each show will have a few different surprises, and I hope to soon include video projection as well. For our next show at Nighthawks, we have something really bizarre planned. It’s going to get messy.