Dead Ball Era – and we’ll get to the origins of that name shortly – is a three-piece band that’s been together longer than they’ve been on this planet.
How did Alex Strahle, Jack Strahle, and Blake Russell pull that off? Well, as Blake explains, “We’ve known each other all our lives – and our parents knew each other before we were born. We’ve been childhood friends forever.”
Their moniker conveniently shortened to DBE on the cover, the trio recently put out an impressive 11-song album, and will be showcasing it and other material a week from tonight, on Thursday, March 7, at Suzy’s in Hermosa Beach, and a night later at Sacred Grounds in San Pedro.
Despite being in close proximity since prenatal days, it took a few years for a musical camaraderie to develop and jell. “Alex was the first real musician out of the three of us,” says Blake. “He was a guitar player and it got to the point where he would be playing so much around me that I started banging on pots and pans and whatever I could find, and eventually I got a little drum machine and started drumming and singing. We’d start learning covers together and playing songs in the living room. Over time we started writing our own songs and then we started recording, and now it’s gotten to where it is today.”
Their songwriting evolves
Where it is today is this writer sitting across from Alex, who plays banjo and mandolin in addition to guitar, and Blake, who sings lead and plays drums, guitar, keyboards and harmonica. Blake also wrote the songs on the album save for two, and those he co-wrote with the brothers Strahle. Jack Strahle, who was not present on this historic occasion, plays bass and percussion.
The songwriting, they’re telling me, is more collaborative now, but that wasn’t the case early on.
“I had a tape recorder that my dad had given me,” Blake says, “and I just started playing chords and singing melodies and just coming up with lyrics on the spot. I would hit record, and listen back to them. Some of them stuck, some of them didn’t, and as I began to get better at that these guys also got better at playing and we started getting together more and more. Now we’re all musically confident enough that we’ve started writing all the songs in a room together.”
“I’ve been writing lyrics for a year,” Alex says. “Basically I’ll write something and then e-mail it to [Blake] and he’ll take a look at it and go, ‘Here’s what you need to change; I think this would be…’” – and the drafts would fly back and forth until they both felt they’d gotten what they wanted.
Do you write the lyrics to a melody or do you write the lyrics first and then add the music?
“I write a lot of songs, just the musical aspect of the song,” Alex replies. “I’ll be like, ah, that’s cool; I like it but I don’t really want to worry about writing lyrics right now. My head’s not in that space. So I’ll send it to [Blake] and he has catalogues of lyrics that he’s written, just lyrics, no music, no melodies, just lyrics, because he’s really good at that. He’ll perfect them over the years and he’ll have ones that are done, and he’ll read through them and see which ones fit. Then he’ll (pick one) and do a vocal track over it, just for a demo. Sometimes he’ll write chords or we’ll write together.”
“I write a lot of lyrics separate from the music,” Blake says, “almost like poetry in that I write them kind of formatted to a rhythm, and I have in mind a certain kind of song structure. And then I (often) make a note at the bottom of the page about that, and then later (when) I’m flipping through it and looking for lyrics I can see, ah, this was intended for this kind of song so maybe that would fit; we can try out different things and see how they feel with the music.”
Indeed, many of the lyrics have a poetic sensibility to them that is complemented by music that is equally as poetic. However, the album starts off with a song called “Go To Chicago” that suggests the album is going to have a harder edge to it. Furthermore, that impression isn’t so quickly dispelled.
“We kind of did that on purpose,” Blake explains. “We didn’t really have an order as we were recording [the material]. And when they all came out, some of them are almost like different genres. We started tossing around ideas of how we’d order the songs, and it just kind of seemed like going from peak songs, really hard, fast, lots of energy, and then to more mellow stuff and then coming back up and going down again.”
“We kind of knew if was going to be an eclectic album from the beginning,” Alex says; “we didn’t want to try to rewrite stuff so that it all sounded the same. There’s a lot of different styles on the record, from our perspective anyway.”
“‘Go To Chicago’ is very much a solid rock song,” Blake says, “and I think it’s good that we didn’t do that too much in the record. There’s a lot of great rock bands that put out a record and it’s kind of that energy over and over again. If you have too much of that the record won’t have as much of a journey feeling to it.”
That’s a good point, this writer says. In fact, if the rest of the album had continued in that same vein we wouldn’t be here now. What did you listen to when you were younger, and what were your influences?
“We’ve always had a really wide range of influences because we come from musical families,” Blake says. “We were always around all kinds of music growing up – from classical and jazz to rock and folk; a lot of songwriting music like Dylan, Neil Young, Simon and Garfunkel. There’s a lot of old influences and also a lot of new influences. We love a lot of current bands like Radiohead and Wilco.”
If you were to pick a song or two that best represents the band at this point in time, what might that song or songs be?
“I’d say one would probably be ‘Daddy’s Shoes,’ and then I’d probably also say ‘Black Stone,’” Blake replies. “It’s interesting that those are the last two songs on the album, but they work as a conclusion. ‘Black Stone’ is pretty reflective of the mellower material, the acoustic songs on [the album].”
“Black Stone” has a narrative that engages us, and it lingers long after the record is over.
Some years ago in the town’s only school,/ I met a girl who made me feel like a fool./ I wanted her so bad and she wanted me,/ but she hated the mines, and the company. And then the chorus: Oh Black Stone! She’s got a hold on me./ But I could not leave the company./ So my one and truly lovely had enough of the cold coal valley.
“It was kind of a unanimous decision when we were finished with it,” Blake says of ‘Black Stone.’ We were like, wow, this is like an ending song; it just felt right to be the last song, especially because of the a cappella chorus that happens.”
Alex agrees. “Most of the people I’ve talked to about the record, that’s their favorite song; they always talk about that song.”
For a group whose members may not even be old enough to buy alcohol and cigarettes, we find some sophisticated songwriting and some smart playing throughout the album. In “Daddy’s Shoes” they sing: I feel a rhythm deep inside my chest./ Carved along my rifle are the names of fallen friends./ I’ve got my Bible./ I’m shipping out to die for everything my fathers have fought to call their own./ This is my prayer: to go when you need me there./ I’ll forget my blues and put on my Daddy’s shoes.
My impression is that you’ve written the music for yourselves, and that you’re not trying to do something for somebody else.
“There’s a lot of stories [in the songs],” Blake says, “and some of them are taller tales than others.” What he’s hoping for, he adds, is that these are stories that people can relate to, as if they would have experienced it themselves.
You’ve played in the SouthBay and in Pasadena, too. What’s the connection with Pasadena?
“It’s my hometown,” says Alex, “it’s where I’m from.”
He adds that his parents have lived there for 20-something years (Alex himself turns 21 this year). Currently he attends PasadenaCityCollege, and thus has obtained a student pass for the NortonSimonMuseum: “I’ll go over there just to stand and stare at something that’s brilliant and inspiring.”
“We used to live in South Pas, so we were a lot closer,” Blake says, meaning his family, “and then about three or four years ago we moved to the Redondo Beach area. Rather than choosing to stay in one place we started bouncing back and forth and played shows in both areas.” Actually there’s a third place as well that they’ve often played, which is out in the Valley. Sort of going on mini-tours without ever leaving L.A.
Getting on base
Well, let’s find out about the origins of their name, Dead Ball Era
“In 1906, something like that,” says Alex, “they changed the material baseballs were made out of because it was too easy to get home runs. So then it was really hard to get home runs, or hits in general, and so they were talking about how it was hard to get hits. And my dad heard that on the radio and he was like, huh, that’s interesting, hard to get hits. That almost works in a musical sense, too. Like nowadays it’s hard to get a hit song – and so you have to work hard to get hits. In the dead ball era you have to work hard to get hits.”
“Like Alex said,” Blake adds, “it really works in a musical sense as well because there’s nothing new under the sun, we’re all just trying to copy everyone else in our own unique way, and so inventing new rules to the musical game right now is a tough challenge. I guess the name is kind of a reflection of our attempt at doing that.”
“Perpetual struggle at creating something new,” says Alex.
What are your ambitions? What would you like to achieve? Fame? Fortune? Or simply making good albums?
“Everyone wants to make millions of dollars,” Alex says, “but I’d rather be making music that I love with people that I like being around.” If he can get by financially doing that, he points out, then he’s in for the long haul.
“I think the real pursuit for us,” Blake says, “is just to try and make things that people listen to and go, wow, that’s really quality; there’s depth to that. Hopefully people listen to our songs and think that it’s real art and not just another high school band trying to make it big.”
It seems more likely that people listening to the record will hear the sincerity and detect the talent. They’ll know that this is a young group worthy of keeping an eye on.
Dead Ball Era (Alex Strahle, Jack Strahle, and Blake Russell) plays from 7:30 to 11:30 p.m. on Thursday, March 7, at Suzy’s Bar & Grill, 1141 Aviation Blvd., Hermosa Beach, at the corner of Prospect and Aviation. Three sets, no cover; free CD. “There’ll be new songs and there’ll be covers,” Blake says. “We’ll mix it up and try to make the sets really full and fun for everyone.” On Friday, March 8, the band plays two sets, from 7:30 to 10:30 p.m., at Sacred Grounds, 468 W. Sixth St., San Pedro. No cover; free CD. Suzy’s: (310) 379-6171, and Sacred Grounds: (310) 514-0800. ER