The Beatles reportedly came up with their name as an homage to Buddy Holly’s Crickets. Paul Stanley has said KISS chose its name because it “just sounded dangerous and sexy at the same time.” (Alternate origin stories include the group’s nom de plume is actually an acronym for “Knights in Satan’s Service.”)
There are thousands of other such tales of how contemporary bands claimed a memorable moniker. But it took a late-20th century invention called the Internet to provide the inspiration for multi-instrumentalist Gene Smith’s most-recent band, Gene Smith Lives!, which plays on a 9 p.m. triple bill May 31 (with The Followers of Sunshine and the Jenn Rogar Band) at Sacramento’s Fox and Goose.
“Basically, it came from an available Web domain name,” said Smith. “It was just easier to do it that way.”
If Smith has a tough time fabricating a whimsical, fantastical story for picking the group’s name, it’s nothing compared to the struggle one hears from his end of the phone when asked to describe the dozen or so songs that make up his and fellow band mates Kristine David and Nick Embly’s repertoire of original music.
“I would describe it as just … oh, boy … acoustic, progressive rock,” said Smith, who offers a harder, rockier side of his musical persona as a guitarist-songwriter for the band Brubaker when not day-jobbing it as a flooring contractor.
“I call it folk-rock, with some country,” said keyboardist-singer David, a well-regarded local actress who first teamed with Smith in early 2012 following a brief stint with the Jenn Rogar Band.
Embly, who completed the trio when he joined the band as its bassist in September, said the group’s music – like its members – is a case of the whole being greater than the sum of the parts it’s made of, and offers this description: “It’s a fusion – we take folk, blue grass and progressive rock and meld them together.”
Whatever still-wet, and somewhat blurry label is slapped on GSL’s already irresistible sound-in-progress, Smith’s vision is crystal clear: maximum music through minimal instrumentation.
“I’m into trying to create as much music with as little as possible, and our entire writing process is built around that,” Smith said. “Whenever working on a song, I ask myself, ‘Would this song be good without drums and other instruments?’ That’s kind of how it goes.”
As important as the musical arrangements of a tight combo must be, so, too, are the personalities of its members.
“Gene’s my best friend,” said Embly, an analyst for the State of California (and accompanist for New Hope church). “I’ve known Gene for five or six years and we’re kind of in-synch personally. Our musical backgrounds and what we like is quite similar. When he gets an idea it resonates with both of us, and so it’s easy to come up with a bass line that complements it. And Kristine is just great to be around.”
Smith recruited David after he and drummer Neil Franklin (of the Ricky and Del Connection) sat in with the Jenn Rogar Band.
“Gene wanted to do something closer to what we have now,” said David, whose musical career took a detour when she discovered theater with roles at such Sacramento-area venues as River Stage, Sacramento Theatre Company, and – most recently – Big Idea Theatre (“Private Eyes”). “I was so nervous at first, I almost quit. I had played piano and took voice lessons as a kid, and started a punk band with my friends. But it was terrible. I just didn’t play with anybody for a long time. It’s been just in the last two years that I’ve been playing again.”
“Playing with Gene is like a music lesson every time we meet. I love this band – it’s the first thing I’ve ever liked as much as acting,” David continued. “I’ve regained my confidence as a singer, and now I’m setting aside real time to devote to the band. With ‘Private Eyes’ over now, I’m not going to do another play for a few months.”
David’s rediscovered passion for playing alive is shared by Smith and Embly, who are looking forward to recording an album this summer.
Though he’s been playing since he was 17, when he and some friends formed an “obligatory” high school band (named after the star RR Lyrae), Embly said David brings a fresh perspective developed from her years as a successful stage actress.
“She encourages us to connect with the crowd,” he said, “and not to just look down at our instruments – to share our personalities up there and connect with the crowd. She’s been a good, positive influence on us in that way.”
“Anytime you play with other people there’s a learning curve in getting to know their abilities,” said Smith. “It’s not just them learning from you, or you learning from them. Kristine has brought a real stage presence to the band – it’s great; I love playing with her. And Nick holds everything together. He has a sense of rhythm and melody at the same time.”
With as much time as she’s spent on stage, albeit as an actress and not as a musician, one might think David would be immune of even a minor case of “nerves.” But nothing is further from the truth she said.
“I feel like it’s a very, very different,” said David, who has also contributed lyrics to some of Smith’s tunes. “The music comes from us, it’s us putting ourselves out there. There’s no script no theater company, no director. It’s a whole different beast. It helps to take on the mindset of another persona like when I’m acting, so it’s not so scary.”