Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Eric "Dutch" Suoninen

Eric "Dutch" Suoninen at the Kibitz Room



At the Kibitz Room at Canter's Deli

419 N. Fairfax Ave., Los Angeles (Mid-City West)

The Canter family chose the perfect moniker for the cocktail lounge they opened in the space adjacent to their famous delicatessen in 1961. 'Kibitz' is the Yiddish word for having a friendly conversation, and over the years the bar has become a safe haven for Hollywood's citizens to grab a stiff drink, listen to local bands and, most definitely, shoot the shit. If only the Kibitz Room's walls could talk. The Doors, Frank Zappa, Joni Mitchell, Guns N' Roses, the Red Hot Chili Peppers and the Vacation are just a few of the musically inclined Angelenos who have sought refuge in one of the Kibitz Room's booths. I couldn't dream of a better person to sit and kibitz with at the famed dive bar than the former bassist for the Vacation and current frontman of Dutch and the Disasters, Eric "Dutch" Suoninen.

"The reason why I really love it here is because Canter's is a Jewish restaurant, but people from all walks of life come here. Some nights Willie Chambers, Artie Vegas or the painter Len Aaron will be sitting here. That guy there [points to a man standing at the bar] is a Rothschild. You just never know what's going to happen; it's always a strange mix of people. I'm always looking for David Lynch in the corner with a camera," he laughs. "The Kibitz Room is the most unpretentious place I've ever experienced. People come here to be nobody, and it's all thanks to Marc Canter, who runs the place now. He grew up with Slash, and those are all his photographs [of legendary musicians] on the walls. He's really into music, and I think that is one of the reasons why he keeps this place going."

Dutch's own love of music was his motivation for moving to Hollywood from Toms River, N.J. over 15 years ago, and the passion was fittingly sparked by a Guns N' Roses video.

"The last day of sixth grade I remember coming home and seeing the video for 'Paradise City' on MTV and thinking, 'Oh my god, that's what I want to do.' It made total sense to me. I got a bass and joined a punk rock band with my brother. Our mom would drive us to shows. We used to play the Stone Pony in Asbury Park, and she would drive us," he recalls. "Our parents always played records at home, and they supported anything we wanted to do. My earliest memory was my dad bouncing me on his knee to Willie Nelson's 'On the Road Again.' I remember him buying me a Beach Boys record and a Bruce Springsteen one."

The Boss still holds a special place in Dutch's heart, and as we settle in at a Kibitz Room table, he tells me about going to see Springsteen at the Honda Center last December. Besides playing their own punk rock shows in New Jersey, the Suoninen brothers went to a lot of concerts growing up.

"We would go see everyone. My first concert was in seventh grade. I went with this girl I was dating who was in eighth grade, and her mom had to drive us. It was at the Garden State Arts Center: Faster Pussycat and Whitesnake," Dutch remembers. "Then I started hanging out with hippie kids. Towards the end of high school I went to my first Grateful Dead show, and it was the biggest eye-opener that I've ever experienced. They were playing a giant stadium, and I remember going into the parking lot. I had never seen anything like it before and even to this day, the carnival-like aspect, the freeness of it, was incredible. The Dead really encapsulated a certain time. They were the highest grossing touring band for a while, and when you went it was a community of people who loved music. That's really hard to find. They played played music for music, they didn't care what style it was or what year it was from – blues, country, rock – and the people that went just loved music, dancing, taking drugs, doing whatever they wanted and being a part of something."

It didn't take long for Dutch to find a place to be a part of after moving to Los Angeles. The Kibitz Room became his ultimate home away from home, and it's ultimately where he met Ben and Steve Tegel on the way to becoming the Vacation. The band's history is so entwined with the bar that when you visit Canter's site for the Kibitz Room, the first photo you see at the upper left corner is one of Dutch and Ben performing as part of the Vacation.

"My first open-mic night was at the Kibitz Room. I actually met Ben and Steve at an open mic, and then we formed the band and started doing a residency here every Thursday night. Every Tuesday night they would have a DJ play here, which was the 'cool' place to go, and it would be packed. The people who went to that DJ night on Tuesday became friends, so when we played on Thursday, all the same people would come see us," Dutch tells. "From there, it seemed like it took off right away. This British couple came and loved us, and they turned out to be bookers for the Reading and Leeds Festivals."

With Dutch on bass, Ben on vocals, Steve on guitar and Denny Weston, Jr. on drums, the Vacation flew to the UK to play the annual music fests and various clubs, were signed to Fierce Panda and eventually released their self-titled debut. They built a reputation for in-your-face, and at times even bloody, shows everywhere from the Viper Room to the Kibitz. Oddly enough, Dutch recalls being at the same exact table we're seated at today with Ben and Steve several years ago discussing producers they might want to work with one day. He remembers mentioning Rick Rubin, who would later sign them to a major record label.

"We played this little place in New York, and after the show, this guy comes up and says, 'You guys were so good. I have to call my friend Rick.' He grabs his cell phone and says, 'Rick, I found this band, and these guys are awesome.' We thought he was just crazy, but not long after that Rick Rubin came to see us at the Troubadour. He signed us, and it was all downhill from there," Dutch laughs. "We were on his American label, which was distributed through Warner Bros., and then it moved to Sony. It was a clusterfuck. We redid the first record, built relationships with people, and it was like a family. Then all of a sudden, we had to move and start all over again."

When I share my fascination with Rubin with Dutch, he replies: "He's a pretty strange guy. I did a couple of sessions in Malibu at Shangri-La Studios, which he now owns. It has a great history. It used to be a brothel in the 1950s, people in entertainment would go there and hang out. Later on, Bob Dylan [the Band and Eric Clapton] recorded there." The Vacation put out Band From World War Zero in 2005 and re-released their debut in 2006 via American, but after dealing with all of the label's transitions and woes, the quartet disbanded.

Steve and Dutch continued to play together in the Paul Chesne Band, which they had been a part of for several years. PCB frontman, Paul Chesne, is yet another musician Dutch met at the Kibitz Room. Aside from playing bass and guitar in the Vacation and PCB, Dutch worked on his own songs, revisiting the singer-songwriter material he once performed at the open mics during his early days in Los Angeles. He released his first solo album in September of 2009. The self-titled effort featured Dutch on vocals, guitars and bass, Denny on drums and guitars and Jonny Niemann on keyboards. Denny and Jonny also contributed to Dutch's latest release with his current band, Dutch and the Disasters, with Dutch on vocals and bass, Jonny on keys, Rich Berardi on drums and Dylan Thomas on guitar.

The Kibitz Room has been the ideal testing ground for Dutch's new material over the years, and once again provided the backdrop for his meeting with a future bandmate in Dylan.

"I've always played music, but I really didn't understand music theory, harmony or ear training. I learned to play with so many different musicians, like Freddie Stevenson a great blues guy from Florida, when I played with the Saturday night bands here at Kibitz Room. Then, later I started playing here on Thursday nights from 9 p.m. to 10:30 p.m., just to find my voice because singing is the last thing I learned how to do, and for me it's been the hardest, everything else has come more naturally," Dutch confesses. "I played a set one night, and Dylan asked me if he could play with me. Usually it's the other way around, people ask me to play guitar or bass with them. This was the first time someone asked if they could play with me, so I said, 'Sure, next week bring your stuff.' From then on, it was just … If I could clone myself, what he plays is what I would play. He's already there before I think about it."

The new album, titled Dutch and the Disasters, marks a new beginning for Dutch, letting Dylan handle guitar duties while he focuses on bass and vocals.

"I play bass because it's easy for me. For any band, if you don't have a good bass player or drummer, forget it. Music is like baking a cake or building a house: You need concrete and wood, everything else is just icing. You build everything on top of bass and drums," he says.

The band headed to Rancho de la Luna to record. The studio, established by Dave Catching and the late Fred Drake in Joshua Tree, has been the atmosphere for recordings by Queens of the Stone Age, Fu Manchu and Daniel Lanois, and was even featured as an entire episode of "Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations."

"I rented the back house at Rancho de la Luna so we could go there for five days and focus on making music. Dave is the best guy in the world. There's a kitchen right in the middle of the studio; we would cook big meals, and people would come in and out. It was fun," Dutch shares. "We came with the intention of doing three songs. We started playing and ending up doing three songs in one day. We kept playing,and it ended up becoming a whole record."

With heartfelt lyrics, such as those heard on "Found My Fate," Dutch exposes an honesty to listeners, and the 10 tracks range from all-out rockers ("Break Me Down," "Dispensary") to softer ballads ("Caribbean," "Kristina") and even one that wound up with a title inspired by Jewish street musicians ("Klezmorium Blues").

"When I wrote that song, I had this guitar par and played it for my ex-girlfriend, who is a violin player. She said, 'It sounds like klezmer music.' I didn't know what that was, but when I Googled it and found out the klezmorim were Jewish street musicians and the music is really cool. There's a lot of improvisation, and that's why I named the song that," he details. "I don't like to classify or even know what all these songs are, really."

Besides the Kibitz Room, Dutch's favorite place to be is his uncle's farm, Flora Bella Farm,  in the foothills of the Sierra Nevadas.

"My uncle's an organic farmer, and I help him do farmers' markets. Flora Bella Farm is in Three Rivers, which is the last town before Sequoia National Park. To me, it is a very magical place. Working on a farm, being in the beautiful mountains and then coming to a dive bar with the lowest of the low, drug addicts and alcoholics – I find my way in the middle, somewhere between organic and filth," Dutch chuckles. "Through James [Birch], I've gotten to know all of the chefs from selling them produce. I know the good places to go because I see the chefs at the Farmers' Market, the ones who really give a shit and buy fresh and organic."

Although he can direct me to the best restaurants in my area – CanelĂ©, Blair's, Cortez and Allumette – Dutch says that his favorite restaurant is his own kitchen at his home in Palms.

"I have access to the freshest produce grown. To me, the best food I've ever eaten is the kind you just pick out of the ground and eat. I'll eat stinging nettles, lettuce or mustard greens growing from the ground, and I swear it's like a life-force you feel entering your body. I could talk for hours about it," he admits. "For years, I've done Farm to Classroom through SEE-LA [Sustainable Economic Enterprises of Los Angeles], where I teach kids about eating healthy. I show them pictures of the farm, talk about eating fresh fruits and vegetables to make them strong and how everything you eat and even wear has to be grown by a farmer. If you're wearing cotton or wool, from your socks to your underwear. Don't say underwear with little kids or they'll go crazy! I always bring blueberries to give them, and ask by a show of hands if they've ever had a blueberry before. Only two or three will raise their hands – it blows me away. I just did a garden at a school a few months ago with my friend Ari [Taymor] who is the chef at Alma. We planted some cabbages, radishes and herbs with the kids. It's good for them to get their hands dirty."

The Kibitz Room, and Los Angeles in general, is the perfect place for someone like Dutch, who enjoys toeing the line between clean, organic living and the seediness of a rock 'n' roll lifestyle.

"My ideal would be to live in every city for a year and just suck it all in. I love Los Angeles, but I hate it. California is probably the most special place in the country because you can grow fresh food year round. Plus, the weather," he begins. "But everything in L.A. is always changing. The last time I drove down to Santa Monica, the place has totally changed. That's why I love the Kibitz Room, because it's been the same since I got here. I like that."

Dutch and the Disasters' self-titled album is currently available. The band performs April 13 at Westwood Brew Co. For more information, visit

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