|Phil Leavitt and Joie Calio of 7Horse at Sonny's Hideaway
5137 York Blvd., Los Angeles (Highland Park) 323-255-2000
"The first thing that attracted me to this place was that it's called Sonny's Hideaway, and that there's no sign on the door. Instantly it was appealing," describes Phil Leavitt of his favorite place in the city, a supper club in Highland Park. "It has that old-school kind of vibe to it, with the leather booths and wood. It's a throwback in a lot of ways to when I was a little kid in Las Vegas. It had a certain attitude, and I like to live like that if I can. In this place, you can you can come in, just be cool, sit at the bar and cop an attitude."
That's exactly what vocalist/drummer Phil, his 7Horse bandmate, guitarist Joie Calio, and I do at one corner of Sonny's Hideaway's bar when we meet up to talk about the 20-plus years this duo has spent creating songs together, their first musical loves and their new album, Songs for a Voodoo Wedding.
As Phil mentions, he spent his childhood in Sin City, with family members, and eventually him too, landing jobs at casinos. The 7Horse moniker comes from his grandpa always betting on the 7 horse at the track. Gambling isn't all that filled his life, though. Both he and Joie have been surrounded by music since they can remember.
"My dad put himself through dental school playing accordion as a leader of a band. Both of our dads were similar: hip, 1960s booming change and revolution kind of people. Dad had all the popular records of the time. I specifically remember the first album I ever picked up in my life was Surfin' U.S.A. by the Beach Boys. The pop culture movement was happening in my house with the Beatles, Simon & Garfunkel, the Rolling Stones, the Monkees," tells Joie, whose youth was spent in the Bay Area. "From the Monkees' cartoon show, the Beatles' TV show, my parents and my babysitters – blonde, beach types listening to Paul Revere & the Raiders, Herman's Hermits, the Rolling Stones and the radio – I loved it all."
Phil remembers being obsessed with a leather-bound, fold-out LP soundtrack of the original cast recording of "Jesus Christ Superstar" and "The Monkees" too – until his older cousin set him straight at around age 6.
"She said, 'Look, you might like this, but not these guys. These guys,' and she turned me onto the Beatles. The music, the whole idea of a band and the relationship between the people in it, took hold in my mind then because you always got a sense of that with the Beatles from movies like A Hard Day's Night or Help!. It was incredible, these four friends doing all of this together, the romance, the traveling, I got caught up in that," he recalls. "It was the Beatles and nothing but for about 10 years, until I heard the Police. The Police really got under my skin. A lot of it was the drums and Stewart Copeland because he's a phenomenal, revolutionary kind of drummer. I had never heard anything that sounded like that."
"When I was little kid, I would stay up late and watch 'The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson' and saw Buddy Rich, the jazz drummer, on it. Seeing him play, then he went over to sit down and mix it up with Carson. The idea that a drummer can be a guy who is a real personality, I connected to that," he adds.
"They make very good Old Fashioneds here. That's what I usually get because I'm a bourbon guy. At Happy Hour it's $6, you really can't beat that," he says. "They have a special menu for Tiki Tuesday, mostly rum drinks, and I had one of those before you got here. It was very good, too."
Joie is sipping a glass of red wine, and when I inquire if he's a connoisseur, he responds, "You could say that. I'm pretty bitchy about wine." He is a fan of Sonny's Hideaway's Ricotta Dumplings, while Phil recommends the Market Greens, Grilled Octopus, Smoked Deviled Eggs and the Bacon Burger that comes with bacon mixed into the ground beef.
"They always put a bit of a spin on things to make them more unique," he says. "I felt good the first time I came into this place, and for me, that's everything. It's not about the scene or what kind of write-ups a place gets, it's about how I feel when I walk through the door, and this place felt good."
Trusting their initial gut feelings about places and people is something that both musicians have done throughout their careers.
"Both of us have been playing music all of our lives. When you play with other musicians, some of them are good and some of them aren't. It's pretty rare when you meet someone who is great and you really click with. When you find somebody where it's like,' Wow, this is a serious connection,' it's a day you don't forget," says Joie. "When I first met Phil, I was in another band, and we were looking for a drummer. I worked at Geffen Records as the head of the mail room—"
"He always likes to work that in," laughs Phil.
"Yes, I was the head of the mail room," exclaims Joie. "I asked a girl in publishing if she knew any drummers, and she said,'I know the best drummer in Los Angeles. I'll get you his number.'"
"Let me tell you why she thought I was the best drummer in Los Angeles," interrupts Phil. "She used to come over to my house late at night, and we would have sex."
"That may have helped, but that's not why," Joie replies. "We invited him down to rehearsal, and it was just [claps hands] holy shit, crazy."
The two spent seven years together with Michael Gurley in dada before the band parted ways in 1999.
"When the first phase of our music career came to an end in the late '90s, that coincided with the end of the old-school record business. I ended up going Las Vegas and doing Blue Man Group for three years because the band got dropped. We had no idea that we could go on without a record label. Ani DeFranco was the only one who was doing her own thing," explains Phil, who also started doing voice over work to pay the bills.
Joie moved to Seattle, Wash., where he still resides today, and continued to release music as well as a memoir, You Can't Hear It But You Know It's There. Eventually, the pair came together again to form 7Horse and began writing material for their debut album, Let the 7Horse Run, over the phone and computer.
"When you had success like we had, if you don't get success again right away it's like, 'failure,'" remarks Joie. "When we started [7Horse], it was completely a left turn. Once we made a commitment to the left turn, we kept focusing on the differences. Let's do something that's different, otherwise we're just going to end up in the same place we were before, which was at a dead end."
Let the 7Horse Run released in 2011 and was indeed a departure from the sound associated with their previous band. The change was a good one, though, as the album's single, "Meth Lab Zoso Sticker," caught the ear of director Martin Scorsese, who used it in a trailer for and several scenes in The Wolf of Wall Street.
The duo hit the road in support of their debut and began working on songs for a new album. One song, "A Friend in Weed," was written as their van was coming into the town of Weed, Calif.
"When we're apart we're always working on stuff, bits and pieces of things," Phil says of their writing process. "We purposely try not to finish songs, leave them in a state of being half done and then send it to the other guy to see what kind of reaction it gets. We finish them right before we record. It keeps it very immediate and fresh. A lot of times, the first time through is the best for capturing that energy."
"We really keep it raw and simple," says Joie. "Once we get rolling, it's like a wave and you stop thinking about it, that's what slows you down. You just go with your feelings; we're pretty good at that."
"We have a focus on what we're trying to accomplish. The tendency when you're young is to be as creative as possible, to try all kinds of different things. There's a constant desire to break away from what you did before and do something totally different. While that can be personally satisfying from an ego point of view, in a lot of ways there's something better about saying, 'We're only going to use four colors in this painting. It's going to be blue, red, green and orange, and that's it.' If you're doing it with limitations, it's much easier to be creative within the framework," comments Phil. "The Beatles ruined it for everybody. That's a band that completely evolved from their early records, but there is only one Beatles. Not everybody can do that."
"They couldn't even last doing it," adds Joie. "It screwed them up, and everything ground to a halt."
"Then you have the Rolling Stones, who are still around because they have a thing that they do. And that's it, keep doing that thing, trying to make it better. Sometimes you succeed, sometimes you fail, but it is a thing, a well-defined idea," Phil continues. "As we've gotten older, we've gotten away from this desire to want to satisfy every creative whim. It's more: 'Let's make whiskey, but let's make the best whiskey.'"
Speaking of whiskey, everyone continues to sip on their drinks, as I ask Joie what prompted his move from Los Angeles to Seattle.
Phil, on the other hand, says he wouldn't want to live anywhere else but Los Angeles.
"I love this place because it has everything, including smog, traffic and the difficulties in dealing with it. When people say, 'I don't like Los Angeles,' I say, 'See ya, we could use a few less of you around to ease up the traffic,'" he laughs. "That's why I like this side of town, because it feels a little less congested, more open and relaxed. Highland Park and York Boulevard are getting trendy and I've only been on this side of town for about five years (I've lived all over, from Malibu and the Valley, to Silver Lake and Hollywood), but I like this place the best."
While Los Angeles is always in his heart, Phil has also fallen in love with New Orleans. His travels to the city for a friend's actual voodoo wedding inspired the name of 7Horse's sophomore effort, Songs for a Voodoo Wedding.
"See those two people over there, the blonde woman and the guy talking gesticulating," Phil asks as he points to a couple standing on another side of the bar. "My wife is over there with them, and the four of us went to New Orleans together. They were the ones getting married down there, this is the couple."
"We're not going to be here every time they do an interview," laughs the man, as he overhears Phil talking about them.
"I love jazz and blues, in particular early rock 'n' roll, and New Orleans is the birthplace of all that. I've been to every music city – Austin, Nashville, New York City, Los Angeles, Chicago – and there's no place like New Orleans," states Phil. "Frenchmen Street, we don't have anything like it in Los Angeles. It's bar after bar after bar, with a crowd and band in every one, and all the bands are good. There's a reggae bar next to a Dixieland old-school traditional jazz band in a bar then a funky brass band. Within 20 minutes, I heard amazing music in four different places just walking down the street. That place really got to me, so I wanted to name check it in our song ['Flying High (With No ID)"] because it's all true. That song has a lot of what really happened. The trip down there I, in fact, showed up at the airport without a driver's license."
Joie interjects, "Wait a second! And…"
"I don't like flying that much, so I thought I would soften the experience with a cannabis lollipop. I get to security, open my wallet and don't have my driver's license. But I think it helped me because under normal circumstances, panic might have set in," Phil divulges. "The real thrust of that song, though, is that time in New Orleans, experiencing the culture there."
As the pair of band brothers prepares for next week's release of Songs for a Voodoo Wedding, they talk about why their musical partnership has been able to withstand so much and persevere over more than two decades.
"When you're 20 years old, you're just blindly go out there thinking the world is going to open up for you," observes Phil. "For some it does. Paul McCartney wrote 'Yesterday' when he was around 22, but how many of those guys are around? I certainly wasn't one. We had to stick it out for a bit longer to get onto something where we feel like, 'this is our thing that we like to do, and we're going to keep doing it no matter what.' We both believe that, so it makes it easy for us to go forward."
"This is really a rebirth, that's the greatest thing about it," continues Joie. "We really a tapped into a whole new line. It's like the spike went into the ground, and a whole new well popped up. It's so refreshing and beautiful. I feel pretty good about it.
"The key ingredient here, what do you need most in life from another person is optimism. Everybody wants to say no, so when you run into somebody who says yes, that's a key ingredient. That's what Joie's about. He's a true believer, and that's what keeps us rolling. You have to have that because it's so difficult. We had to battle with the record company machinery back in the day, and now those days are over. We're on your own, which is great in certain ways, but there's so much to do because the machine doesn't exist to support you; you have to do everything yourself," concludes Phil. "Baseball's another thing that I love, and Tommy Lasorda used to say something like, 'If you have 25 guys pulling on the same side of the rope anything is possible, but if you have half the team pulling the other way saying, 'I don't believe in this thing,' then you're going nowhere.' It's the same thing in a band. If you have two guys going one way and another guy going the other way, even if it's the most talented band in the world, it's going to be impossible. But if you don't stop, you can't fail."
Songs for a Voodoo Wedding will be available June 10. For more information, visit http://7horsemusic.com/.