THE DIRTY PEARLS INTERVIEW:
September 13, 2011
High energy and straight-up rock and roll is how I would describe The Dirty Pearls. I recently saw The Dirty Pearls live at Irving Plaza in New York City (they were opening for Cinderella) and was blown away by their dirty rock sound and stage presence. The band has battled their way to the top of the New York City rock scene, and in addition to guitarist Tommy Mokas and vocalist Tommy London, The Dirty Pearls are made up of Johnny B (guitar), Marty E (drums), and Dougie Wright (bass).
Over the past year they have supported KISS, Scott Weiland, and Bret Michaels, sold out headlining New York City shows at Gramercy Theatre and The Bowery Ballroom, and released a new single and video (“Who’s Coming Back To Who”) that is spreading fast. A new album is coming out early next year and in the interim an EP will be released this fall with a tour to support. Oh, and someone named Lady Gaga is their biggest fan, even giving mention to the band in her song “Heavy Metal Lover”.
Tommy Mokas, the lead guitarist of The Dirty Pearls, was kind enough to invite me out to his studio in Williamsburg, Brooklyn where Mokas is co-owner of Casa Nova Studios and where some of the songwriting for The Dirty Pearls occurs. In addition to talking with Mokas, Tommy London graciously agreed to answer some questions via email.
It is Friday night when I arrive in Brooklyn to meet Tommy Mokas. In addition to The Dirty Pearls, Mokas has a lot on his plate. As we walk back to the composer room of the studio Mokas is talking about countless projects related to music producing, scoring of short films, and writing projects that include his poetry. It’s important to note that it is Friday night with Hurricane Irene expected to hit New York City as a Category 1 storm in a matter of hours. As I approach the building its clear Tommy Mokas has started weather-proofing the ground floor studio. While New Yorkers rush to Duane Reade and liquor stores for supplies, Tommy and I sat down for a couple hours to discuss The Dirty Pearls, his production work, 9/11, writing music, Lady Gaga, and more…
Sleaze Roxx: There is a lot going on, let’s start with The Dirty Pearls and the new single, where are you as a band right now and how does it feel?
Tommy Mokas: The main objective for The Dirty Pearls is to write more tunes, just continue to write great fucking songs. We have a new album, ‘Whether You Like It Or Not’, to be released in January and an EP for “Who’s Coming Back To Who” will be available this fall. We are also playing more in Boston and Philly and of course New York. We just came back from Miami for a few shows where they didn’t know us well. It’s amazing! Playing in front of packed crowds and winning them over one at a time, this is what we do man! It’s what The Dirty Pearls and rock and roll is really all about.
Tommy London: I feel GREAT… to say the least! So glad you dig the single. The song, “Who’s Coming Back To Who” is set to impact major radio this fall. Let’s hope it sticks in everyone’s head when they hear it from their car stereos! The song will be included on the 5 song EP that will be released this fall and of course on our full length CD, ‘Whether You Like It Or Not’, which will be released in early 2012.
Sleaze Roxx: How many years has the band been together?
Tommy London: The band has been together for three years now.
Sleaze Roxx: Any early stories of playing empty rooms or frustration?
Tommy London: We have been very fortunate. We’ve sold out every show in our hometown of NYC — from our debut at Arlene’s Grocery to the Gramercy Theatre. So we never had any frustrations really. We’ve had some “Spinal Tap” type shows outside of NYC… but that’s half the fun of touring!
Sleaze Roxx: Tommy Mokas, you’re the newest member of the band, how did you join?
Tommy Mokas: I joined… well, I was recruited two years ago. I was fronting my band Nova Clutch, opening a lot for The Dirty Pearls. I wanted to produce The Dirty Pearls, but the band approached me and said they wanted me and no one else so here I am.
Sleaze Roxx: What do you bring to a band like The Dirty Pearls?
Tommy Mokas: With my songwriting I bring a harder edge with a pop sensibility. You know, bring in the high harmonies, and bring them loud!
Sleaze Roxx: Tommy London, there’s definitely some Elvis Presley inspiration in you, is this correct (I see it in the opening lyrics for “Sucker For A Sequel” as well as the video for “Who’s Coming Back to Who”)?
Tommy London: Yes I’m a huge Elvis fan. I actually have a velvet Elvis right over my bed. Elvis was ‘The King”! He still is if you ask me.
Sleaze Roxx: What is the best part of being in The Dirty Pearls?
Tommy London: Sharing the stage with the four other Pearls — they are my brothers. We have a great time just being together partying and playing.
Sleaze Roxx: Who are some of the other influences for The Dirty Pearls?
Tommy London: The influences between the five of us range from Jimi Hendrix and The Clash to Guns N’ Roses and The Ramones.
Sleaze Roxx: Where did you grow up and how did this influence your music?
Tommy Mokas: I grew up in a small town of about 650 people in Iowa. Growing up I was always into music. I sang in the choir and even a barbershop quartet. I played drums and guitar — you name it, I played it. I had both choir and band directors that supported me; they definitely impacted my early development and love of music. After High School I decided to come out to New York and get my engineering degree and go work in a studio. That was eleven years ago.
Sleaze Roxx: Eleven years ago… well we are coming up on the ten year anniversary of 9/11, any memories you’d like to share?
Tommy Mokas: Actually I had friends from England in town and we were supposed to have breakfast the morning of 9/11 at World Trade Center Tower 1. The day before I landed my first engineering job and went out to celebrate so I didn’t get home until early in the morning and then was woken up by a call telling me to look out my window. I guess it wasn’t my time. I had just moved here and didn’t know many people so I didn’t know what to do. I spent the next week at Union Square walking around from vigil to vigil. Everyone told their stories and these people became my friends. It changed me, and to this day I appreciate every day because of it.
Sleaze Roxx: That’s a hell of a way to start your career as an engineer, how did you go from engineer to co-owner of your own studio?
Tommy Mokas: Let’s just say I got burned by the studio, missed paychecks or something, and that was it — I went to work for myself. In 2002 I got a space in the Brooklyn neighborhood of DUMBO and that was my work studio and also my apartment. I was literally sleeping in my studio. (Tommy looks around his studio now) Ha Ha! Okay, maybe not a lot has changed! A couple years later I moved to Williamsburg.
(There’s a sparkle in his eye when Tommy talks about his studio. There are stories behind each of the amps and the sounds made with slight modifications. He continues to refer to the visceral aspect of creating music and sitting here in front of him it’s easy to see the deep passion he has for the songwriting process)
The best part of having a studio is that you can’t fake it! This is it man! I had to move close to the studio because I was losing too much time commuting. I’ll be here all night, then go home at 8:30am and then be back by 3:00pm. I have full control to experiment — I’m just continuing to do what I’ve always done.
Sleaze Roxx: Back to The Dirty Pearls, let’s talk about the writing process. Who is the primary songwriter and how much is a collaborative effort?
Tommy Mokas: Songwriting for The Dirty Pearls is an organic process. It often starts with me or me and Tommy London. I may come up with a song, melody, or riff and send to London or our manager, Hank Smulewitz, and see what he thinks before sharing it with the rest of the band. Sometimes London will show up with a six pack of beer and lyrics he has written. I joke that he writes ‘bumper stickers’, a compliment for his catchy lyrics and ideas. More than one occasion we’ve had a song written before we crack open our third beers.
(Mokas looks around at his studio, stopping at an acoustic guitar)
That acoustic cost ten dollars — that’s it! You know what? It doesn’t lie! You know what’s working in a song when you play it on that guitar.
(A lot of the equipment, with the exception of some very expensive looking mixing/sound boards, was either free or cheap and salvaged by Mokas himself. He has wired the whole studio and continues to invest selectively. Apparently he has his eye on some wood from a charred barn in upstate New York that he wants to use to build a studio box for vocals)
To me there are two types of songs written, there are ‘the gift’ songs, tunes written in two hours to a day, and then those songs that stew for years. With my previous band, Nova Clutch, I had a lot of songs that took a long time to write — with The Pearls we have had a few gifts. For example, “Caffeine And Gasoline” took a little over an hour.
Once we have a version of a song we share with the other members of the band. They contribute and the song begins taking shape and then when we play it live it really comes together. This is especially important for this band because we are all about playing live. It’s hard to capture our live, raw energy through the studio. Playing live versus playing in the studio is like teaching sex education versus fucking, it’s two different things!
Sleaze Roxx: Which comes first the hook or the melody?
Tommy London: Either one can come first really. Though most of the time I write a chorus and then get together with one of the guitar players, Tommy Mokas or Johnny B, and develop it from there. But songwriting can start anywhere from a riff, a melody, a couple of chords and sometimes just with a title in mind. It all varies really.
Sleaze Roxx: During your last show at Irving Plaza you added a trumpet to the song “Hollywood La La La”, I was surprised that this simple addition added a complex layer to the song. Any plans to add horns to more songs in the future?
Tommy London: Yea that’s our good friend (and unofficial Dirty Pearl) Brian Newman who joined us on stage for that song. We have actually talked about recording it with Brian on the trumpet. But we are thinking about trying to capture a live recording of it instead of actually going into a studio and laying it down.
Tommy Mokas: If it fits into rock and roll and sounds great live we may try anything. So much today is done digitally, it’s great to actually perform with instruments or lay down the tracks with real instruments. I’ve got nothing against digital — I use it myself, but there needs to be a balance. Sometimes imperfection on a track is a good thing.
Sleaze Roxx: I can think of big rock hits that have vocal and guitar imperfections that actually become part of the song and make them better.
Tommy Mokas: Fuck yeah! A good producer is necessary and editing is necessary, but rock and roll doesn’t need to be overproduced — rock and roll is meant to be raw and high energy!
Sleaze Roxx: The band has been working with David Kahn who has worked with Paul McCartney, Elton John, and The Strokes to name a few. What’s it like working with him?
Tommy Mokas: We as a band have a lot of momentum now and David Kahn is one of those reasons. Right now, The Dirty Pearls have a vintage sleaze rock and modern rock balance, David is trying to push us to be more modern without losing our vintage edge. Its great working with him, he is pushing the band to sound better and keep our rock and roll sound. It’s so important to have great people around you. David Kahn has been great, our manager Hank has also been awesome.
Sleaze Roxx: You mention your manager. What makes him a good fit for The Dirty Pearls?
Tommy Mokas: Hank wanted the job and gives a fuck about the band! A good manager not only takes care of booking details and knows people, but helps the band grow. As I mentioned before, I will send him music I have written to get his opinion first before sharing with the rest of the band. Hank’s the type of guy that will kick ass if a venue doesn’t pay. That commitment is rare today.
Sleaze Roxx: Any specific reason your album release was pushed to next year?
Tommy London: We pushed it until early next year because we have written a bunch of new songs and we feel that they are strong enough to be included on the album. So we backed up the release so we can record them quickly and get them on the CD!
Sleaze Roxx: What is your general impression of the music industry today and how does this affect The Dirty Pearls?
Tommy Mokas: Music is in a rad place, in favor of the musician and the artist. Everyone has access and the songs have got to be great. Everything is transparent and social media is changing this.
Tommy London is really the front end and back end of the marketing. He is in the trenches and is great at getting the word out. Today, it’s all word of mouth! We use Twitter and Facebook and other outlets. Twitter is especially huge because it gives the fans a chance to interact with the band. We are a very social band — all of us hang out after the shows and are available if our fans want to meet us. Marty E. is especially good at this. He knows everyone! Our fans expect this and we are there for them.
Sleaze Roxx: With so much going on what is your biggest challenge?
Tommy Mokas: There has to be a balance to being a modern artist today. I do have a lot going on, but it’s taken eleven years of hard work and I am just now seeing it. Right now my priority is The Dirty Pearls because there is something special happening right now. However, I am also running my studio, writing for Sonic Scoop, and finding time to write about my experiences. I am working on the balance between the monetary side and the not so monetary benefiting projects. With this comes a moral dilemma, for example, would you allow a song to be used in a Depends commercial? Ha! Probably not, but it’s never that black and white either.
Sleaze Roxx: What can fans expect from the next album as a whole?
Tommy London: I promise… PROMISE… that this album will be exactly the kind of album that has been missing from rock ‘n’ roll in a long time. It’s the kind of album where you want to listen to every song and then play it again. It makes you wanna turn the stereo up and push the pedal down and just drive!
Sleaze Roxx: Where do you see The Dirty Pearls in two to three years from now?
Tommy Mokas: Continuing to ask ourselves what is rock and roll? Rock is who we are and if we stray away we will be a different band, which is okay, but definitely a different band. We want The Dirty Pearls to solidify the rock experience through our live show. We have built our audience by touring relentlessly and being available to our fans. It’s the old way — hit the road and then make an album. Somewhere this got flipped, but it’s coming back and we are leading the way. I would love to someday record an album we could tour for two years on.
Sleaze Roxx: Two years! I would like to be the biographer and document that. That would be a party! Speaking of partying, who exactly are The Rivington Rebels?
Tommy Mokas: They are our crew. They are perpetuators of hard rock and partying in the Lower East Side every night. Their mission is to party as much as it is for The Dirty Pearls to rock. They are as much an idea as a group, and they are there to make the party awesome!
Tommy London: The Rivington Rebels is what we call our crew of hell-raisers. The core being myself, Brian Newman, Luc Carl, Marty E, and Ian Eldorado. We drink, gamble, smoke, eat steaks and just create havoc. Sort of like our lower east side version of the Rat Pack… HAHHAHA!
Sleaze Roxx: Okay, another alumnus from the Lower East Side, Lady Gaga, is quite the fan. So much so that she mentions your band in her song “Heavy Metal Lover” and invited you to star with her for a MTV Video Music Awards commercial. What’s her relationship with the band?
Tommy Mokas: Well, we all know each other from the neighborhood, and grew up playing around each other. It wasn’t too many years ago that Lady Gaga was rocking out on her piano at Arlene’s Grocery. She is a great person who cares about her music and fans. She is genuine and CAN ACTUALLY SING! I hope someday she goes Elton John and puts out a full album of just her on a piano. She’s had to win over a lot of people and has fucking earned what she has gotten.
Tommy London: Yea it was amazing when Lady Gaga mentioned us on her song. She surprised us with that one! When her album leaked online, we had all these fans writing us and shouting us out. We didn’t know what they were talking about until we heard the song ourselves.
The VMA commercial was a blast. It was a big family affair with just all our friends partying and having fun — Lady Gaga, Brian Newman, Lady Starlight, Semi Precious Weapons, Breedlove, Rivington Rebels and of course us! It was such an amazing day.
Sleaze Roxx: What is the best part of living in New York City?
Tommy London: The energy, the vibe, the creativity… I could go on and on. New York City is a drug! (shameless self promotion… sorry.. couldn’t help myself)
Sleaze Roxx: Favorite NYC venue to play?
Tommy London: There is nothing more special to me than playing the Bowery Ballroom. The reason is because when I first moved to the city that was the unreachable room to get on the rock scene… and we did it! They never let real local rock bands play there. We broke down that wall for the NYC rock scene. I’m really proud of that.
Sleaze Roxx: Favorite New York City hangouts and drink of choice?
Tommy London: The clubhouse (aka St. Jerome’s) on Rivington Street, but we also like to hang out at Three of Cups in the East Village. Our drummer Marty E spins rock ‘n’ roll there from time to time.
Tommy Mokas: There is a bar close to the studio here in Williamsburg named The Levee, they have good music and I can get a beer, shot, and just chill. There’s also St. Jerome’s in LES where you can find the crew, also I really like the parks down the street on the East River. Sometimes I do need to take a break and that’s where I get my nature.
My drink of choice is Jack and Ginger. I like Jack Daniels because I can drink a lot of it. I don’t have time to drink very often, but I am a rock and roll romantic and Jack Daniels definitely fits that bill. Of course before a show I never drink. I want to give my fans the best experience possible!
Sleaze Roxx: It always comes back to the music!
Tommy Mokas: Absolutely, The Dirty Pearls is all about rock and roll and the live performance. If you haven’t seen us come check us out!
Sleaze Roxx: After The Dirty Pearls are famous and sell millions of records will it be jealousy or addiction that leads to ‘tension in the band’, you know the part of the VH1 Behind The Music show where they show a member of the band passing out on the stage and then cut to commercial?
Tommy London: Hmmm… I think it would be exhaustion. We are a non-stop, mile a minute work horse of a band. We will play and record until we are falling on the floor. We are going to make sure that the rock ‘n’ roll flag waves again! Rock ‘n’ roll has returned… now wipe that smile off your face!
Sleaze Roxx: Final thoughts before Hurricane Irene hits?*
Tommy Mokas: I’ve created a lot of rock and roll. If I died today… did I fucking rock the planet? (Pauses) Hell yeah!
About the Author:
David S. Grant is the author of several books including Rock Stars (Oak Tree Press), Corporate Porn (Silverthought Press), The Last Breakfast (Brown Paper Publishing), and Happy Hour (SynergEbooks). His new novel, BLOOD: The New Red will be available in the fall. David lives and works in New York City. For more information go to www.rockstarbooks.net follow David on Twitter: @david_s_grant.