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Monday, 03 March 2014 12:09

'I could have all the things I want right here in St. Louis' An interview with Tommy Halloran

'I could have all the things I want right here in St. Louis' An interview with Tommy Halloran
Written by Liz Schranck
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Tommy Halloran is "making a living, not a killing." His newly released debut with his new band Guerilla Swing have excited his fans to see a new chapter unfold for a St. Louis veteran who plays some 300 nights a year.

Cursing under my breath, I searched my bag for any cash I might have. I'd just ordered my medium coffee at Shaw's on the Hill without knowing there's a three dollar minimum for credit card use.

"I got it, Lizzie." Tommy Halloran stepped up to the counter to order his cup as well and took care of mine in the process.

It's true: Halloran is as sweet as they say he is, despite his being a local celebrity.

Halloran has been on the music scene for about 20 years and plays gigs anywhere between four and five nights a week. At the age of 37, he has a reputation for being one of the most kind, unassuming, hardest-working musicians in St. Louis. And after chatting with him in the dimly lit vault of Shaw's Coffee, I was lucky enough to learn a little bit more about where that reputation came from, and, of course, about his new album "Under the Catalpa Trees."

Ten original songs and three standards make up the release, which is the first (hopefully of many) that Halloran has produced with his somewhat recently formed band Guerilla Swing, consisting of four talented musicians: Mark Wallace as the bassist, Kaleb Kirby on drums, Kristian Baarsvik on saxophone and Halloran on guitar and vocals.

A unique band name, no doubt, which Halloran says was inspired by the film "The Commitments." It's a movie about an Irish soul band. Halloran says there's a moment when a guy is asked when his band is going to play next. He replies, "We don't announce gigs. We just show up and play. We're the guerillas of soul."

The album is dynamic, to say the least. It's a smart mixture of contemporary jazz and '50s-era swing. One minute, you'll want to get up and shake your hips, the next, pour yourself a scotch and brood over a lost love. Halloran's smoky, subdued vocals are a quiet but fitting lead to his fellow bandmates: Baarsvik as a powerhouse in every sax line -- soloed or padded -- with Kirby and Wallace not far behind with their skillful percussion and low end.

But let's return to the vault, where Halloran dished the goods on his new band and album, his humble smile to start us off.

Liz Schranck: First things first. Where's your signature hat?

Tommy Halloran: I know. I know. I thought that to myself actually as I was walking in.

The look suits you.

(smiles) Thank you.

All right, can you tell me a little bit about where you grew up, how you came to live in St. Louis?

I'm from St. Louis. I grew up in Kirkwood for the first 20 years of life, and then I moved down here to South City and have been here ever since.

And this is where you want to stay?

All my friends are here, and my family. My network is here. I didn't go away for college, so all of my support systems are here in town. There's no point for me to leave. And now I have kids, and I think this is a perfect place for kids.

It's a great place to have family. How old are your kids?

My daughter is 9, her name's Lily. And Django's my boy. He's 7.

Are they musicians yet?

Both write songs and kind of bang around on instruments. Nothing formal but they love to play! I don't want to force it and have it not work out.

Right. And how about your training? When I heard you first live, and then listening to your album, I thought you must have had training musically.

I did go to a college for about a semester. I didn't make it all the way through the semester. That was at Webster, for jazz. But I really didn't do well. I didn't practice like I knew I was supposed to, and they let me go (laughs). So most of my education on the guitar is informal. I have, over the years, taken lessons with some great teachers. But really just here and there.

So if you took more of the self-informed route, is it fair to say that some of your "training" so to speak came from influence by other artists?

Absolutely. Yeah, we grew up with a lot of Ray Charles, Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald in the house. So when it came time for me to start writing songs, that was what I thought of as music.

You mentioned you got together with your fellas in the band recently. How did Tommy Halloran's "Guerilla Swing" actually form?

It was just about a year ago when we first played a gig with this line up, which is Kaleb Kirby on drums, Mark Wallace on bass, and Kristian Baarsvik on sax. And I had been playing with Mark Wallace for a couple of years, probably. And I had played with Kaleb a few times, but I had trouble finding the right horn players. Then Mark brought in Kristian and told me he was gonna scare me. He's so good. And it's not 1936. It's much more aggressive than that.

So as far as recording goes, you thought, "OK, these are the guys I want to make a record with"?

I hadn't made an album for a long, long, long time. Because it has to be the right group of guys, otherwise it just doesn't work or you end up hating each other. So I knew this was the right group of guys, and then we just decided to book the studio time before we even had the album ready. And then we wrote the album and put it together.

Do you compose the songs? Or is it more of a collaboration between the four of you?

I guess I'm the primary songwriter. There are three standards on the album: "God Bless the Child," "I Can't Give You Anything But Love" and "Walking Stick." But the rest, I wrote. Everybody writes music though. And everybody has their own groove and style, which is really what makes this band work.

I saw your Indiegogo campaign. Crowd funding is a great way, as you know, for independent musicians to get their music out into the world. Your campaign was successfully funded, with over 90 contributions. How did that feel to know you had that kind of support?

It was really affirming. I was certain we wouldn't hit our mark or get anywhere near it. It felt validating and took a lot of pressure off. We weren't in the studio counting down minutes until when we ran out of money. It was very freeing.

The record itself is incredibly dynamic. For me, and maybe other listeners who don't have a "jazz ear" or have a lot of knowledge in that sense musically, I was able to be completely absorbed in it. I think I attributed that to the pacing, going from songs like "God Bless the Child" to "Ferdinand." It's an eclectic mix. Was that intentional as far as writing or choosing album order?

Well, the song sequence was very deliberate. I put a lot of thought into that. It is very dynamic. I would like to be able to put a record on at the beginning of a party, and have it still be good an hour later, you know? That's kind of what I was thinking with this one. I didn't want any patches of dullness or any long stretches of "too much." And it's a smaller band with only four of us. So it helps that the songs don't stretch out into eight or nine minutes long, which can be really tiresome even to somebody who loves jazz. We try to keep a pop mentality on a jazz framework.

Listening to some of the lyrics in your original tunes -- what inspires a song like "Caffeine?"

(Smiles) Yeah. Shoot. I remember writing "Caffeine" in high school. Everybody went to see a movie and I didn't have any money. So I put on a pot of coffee and got my bass guitar and wrote the song. That's how that one happened.

But I think that's a gift as a songwriter -- to be able to write about something as mundane as coffee and turn it into a great tune.

It's definitely also a discipline. A matter of sitting down and doing it all the time. I tell people that when I turned 30 I had a really hard time writing songs. And really when I turned 30 I had stopped sitting down and trying to write songs. Now every time I try to...I can.

Now I know you love St. Louis. But have you ever thought of hitting the road? Any thought on doing any touring with this album?

We are considering touring some regionally. I don't know how to make a big trip out to California or Australia work... on paper. I don't know how people do that. You know? We're looking at Chicago, Memphis, Kansas City, Louisville.

You guys have a lot of potential to reach for those things.

Right. I'm somewhat scared to, to be honest.


I just know St. Louis so well. I know I could have all the things I want right here in St. Louis. So it makes going out of town seem somewhat daunting. I'm somewhat saturated here too, though. I play between four and five nights a week, so people could be like, "Well, we could go see him tomorrow night, too."

But it's a good thing.

Oh yeah, absolutely.

And, you're able to make a living as a musician.

Yeah, there's a great line: "Making a living, not a killing." And...I can do that. I just ask for gigs, and they give them to me. And then I go, and that's it.

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