By Nicki Escudero
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By Brian Palmer
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By Lauren Wise
"I don't want to be just a drummer," says Phil Leavitt, the accomplished if reluctant stick figure for promising new pop band Dada. "Songwriting is what's ultimately important to me. Drums are just an instrument I grew up playing. It doesn't matter to me what other drummers are doing, who's got the best chops, that kind of thing. Songs, to me, are all that matter."
Leavitt's apprehension about getting lost behind his high hat is understandable. He's the guy most easily missed on Dada's impressive debut CD, Puzzle. As a shimmering, power-pop trio, Dada most noticeably displays the intermingled talents of guitarist Michael Gurley and bassist Joie Calio, who sang and wrote the majority of Puzzle's tunes.
Dada's two main players also have a history together. Gurley and Calio grew up in Saratoga, California. They wound up playing in rival Bay Area bands. Years later the two independently moved to L.A. and eventually hooked up to harmonize with ex-Three O'Clock guitarist Louis Gutierrez in an otherwise forgettable paisley-pop act called Louis and Clark.
Gutierrez eventually jumped his own ship and joined the annoying Mary's Danish. Gurley and Calio, left to their own devices, hung out, wrote songs, performed as an acoustic duo and generally waited for something to happen.
At the same time, Leavitt, a longtime SoCal transplant from Las Vegas, was working with an L.A. folk artist named Darius. Leavitt was also out playing some folksy, sing n' strum gigs on his own.
"I was really trying to pursue a career as a singer-songwriter," Leavitt says, adding that his solo work seemed to be turning a few music-industry heads. "But then this thing came along with Mike and Joie. We played together, and it seemed so right, I felt I should just go for it."
After two years of fine-tuning a sound and a song list and getting by on typical L.A. day jobs (Calio worked in the mail room at Geffen Records), Dada eventually got lucky and signed with I.R.S. Records.
All of which meant that Phil Leavitt, struggling musician, was finally making a living in the music biz. But there was a catch. Leavitt was making it as "just" a drummer. And he was pretty much keeping the beat to other people's songs.
"Initially, this was their thing," Leavitt says of the Gurley-Calio project that became Dada. "They'd been together for quite a while, and I kind of came in later. They also had a lot of songs ready to go. But after we started recording, we decided we needed more material. That's when I was able to help out."
Indeed, Leavitt ended up with co-writing credits on four of Puzzle's 12 tunes. All of the collaborative efforts were written and composed in true collective fashion.
"We'd go into rehearsal and everyone would sit at his instrument and just start creating," says Leavitt. "It was all spur of the moment. On one song, I started doing this thing on drums. Michael then started playing guitar and shouting out a bunch of words off the top of his head. When I heard him yell 'here today, gone tomorrow,' I knew we found the song. We ended up playing for another 45 minutes straight before it really took shape."
"Here Today, Gone Tomorrow" is one of Puzzle's more memorable tunes. Even better are the instantly ingratiating "Surround" and "Dorina," a subtle, barfly-fantasy piece that opens the CD on an attentive note.
But Puzzle's high point is the dazzling pop-rocker "Dizz Knee Land," a current favorite on a variety of FM playlists. "Dizz Knee Land" starts with an absolutely infectious guitar riff that Gurley claims he came up with in a dream. The subsequent melody bounces along behind a sly set of simple yet cynical lyrics: "I just robbed a grocery store/I'm going to Dizz Knee Land/I just flipped off President George/I'm going to Dizz Knee Land."
The song's crispy-clean harmonies and up-tempo groove give rise to comparisons ranging from XTC to the Outfield and all points in between. There also seems to be a tendency to align Dada with the peppy pop of the Police's early material--back when the prophet Sting was a mere bottle-blond mortal.
"I find the Police comparisons kind of comical," Leavitt says. "It's even mentioned in our press bio, which just shows you shouldn't believe everything you read. I mean, come on; there's three of them and there's three of us. And, really, that's it."
Leavitt figures such classic acts as the Beatles, the Doors, the Rolling Stones and even Simon and Garfunkel are more representative of Dada's bloodlines. Indeed, Dada's stage show has been known to include an eclectic collection of cover songs, including a hard-nosed rendition of the otherwise wispy "Scarborough Fair."
"Our live shows have more of an edge than you find on the CD," says Leavitt. "We like to get up there and blow people's heads off."
Unfortunately, Dada's only visit to Arizona resulted in precious few casualties. The band, now a local radio staple, appeared with Joan Jett, Concrete Blonde and a number of other acts at a sparsely attended "alternative festival" last fall.
"It was at the Desert Sky Pavilion," Leavitt recalls. "I think we played for about 300 to 500 people at a 17,000-seat venue. But we enjoyed it. If nothing else, it was the first time we played on a stage that size.