American duo Little Hurricane is Anthony ‘Tone’ Catalano and Celeste ‘CC’ Spina, who met through music in San Diego several years ago and married last year. They have toured both hemispheres – including Australia – and have a new album, Same Sun Same Moon, that showcases not only their talents but the range of genres they embrace (including some country sounds). It’s an album that immediately impresses and also gets under your skin. I spoke to them by phone from the USA.
I’d like to go back to the beginning – well, to your high school jazz bands, as you were both in one – and ask what foundation those bands gave you both.
CC: I went from playing in the marching band and symphonic band, which is just one drum, snare drum, to playing the full drum kit. It was cool to be able to play some more current music and be the only drummer, because in symphonic or marching band you’re playing with a bunch of drummers but in jazz band you’re the only drummer. I learned, of course, how to read full drum kit music but also how to improvise and play drum solos, and different kinds of skillsx , so for me it really was the foundation of playing the full drum set.
Tone: My progression with guitar was learning early on, in seventh grade, learning Nirvana songs, playing power chords, then when I got into jazz band it really opened my mind as far as improvisation as well as chord structures, and the different emotions and moods you can get out of music and guitar in general, so that really blew my mind as far as what you can accomplish with six strings. And jazz and blues have a very traditional background – certain rules – but I like taking the parts and elements out of that genre and incorporating into what we do with rock music and alternative stuff. It really opened my mind to that.
You can certainly hear on the album how both of your instruments fill the space – there’s this real sense of a complete sound going on, and that’s why I was curious to ask about that jazz background in particular.
CC: Thank you – well, that’s what we aim to do, to do the job of four people with just two of us.
When you first got together as a duo in San Diego, what was happening in the San Diego music scene at that time – was there a dominant genre?
Tone: Probably a lot of reggae, but that wasn’t necessarily our scene. All the musicians in San Diego are very encouraging and supportive of new acts. I think it’s important for a town to foster its arts and music community, to create a space and have the music venues and support system for people who are pursuing music and arts in general.
So you obviously found that support there when you began and started to develop your own sound?
Tone: Yeah, I think it would be very different if we were in LA, where there’s so many people and it’s kind of hard to even stand out. Whereas San Diego had that support system, so I have to credit them.
Once you had formed the band – you have a very cohesive and cogent sound that’s identifiably yours. How long did it take to find that musical identity?
Tone: Kind of our first rehearsal. We got together and that’s the first question we asked each other: ‘What kind of music do you play?’ We discovered we were both in jazz band and it was fun for us, so we started with that and it’s been the core of our songwriting ever since.
CC, I read that you placed an ad on Craigslist for a band member – did you have to audition
CC: No, he was the only guy that I met up with and played with. I had a lot of responses and some of them were crazy but Tone’s response, when he included his history of the artists that he’d worked with and that he was a full-time audio engineer, I knew that I was lacking experience when it came to the music industry and it seemed like he could fill that void of knowing how it really works. I had really only played in school band and with friends in high school. I’d never played a regular gig. I didn’t know much about it. So it was a perfect complement to my lack of knowledge, with his wealth of knowledge.
Before placing that ad had you made a decision that you really wanted to pursue music, or did you just think, This might be fun, I’ll give it a go?
CC: I kind of thought it might be fun, but at the time I had just recently quit cooking. I cooked professionally for about eight years and had decided it wasn’t the right path for me. So I was bartending and I knew I didn’t want to bartend forever, but I knew I had to try different things. I never thought it would turn into a career or a full-time job but I was ready for something different in my life.
But what you had been doing before was creative work – it’s hard work, cooking, but also creative – so you obviously have this creative drive through your life.
Yes, I like doing things with my hands. Cooking, crafting, playing drums – it’s fun for me. And it’s nice to be seated for a while. I spent eight years standing in a kitchen and now I’m the one who gets to sit on stage.
So, Tone, as you were an audio engineer, does that inform how you listen to your own music when you’re working or are you able to separate what you’re creating as a band and come at it from a different angle?
Tone: It does help to have another perspective at the end to let you know if it’s good or not, but I think the background I have in audio engineering really helps as far as being in a band. The reason why I got into it, I was in a band in high school and we’d go into recording studios and I didn’t know what to say in terms they could understand to make it sound the way I wanted it to sound in my head. So I ended up learning and it really helped refine the sounds we wanted to achieve, and I think it goes hand in hand, so it’s more of a benefit, for sure.
I can certainly hear on this album that appreciation for sound – the sound is big and complete, and it’s also really clean. So it sounds like all of these skills have coalesced.
Tone: And I think it’s important for any musician – you could write the best song in the world but if something sounds harsh or abrasive it’s not going to go anywhere and I think it doesn’t serve the song. The song has to be in the best position possible for people to enjoy it.
The two of you have a personal and creative partnership, so I’m really interested in how your songwriting works – whether you set aside time for it or it’s a spontaneous effort, and also if you have a process.
Tone: Songs could come from anywhere, so it’s probably happening whether you like it or not whether I’m in the shower humming a tune or in the middle of the night or doing soundcheck on tour. So you never know when a song will pop up or inspiration will be, so the point is just being ready for it and at some point recording it when you can.
When it came to this album did you have a lot of songs to choose from or did you write with this album in mind?
Tone: It took over three years, the process, so we did have a lot of songs. We write them all but at a certain point you have to see which songs fit best together to make the album complete, so we did have to cut a bunch – I forget how many exactly.
CC: I think we’ll have an extra six or seven songs. We’ll be putting some of them out as a B side. We wanted to pick those ones that told the story collectively and hopefully we picked the right ones.
There are a few different influences there but it does all work as a whole sonically – it does feel like an arc through the album, but each song has its own role.
CC: And we put out the first single that sounds very different to the other songs and people will judge it based on one song, but nobody wants to see an artist paint the same painting over and over again. We’re trying to put together a catalogue and collection that is dynamic and interesting to keep listening to as we grow as artists.
I was reading that you’ve made a few changes for this album – new timbres and a broader scope – ‘changes that underscore the band’s desire to transcend its dirty blues roots and connect with a wider range of music lovers’. I’m interested in that connection with the wider range of music lovers – as songwriters, how might that have changed what you do, and also as performers?
Tone: We called ourselves dirty blues because when people ask what your genre is as we started the band we thought that described blues with more grit and grime and distortion. But every song is different and we try to push the boundaries of what we can do as two musicians.
CC: And I think collectively it goes back to the album title of Same Sun Same Moon – we’re all on the same planet, we want to connect with everyone in our own way, reaching a broader demographic of people we kind of just want to bring people together. If you love country and someone else really loves aggressive rock ’n’ roll, you can find two different songs on the same record – you can love the record and not love the same songs. I think it’s important for us to try to bring people together through music.
As I’ve just realised I’m fast running out of time, I’m going to ask the perhaps shallow question and ask you about the TV shows and ads your songs have appeared on – is it kind of strange to hear your song being played on television?
CC: I think it’s really encouraging. Sometimes it’s strange when we don’t know what scene a song is going to be used in. We had one song that was about my grandmother passing away and the love my grandfather had for her and they ended up using it on a show called Mistresses where it was like a sultry love-making scene in the background and we weren’t expecting to see that. You know, everyone has their own interpretation of the songs, so it made it kind of fun. I think my grandma was laughing up in heaven.