Kris Rodgers and The Dirty Gems Keep The Party Going For Us All With “Still Dirty” (SONG PREMIERE/INTERVIEW)

Kris Rodgers is a pianist, vocalist, songwriter, and total geek in various ways, and with his band, The Dirty Gems, has become part of Little Steven Van Zandt’s Wicked Cool Records family. It started out by getting serious attention for their cover single “Every Little Crack” that became a vinyl single release from Wicked Cool, and now their full-length album, Still Dirty, is coming up on July 23rd. Every musician in the band has serious musical chops and a wealth of experience playing in various genres, and some have also played alongside each other over the years before forming their current set up. That means that they have a lot to work with, musically, and often show an awareness of early Rock ‘n Roll beyond their years, like you’ll hear on Still Dirty. 

This album takes the band’s biggest musical chances yet, since it’s the first time that all the band members have contributed song ideas and helped craft the songs together. Their love for musicality and the energy of live performance shines through, and if you love early Rock, Blues, and the music of the 60s and 70s like me, this album will be a welcome antidote to our difficult times. I spoke with Kris Rodgers about his roots in Portland, Maine, music geekdom, the band’s collaborative process on these songs, and what motivates them to keep the party going. You can also check out the debut of the song “Don’t Turn Around” from the Still Dirty with this interview. 

Hannah Means-Shannon: Do you think that being from Maine has impacted you in terms of music? Has it been a supportive environment? 

Kris Rodgers: Yes, Portland especially. I grew up about a half an hour away. The scene in Portland is pretty nurturing. For the most part, we are all friends around town and swap in and out of each other’s bands all the time. If one of my band mates can’t do a gig for some reason, I have a whole list of people who can swap in. There’s a really big art scene here, too, and music goes really well with that. There are open-mic places and Portland’s a great place to start out and get your bearings in music. We have a pretty cool gallery here called The Space Gallery who always have these cool art installations and the music they bring in is all over the place in terms of genres. 

HMS: Are you basically a music geek? I ask that because you like so, so many different types of music. Or is that normal for a musician?

KR: It is kind of normal as far as musicians go. I am definitely a music geek, but I think what me and the band play is Rock ‘n Roll. I think we have influences from a lot of places, but at least in The Dirty Gems, we are all professional musicians full-time. I’ve played in all kinds of bands from Country bands to Reggae bands and Pop bands. I’ve played on all sorts of tribute nights, like Faith No More, Whitney Houston, Elton John, Bowie. You get thrown into situations that you’re more or less unfamiliar with over time, and somehow over time, you become more familiar with that stuff. When you hit that point, then you start forming opinions on it and become a music snob. [Laughs] But I pride myself in trying to be able to replicate anything that I need to at any time. I know the other guys in The Dirty Gems are in a similar boat. It’s a big smorgasbord of stuff. I haven’t played it all, but sometimes it feels like I have!

HMS: To an outsider like me, that sounds incredibly stressful. Someone’s asking you suddenly, “Can you perform this music that you aren’t very familiar with in public?” But it sounds like the reality if you want to be a professional musician. 

KR: It is the reality. It is stressful, of course, at first. But you get over an initial hump there, and a lot of songs have similar chord progressions. 

HMS: Do you ever feel like you are into types of music that are not as popular?

KR: Yes, every single day. [Laughs]

HMS: You seem to really have an interest in different time periods of music and be open to them, from the 1950s onwards.

KR: I’m terrible about listening to new music if it’s not in my wheelhouse. I don’t even go much past the 80s anymore if I’m listening. I grew up in the late 80s and experienced grunge, but the 60s and 70s are probably my favorite eras of music. Being a piano player, I love the 50s. I love Little Richard and Jerry Lee Lewis. I used to do different kinds of performances, like dueling pianos, and those shows are 100% by request so you have to know standards like “Great Balls of Fire”, “Twist and Shout”, “Tutti Frutti” and stuff like that. Once you know one or two of those, you can’t help but listen to everything from that era. I have a huge vinyl set of everything Little Richard ever recorded now. 

HMS: That’s awesome! People used to have to get the records just to learn stuff. If The Rolling Stones wanted to learn a Blues song, they had to get the record and listen to it over and over. 

KR: With this Little Richard stuff, you can find alternate takes and all these things that aren’t really online. But even though it may sound strange, listening to things by ear is still the best way to learn anything. I went to music school and I can read music well enough to look up music. But there’s something about Rock ‘n Roll and that type of music that people weren’t reading music to play it, or Blues music either. 

HMS: People usually taught each other or listened.

KR: Yes, they were showing each other riffs and listening. It’s all that stuff that’s the humanity aspect of the music. 

HMS: Is there a kind of music that you want to give a shout out to people to try if they haven’t yet?

KR: It sounds cliché, but I’ll say “real Rock ‘n Roll”. I don’t mean alternative Rock, but the real stuff that embodies the 1960s and 1970s, however is new. Kind of like my band, but there’s a band called White Reaper that I really love right now. Their record came out in 2019 and I thought it was incredible. It’s pretty much a dirty, old-school Rock ‘n Roll album. I think people have just lost touch with Rock ‘n Roll, the way that it used to be. We’re all still here. There are a lot of great bands still doing stuff. It’s like 80s trash Pop Rock ‘n Roll with White Reaper. 

HMS: I know that your cover version of “Every Little Crack” was picked up by Wicked Cool Records, but you and the Dirty Gems have also been doing original music for a while now. However, this record represents a pretty significant body of work for you, doesn’t it? 

KR: Yes. The first time we put an EP out was probably about ten years ago, around 2011. The first little bit was just a trio and we were trying to do 60s Pop Rock. Then it kept morphing over time. We put out an album in 2017, and right after that, we recorded “Every Little Crack”. I actually sent the whole thing to Dennis at The Underground Garage just before we put it on Bandcamp. He came back and said that Steven wanted to put “Every Little Crack” out. So I, of course, said, “Heck, yeah!”

HMS: Do the songs we’ll hear on Still Dirty have a long live-play history for you, or are they totally new?

KR: No, all of these are super new. We did everything in the basement, really, and we wrote all of the songs together, for the most part. That’s different for us. Really all the records in the past have been me writing the nuts and bolts of the songs and the band acting like session musicians during the recording time. This time, we had our own little studio to work out of, and we all had time to be there. For the first single we put out, “She Likes To Party”, that was Ryan Halliburton’s main idea. He brought he musical idea into the band. “I Can Still Feel It” was one of my musical ideas. It was a lot more of a full-band effort on the album and I think that it shows. I think it’s some of the best work that we’ve ever done.

HMS: There’s a lot of cohesion and power to this unit of songs. I’m not surprised they were all written around the same time. 

KR: A lot of being an artist is taking risks and taking chances, and that’s so easy to say. I used to say that sometimes and I didn’t even know what that really meant, but now I feel like I know what that means. “She Likes To Party” and “Tortuga” are good examples of that. “Tortuga” is kind of a bossa nova Spanish song and I would never have put either one of those on previous records. In my head, I would have thought, “We can’t do something like that.” But the other guys in the band said, “We can do that!” So I let my guard down a little bit, and we tried it, and it was amazing. 

HMS: That’s wonderful. It sounds like you had a couple of different types of songwriting going on here to create the album. First of all, we had the Beatles-style aspect of each band member bringing their own song ideas in, and then, once recording, I imagine that band members were also creating their musical parts for each song. Is that true?

KR: For sure. It’s pretty much exactly that. I don’t ever tell people what to play on a record. I have a philosophical thing about that. I think that if making a record is like making dinner, and every person in the band is a different spice, you don’t just want salt. If I’m the only one putting input into the dish, and I’m the salt, that’s really salty. You need other spices. I’ve been in bands where I’ve been told what to play and almost never agree with what I’m playing. I’ll do it if I’m on a session, but unless you’re Stevie Wonder, I don’t think one guy should do it all. 

HMS: To what degree did you go for a live feel when recording this album? I know that you did some overdubs. 

KR: Kind of. They are all a little different depending on whatever state the song was in at the time. I think there are a couple of songs on the album where the demo-base is there. We did “Take Me To The Pilot” in the room together, and though we were in a room together for the rest of them too, we would isolate out every sound. Somehow it sounds really live all the time, though!

HMS: It really does!

KR: It could be because we have all played live so much, and some of us have played in bands together for years, like Craig [Sala] and I. Same with Tom [Hall] and Ryan and I, who have played so many gigs together. Maybe that’s part of it. Sometimes I hear it back and I can’t believe how live it sounds.

HMS: I couldn’t be sure one way or the other, so I assumed live. Everything also sounded precise, though, which gave it a polished aspect.

KR: I talk in terms of referencing everything with other famous records that are already out, saying, “a piano part like this” or “a bass part like this”. So it’s also a weird game of copy-cat. Obviously, I’m trying to go for Leon Russell and Elton John a lot. We describe what we are going for in terms of someone else. Even with “She Likes To Party”, for the guitar part we were saying, “Nile Rodgers” or “David Bowie” for that sound to get the ideas flowing.

HMS: There are also a lot of spotlight moments in the songs where different instruments get their solo, their moment in the limelight. The songs seem more egalitarian in that way. Is that a goal?

KR: It just happens, I guess. We never really talk about it. Tom really likes to do interplay stuff between the keyboards and guitars. I play Mellotron on “She Likes To Party” that sounds like a flute, and it was his idea to do a call and response there. Otherwise, it’s weird, we just kind of instinctually know where a solo is called for. It’s kind of an unspoken thing that’s true of great live bands that if a player has a “pocket” to play in, probably no one else has that “pocket”, so they can go for it. After a while, you figure out whose pockets are where. There are places where I can play a fill or Ryan can play a fill. It’s a way of playing the part but also getting a little creativity into it.

HMS: It seems like a lot of the songs on this album reflect positivity and are fairly upbeat. Is that something that stems from the identity of the band, or is it particular to this album?

KR: We are pretty positive, musically speaking. I think it comes down to what we’ve done before. We all play in bars and pubs all year round. My whole thing is to be upbeat all the time. 

But our last record was really up-tempo and really fast, and this record at least has some more chill tracks to cool people down in the meantime. I do think the general vibe that we like to keep is a party band. One of my favorite things is when you can see all the eyes in the room light up because they hear that next song starting and they think, “Oh, the party’s still going. We’re still doing this.” 

HMS: That’s a really cool approach. I also really liked the song “Don’t Look Back”. The music hit me really strongly because I could hear Blues stuff, but there’s also a lot of Rock there.

KR: That’s probably my favorite song on the album. Tom brought that sound. That was his idea. 

HMS: The lyrics seems really universal, too, since we all idealize the past too much and that can be undermining to living our lives. 

KR: For me, it was also sort of a racially-charged song. I was at a party before Covid and somebody basically said a racist joke. I was in the room, and there was that moment, wondering what kind of man I was going to be. But I totally chickened out and didn’t say anything. I felt so ashamed of that happening. A lot of it has to do with me standing up to myself and that situation. But saying “The good old days are gone”, is not necessarily to me, but to people who say that. I think the message of the song can really be anything you want, though, and I love that about it. 

HMS: I’m happy to hear that was on your mind, because the first time I listened the song, I thought that it might be about racism and the darker side of America’s past, but I didn’t want to read that into it necessarily. But obviously that totally works on a lot of levels. 

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