Gargantua Soul has played a lot of different crowds. As the only unsigned act at Woodstock ’99, they were in front of some 30,000 people, and their last six concerts at Toad’s Place have been sold out.
But they have also driven 15 hours to play to a room with four people — bartender included, thank you. But the smaller the crowd, the harder they work.
“We’ve played places where there’s three people in a room,” percussionist Opus said. “It’s almost good for the ego. You’ve got to get them double, and you’ve got to learn how to deal with it.”
Working a small crowd is not all that different from a smooth seduction.
“Playing to big crowds is like a girl putting out for you every time,” guitarist Jason Bozzi said. “We like the challenge. We like the thought there might be nobody at the next show. We do that to ourselves every time.”
These days, the band does not have to worry so much. Their songwriting chops have earned them fourth prize in the John Lennon Songwriting Contest, and they have appeared everywhere from the “Howard Stern Show” to ESPN.
But, still, Gargantua Soul does not have have a contract with a major label — the golden ticket that assures them that, for a few years at least, they can quit their day jobs.
At 5 years old, Gargantua Soul is a band facing one of two futures: national stardom or a slow fade. They may have a lot of people at home rooting for them, but their fate rests in the hands of a few record label executives who, these days, seem to favor boys and girls who have been in the Mickey Mouse Club.
So, instead, Gargantua Soul is doing it the old-fashioned way: grinding it out on the road, meeting fans, and trying to garner marketing attention.
“More and more people are getting to know the band,” guitar player Marc Amendola said. “I think we’re starting to crack the inner eggshell.”
One thing you hear over and over again from musicians — long before they end up on VH1’s “Behind the Music” — is that band life is a lot like family life. On the whole, rock stars do not sound terribly different from marriage counselors.
“Communication is key when you’re in a band,” Amendola said. “It’s a marriage with six people.”
Gargantua Soul — more than your average navel-gazing indie rock band — is full of headstrong personalities. They are loud, they are charismatic, and they are rock stars.
“Oh, they’re venters,” said Vic Steffens, the engineer on their most recent album. “You could be around G Soul and think they’d implode any minute. They’re in each other’s faces.”
But, he added, that all that venting lets the band members “detoxify.”
“It’s been five years and we’ve gotten in some bouts,” said Bozzi. “But it’s all good — and we keep pushing, we have fun.”
Take Gargantua Soul out of the studio, and off the stage, and they are well-spoken, well-groomed and very polite. This is not a dirty little secret — a “Rock Stars Gone Wild” in reverse — but something that was planned from the very start.
The band started when a percussionist, Opus, decided that he wanted to start a new group, made up of hardworking, superstar musicians.
Since he was young, Opus said, he has harbored dreams of becoming a drummer in a big-time band.
As a boy he would set out pots and pans in front of his grandmother’s house and bang on them. His mother once tried to get him to play the cello, but he broke the instrument in protest. Plus, he said, being in a band was a quick way to catch a girl’s attention.
“I was a chubby kid,” he said. “Not many girls were interested in me.”
For some time, Opus had his eye on the frontman of a local act called Blind Justice. The frontman’s name was Kris Keyes, a recovered addict of drugs, alcohol, and everything in between who has since risen to local fame as the leader of a pioneering rock-rap group.
On stage, Keyes is a dominating physical presence. His bulky physique is often brightly painted, and his voice is deep and smooth.
Opus said that to fans Keyes looks like a “crazy jacked-up guy, painted, swearing and going crazy.” Off stage, though, his act is a little different. These days, he works in an assisted living house for mentally disabled children, and he meditates.
The only problem was that Opus had not met him. He decided to take the direct approach.
“I literally just knocked on his front door,” Opus said.
In 1995, the two began to jam together and in two years the band had congealed — Bozzi, Amendola and percussionist Tommy Hetz all signed up. The job of bassist would become a revolving door, currently in the hands of Dave Arnold of Rochester, N.Y.
A couple years ago, the band had a lengthy cameo in the VH1 movie “At Any Cost.” They played “the hottest unsigned band in town” — a role that, these days, Gargantua Soul may be uncomfortably familiar with.
The group combines hard rock with rap influences — but on the whole, the band seems uncomfortable being associated with a particular genre.
“We’re more in a quest for good tunes, trying not to stick to one style,” Amendola said.
One thing Gargantua Soul often gets labeled as, particularly by new fans, is a Limp Bizkit-style rock-rap group. But Opus said the G Soul’s style is “a little more intricate.”
“I think a lot of people don’t realize how intense the band is, lyrically,” Steffens said.
There is probably no single reason why the band has not been signed yet. But these are the reasons heard most often: the band’s music is subtly spiritual, which could be unappealing to record executives; lead singer Keyes is already in his mid-30s; and the rap-rock genre, which the band is perhaps unfairly associated with, is a competitive one.
Band members dismissed these ideas. The spiritual element, they said, is often overemphasized in the press. A look at the band’s lyrics shows they are probably right.
“Some people mistake it as a big spiritual message,” Amendola said. “In today’s society some people think positivity is the same thing as spirituality.”
And no record executive has explicitly told the band that Keyes’ age or the band’s genre are problematic.
“It’s a waiting game,” Opus said. “I know bands that worked 12 years before they picked up a record deal — [But] it’s a weird situation to be in.”
And when the band opened for Rage Against the Machine at the New Haven Coliseum, there was a surge of excitement. With record executives looking on, it seemed like Gargantua Soul was a few weeks away from a major contract. But the band’s reaction, Amendola said, was to let down their guard.
“We might have slacked up a bit,” he said. “We learned the hard way that once you slow down, people’s interest starts to taper — [But] people are starting to come out and buy records. People are excited about the band again.”
Like most unsigned bands, the members of Gargantua Soul have day jobs that do not exactly jibe with their image.
Not only do the band members look and feel like rock stars, they also look a little intimidating. Amendola, for one, has a mohawk and piercings, although when he is not performing he does not always keep his hair spiked.
Amendola went to the University of New Haven, where he studied business, and he worked for a while in the professional world, among what his bandmates call “the suit and tie guys.”
As one of the two business managers of Gargantua Soul, Amendola does not have a full-time job, but he teaches guitar, produces other bands, and occasionally does painting work. He has even written jingles for Jolly Rancher candy.
“Other [jobs] are things you do to make you a better band member,” he said. “When you do mindless jobs, you have the time to
think, more, about what makes a better song.”
Bozzi, who has waist-length dreadlocks, currently works in a warehouse. While he works, the radio is on and he keeps scraps of paper or a journal nearby.
“Besides, worrying if a forklift is going to run me over while I’m [working] — I keep my journal and jot down ideas,” he said.
Bozzi added that if he had his way, he would be able to play music all day.
Among the members of the band, there is no talk — at least in public — of riches, only of getting enough money to play full time. The face of Gargantua Soul is uniformly modest, affable and warm.
“The band just is looking for the right deal,” Bozzi said. “Me, personally, I want the ability to do it as a full-time job. I like to buy the occasional porno DVD and Sally’s pizza. I don’t require a lot of s—.”
Gargantua Soul — like most bands seriously seeking a contract from a major label — has spent a lot of time on the road. Not one for convoys, they travel in a 14-passenger Dodge Ram van, with their equipment trailer hitched to the back.
Being on the road with Gargantua Soul is hardly glamorous. On cold nights, whoever sits in the back of the van, the farthest away from the heat vents, often ends up uncomfortably cold. Space on the van is tight, and the band keeps a grueling schedule. Rest stops are short, and the drives are long.
“We drive 15 hours to play for four people, sometimes,” Bozzi said.
And once they reach their destination, the accommodations are less than deluxe. In whatever town they happen to be in, the band often sleeps at a friend’s house — on the floor. For that reason, if for no other, you will probably never hear that Gargantua Soul has trashed their hotel room or abused the housekeeping staff.
But, band members said, there seems to be something purely rock ‘n’ roll about the way Gargantua Soul travels.
“I love being in a band and sleeping on people’s floors,” Bozzi said. “What drew me to the hardcore scene was the real do-it-yourself attitude.”
Bozzi described road trips as something close to a well-orchestrated and efficient family vacation. Gargantua Soul does not have the money — nor, does it seem, the inclination — to make their tour van a den of debauchery.
But still, they have built a reputation as one of the most exciting live shows in the area, with a rousing mix of theatrics and hard rock music.
“Our starting point is our live show,” Opus said.
Steffens described a recent gig at the New York club Downtime. The club’s crowd is notoriously difficult to work but, Steffens said, Keyes quickly pulled them in. By the end of the set, Keyes had won over the crowd and successfully ordered them to sit on the floor with him.
“You have to have a very powerful personality to get people to [do that],” Steffens said. “He took that room and absolutely dominated it for 45 minutes.”
Watching the audience’s reaction to the band — from a packed house in Toad’s to Woodstock — it is hard not to think that Gargantua Soul’s record deal, and their shot at becoming local legends, could be just around the bend.
What happened to the scene?
Ask around, and you may be told the New Haven rock scene is ailing. It may not be dead, but it spends all day in bed attached to a respirator. Bands like Hatebreed, Hot Rod Circuit, Mighty Purple and Gargantua Soul are the big dogs keeping it alive.
Established acts like Hatebreed and Gargantua Soul can command a headlining spot at Toad’s — or might open for a nationally recognized act at the Coliseum. But these big acts only perform in New Haven two or three times a year.
The lesser-knowns hack it out in local bars, coffee shops, cafes and clubs. Places like Rudy’s, the Blues Cafe or BAR are popular, and the club Funktion also hosts live acts.
And while there are plenty of smaller acts, there is a perception that less-recognized bands on the scene are — as a group — not as hard-working as they were five years ago.
Bozzi summed up the current state of the city’s music scene.
“The local scene’s gone to s—. Nobody knows how to work, or how to hustle and promote,” he said.
There is, of course, no way to judge the dynamics of the local rock scene empirically, but the sum of local attitudes makes for an unpleasant picture.
Bozzi said that in the mid and late ’90s, he would walk into the now-closed Kinko’s on Chapel Street and could expect to find members from several other bands there. Late-night poster wars were de rigeur, but these days bands seem loath to make the effort.
Still, it is not hard to find people who are excited about what is happening in New Haven.
“There’s a really vibrant New Haven scene,” said Mary Bennett ’02, the co-president and founder of Turn It Up. “I think there is a lot of talent.”
The members of Gargantua Soul were certainly not, across the board, glum about what is going on in the scene. Bozzi suggested that acts like the Electric Nobodies and Zero Chance are among the outstanding young groups.
Gargantua Soul, for their part, has earned a reputation as one of the hardest-working bands in the area.
And their latest show at Toad’s was opened by six local bands. But only three of the bands bothered to promote the performance.
“[Gargantua Soul] promote the hell out of themselves,” said Heather Oser, the bookings manager of Toad’s Place. “They work overtime promoting their band.”
There is no telling where on the music-industry ladder Gargantua Soul will be three years from now. But it seems almost certain that, in front of 30,000 people or three, they will still be working the crowd, hoping to get that one last fan that will put them over the top.