INTERVIEW: Phil Leavitt of 7Horse
Promoting their third album, Livin In A Bitch Of A World, and getting ready to tour this Summer and into the Fall to support the release in the Midwest and on the East Coast, SoCalMusicToday sat down to talk face to face with one half of the blistering and ballsy blues rock duo 7Horse’s singer/songwriter/drummer Phil Leavitt. Residing in Seattle, Washington, guitarist/singer Joie Calio was never far from Leavitt’s mind as he spoke intensely and passionately about their creative musical partnership that reaches back 20 plus years ago when they were part of the acclaimed pop band Dada to forming 7Horse together and his vision of taking this duo “to the next level.”
The animated Leavitt gave a wide-ranging and colorful interview that pulled no punches. Leavitt spoke about his and Joie’s shared approach to making music that is both potent and stripped down sonically taking cues from the original masters in early rock and roll history. He also talked in blunt detail about the music business in general, the harsh realities facing musicians today in a world of downloading and streaming music, and playing in clubs, and the drive and ambition to reach bigger audiences. Having “Meth Lab Zoso Sticker” used in Martin Scorsese’s film “The Wolf Of Wall” is already propelling the duo to greater heights and visibility. Since the release of the movie, the hit song has had “over 1.1 million views, 4 million streams and over 100,000 downloads.” Despite that burst of success, Leavitt is a realist and he said there is always more work to be done in building a career and says he is a “fighter” and remains totally committed to making 7Horse a band music lovers won’t forget.
How did 7Horse come together and how did you and Joie meet?
Joie and I have known each other since the early 1990s. We played in a band called Dada for over 20 years together. 7Horse started because we were trying to make a Dada record and that didn’t happen. This was around 2010. Dada was a trio, the third guy in Dada, the guitar player, wouldn’t commit to going into the studio and doing other things. Joie and I had been trying to put some new music together for a long time. We were getting frustrated with that process. The studio time was already blocked out, our engineer told us to come to the studio and do something with the blocked time. So we said ok.
Meanwhile, we had been kicking around some ideas about doing some below the belt oriented rock and roll. Dada’s style was from the neck up and more cerebral. It was Beatle inspired and there was a lot of production involved. There was a lot of layering and two-part harmonies. It was very melodic. Joie had this riff he was throwing around and we had been trading some ideas through iPhone messages. So he sent me this riff with a title attached and it said “Meth Lab Zoso Sticker” with no explanation as to what that meant. So, we ended going into the studio that particular day, and the first thing we laid down, was this riff. I had written some lyrics and made up what I thought “Meth Lab Zoso Sticker” meant. We ended up doing a whole record. We decided to turn everything on its head. Joie was the bass player in Dada. We were the rhythm section. But then, we decided to do this project as a two piece – drums and guitar. It’s a very popular format nowadays. There’s The Black Keys and The White Stripes. So we were inspired by that as opposed to bringing in new guys. We thought let’s strip it down to the essence of what we do together.
How did you come up with name 7Horse for the duo?
I’m from Las Vegas originally and that is where I was born. My grandfather comes from Chicago. He grew up in the 1920s and 1930s. He wound up working in gambling in the casinos. In the 1960s, he came to Las Vegas, he played the horses all the time. That was his hobby. I used to drive him to the casinos and race track. One of his go-to bets was 20 on the 7. I was inspired by that and 7Horse is a nod to him. He was a big influence in my life.
Why did you go for blues rock in 7Horse and did you listen to a lot of it growing up?
I grew up on The Beatles. It impacted me and I still love it. I love all eras of The Beatles. But when it came time to start something new, we had been listening to a lot of Chicago blues and Mississippi blues. The stuff that inspired the British Invasion. If you were an early Beatles fan, you go back before that, you are going to get Chuck Berry, and before that Muddy Waters and Howlin Wolf. We were going down that same road that Mick and Keith went down. It’s the fun essence of what rock and roll is all about. It’s a perfect jumping off point for a two piece. You don’t have a lot of harmony. You have one melodic instrument. Drums and vocals. That’s all you need to play blues. We didn’t want to be a real blues band utilizing shuffles and traditional blues styles. We wanted to get back to those primal kind of grooves and direct kind of storytelling.
Do you and Joie share a lot of musical influences?
We share the classic rock and the blues. We are both into traditional country like outlaw country. The great country music from the 1960s and 1970s. We like that a lot. Joie had a real punk rock influence. He was a big Ramones fan. We always had that energy between us. It was very aggressive. At the same time, we listen to all kinds of music. I like jazz. I spent the night watching old video of Gene Krupa and Buddy Rich. The swing era is directly connected to the early rock and roll era. We have a pretty deep musical reservoir to draw from. I think the connection Joie and I have, whether it’s with The Beatles, or 1950s rock and roll, we always find that has an inspiration for us because it’s so genuine and real. It was before computers and auto tune. It was before talent contests. You really had to go out there and be a musician and performer. It’s how I think of myself.
You’ve released three albums including Livin In A Bitch Of A World. What has changed or evolved in your approach to the sound, arrangements and subject material over the course of three albums?
With the first record, you discover what you are going to do together as a duo. It wasn’t like we were a band for five years and playing around locally and developing a sound. We had been playing together for 20 years under a different name and sound. We were discovering our sound in the studio. We were creating it on the fly. We were trying to put down some parameters. There are so many different directions to go in, especially if you played together for a long time.
You have a musical vocabulary and can do pretty much whatever you want. But we want to put up some rules about what 7Horse is going to be about and focus in on that. So for the first record, it was going to have a blues thing and Joie was going to play a lot of slide guitar. Finger picking country blues. I had to develop my vocal approach on the fly. With the second record, we went out on the road for a while. Some of the lyric writing was more personal such as things that happened to me and Joie on the road.
The first record had a more stream-of-consciousness style in some respect. The country influence came in on the second record. On the road, we were listening to a lot of Merle Haggard and Willie Nelson. On the third record, we developed a lot more confidence. Joie become more self-assured playing guitar and I as a singer. I’ve done a lot of live shows but I had never really fronted a band. So at this point now, I’m a lot more comfortable with that role. The storytelling on this record is more personal and I went back and looked at things I grew up with. Things going on now in the struggle to keep this thing afloat, keeping this balloon in the air because it’s very difficult.
You mean the band?
Yeah. To keep the career going. At this point, we are pretty deep in it. We would like to take it to the next level. The idea of perseverance to fight through obstacles to fulfill your vision and what you would like to do with your life. It’s all in this record. That’s what Living In A Bitch Of World is all about.
Would you say you and Joie are realists or cynics hence the album title Livin In A Bitch Of World?
It’s pretty hard to be in the music business for 20 plus years and not become a little bit cynical. First you see the whole thing collapse in its heyday and the corruption. It’s the dirtiest part of show business you can imagine. This thing was designed to take advantage of artists, the people that invented the record business. The model for it is: we are going to suck the blood out of these people and take their creative output and make all the money. We’ll just give them the Cadillac and send them on their way. It is assumed they will be satisfied with that because musicians seem happy regardless of what they get. It was never designed to benefit the artist. Yet there is a philosophy that if you put good vibes out there, all good things will come back and there is enough for everyone. I would like to believe that, but appearances say otherwise.
It’s a struggle to get your vision of who you would like to be in this world to create that and make that a reality. In order to do that, you have to pay a price. You have to work really hard. At least, I do, to keep it afloat. You have to convince people to work with you and support what you do. Especially now. If you are not 16, and on a TV show, it’s pretty hard to get anyone involved in your project unless you are already famous. Are we not living in a bitch of a world? Already last week, we had two vicious terrorists attacks.
It’s dog eat dog out here, let’s be honest. We find people we are sympathetic with. We love them and take comfort from them from the love we find in our lives but in general it’s tough out there. The message of the record is to fight on and envision your dreams and make them a reality. But you are going to have to sweat and bleed to get there.
How do you both collaborate on the songs and the arrangements?
I’m constantly writing lyrics. Sometimes I’ll write single lines and keep writing and things will pop in that are unconnected and disconnected. Sometimes things will come that are more connected in larger sections. But I have this long running thing that I go back to see if there are songs here. I may say that’s the beginning of something. Meantime, Joie, who is living in Seattle, is writing riffs. He is jamming and writing by himself and coming up with ideas. Like lines and progressions. We get together and open up our phones and we say to each other: what have you got? It’s like a showdown in poker and we’ll say to each other let me see it.
I also play guitar but I’m more of a strummer. I do acoustic guitar chord progressions. I will sing melodies over that. We show each other our stuff and we say I kind of like that and let’s work on that. When we get into the studio we try to hone it down. We get some basic ideas of what we are looking for. On this last record, we started in March of 2015, we went out to Landers, California in the desert. We rented a house out there and it was something I always wanted to do. We holed up in the house for three or four days. The house had a drum set in it. There was a little amp. It was so isolated and you can play up to 2 a.m. We had an intensive three or four-day writing session. We jammed out a lot of ideas and some are on the record. Some of which will be never seen again. We sat face to face on guitar and drums in the studio and develop the structure and write out a song (track) put the vocals on it and have a melody in mind and build it from there. The essence is the performance of us playing together. That is the special ingredient in this thing, the sound of that. We always think what is the minimal of production we need for this to work. That is our philosophy.
How did you come up the title for the new album?
The title of the album Livin In A Bitch Of A World was inspired by a Facebook post. It was about a 60s white soul singer with a big blonde pompadour named Wayne Cochran. When I saw it, I thought: who the hell is this guy? In his act, he basically did James Brown’s act but as a white guy. The whole thing with dance moves, high-energy band with a horn section but it’s so tongue-in-cheek and over the top. He put out a record in 1970 called Alive and Well…And Livin In A Bitch Of A World. I looked at this record and said that is an incredible title. I was looking for a song called that. He didn’t use it as song title. It was just an album title. I said I have to have that it’s just too good. With titles, it’s free rein. You can write Let It Be all day long. As long as it doesn’t sound like Let It Be. You can’t copyright titles. This is totally relevant today. Nothing has changed since 1970. That’s how I feel – I’m alive and well but it ain’t easy. I did thank Wayne on the back of the CD.
Does Wayne Cochran sing well?
He had that real raspy soul kind of scream.
Did you watch some videos of him?
I did. His band was called Wayne Cochran and then CC Riders. It was James Brown on steroids in a white guy. He could really move. Even though I don’t have a pompadour, and all that, the stage show was very colorful and bigger than life. I really liked that wanted to emulate that.
Is Wayne still alive?
I think we went into televangelism. I think he lives in Florida. He does his thing still but in church. It’s really over the top Southern Baptist thing.
Has he reached out to you?
No, he hasn’t and I wish he would. He was a real inspiration to me. 7Horse has a kind of tongue-in-cheek aspect to it. It’s like a Las Vegas lounge act meets rock and roll. It’s not a self-serious, earnest thing. I don’t like sincerity in rock and roll too much. I like that devilish attitude. Aggressive sexuality like Mick Jagger and Wayne Cochran had it.
How did Martin Scorsese find your song “Meth Lab Zoso Sticker”? How did it make you feel he chose it for The Wolf of Wall Street? Obviously it’s lead to greater visibility for the band?
That’s a great question, one I don’t know the answer to. I haven’t been able to find out but we have our theories. One day, we were between records, the first record came out and we put out a different single, “Low Fuel Drug Runner”. The record was out and the single did well. Meth Lab was the opening track on the first record and first track we ever cut. We put it out as a single as well. It was a follow-up single to “Low Fuel Drug Runner” but we couldn’t get it on the radio. Radio programmers are always coming up with reasons they can’t put a record on the radio. In this case, it’s the title and they were resistant because of the lyrics. Meth Lab is kinda edgy and no one wants to say it. So we put it out and a couple of people played it.
The Loft on Sirrius XM radio played it a lot. Mike Marrone programs the music for that station and really loved our song. So we’re starting to work on our next album, and all of a sudden out of nowhere, this email shows up in Joie’s inbox by somebody that identifies himself as a clearance attorney representing Scorsese. He says he would like to license “Meth Lab Zoso Sticker” for The Wolf Of Wall Street. They send us a synopsis of the film and wanted to use 13 minutes of the song. At the time, the cut of the film was probably five hours. He’s gotten a 13 minute segment he’s whittling down. But that’s what they asked for. My initial reaction was is this real? Is this a scam? I was thinking this can’t be real. Scorsese is looking for us? It doesn’t make any sense. We chased it around. And in fact, it was real. Then it comes down to you have to give them a number. You have to negotiate a deal with them. We didn’t have any representation at this point. We were completely on our own. So I start doing research on my own and called people around town to get information and advice about the spread of what you should ask for. I didn’t get any help from anyone other than to tell me if you come in too high they are going to walk away. They don’t negotiate. You give them a number, and if they like it, they will give it to you. Right now, we were told you are in the movie but the edit is being done and we will get back to you and let you know if the song stays in the movie or you might get cut out. So you’re sweating it out not knowing. The editing could go on all summer long.
Meantime, we were making our second record in Milwaukee, and just finished the last day of recording, and had a big party, afterwards, I had a vicious hangover and were at the airport trying to get out of town to come back to L.A. Then Joie gets a text message from his brother: hey you guys sound great in the trailer. That’s how we found out the song was in the movie. We had no idea and chased it around: who found this thing. Nobody knows. We were in the second trailer for the film. That’s a big piece of exposure. More people see the trailer than the actual film. It was one of those moments you say I guess I am doing the right thing. I’m getting a message from the universe that this is a worthwhile thing to be doing, because when Scorsese validates you and puts you in his film, it’s very gratifying because of his use of music in his movies is legendary. This is never going away.
Do you have any plans in the works for song placements in film?
Some people have approached us to represent our music and get it into other things. In Canada, one of the other tracks “Blackjack Moon” was used in a Jeep commercial. That’s a main source of revenue for songwriters these days. The album sales are dead. Pretty soon, there won’t be any more downloads. Why would people do that when they can just stream it instead? So the sources of revenue for writers are basically sync licenses: film and TV, that kind of stuff. We have been able to get a couple of films but nothing as major as The Wolf Of Wall Street. What you find is there are a lot of little things that add up. If you get a song in a TV show maybe its $1,000, but if you add a bunch of them up, you got some good money coming in. So we have been pretty successful. “Meth Lab Zoso Sticker” was used after the movie for NFL/Fox coverage for the pregame for the Super Bowl. Sports like it and it has a good vibe for that.
With the exposure we got, that track went around the world. That’s like an old school hit when an independent record could break loose like that. We have fans all over the world. The streaming number from England and Germany are right behind the U.S. I get messages from people on You Tube all over the place. It’s a major break but we need more than that. We thought ok we are just going to get this thing on its feet and do what we want to do. For us, it would mean we are a touring act and playing in places bigger than coffee shops. Tour worldwide and get into theaters. We ultimately want to headline shows. That bit of exposure was a nice jumping off point. That isn’t the thing that delivers everything to you though. You have to build on that and do it again. One isn’t enough especially when you don’t have a real big team behind you when it happens. We were kind of caught flat footed because we were kind of on our own and don’t have all the pieces to push the whole thing out there. You are a little late on the uptake of it all. That’s just the way it is. You can’t do everything right. It’s an independent game here. We’re trying to play catch up and catch another break now we have some more people involved. It’s step by step process.
Tell me about opening for Sting and what was that experience like and opening for Kenny Wayne Shepherd?
In 1992, Dada was on IRS Records. Miles Copland was the president and Sting’s manager. It was one phone call and we were on the road with Sting for months. We did the U.S. and went to Europe with him. We got a real education in what professional rock and roll is all about. It was a great opportunity to make a lot of fans. We never lacked for confidence and went out there with the idea we are going to take all these people from Sting. He’s got a laundry list of hits as long as my arm but you’re not going to really do that but we did win some fans. You can go out there and be intimidated because an artist like Sting is such a megastar, and you’re on your way up, but we always come out for blood. So we made the most of that situation. It was a great experience. The downside of that is you always want to go back there. We did five nights at The Greek Theater. I’ve been dreaming about going back up there again and I have a vision for 7Horse that we’re going to be onstage at The Greek Theater opening for somebody or headlining. I would definitely appreciate it more now because I was a kid then. My attitude then was its going to go on forever.
7Horse went out with Kenny Wayne Shepherd in 2014. It was a great tour as well playing really nice rooms on the East Coast. It was a big step for 7Horse because we had been playing small clubs and suddenly we’re in front of 1200 people every night. Kenny is a real blues prodigy. He started as a 16 year old kid. He came out the same time we did in Dada but he was 16 at the time. He was the heir apparent to Stevie Ray Vaughn. He knew him and came up in that Texas blues scene. He’s from Louisiana and a talented Stratocaster gunslinger. A hardcore traditional blues guitar player with a blues audience. So we are not a blues band but a rock and roll band with a blues influence. We weren’t sure how his audience was going to go for 7Horse. When a lot of people are into strict traditional blues it’s all they like. They don’t have a taste for stuff that veers away from that. What we found instead was when we got in front of his crowd, they went for us big. It was nice. There were very receptive audiences. A lot of people came up to us at the merch table. It was great to play nice venues with great sound and packed houses. The band and crew were really cool and treated us well. It was a good little run. I wish we could do it again.
What’s next for 7Horse? Have you been on the road yet supporting the new album?
In April and May, when the record came out we did a whole East Coast run from New York City to Mobile, Alabama and some radio station things as well. It’s still tough in clubland to get people to come out and leave the house. There is no rock and roll show without an audience. If you like live music, you have to go out and support it. It’s getting harder and harder for musicians in the mid-level to keep the music alive. Its one thing for superstar acts and you can play locally. But if you are going to go out on tour, and people say I’ll catch the band the next time, there might not be a next time. What case are you going to make to the promoter and how are you going to convince him you deserve another shot if you couldn’t draw people the first time. With a rock show, it’s a combination of the energy of the band putting out and the energy of the audience coming back. If nobody is there, there is no reaction.
The next thing we’re doing is going to Lexington, Kentucky on July 15 with a radio station WUKY outdoor concert series in the Summer in a City Park. We’re headlining and looking forward to that. We’re played on the radio down there so hopefully there is some awareness of what we do. Then a week later, we are going out to the Midwest opening for a guy named James Durbin. He is a rock American Idol contestant and finished fourth in the show a few years ago. We will open for him in Chicago, Detroit and Cleveland. He’s a great singer. Hopefully, he has a big draw because he’s very visible. What will be interesting for us unlike the Kenny Wayne Shepherd audience which was an older demographic because it was a blues audience and they are really knowledgeable in blues and classic rock, I think with the audience for James Durbin will be a lot different because he comes off of American Idol, it’s going to be younger and skewing more female, how are they going to receive us? I don’t know. We will find out. I like the challenge of playing in front of someone else’s crowd and seeing if you can win them over. We have some other stuff lined up in support of another band from Canada called Trews. They are coming down to the states to play some shows in October. It’s an East Coast tour: New York, Boston and Philadelphia. They opened for U2 and The Rolling Stones in Canada. They had hit singles in Canada. Trews has big heartfelt and inspirational songs like Train with big vocals which is certainly not what we are about. I think it’s good to have a contrast. You don’t want to have too much of the same thing. I think we are the best foil for bands like that. Because we are going to come out with a real dirty, no-nonsense approach and make them lift everyone up. I think that works pretty well. I like to be the anthesis of that. I’m the standard bearer of cynics everywhere.
Twitter – @7Horse