SPOTLIGHT – Tobi D’Amore
Tobi D’Amore is a singer, songwriter, guitarist, solo artist and frontman for The Bone Chimes – among other things. This dynamic performer recently ditched his NYC lifestyle and took to the road for his second solo tour of the United States. When we caught up with D’Amore, he had just pulled off the freeway near Atlanta, Georgia. With the huge windows of his RV to his back and a guitar leaned against the wall to his side, he is the absolute image of a modern-day wandering troubadour. While he let us in on some quiet and introspective moments, the humor and passion he transmits while on stage was ever-present. We are happy to introduce Tobi D’Amore as The Celebrity Cafe’s December Spotlight Artist.
Born and raised in Cleveland, Ohio, D’Amore began playing keys at the age of 3 or 4. In the fifth grade, he picked up the French horn and then move on to other brass instruments. A band kid, D’Amore studied classical music and was the president of his high school’s marching band. He started going to more modern concerts toward the end of high school. However, it was not until the artist moved to New York City that he was introduced to the kind of music that would eventually be his own.
For his 19th birthday, D’Amore took the leap and relocated to New York City. However, this was not entirely in the pursuit of a musical career. D’Amore was an actor, who discovered the theater in high school. The performer found musical theater fairly early on and enjoyed the combination of art forms. Meeting New York professionals in this field quickly opened his eyes to a whole new world of performance, writing and music. As he describes it, what existed only in underground Cleveland was very much above ground in New York.
During a few consecutive years of touring as an actor, D’Amore took advantage of time on the road and mentors in his cast to begin writing his own music. Eventually, he had enough original material to begin performing sets back in New York. He describes a rocky start to his solo shows – learning how to build an audience, understanding crowd dynamics and working side gigs at the same time presented a balancing act. We pick up the story as D’Amore describes life as a musician and bartender in New York, prior to forming The Bone Chimes.
Bars and bands
The Celebrity Cafe: Especially in New York, the bar scene and music scene are inextricably bound. How do you think the bar industry impacted your music life?
Tobi D’Amore: I mean, it changed everything. I’d been in the industry on and off since I moved to New York… so immediately just getting into it as a 19-year-old, I was a kid. I was a child. I grew up in suburbia and then thrust myself into Manhattan, into New York. And just doing that, I got information. Invited to things that I wouldn’t know about. It was just the Village Voice at the time. So just that alone was a huge plus. And then, in 2010, I really started working behind the bar a lot more regularly than I ever had in my life. I got a job, after getting laid-off from steelwork, at a bar in the west village. And that changed everything…
When you or I go out for a drink, generally you’re going out for one of two reasons. You’re either celebrating something, or you’re pissed off. So, as a bartender or a server, your job is to be that buffer zone. Or that place in the middle of reality where you go and either drown your sorrows or have the best night ever. And that’s what people do in New York. If you’re going out for a meeting: “Hey! Let’s meet at this bar and have a drink!” So all of a sudden, not only are you partying with these people, but they’re out to have a quick meeting and a have a couple drinks. So maybe they’re an A&R rep. Maybe they’re a lawyer – an entertainment lawyer. Maybe they’re an agent of some sort. Maybe they themselves are a singer/songwriter. And then you start developing this stuff…
And then that really opened me up to meeting the Bone Chimes. These are my friends and they are my crew now. I would never have met Ben Dobay. I would never have met a guy that went to school to study jazz and end up playing with him in a bunch of arenas, had we not worked in the same bar and found that we are both musicians. The people that worked there were musicians, the people that came there were artists. So that really was the catalyst to what the Bone Chimes became. The catalyst to me really getting a platform on which to get better. Because you can’t get better unless you are playing in front of people.
TCC: You’re talking about, as a bartender, when people come in they are either celebrating or mourning something. You have to be able to tell pretty quickly which one it is. So we would imagine as a performer, especially doing solo shows, that ability to read people must really come in handy.
TD: Especially on this trip, I’ve been playing three-hour shows. And I now have a chunk of songs that I wait to use. So I kind of use filler to introduce – It’s like a first date. Any time you play in front of a new crowd, it’s a first date. They may not know who I am. [Laughing] Let me rephrase that. They don’t know who I am. Because I’m just some schmuck with a guitar at some random bar, where there was a poster up and they thought “OK, there’s live music tonight, but we were going to go out there anyway.” No one is really coming out – they come out to see me, but it’s not like that yet.
It’s like a first date. You don’t tell a dirty joke until you know you can tell a dirty joke. You don’t swear until you know you can swear. It’s a little bit of a dance. And so I wait for some kind of engagement from someone. Whether it’s applause or a tip, or they just give me a smile. Or whatever, to engage the audience. But that’s absolutely years behind a bar and being comfortable interacting with people and learning which song goes where.
Audience and attention span
TCC: We’ve seen The Bone Chimes’ shows and the phrase “high energy” is certainly a phrase we would associate with those performances. Do you feel that the chemistry with you guys is that you’re all in it, keeping the audience engaged together?
TD: In the ’60s, people would sit around and listen. Folk writers, Bob Dylan, couldn’t happen today. He exists now in his past. And his music is great, but he has developed his audience that is willing to come along with him. In order to engage an audience now, you kind of got to smack them in the face in the first 30 seconds. Because that’s all you get. iTunes, you sample a song. Well now you have a minute, but how many people do you know that listen to the entire minute? No one…
The attention span of people is very short right now. And so smacking them in the face with something weird, like doing “Mama” – which is that stomping song that was on the last album – people just immediately stop and take notice. And they say “Who the heck is this guy?” I do that a lot solo. Or “What the hell is this band doing?” And it kind of throws them off guard.
So if you can get them off-kilter and they don’t know what to do, I can generally get them in more. And they give you more wiggle-room. Whereas, when they first walk into a New York club, a lot of people go “Alright, prove you deserve my attention.” And you know how New York audiences are. They’ll sit there with their beer, hand in the pocket and just look at you. They just stare and you and they’re saying “Prove it.”
So the energy. My job is to get to communicate with somebody. And the only place that any of our music, or my music, or anybody’s music in my opinion exists is between here and here [gesturing]. It’s in the middle. So if I’m not doing any kind of work to get across that Grand Canyon, getting any information at least halfway to you where you are able to reach out and take that back and then send me energy back – then live performance doesn’t exist. So if you don’t have energy and you’re scared of what’s going to happen, it doesn’t work. That’s the biggest part about being a performance artist, is that you’ve got to reach out across.
The Bone Chimes and benefits of being genre-free
TCC: How would you describe your musical style and then how would you describe it with the Bone Chimes specifically?
TD: So all of our music, my music, is written acoustic guitar. So I start either with a melody or whatever. And then I bring it to The Bone Chimes if I feel like it’s a song that
would fit with our indie rock sensibilities. It also sometimes has depended on the type of show we are playing. If we’re playing a more rock show, we’ll play more of our rock n roll stuff. If we’re playing a listening room – like we did a Christmas show last year at the Slipper Room, we have a little more leeway to be a little more artistic. And that’s what I like to do. We all would. The type of musicians I have – Tom Rizacassa is our bass player. He plays in funk bands. He plays in Five Seconds to Midnight, which is a more experimental band. Ben’s [Dobay] got jazz sensibilities and composition sensibilities. Alessandra [Migliaccio], she’s got a monster voice. She’s got soul in her that I don’t possess. Vinny [Byrne] comes from a very much garage-band sort of thing… We have Pablo Masis from the Pablo Masis Trio on trumpet. He’s a jazz guy.
We talked a long time about what our sound is. And my argument to the band every single time, especially now that I’ve been out on my own doing this, is that it doesn’t matter. As long as it’s Tom, as long as it’s Vinny, as long as it’s Alessandra and Ben and Pablo, it doesn’t matter. That’s what The Bone Chimes sound is. We don’t have anything that we have to sound like. I prefer it that way. I’m not a fan of a band where you don’t know what the first song is, or the last song is. I don’t like hearing a 45-minute set of the same song. I’m not a fan of that. That’s not what I’m drawn to. And I don’t think that’s what any of us are drawn to.
Tobi D’Amore goes solo
TCC: So in the present, this is the second time you have done a solo tour. What prompted this desire to hit the road and make it happen solo?
TD: We’re a seasoned band. We’ve played everywhere from Arlene’s Grocery to Gramercy Theater. Bowery Ballroom, I’m still waiting. It’s the only big venue on our level that I haven’t gotten to play yet and I would really still like to play it. I found that in 2015, we had a lot of followers in New York City that follow us as people. And I found that the best card you can give someone is a handshake…
The New York City badge of identification. The Brooklyn badge. It gives you a level of credit. If give you some street cred, as the kids say. Do they still say that? [Laughing] I don’t know. So what prompted this was basically that I was working so hard in my day job trying to cut out my section of New York financially. Living there alone is just so expensive. Now with technology and everything, I can do the same thing out here that I could in New York. And you don’t need to be in New York anymore. Not that you ever really did need to be in New York to make it. It’s just the market there, there was a better chance of you getting seen back in the ’90s and the ’80s and the ’70s and the ’60s…
I’ve found that my footprint is as easy to make out here now, with the way technology works, as it would be doing it from New York City to reach out. The only drawback to that is I’m not actually seeing somebody engaging with somebody. I’m able to get one or two extra fans from each show. If I do that all months and that’s 20 gigs that I play or 30 gigs that I play, that’s 40 or 60 new fans that I’ve got. While, in New York, your base will grow very slowly the same exact way. But, it’s the same group of people that you’re always inviting.
So if I go out and find these people – there’s ten people in every city in America that would like what I do. I’m convinced of that. They would like what anybody does. There are ten people in every town in the U.S. that would like what we do as artists. But, unless you go and find them, there’s so much crap on social media that you’ll never get seen. So I thought it was best for my music, my art and my band if one of us were the tip of the spear. To go out and meet people…
It’s the oldest way to do it. You go out. Being a traveling musician, you’re a bard. It’s tough to cut out a living in New York City as a musician because there are so many of them. You get lost in the shuffle. But, in Omaha, Nebraska, I’ll stand out a little bit and they’ll give me more of a chance. They know that I’m from New York, that I’ve been doing that a long time. So they give me a second. And I’d say more often than not, people enjoy what The Bone Chimes do and what I do. And that, in the long run, gives you a fan base in Omaha. Or wherever else. Where we live right now is on social media and that’s not enough. It’s not enough…
As much as we want to think that social media is real and it matters, it’s not real. And talking to somebody and handing them a CD, or handing them your business card, or playing happy birthday for them, engaging with them, having a shot with them – that’s real.
The Goal: To live this life
TCC: Ultimately, at this point in your life, what’s the goal musically?
TD: The ultimate goal right this second is to keep getting better. To be able to play three hours by myself, I had to work up to that. Now that I’m doing that, I feel pretty confident about that. So going back and playing 45-minutes with The Bone Chimes, I’ll just have more to give. Everyone has their strong suits in the band and that’s what makes us us. And so I would like to, in the long run, I would like to have a career with The Bone Chimes. Just right now, the main goal is to continue to write and get better. The next album we’re halfway done recording. So there are some new songs that I’m working on to record back in New York.
Really the main goal is to be able to live this life. I enjoy meeting people. I enjoy what kind of opportunities being an artist provides. So the goal is just to make as many contacts as possible to be able to do this for a living. And write. Be happy. It used to be to be a big, successful, awesome huge band. But now it’s just so satisfying to play with them. To be able to play with my friends and to tour. If you ask anybody, that’s a good gig.