Being guided by a parent to listen to B.B. King and other blues artists. Discovering the music of The Stooges while living in Bangkok. Finding a permanent drummer by following the sound coming through an open window.
The backstory to Dirty Streets is nearly as good as the Memphis, Tennessee-based band’s gritty catalog. It consists of five studio albums and the atypical live collection Rough and Tumble, which was recorded on a soundstage for DittyTV and released in July via Alive Naturalsound Records.
Singer-guitarist Justin Toland recently took the time to delve into the aforementioned experiences and his trio’s new album.
Making his way to Memphis
Toland was born in Austin, Texas, and at age 5, he moved to South America with his parents, who were international school teachers. After that, they spent several years in Thailand.
Toland’s father was also a teacher at home, educating his son on American music.
“It was always kind of like a religion with my dad: blues and rock ’n’ roll,” Toland recalls. “He was always saying, ‘You should listen to Jimi Hendrix. You should listen to B.B. King. You should listen to Albert King.’ ” His father was also into Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young and the “hippie songwriter stuff,” adds Toland, who learned fingerpicking guitar skills from him.
While living in Bangkok, Toland got his first taste of The Stooges by way of a BBC station that played rock music for two hours every week. He’d record those BBC broadcasts and listen to them repeatedly, and recommendations from employees at the Tower Records in Bangkok would further expand his music interests.
In 2001, Toland moved to Memphis, where he would finish high school and frequent shows, telling just about everyone that he was looking to start a band.
Lots of demos and drummers
Toland hooked up with bassist Thomas Storz not at a club but at a house party, with Toland playing recordings of his solo blues material. Storz liked what he heard, and soon their two-piece band was off and running.
“Those early practices were just me and Thomas, and we recorded more demos with pots and pans and buckets and whatever we could hit,” Toland says.
For some sessions, they’d bring in drummers from other groups to record with them. At one point, Toland and Storz did find a regular drummer, but he didn’t last very long. One day the drummer didn’t show up for practice; Toland and Storz later learned he had been arrested and jailed.
Then came the day when Storz told Toland about the beat coming from down the street where his mother lived.
“He said, ‘I hear this drummer playing. He has the window open. I can hear his drums coming out the window upstairs,’ ” Toland remembers. “I asked, ‘What does it sound like?’ Thomas said, ‘It sounds good, but I don’t know what he looks like, what he’s into or what age he is.’ ”
Storz noticed there were Las Vegas license plates on a car outside of the house, so he assumed the drummer had recently moved to town. He’d also seen teenagers going into the house and thought the drummer might be one of them.
“It turns out he was right about everything,” Toland says.
Storz went to the house and dropped off a CD of demos for the drummer, Andrew Denham. A few days later, they connected, and Toland and Storz were relieved that Denham was into the same music as them.
But Denham was only 16 or 17 — and Toland, in his early 20s at the time, was reluctant to be in a band with someone that young.
“He came over and we practiced one time, and it was pretty much immediate, the chemistry,” Toland says. “So he was in the band.”
With a second guitarist joining around the same time as Denham, they spent about a year woodshedding to get their styles to mesh and wrote lots of material. Sometime in 2007, they began to play weekly gigs at dive bars.
When the other guitarist departed circa 2008, Toland says they considered finding a replacement. But after a few practices as a trio, “there was something about the three of us together, there was a chemistry that was explosive.”
Their ‘live-ist’ album to date
Rough and Tumble is a standout in the Dirty Streets catalog in more ways than one. Not only does it feature material from the band’s studio efforts, it contains fine covers of two Joe South-written songs: “Tell the Truth” and “Walk a Mile in My Shoes.”
“I think for us it’s special because it’s the first time we’ve released anything that is a captured performance with zero overdubs,” Toland says about the album. “It’s the live-ist record we’ve ever released. It’s one set all the way through, with no special anything. It’s accidentally captured something that we have been wanting to capture for years. There’s this energy live that’s not on all the [studio] records. When I heard the playback of this, it was the first time I heard that energy.”
The DittyTV soundstage in Memphis is compact, Toland adds, “so you feed off each other’s energy. It was really relaxed in all the best ways and was conducive to a good performance, even though it was a performance to nobody, in a way. It felt like a live radio session.”
Toland says he enjoyed the off-the-cuff nature of the DittyTV experience: “Not being able to fix things is pretty great, and I’d like to take that to more records.”
— By Chris M. Junior
Photo at top by Bob Bayne