By Jess Goulart
Photo courtesy of Isaac Gillespie.
Musician Isaac Gillespie really needs no introduction–but we’re going to give him one anyways.
He’s been hot on the Brooklyn music scene since 2009, when Grateful Dead percussionist Mickey Hart inspired him to create the project Due Diligence. The “band” is less of an exact science and more of an ever-evolving amalgamation of collaborators paired with an evolution of sound and dedication to participatory performance. Among the more prolific artists Due Diligence has performed alongside are Speedy Ortiz, Pile, and Caddywhompus.
Of the revolving door Gillespie remarks to BTR that “the thing about a Due Diligence show is no one knows who’s gonna be playing… because I don’t know whose going to be playing.”
From Due Diligence’s 2012 rock-and-roll three-piece days to the un-amplified punk rock of this year’s Are You Down, Gillespie proffers enigmatic compositions and conscious lyrics no matter their current mode of delivery.
In the works is a “vulgar country waltz” album (teaser titles in the interview!), and if you’re as hooked on their sound as we are, you can catch Due Diligence this Thanksgiving at Baby’s Alright, in Brooklyn, NY.
In the meantime, read on to learn about Gillespie’s fated boat trip.
BTR: So how’s your day going?
Isaac Gillespie (IG): Oh it’s just awesome! On Tuesday mornings I play ukulele for a baby yoga class. Which is about as ridiculous as it sounds, but a lot of fun!
BTR: [laughs] Awesome, you’re probably nice and relaxed! Let’s start with some background about yourself and Due Diligence?
IG: Due Dilegence is me, and then it goes through pendulum swings of being a proper band with city members, and then it’ll swing back to what it is right now. For the last year it’s been a rotating cast, and I think I’m at the end of that–it’s me plus whoever I can get. Which is really fun because the thing about New York is that you really have to bust your ass to pay rent here but then once you’re here it’s an embarrassment the number of talented people who will show up on a Tuesday night at a rock club.
I actually just did a show last weekend where we were playing at 8:30, and I didn’t have a drummer at 4:00. I was scrambling to get somebody, anybody, and then ultimately two really excellent drummers came at 5:30 and were like ‘yeah let’s play!’ And I thought, it’s kind of a shame to just use one, so we had double drums and it was just insane.
You never know who’s gonna be playing at a Due Diligence show, mostly because I never know who’s gonna be playing at a Due Diligence show. It energizes me to play with other musicians, and I think it keeps them on their toes too because they don’t know the songs. They’re just trying not to fuck up. But ultimately the music is very forgiving. The forms are pretty simple, but then within that I carve them out to do some extemporaneous preaching.
BTR: Extemporaneous preaching?
IG: Well, my mother is a preacher and my father is a trial attorney so I think it’s in my blood that I end up carving out space to do these monologues in a show. It breaks it up a little bit because it’s easy for audiences to slip into a thing of just being at a rock show, and I like to challenge that a little and remind people that they’re alive.
BTR: Okay, so, you have an interesting origin story involving being on a boat with Mickey Hart. Tell me about that?
IG: When I first came to New York I wasn’t playing music, I was working in TV and doing development for reality shows. I was really into the Grateful Dead when I was younger, and I had this idea that Mickey Hart was such a great personality, and the Grateful Dead toured almost exclusively in the US for 35 years, I figured that they would have a good idea of secret, best places to, like… get a hamburger in Kansas City–like “Selma’s by Route 5!”–or whatever.
So I thought it would be really fun to do a travel show with Mickey Hart because he’s such a rambunctious personality. We pitched it to him and he was into it, so he came out to New York for a week. It was really cool, we drove up to this musician Paul Winter’s house–he’s a fellow at Cathedral of St. John The Divine and he has like 40 acres up in Connecticut. So we drove up there and were filming on his property and he has a bridge that is a xylophone. And that was like our big surprise for Mickey, [which] was walking over this bridge that was really a xylophone, and then they jumped in the creek and were playing the xylophone bridge together.
The last night of the shoot we took a boat out on the Hudson and did a big interview with him about all sorts of stuff and then at the end of that of course I brought my guitar and he had some bongo drums and we got to jamming. He was playing the Latin closet (which is like bum bum bum, bum bum), there are a couple of Grateful Dead songs with that, like they do a cover of “Not Fade Away”, which is an old Buddy Holly song, so we were playing that and then I kind of shifted into Grateful Dead songs and he kept challenging me to “do Cassidy!” and “keep going!”
I’m kind of jumping around and he’s playing the beats and then he pulls out his cell and starts dialing and it goes to voicemail and then all of a sudden he’s like, “Hey Bob check it out I found this kid who can play all The Grateful Dead songs.” He’s leaving a voicemail for Bob Weir, which was a crazy moment for me.
BTR: And you had read Hart’s book, right?
IG: Yeah part of the research was I read his book and it’s kind of “hippy dippy” for sure, but the way he talks about rhythm has had a deep impact on my life. He talks about how any human experience is very deeply about rhythm, about finding the rhythm of the situation. You could be in a job interview, on a date, in a business meeting, and it’s just finding the rhythm of the other person and trying to settle yourself into it.
And I think that really does have an effect on how we live. And it was right around that time that I realized I wanted to make music and not television and he was like, “hey that’s diligence man,” and so that’s where I took the name from.
BTR: Is there any surviving footage of that TV show?
IG: It’s funny that you ask that, it’s on my YouTube page! If you know anything about TV you know you just generate all this stuff and then you pitch it around and there was some interest but ultimately nothing came of it. But then I kind of leaked it, and of anything I’ve ever posted it has by far the most views. It’s called “Mickey Hart: The Trip.”
BTR: Your latest album Are You Down, with Black Bell Records, is a diversion musically from previous work. Could you tell me about that?
IG: Well at the same time I was jamming with Mickey Hart and making TV, a really close friend died and I realized TV wasn’t what I wanted to do with my time on Earth. And that’s the same time I discovered the New York anti-folk theme that was centered around The Sidewalk Cafe in Alphabet City.
Every Monday night to this day they have an open mic that runs from 7:30 to 2 in the morning, and everybody plays two songs. It’s six hours so you’re gonna hear a lot of shitty music, but also really great music. The culture of that place is no matter what you expect it to be genuine. I spent about two years in that theme, and I think of it then and now as a Master’s in song writing. I played with Jeffrey Lewis and Shakey Graves on that scene and we became buddies and just other really crazily talented people and ultimately that led to a national tour of solo acoustic music and punk house squat without a PA system–which is where I learned to perform. That’s like… nobody gives a shit in that environment and you have to prove yourself. I mean, the real truth is that nobody gives a shit in any environment and you always have to prove yourself.
But so I was doing that and came out of it knowing that I wanted to do something with a band, and that’s where Due Diligence came in. I put together a band to make the record I Will Wreck Your Life. It was a seven-piece band and the extent of making that record made me realize how limited the audio spectrum is.
I decided I wanted to pair it down to drums, guitar, bass, vocals, so then we were a three-piece for a while. This record that we just put out I wrote while I was making that transition. I was leaving the folky scene and really what the record is about is going to punk shows by yourself. And like, if you’ve ever done that, or gone to any social functions by yourself, it’s terrifying. You go and you don’t know anybody and everybody else has all these friends. And then eventually you know one person, and you’re really trying to not let them realize that you’re just following them around.
BTR: Is that the theme of <em<Are You Down?
IG: Yeah, basically the theme of Are You Down is that vulnerability. Going to a place where you have to put yourself out there. And then you get rejected. And then you have to put yourself out there again. And how do you do that.
I’ve always imagined that the subtitle to Are You Down is “I’m striking out.” Like striking out failing but also striking out into the world. Almost deliberately the first half of the record is about striking out in context of love, where you’re trying to meet somebody that you’re interested in and it’s just a process of making yourself vulnerable and getting shot down and having to make yourself vulnerable again. The second half is matters of work and the world. To me it’s about having a job but also feelings of rejection as an artist. Which is just part of being an artist–dealing with lots of rejection. The whole album is a parallel to life and if you make yourself vulnerable you will be hurt, but do it anyways.
Photo courtesy of Isaac Gillespie.
BTR: And the theme musically?
IG: Musically, I was kind of like reconciling myself to punk rock. I never enjoyed it until my mid-20s and found myself going to these punk shows and realizing “oh wait these are my people.” As a kid I resented The Velvet Underground because it wasn’t “musical” enough to me, but in the process of writing this record I’ve gone back and going to those shows and learned how to hear the music there.
Finally getting really into the first Velvet Underground record and The Talking Heads and hearing it for the first time where I was like “ooooooohhhhhhhh.” And then, you know, directly ripping it off. All that to say all that punk stuff is there but then deeply at the heart of what I do is to never not be based in James Brown and [engaging] with the audience. So I’ve been telling people that this record is like the James Velvet Under Brown.
BTR: So what are future release plans?
IG: I have essentially two records I want to make as soon as I can figure out where to get some money. One of them is a natural extension of Are You Down; fun songs that are danceable. But also for the last four years I’ve been collecting songs in a theme, and I guess we could call it “Nursery Rhymes for Gentrifiers,” and it’s very hooky, but not in a repeated chorus kind of way. It’s gonna sound dark and funky, and I just the other night did a secret solo show where I tried out a bunch of these songs by myself and I’m really excited about that. It’s like 92 percent done being written.
The thing about me is that I’m a compulsive songwriter, and I have a four-page, single-spaced list of songs that I’ve written that I’m just waiting to record. So there’s two Due Diligence albums that I could make right now if somebody is willing to pay for them. The dark nursery rhythms, that’s the album that I feel like will be my Magnum Opus and is gonna take a little bit of care to get right–but everything else I feel like I could knock out in a day or two just because there’s so many talented musicians in New York.
And then I also have accrued an entire album’s worth of vulgar country waltzes.
BTR: That is awesome. Tell me more.
IG: You wanna hear some of the song titles?
BTR: I would love to hear some of the song titles.
IG: Okay, let’s see, there’s “Honey Won’t You Sleep With Me”, [and] “I Was Ready by the Third Drink, but by the Third Drink You Were Gone.” My personal favorite [is] “You Can Give Your Heart to Jesus but Save a Piece of Ass for Me.”
BTR: I feel like someone needs to pay for that album to be made.
IG: [laughs] Yeah you and me both! I hope they read this piece because I’m a cheap date, I don’t need a lot of time in the studio, [a] couple days and I’ll knock it out.
Also, do you want to hear one more vulgar country waltz title?
IG: “Seinfeld Was a Big Hit For NBC (Why Not Take A Chance On Me?).”
BTR: Direct and to the point!
IG: Like a country waltz should be!