Q&A: Stu “Dr. Gonzo” Esty
I caught up to Stu on the occasion of The Roadkill Orchestra’s monthly residency at Vincent’s, on Suffolk Street, in Worcester. (They play on the second Saturday of each month.) At this point the band had cemented its lineup (Stu Esty – piano, vocals; Austin Beliveau-drums, James Bennett – saxophone; Jerry Maday-bass & Darren Pinto- guitar), and Stu was well into renovations at the new location of his shop, Dr. Gonzo’s Uncommon Condiments, which had relocated from the north end of Main Street, Worcester, to a more discreet setting at 90 May Street, Worcester.
Me: Tell me the abbreviated biography of Stu Esty.
Stu: Oh, Jesus! There is no abbreviated biography. Even the “Hemingway” version could take up volumes. My grandmother taught piano. I spent a lot of my infancy in a bassinette underneath the Steinway Grand Piano as she taught a parade of six, seven and eight year olds, who were killing the Thompson’s registry. [Thompson’s is a popular set of teaching method books.] Rumor has it that even before I could speak I was climbing up onto the piano bench and finishing phrases that they couldn’t handle, because I just knew how to play the friggin’ songs.
I started taking lessons at the age of six with Phoebe Yassyr, a fantastic Egyptian woman of small stature and immense patience. I did not know that I had dyslexia, so the notes flowed for me on the page. It was my interpretation of classical music for almost ten-eleven years. All I really wanted to do was to play rock ‘n’ roll.
Me: But the reading was tough?
Stu: I could see where things were supposed to go, but the notes float on the page. So, for me, it was always in my interpretation. I learned to play by ear, and this gift has allowed me to play with others (although I do love running with scissors).
[I formed my first band when I was seven, in our music room in our house, called the Esty’s Pesties. We were going to take on the elementary school and birthday party circuit. I paid my best friend Chet Brett, a quarter to be our front man (booking and promoting), because he was tone deaf. So, I gave him a quarter and he went and spent my hard earned money on penny candy at the Buffalo Store, in Southboro. So, I lost that investment. That was my first lesson in dealing with the harsh reality that is Rock and Roll.
Me: And was all this in Southboro?
Stu: No, inFramingham. Right on the Ashland/Southboro line.
So, I formed my first rock ‘n’ roll band when I was seven, learning how to deal with other musicians and their personalities and emotions. Had a friend in the neighborhood named Allan who begged to be the rhythm guitarist. We tried jamming but he just wasn’t up to the task (we were freaking seven) so I called in my friend, Billy Carb who I had played with in church. When Allen realized that he was not going to be playing lead he had a slight melt down until we had him switch over to bass guitar. No one told me that there was more to just playing music when you’re starting a band. It was another life lesson and pretty steep learning curve when you’re seven or eight years old and writing your own material.
I remember writing my first song when I was four. It was about what I was gonna be when I grow up. My nursery school teacher stumped me. She asked me what I was gonna be when I grow up – on a Friday – and I thought about it until the enc of the day and then remember that asked if I could think about it some more. So, I spent all weekend dwelling on the subject. The whole conundrum – I wanted to be a captain on a whaling vessel, but I knew that Moby Dick was out there. I wanted to be a cop, but there were robbers. Be a robber, there were cops. Be an Indian, there were fucking cowboys. Be a cowboy, there were Indians. Be a game hunter, there where rhinoceri. So, I figured out early on I wanted to be a milkman.
Stu: Yes. You get to hang out with dairy animals. Go to work early. You’re out of work by noon. They give you your own truck to drive around, and everyone was happy to see you. It’s a good thing I didn’t know about adultery, otherwise I would have had to rethink that one, as well.
Me: Or Monty Python. Bring it to the present. How did you end up in Worcester?
Stu: Early ‘90s we moved up here.
I left New England in the ‘70s – late ‘70s – lived all across theUnited States– out west, down south. Moved overseas. Lived in the Orient for two-and-a-half years; lived in Europe for three years, trying to replicate what we have here inWorcester, and I couldn’t do it. I’m a thirteenth or fourteenth generation New Englander, out ofFramingham, and it’s in my blood. I need the weather changes, I need the people, I need the diversity. But I can’t live in suburbia. I need an urban environment. Our family has always been Worcestercentric. My father worked for Norton Company for twenty-four years; my grandfather had a paper distribution house down where the Centrum [now theDCUCenter] is; my great uncles all taught at WPI, and so we’ve always been Worcestercentric. And you can’t replicate what we have here anywhere else.
I moved back to NewEnglandin the early ‘90s, specifically here in ’92-’93, doing a triple-decker existence with a young bride.
When my boy was born, back in 1999, I was out playing five nights a week. The Roadkill Orchestra was one of the projects I was in, with Austy – “Tuna”. [Austin Beliveau, current RKO drummer] Tuna and I (and a series of folks) tried doing this and for three years we failed to find the right people to fill out the band. But the music scene back then was different. Everybody was still looking for that golden carrot, and there was a lot of competition instead of cooperation.
Nowadays the music scene has changed as has the industry has changed, as you know, and it’s a lot more cohesive. It’s cross promotion. I’ve found that (at least here in Worcester) more people working with each other instead of against each other, and I’ve studied the music industry all my life, and whether it’s Detroit or Athens [GA] or Muscle Shoals [famed Alabama recording studio] or Seattle, there are hotspots popping up all over the place. The industry is always looking for the next hotbed, and there’s so much talent here. There’s so much talent in this town. The depth and breadth of talent here is – I can’t turn around without stumbling upon somebody who is an artist, spoken word, a writer, a filmmaker, a musician – it doesn’t matter. All my friends are incredibly talented. I feel blessed to be here. I really do. You can get more shit done inWorcester than in anyplace else in the world, I’ve found. You want to get something done fast? Come toWorcester. But don’t tell anybody that, or else they’ll all show up.
Me: Tell me how you got down onto Main Street with the business [Stu relocated his Uncommon Condiments Emporium to 90 May Street, Worcester, in the spring of 2012 from 122 Main Street.] and the modern version of The Roadkill Orchestra.
Stu: I took a look at my life, in 1999, and I was out playing five nights a week, and I had a young family, and I really had to take a hard look at where my priorities were. So, I put a suit and tie on, and I gave it [music] up, with the exception of a gospel choir. I wasn’t the same person. I tried putting it away, and I’m not the same person. I work out a lot of my demons through my music. I leave most of my emotions onstage, and I’m able to deal with life that way – in my lyrics and in my performance.
When things fell apart in my personal life, I made a commitment to get back to music, and part of what I’m doing with my condiment business is to create a community. The things that bring us together as a species, in my opinion – in my experience – the three things that bring us back together after everything is tearing us apart is music, art, and food. Those are the three unifiers that I’ve found, and what we’re doing with the Dr. Gonzo product is all three of those things. OnMain StreetI had the ability to play music and open up the doors and just blast it out ontoMain Street, just because of our location. If I had tried doing that anywhere else, I would’ve got into a lot of trouble. But because we were innorth Main Street, a virtual ghost land, we were able to do that.
To get my writing chops back up to speed, I forced myself to have the Turd Thursdays Writing Challenge, and I would have challenges put out there once a month that sometimes I even couldn’t come up with. I’d say, “This is easy.” It wasn’t. But it got me to write again, which was very important, and a lot of what you hear on the first album and the second album are from the Turd Thursday Songwriters’ Challenge.
I’m currently going through an incredible creative spurt, over the last month. I don’t know who I’m channeling, but I’m writing more lyrics than I can shake a stick at – on the back of Dunkin’ Donuts bags that I rip open, bits and pieces of trash…I’m just writing lyrics all over the place. I was sitting in Beatnik’s [rock club, onPark Avenue,Worcester] listening to my friends James Keyes and the Ten foot Polecats, and I ripped out some more lyrics sitting at the bar in front of Chris. It’s amazing how much good talent is out there.
So, we’re doing our CD release party on [Saturday] June 16th, and I’m afraid that these boys are going to have to learn another twelve or fifteen tunes before then. I might not even play our second album when it comes to our CD release party.
Me: And where is the CD release party?
Stu: it’s gonna be at Ralph’s with Kevin Williams and the Invisible Orphans, out of Providence [RI]; with WHAT, a fantastic jam band out of Worcester, featuring Jay Kelly and the boys; and the ever popular and ever hilarious Shaun Connolly, a.k.a. Flip McClaine. He’s going to be our emcee for the evening.
Me: Tell me a little bit about the new lineup of the band.
Stu: Fantastic lineup! I’m totally blessed! Life has gotten in the way of a lot of our prior lineups, but this latest lineup is spectacular. Austie is still with us. We picked up James Bennett on tenor saxophone last March. He’s a perennial favorite; he’s the eye candy of the band. Jimmy the Lid. We also have Jerry Maday on bass – one of the most talented amateurs I’ve ever run into –multi instrumentalist who studied theory and composition. He’s coming up with bass melody lines that are absolutely spectacular, which frees me up to do other things. We also have the right reverend Darren Pinto on guitar, who at one point in his stellar career toured with George Thoroughgood and the Destroyers. And this evening we also have our former bass guitarist “Magic Don”, who is also a killer guitarist – sitting in on second guitar!! He’ll always has a seat here with us. Anytime.
Me: I’ve never seen you with two guitars.
Stu: Well, he’s an occasional second guitar. Jimmy the Lid is not able to be with us this evening. [He’s on] that work release program. [Laughs.] He’s back wearing the orange jumpsuit tonight.
Me: You’ve played Vincent’s before.
Stu: We scored the Second Saturday Spectacular residency, so every second Saturday of 2012 you can catch our musical mayhem right here at Vincent’s.
Me: So it’s every other Saturday?
Stu: Every second Saturday. The Second Saturday Spectacular. It is once a month. Unless there’s three second Saturdays, which, if there is, please let me know, because I have to rearrange my schedule.
Me: On somebody’s calendar. Do you like playing at Vincent’s?
Stu: I love it! I absolutely love it! It is snug, but it is the most intimate venue for the audience to get to know what’s happening. [Laughs.] And also possibly the world’s best meatball sandwich.
Me: Oh, yeah! But you’re a big guy and Roadkill makes a lot of noise. How do you tame that here?
Stu: We do, somewhat. It’s about listening to each other and being attentive to the audience. It’s all fun. It’s like playing in your living room. You really can’t fuck up here.
Me: Tell me about your new location [for Dr. Gonzo’s Uncommon Condiments].
Stu: 90 May Street! [Worcester– corner of May/Mayfield between the Park Ave. CVS and next door to Big Y supermarket]
Me: Same mayhem?
Stu: Same mayhem, new location. The buildout is not complete. When it is finished, we hope to have the first ever in the country at least walk up and possibly drive-up condiment window, where you have to talk into an intelligible jalapeno speaker. We will understand you, but you will not understand us. That, in itself, is worth the drive and price of admission.
Me: And will you have the same products?
Stu: We’re bringing our products back in a phased manner, and some of our products will be relegated to a seasonal status. But we’re endeavoring to keep a high quality of consistency and availability to our customers.
Me: And any new stuff coming along?
Stu: No, we just gotta get our customer’s favorites back first! After that, we’ll talk! [Laughs]