We know D.C. Get our free newsletter to stay in the know.
The members of Da Vinci’s Notebook are living every band’s dream—except they don’t have a band.
“Don’t quit your day job,” they tell musicians, when they’re not shouting, “Turn it down!” But, of course, the very point of being in a band is to avoid the horrors of regular, daytime employment. So Richard Hsu recently said goodbye to a systems engineer position, Paul Sabourin signed out from his graphic specialist job at a law firm, Greg “Storm” DiCostanzo threw off the yoke of being a financial analyst, and Bernie Muller-Thym permanently stopped being an accounting temp, though he retains part of his stay-at-home-dad status.
Hsu, Sabourin, DiCostanzo, and Muller-Thym have been performing since 1993 as Da Vinci’s Notebook and are now taking the brave leap into full-time musicianhood. What makes their move all the bolder is that Da Vinci’s Notebook is not your typical guitar-bass-drum outfit. There are no instruments at all. Da Vinci’s Notebook is an a cappella group. And not your typical a cappella group, either.
In an era when bands either stare shyly at their shoes or glare menacingly at the crowd, the quartet is unafraid to exult in eager-to-please showmanship, presenting a live act that is by turns silly, charming, and bravura. The theme from The Mickey Mouse Club is a regular part of their repertoire, as are songs about liposuction. But the presentation is impeccable.
And the timing may be right. The group’s second CD, The Life and Times of Mike Fanning, has spawned a couple hits on the Dr. Demento radio show, notably “Ally McBeal,” a pitch-perfect parody of Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone.” Sitting in Hsu’s Arlington living room waiting for pizzas to arrive, the guys seem to be adjusting to their untethered status quite well. There is much easy laughter, the relaxed camaraderie of longtime friends and cohorts united in purpose.
Still, the question must be repeated: Are you nuts?
“It’s uncharted waters, that’s for sure,” admits DiCostanzo. “For us, anyway.” Hsu jumps in to explain: “Heretofore—” he says, and is instantly silenced by a chorus of boos.
“Don’t use a word like ‘heretofore’ in the City Paper!” corrects Sabourin, sternly.
“Haughty words get the boo!” explains DiCostanzo.
Chastened, Hsu laughingly tries again: “Before now, clearly someone like me would not have quit his job just randomly to join an a cappella band.”
“It just became clear at a certain point,” says DiCostanzo, “where we were basically missing seven days out of 20—and rising—that it was either quit and do this for a living or be fired and have to do it for a living.”
“I counted the number of workdays we were going to miss in between making the album, going to France, and all the other daytime work we’d picked up,” says Hsu. “Between Labor Day and the beginning of December, we were going to miss half of it. And I called Paul as soon as I realized this and said, ‘I’m outta here.’ And he said, ‘Guess what I’m waiting to do?’”
“Plus,” adds DiCostanzo, “we got a fortune cookie that said, ‘Quit your day jobs,’ and that pretty much sealed the deal.”
“Except for you,” notes Hsu. “You got one that said, ‘Stick with your wife.’”
More hearty laughs as DiCostanzo protests, “And I’m not even married!”
Sabourin adds that his fortune taught him how to say “orange” in Chinese—which leads to an extended discussion of Chinese linguistics and eventually to the difficulty of singing Taiwanese opera.
“I think one of the reasons why we’re going to be successful,” says DiCostanzo dryly, “is because we’re so good at maintaining our focus.”
More laughter before Muller-Thym turns back to the subject of the group’s prospects. “There are lots of opportunities for a cappella groups, especially in the Washington, D.C., area. A lot of what we do is corporate work, and we do a lot of the parodies to go with whatever corporate structure needs to have a parody. That can help sustain life, and then you can go off and do fun things like do theater work, or club work, or community-center work.”
“We’re very versatile in the number of things we can do,” agrees Hsu. “Most rock bands can’t do fine arts centers. And we can. And it’s just a matter of a little spin job, and we can do clubs. We can play festivals, we can do corporate work…”
Indeed, tonight’s pizza is courtesy of the Papa John’s company. The group met John himself while entertaining at a business function several nights before. Impressed, Papa dropped free coupons on the boys.
“We can do New York, we can do this, and we don’t have to lug equipment around,” says DiCostanzo. “That’s a bonus.”
“It would be nice to have a sound guy,” says Hsu. “But that would cut into profits.”
“Back to your original question,” Sabourin says. “Certainly, there isn’t an a cappella circuit out there. That can also, sort of, work to our advantage.”
The group has noticed, for instance, that the a cappella group Rockapella—known from Nickelodeon’s Where in the World Is Carmen Sandiego?—is, as DiCostanzo says, “huge in the corporate sector.” As Rockapella’s price goes up, DVN can dine handsomely on the leftovers.
In defining DVN’s niche, Sabourin recites “the standard quote when you interview anyone in any a cappella group”: that “a cappella” must mean either barbershop or doo-wop. “And we are certainly neither of those,” says Sabourin. “There’s little elements here and there of both certainly. We’re not quite—”
“We’re too hip to be freaking barbershoppers,” interjects Muller-Thym. “No offense to barbershoppers.”
“We’re not quite a rock ‘n’ roll band, but we’re not quite theater. We’re sort of somewhere in the middle,” Sabourin muses.
“In the nether regions,” offers DiCostanzo.
“And we’re trying to exploit that,” adds Sabourin. “It’s tough to pigeonhole us, which can be good and can be bad, but it also gives us the versatility….It gives us more freedom than a rock ‘n’ roll band.”
That freedom is not being spent lying in bed until 11 o’clock every morning.
“Not me, man,” says Hsu. “I’m picking up as much singing work as I can get.”
“Something that a lot of bands probably don’t think about,” says DiCostanzo, “but it’s something that we’ve been thinking about for a long time, is that it’s not just a musical enterprise, but it’s also a business. And we’re fortunate that we have a great manager up in New York who helps us in a lot of aspects. But there’s still so much of the work, and there are so many different markets that we’re trying to get into to stay on top of and profit from, that even with four people full time, it’s impossible to keep up with it. You want to track down festivals, you want to prepare all of your promotional materials, you want to write new music, and you want to rehearse it and not sound like crap.”
“It’s the old business cliche thing,” says Sabourin, “that I’m working harder now that I don’t have a job. And I am, probably, working harder—and longer.”
“But, yes,” admits DiCostanzo, “I don’t wake up until 11 o’clock.”
One plan is for the group to “push into the morning [radio] show circuit with a song or two of ours,” says DiCostanzo. Morning DJs share many of DVN’s wacky sensibilities. “We’re still working on a strategy for that,” says DiCostanzo. “But we know we’re not going to be the type of group that’s going to be mainstream for everybody. We’re more on the “Weird” Al [Yankovic] track, where we have to find what we do that might have momentary mass appeal.”
“Hey, man, I’ll be a one-hit wonder,” offers Hsu, to laughing agreement.
“Some of that Soft Cell money,” enthuses Sabourin. “That Flo & Eddie money.”
The “Weird” Al comparison is apt, especially because DVN is following Yankovic’s path, with songs appearing regularly on the Demento show. But DVN also shares Yankovic’s penchant for witty parody coupled with spot-on production. While “Ally McBeal” may seem obvious, other tracks on The Life and Times of Mike Fanning are more deviously clever. DVN manages to distill Meat Loaf’s entire career into a perfectly overwrought four minutes and 12 seconds. And the sly commentary on the vapid cliches of boy-band pop, “Title of the Song,” could pass for the next ‘N Sync hit.
Sabourin explains his inspiration: “I was—for a brief moment—I was going to actually try and write an actual love song. I’d never written a song that wasn’t goofy or stupid or a parody of something. And I was like, how do you write this and have it not be a cliche?”
So he just wrote out the cliche structure, the lyrics being exclusively declarative descriptions of the emotions that real lyrics would try to convey.
The group credits much of the CD’s cohesiveness and quality to the fact that this time DVN hired a producer—and that the producer was Richard Greene, founding member of the premier artsy/a cappella group the Bobs, long a DVN role model.
“It was great to draw on his technical experience in the studio,” Hsu says of Greene. “The other piece of philosophy—that I don’t know we subscribed to before, but we certainly did after—is, Richard said, ‘OK, so you sing all this stuff and that’s how you do it live. We’re sorta going to ignore all that, because what you want to do is, you want to take this album and use it as a marketing tool. You’re going to put it in the hands of someone who’s never seen you. If you record these songs the same way you perform them live, they won’t get it. So you make something that’s more interesting, that’s more audibly interesting. And they’ll hear it and they’ll say, ‘OK, now I gotta see what these guys are all about.’ And then we’ll hook ’em. Because the second someone gets in front of us, very few people have said, ‘Well, you guys bite ass.’”
“The funny thing about it is,” adds Muller-Thym, “in a lot of these cases, some of these songs we’ve sung for years. And we came into the studio and redid them to a point where we could not reproduce them live—but now it’s come full circle where we’re actually doing it live.”
“It’s a funny feeling to learn a song off of your own CD,” notes DiCostanzo.
“There’s a lot of people who are putting out good a cappella albums these days,” says Hsu. “But they all sound very—”
“Canned,” says DiCostanzo.
The group sometimes deviates from the straight a cappella path by including actual instruments. “If you have an idea for a song and think it’s a good one, sometimes you might have to add congas,” says DiCostanzo. “Or, if you want to make fun of Meat Loaf, you damn well better use a piano.”
The CD also features appearances by members of local folk-pop group Eddie From Ohio, Boston a cappella group Ball in the House, and Greene.
“It’s not like we’re making any brand-new discoveries here,” says Sabourin. “But it’s new to us, and it’s cool, and it’s a nice evolutionary process. I like the fact that we’ve been doing this for a little over six years now—”
“Aaagh!!” Hsu mock-screams.
“Seriously,” Sabourin continues, “we’ve made it past the point—I’m not sure when it was, but certainly sometime within the past year, year and a half—we made it past the shit-or-get-off-the-pot point, where we’re either going to do this or break up. And we know that this group isn’t going to break up because we just can’t get along. Not that we’re all lovey-dovey all the time—by no means. But we’ve achieved a sort of tolerance equilibrium amongst ourselves. For me at least, that was a great weight to be lifted off. To know that, no matter what, this group is still going to go on. Because we had a couple of spots—actually me, twice. I almost left for different reasons. Not related to not wanting to do the group anymore, but other life things. But there were other times when tensions would arise in the group and you would wonder if it would hang together. And I think we’ve weathered enough of those to know that no matter what, this group is going to last until one of us dies or something huge comes along.”
“There’s never been anything that an appearance on The Today Show or Comedy Central couldn’t fix,” notes DiCostanzo. Both gigs help fill out the group’s resume.
“Now that we’re past that point, it’s freed us up to evolve, musically and personally,” says Sabourin.
Whereas the group is proud of its hipper-than-barbershoppers status, other musicians might scoff at the corporate gigs.
“I don’t think—I know that a lot of rock ‘n’ roll groups cannot get these corporate gigs,” says Muller-Thym. “And if they’re doing it, they’re doing it as a one-time type of thing. When I was in the punk-rock/rock ‘n’ roll phase, this would have been, I’m prostituting, selling my ass kind of thing. [But] if you can make a living doing that—it’s OK. If you have one hit and a lot of people know that and you get in that kind of circuit, it’s not a bad living. It’s either that or sitting in front of a computer and having the Man tell you what to do.”
There is momentary silence as memories of desk-job drudgery hang ominously in the air. Muller-Thym breaks the spell:
“We got a corporate gig and they sent us to France. We got to take our wives and girlfriends. That doesn’t suck.”
“Yes, I took my girlfriend and my wife,” says Sabourin.
“But going to France, they kind of expect that kind of situation,” DiCostanzo adds.
“Call me a sellout if you want,” says Sabourin. “Three nights ago, I was getting paid four figures to hang out with Miss America. Sell me out!” CP