dada puzzle

dada Discuss Their Classic Debut ‘Puzzle’ and “That Song” at 30

dada’s Puzzle remains as intricate and rewarding today as it was then: a universally appealing, type-O album that adults, MTV teens, and rockers could all get behind.

Puzzle
dada
I.R.S. Records
8 September 1992

Cast your mind back to late 1992.

Grunge was busy conquering the rock world if it hadn’t already. The scourge known as Hair Metal had been put out of our collective misery, at last, swept off the charts by Nirvana, Pearl Jam, and their Seattle kin. (Except Cinderella. Nothing but praise for Cinderella in these quarters.)

Then, between endless replays of “Alive” and “Smells Like Teen Spirit”, a catchy tune utterly incompatible with the prevailing zeitgeist somehow plied its way onto MTV rotation and the Modern Rock radio charts. Jangly, noodling guitars; delicate Simon and Garfunkel harmonies; plus snide, ironic, of-the-moment lyrics even more cynical than Cobain’s or Vedder’s rebellious dirges, if that be possible. Yet dada’s “Dizz Knee Land” still had plenty of muscle behind it, including whooped YEAH YEAH YEAHS and a couple of shredding Hendrix guitar solos. Call it a gimmick or a novelty song if you must. But “Dizz” was a huge indie hit, and people remember it – even if I.R.S. label guru Miles Copeland hated the single at the time.

Bassist Joie Calio echoes his fellow band members when he calls “Dizz Knee Land” both a blessing and a curse. “That song made us. It changed our lives,” he says today. “Fans loved it at our shows, even before Puzzle was released. But it became an anchor too.” Certainly never hurts to name a song after one of the world’s best-known brands, right? Moreover, dada did what every debut act is supposed to: deliver a hit for their record label. But both the band and their dedicated fans rate “Dizz Knee Land” as merely the introduction to a fantastic pop-rock record, with half a million in sales to prove it.

So now, with THAT SONG mercifully out of the way… How did these kids initially get together?

“Guitarist Mike Gurley and I went to the same high school, but different grades,” says Calio. “Our first band was called A French Invention.” The duo then formed Louis and Clark with guitarist Louis Gutierrez, formerly of Paisley Underground darlings the Three O’Clock. “All our friends were getting signed, but not us,” according to Gurley. He stayed afloat as a sushi waiter while Calio worked in the Geffen Records mail room. “We decided that instead of trying to live the grand rock-star life, we needed to write better songs.” Which they did during a feverishly creative span in Los Angeles lasting somewhere between eight and eighteen months (depending on who you ask).

Quizzed about early influences, one word comes back: Beatles. Then the Byrds, Simon & Garfunkel, Led Zeppelin. Calio also mentions punk pioneers the Clash and the Ramones, while drummer Phil Leavitt cites the Doors’ John Densmore as a touchstone. All three members take pains to point out that AM pop radio was king back then. (Meanwhile, this urbane south Floridian still waits for somebody out there to credit AM stalwarts KC and the Sunshine Band, who out-charted all of the above except the Fab Four.) Thus the soon-to-be trio honed their sound: Beatles melodies topped by Simon & Garfunkel harmony, with a touch of Hendrix thrown in for brawny marbling. Much like Big Star and the Raspberries before them, dada would resurrect an anachronistic yet proven pop-rock formula that starchy conventional wisdom had left behind.

In one of several huge breaks along the way, Gutierrez heard Gurley’s and Calio’s initial batch of songs and invited them to open on tour for his new band Mary’s Danish. After famed producer Ken Scott caught their act at the Highland Grounds coffee shop, he offered to produce a demo tape – which may or may not have been the one Gurley claims he left inside I.R.S. exec Copeland’s Chrysler LeBaron cassette deck, in yet another lucky twist. Opportunity had officially knocked: Time to deliver that sparkling debut album!

Which, of course, I.R.S. summarily rejected. This led to a second self-produced studio session, which according to Leavitt yielded some of Puzzle’s best tracks. “Joie and Mike had originated most of the material,” he says. “I helped with the arrangements, and we reworked some other elements together.” Indeed, so well-produced and -engineered was Puzzle that it served as a demo CD for Hi-Fi audio equipment at the time.

Production was one aspect; the songs were another. Puzzle remains as musically intricate and rewarding today as it was then – a universally appealing, type-O record that adults, MTV teens, rockers, and even their girlfriends could all get behind. And not just because of THAT SONG, which we’ll return to in due time.

Gurley and Calio claim they invented the female name for album opener “Dorina” out of whole cloth, and that the song was based on a psychic who worked the Santa Monica pier. Right away dada’s effervescent vocals strike the listener: harmony is the focus of every verse, right up to the plaintive, begging chorus. The song is a confident six minutes, lengthy for a debut’s first track, and boasts a couple of ragged, wailing guitar solos. Is this Beatles pop-rock, or “Let’s Go Crazy”?

Followup “Mary Sunshine Rain” cements the point, demonstrating that those surprising powerhouse solos were no fluke. The song opens with Puzzle’s most haunting acoustic refrain, before delving into further guitar pyrotechnics in the Hendrix vein. Granted, the term “schizophrenic” is usually an epithet. No whiplash here, though – the melodies flow effortlessly from soft to jagged and back again, with those buoyant harmonies high above. Such gentle edges around a rough center were a hardy Page/Zeppelin trademark; it’s called a ‘formula’ because it works. Meanwhile, pressed for the inside scoop, Gurley reveals that the sunshine/rain “Mary” in question was his girlfriend at the time and a serious downer. But fear not Mary: unlike the rest of us, you’re officially immortal.

My personal favorite “Dog” is up next, featuring not only Puzzle’s greatest harmonies but some of the best of that decade. Gurley became convinced early on that he and Calio sang better together than separately, and the celestial sounds they produce on this track prove him spectacularly right. How about that chorus: “I know a girl / who believes a girl / who believes she used to be a dog”? Interviewing three band members often leads to conflicting stories or memories. But “Dog” is all about reincarnation, says Calio. “A girl one of us knew thought she was a dog in a former life. Being stoned might have had something to do with it,” he admits. Exactly who was stoned is a question we’ll graciously leave unasked. But the trailing-verse melody “Keep looking to the sky, ayyy, ayyyyy” never ever gets old, and never will.

Now saddle up: We’ve officially reached track four, which means it’s time to revisit THAT SONG. Mystical provenance? “Basically, the only radio hit dada ever had came to me in a dream,” says Calio of “Dizz Knee Land” today. “I heard the melody, and then a bus with the word Disneyland drove by. I woke up at five a.m. and started writing lines like I just robbed a grocery store. The first Gulf War was on TV the night before (‘I just flipped off President George’, unforgettable line), along with that famous Super Bowl commercial saying the winner was going to Disneyland. I thought it was an interesting juxtaposition. Later that morning I drove to Mike’s house, and he added the Zeppelin-style bridge. The spelling was changed in the studio later on.”

Hit, schmit: Thanks to some luck and a ton of hard work, dada had officially made it. Leavitt recalls touring with Sting the following year: “I looked around the stage, and here we were on tour with Sting. My whole life I expected early success, so I had absolutely zero doubt that we belonged there.”

Road-movie soundtrack “Here Today, Gone Tomorrow” is another gem, perhaps the most biting cut on Puzzle yet also the most unadulterated fun. Its deep, drawling Lou Reed intro builds to a laconic Joe Walsh-style guitar solo, along with hilarious “Bonnie and Clyde” fantasy lyrics like “We robbed a bank in Santa Monica / Bought a Caddy and a gold harmonica…” The song also applies its vocals straight, with zero harmony, shoving its subversive desperado nature to the forefront.

Not to belabor every track, but broken-family dirge “Timothy” deserves special mention as well. Each lyric is beautifully harmonized, and the tearful string section brings subsequent 1990s Divine Comedy ballads to mind. Gurley credits every youthful bully, liar, or weirdo they ever knew for inspiration: “The teacher asks, oh where are your parents Tim / It’s been five months and I’ve seen no sign of them / My dad’s not here, he flew back to Mars…” Timothy also conveniently rhymes with ‘sympathy’, thereby justifying the choice of the song title.

Most music acts have trouble getting along for an hour, let alone three decades together. What’s dada’s secret for not hating each other’s guts after all this time?

“Musical and creative respect,” answers Gurley. “Giving each other space, and coming together wherever you can.” Leavitt also credits the tail end of the old-school record business, pre-streaming, and pre-Napster, contending that the industry’s late 1990s upheaval made everything more difficult. For his part, Calio applies the classic ‘marriage’ analogy, but then grows philosophical: “Everyone involved has to understand that a rock band is like a submarine. You can’t get halfway off, and shit never leaves.”

So: After 30 long years (!), the music on Puzzle hasn’t aged one iota, but the rest of us sure have. Leavitt and Calio are focused on their roots-rock band 7Horse, while Gurley’s solo work includes his 2020 release Ultrasound and chasing his three-year-old son around the house. That enchanted period from ’92 to ‘96 understandably remains a bright spot, however. Gurley describes not wanting to take days off from the studio because the trio were having so much fun together, while Calio somehow still possesses every shred of the band’s notes, schedules, and other materiel from those golden days.

“We were something back then, all three of us. I’m really proud of Puzzle and all our records,” says Leavitt in conclusion. “We connected with people, who continue to listen and be moved by our music to this day. That’s no easy trick, and I would never downplay it or take it for granted.”

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