Smallpools lights up the Gargoyle
The crowd was starting to get edgy after over an hour of generic dance music from opener Hotel Garuda (a whisper in the crowd asked, “Has this all been one song?”), when suddenly the Gargoyle finally plunged into full darkness. Startled back into awareness, students cheered as Vivaldi’s “The Four Seasons” began to echo throughout the small space. Sean Scanlon, Smallpools’ lead singer, took the stage, directing the crowd and the overture with a small baton. In the background, Beau Kuther, the band’s animated drummer, punctuated each crescendo with a hard hit and corresponding light flash. By the time Scanlon threw his baton into the crowd and the intro riff to “Over & Over” blew through Vivaldi, the audience was screaming for the first Wash. U. concert of the year.
Just a few hours earlier, I got the chance to sit down with the band after its deafening sound check. As shown onstage later in the night, the band has great chemistry, laughing and joking around as they enjoyed the Social Programming Board’s greenroom. The first thing I learned from guitarist Mike Kamerman was that “Tonight is a big night.”
First, a quick story: Since its beginning, the band has been traveling with a white, plastic greyhound statue. After a laugh, Kuther explained, “We won one of these dogs at bingo at a bar in our town, and we took the dog around for the rest of the night. It garnered a lot of weird attention, and we thought he had a special power, so we put him on stage.”
So why was Thursday night so special? “We’re down to one and this guy is barely hanging on…It’s the last night we are using this plastic version of the dog. We will unveil a heavier metal one when we start our tour next week,” Kuther said. So when “Smalldog” was pointed out in the middle of the show, it was indeed his last hurrah.
However, Smallpools is nowhere near the end of their time on the stage. Formed less than three years ago, the foursome has gone from opening for big names like Grouplove, WALK THE MOON and Neon Trees to releasing their own full-length album in March. Scanlon confessed, “We were definitely shot out of the cannon really quickly, and then we had to play catch-up.”
And even “quickly” may be an understatement. Before the band came together officially, Scanlon and Kamerman, the man responsible for Smallpools’ signature guitar grooves, moved to Los Angeles, Calif. to work on their music.
“The first year was tough—we didn’t really like what we were writing and life was hard,” Scanlon said. “We would often go out and sing karaoke, the same song every night, that New Radicals song ‘You Get What You Give.’ It was our musical outlet, going to karaoke and singing that song.”
During their set on the Gargoyle stage, before playing their aptly named song “Karaoke,” which partially speaks to this experience, the band gave a short tease of their New Radicals cover. But, as a smiling Scanlon said later, “They were so into it! They kept singing the chorus after we stopped, so we decided to play the full thing.”
Smallpools is no stranger to reading its audience. After playing at Lollapalooza in Chicago, Ill., Firefly in Dover, Del., and Summer Sonic in Tokyo since they began touring independently, the Washington University space was a drastic—but not unfavorable—change for the band.
“In a place like this, you can see everyone reacting, and you feel more connected at a show like this as opposed to the sea of people [at a festival],” bassist Joseph Intile said.
In the Gargoyle, Smallpools excelled in connecting with its audience, telling stories and jumping past the B&D security into the crowd of fans. During their mid-show performance of “American Love,” Scanlon and Kamerman fervently played the song’s xylophone part…with glow sticks.
After the song, an out-of-breath Scanlon admitted, “I always get so hyped up for our big battle and then proceed to do the daintiest thing ever.” As an afterthought he added, “That’s how wars should be fought: glow sticks.” More than one person in the crowd nodded back.
In another stage break, Scanlon preempted the hit “Killer Whales” by confessing, “We Googled ourselves a lot at the beginning, and we kept seeing things about how bad it is to keep killer whales in small pools…I thought we had a very controversial band name.”
Joking aside, Smallpools’ music manages to be wonderfully catchy indie-pop while also telling a story with its lyrics. Scanlon says he was inspired by “all of our old childhood jams. I listened to Paul Simon, Billy Joel—cool, quirky melodies and lyrics.”
Kuther added, “We were inspired by our situation. When things started happening [for the band] we were just inspired by the surreality and getting to wake up every morning and go to the studio and play. That was inspiring in itself.”
After a short, surprise cover of Train’s “Drops of Jupiter,” Smallpools ended its amazing set with “Dreaming,” its most popular hit that had every audience member screaming along to the optimistic lyrics, “I could go all night right here between their crossfire / We’ll send them up a message / I’ll send a message / We’ll say, ‘Give it up, give it up!’”
After leaving the stage to shrieking applause, Scanlon professed, “I always decide mid-song if I’m going to hold out the mic and let the audience sing the ‘give it up.’ You guys deserved it.”
As Smallpools begins its “American Love” tour this Thursday, we can take comfort in knowing that the group came to light up the Gargoyle first. This enthusiastic band has been on a steady rise and with their impressive stage presence and love of music, we can probably look forward to seeing more from them soon. Until then, keep listening to “Dreaming” on repeat and know that Scanlon had only one other comment about our campus after returning from the Danforth University Center: “I had a pretty great burrito.”