For the L.A. band dada, it all began with the acoustic duo of Michael Gurley and Joie Calio deciding they wanted to rock. "We come out of the Beatles, the Stones, the good rock bands," recalls guitarist and co-lead vocalist Gurley. "But we're also big fans of instrumentalists, of guys like John Lee Hooker, B.B. King and Jeff Beck."
But it took a while to make the transformation that led to the band's hooky, harmony-laden debut album, Puzzle, and its engagingly droll breakthrough single "Dizz Knee Land" ("I just tossed a fifth of gin / Now I'm going to Dizz Knee Land / I just got cuffed again / Now I'm going to Dizz Knee Land").
"We probably went through seven or eight drummers in a six-month span. It was kind of Spinal Tap-ish," recalls Gurley. "They didn't blow up, but they didn't last long."
All that changed when Phil Leavitt auditioned. "We started jamming in E. It just sounded powerful and there was space. We pulled it back down, got soft and built it back up again. We went on for eight, nine minutes. Then it was, 'Whatever that was, it works.'"
And so was born dada, a trio now celebrating the 20th anniversary of Puzzle with a 34-show, 41-day tour. And true to that first jam session, the group's shows have steadily built to the point where they can be Springsteenian in length, a dramatic contrast with their early live shows.
"When Puzzle came out, as a band, we had 12 songs and a cover," says Gurley. "Our set was 75 minutes, max. Now it's open ended. There's a lot of improvisation in it now. Over the years, we've become something of a jam band onstage."
But it was that less expansive dada that attracted producer Ken Scott. One of the handful of engineers who worked with the Beatles, Scott had gone on to become the much-revered producer of artists like David Bowie, Supertramp and Devo when he first introduced himself to dada.
"He came up to us after a show and said 'I'd like to record you guys,'" Gurley says. "But you'll have to sign something that says if this helps you get a record deal, I get to do the record.' For us it was, 'Hell yeah, Ken Scott!'"
The recordings the band did with Scott led to a deal with I.R.S. Records and a debut album that became a hit right out of the box. Gurley believes the band was lucky to come along when it did.
"I really like the fact that we came up at a time when there were A&R guys and record companies that would develop a band," Gurley says. "They would take a baby band — remember that term? — and let you develop."
Dada's last major label release, a self-titled album, came out on MCA in 1998, about the time Gurley figures labels started to crumble. A couple of indie albums followed, and future recordings — Gurley promises there will be at least one — are also likely to be released independently.
Meanwhile, the band continues to tour steadily. With the vast majority of its early '90s contemporaries long gone, Gurley's happy his band beat the odds.
"It's like one of out of 50, I'd guess. We're tight as friends, and we really enjoy playing together. We know that, no matter what, this is probably the best thing we'll ever do."