MU330’s Dan Potthast on solo tours & more

Dan Potthast is perhaps best known as the frontman for St. Louis’ finest circus-ska purveyors, MU330. In the years since that band took an unofficial hiatus, he’s performed solo and with the Stitch Up. Most recently, Potthast performed and recorded with the more traditional ska outfit Dan P. & the Bricks, which features members of Slow Gherkin. He’s getting ready to go on a tour with Reel Big Fish and Pilfers which starts January 5 at the House of Blues Downtown Disney in Anaheim, California. In advance of his six weeks on the road, Potthast was cool enough to answer some questions via e-mail about touring as a solo act, and the inherent differences between that and his usual band gigs.

danpsmilingWhy tour solo, and not with Dan P. & the Bricks?

There’s a number of reasons. I like the freedom of playing whatever song I want on any given night at any given moment. I can change the set list mid-set … or even mid-song if I want, and nobody in the band will give me funny looks or be bummed that I dropped a certain song. I can write a song 10 minutes before the set and play it that night if I’d like. For me, artistically it’s really freeing to be on tour solo. I switch over to a mode of being hyper awake and tuned in. It’s just healthy for me as a person. It’s tough to get on stage in front of a packed theater by yourself and hold the audience’s attention. I like that challenge.

It’s also easier to confirm a tour with yourself than it is to confirm a tour with a band full of busy people. The Bricks are very busy people, with full time jobs and babies and a million other things going on, so it’s really impossible for us to do shows outside of California.

The final reason is that it’s cheaper to tour solo. I can tour in a smaller vehicle and spend less on gas. It’s easier to stay at people’s houses on tour with one person, and you don’t have to fight anyone for the couch. The one way split is the big one though. When I sell a T-shirt, and there’s a $5 profit, in a 10 piece band like the Bricks, each member makes 50 cents, as opposed to solo, where I would make $5. Five bucks will still get you a gallon of gas. (In the U.S. anyway) Fifty cents will barely get you around the block.

Does it allow for a wider set list?

Totally. I can play solo songs, MU330 songs, Stitch Up songs, or Dan P. and the Bricks tunes and don’t need to worry about if the band knows it at all.

Will you be doing anything with Pilfers or Reel Big Fish, or is it just you up there with an acoustic guitar?

It will be me up there with an acoustic guitar. As far as collaborating, we will see. No plans yet, but often those sorts of things happen naturally on tour.

Your songs have always walked the line between the humorous (“Streetlights,” and the pointedly observant (“KKK Highway,” “Baby Rats,” et al). What can folks expect to hear on this tour?

Most likely a mix. I have a handful of humorous songs that I always seem to lean on when I play big theater shows. In the big places, I feel like those grab people’s attention and draw them in. The strategy is to get people listening with a funny one, and then play a well written song with smart lyrics that is not funny at all. The danger in playing too many jokey songs is that people start to think of me as the Adam Sandler guy. This can be confusing to people if they hear me play funny songs and they buy the record and it’s not a Tenacious D like experience at all. In the long run though, I think people are going to be more psyched about an album with some depth that they can listen to repeatedly, which is what I’m shooting for.

Are you taking requests?

Yes. Always. And, as the all-powerful emperor of my solo set, I have total and complete veto power.

Have you done an acoustic tour like this before — where’s it’s you alone on stage in a theater? I know some of your solo shows have been rather more intimate.

Yes. I’ve toured a lot of big theaters solo. I did the Plea for Peace tour, and lots of touring with Streetlight Manifesto all over the U.S., Canada, Australia, Europe, and Japan.

How do you as a musician get an audience involved and interested when they might not be there to see you? Is it more difficult solo than as a band?

When you are playing solo, your energy just has to be WAY up. When you’re playing with a band, there are other band members to feed off of, and you can lean on them. Solo, you just need to be mentally fired up.

One thing that people don’t usually think about though, is that when I play solo in a big place, I have the element of surprise working for me. When a solo opening guy walks out, the crowd in general is expecting some whining coffee shop bozo that is going to put people to sleep. If you come out with some energy and make people laugh a bit, they are going to be psyched.

Aside from the performance end of things, the nuts and bolts part of touring is definitely more difficult, and more physically demanding. It’s not easy driving 8-10 hours, then sitting back by your t-shirts by yourself all night, every night. When I’m touring solo, it’s work time! There’s no hanging out backstage drinking beers or partying after the show. I’m the designated driver every night.

mu330Speaking of bands, has MU330 gone by the wayside? I know there’ve been the occasional reunion shows, but I’m assuming that it won’t be a recording or touring entity again.

Never say never! I’m going to spend a few weeks in St. Louis over the holidays, and there’s talk of digging into an unfinished MU330 album. No promises though! We’ve been “working” on this album now for over 12 years! Any MU330 projects are taken at a leisurely pace and are done purely for our own amusement. I’d like to see us play some more shows in 2013, as it will be our 25th anniversary of us being a band.

How did MU330 slow down?

We toured for 12 solid years with barely a break. I think we got a little burned out, and things kind of planed out for us. When it was apparent that the band wasn’t growing, we started to take a couple weeks off here, and a couple weeks off there, until our lives pivoted to other things. Ted started playing more music with his wife in the band Bagheera, and he became a scientist, and I started playing more solo shows in our time off.

There was never a “farewell” show or tour that I can remember. Was the reason for not doing that a way of keeping the group alive?

There was never a farewell tour because the band never broke up. We all love each other and forever share a bond that is stronger than blood. We never call our shows “reunion shows” because we play shows every year. MU330 will break up when we are dead.

danpsantaMike Park floated the idea of pressing all the MU330 albums on vinyl LP. What do you think of that idea?

I love the idea. I really hope it happens. I’m excited to finally release my two favorite MU330 albums, Ultra Panic and Winter Wonderland on vinyl.

Anything you’d like to add that I didn’t ask?

I’m halfway through recording a new solo album, and this coming February, I’ll be recording a totally new rock n’ roll project with Rick Johnson from Mustard Plug … and that’s about it! Thanks!