Around the holidays, tradition runs deep, and for no one is this truer than Tommy & The High Pilots. Since forming in 2008, the Santa Barbara pop-rock quartet (made up of frontman Tommy Cantillon, bassist Steven J. Libby, guitarist Michael Cantillon, and drummer Matt Palermo) have been working hard to get their name out there, and their efforts show. Currently, the band boasts some 7,000 Facebook friends. In 2010, they toured heavily behind both their last record, American Riviera, and their new more folk-minded EP, Sawhorse Sessions. They’ve also forged a mighty union with cheeky St. Louis rockers Ludo, for whom Tommy plays rhythm guitar and Palermo also drums.
With a schedule as rigorous as theirs (think three national tours in the last year alone), Christmastime often becomes the only season these four can venture home. It’s also one of the few occasions per year that they can play to their hometown fans. Thus, the Tommy & The High Pilots Christmas Show was born. The holiday-themed concert has fast become one of S.B.’s most hopping annual events, featuring music, decorations, and a heavy helping of seasonal surprises. This Friday, December 23, Tommy & The High Pilots take to the stage at the Lobero Theatre for their fourth and no doubt largest Christmas show to date. Hosted by KEYT anchor John Palminteri, the night includes secret performances, special guests, and the coveted open bar. The concert also doubles as a food drive for the Unity Shoppe, whereby ticket holders are encouraged to bring a jar of peanut butter in exchange for a free High Pilots CD.
I recently caught up with Tommy from a tour stop in St. Louis, where he dished on this year’s High Pilots extravaganza, talked future plans, and spoke candidly about his newest batch of songs.
I’m curious to know about this whole High Pilots/Ludo relationship? How did you guys originally meet? When I was 18 and touring with Holden on our first big tour — we were out for like nine months — we had a booking agent who turned out to be kind of a lunatic, but she was also booking Ludo. So we wound up playing with them in Tucson, Arizona, and just totally hit it off. We’re like brothers now, and it all kind of started back then. Matt was the youngest of the group, so he and I kind of clicked more, and we kept in contact over the years and sent each other song ideas; there was always a mutual respect. Then, three years ago now, it all really came together.
You guys have been touring almost constantly since the High Pilots formed. What’s the biggest change you’ve noticed over the years? Definitely the kids that know the lyrics. We just did a Thanksgiving run, and the last three shows were all sold out. The Midwest is so warm and so welcoming and so open, and there are these music scenes that are just thriving … I feel like they’re hungrier. After playing out here for the past three years, it’s amazing. We’re selling out shows on our own; kids are bringing us art of the band and asking us to hand-print lyrics for their friends. The amount of people that are showing up and are actually there for us is really picking up.
Compared to American Riviera, your new EP, Sawhorse Sessions, is really stripped-down. Is this an indication of where the High Pilots are going next? I think the idea behind doing [Sawhorse Sessions] was just to show what we’re capable of and say, “Here’s what we can do without production; here’s what we can do with just acoustic guitars and pianos and drums.” Even with our first record, it goes from folk rock to piano pop to other styles of music all under the rock umbrella. We just want to show our fans that we can go any direction; we want every character; we don’t want anyone to peg us as one thing, and that’s really important to me and to the band.
Can you talk a little bit about the stuff you guys are working on now? Yeah! A lot of these songs I’m finding are about a troublemaker, someone coming to grips with the fact that they’ve been out causing trouble, and they’re sort of in between staying the path or straightening out and becoming a good person. I don’t think that necessarily reflects on me, though. [Laughs.] I definitely tap into characters when I write … I would say that a lot of songs are about that troublemaker, and a few are about a person talking to somebody else and saying, “Cheer up, everything is going to be okay.”
You guys are taking a big leap by moving the Christmas show to the Lobero this year. When and how did you decide to make the jump? Last year we sold out SOhO, but we also turned 50 or so people away at the door. [SOhO proprietor] Gail [Hansen] is a big supporter of the band, but after that, she even said, “God, I love you guys, but you’re going to have to make it bigger next year, and it’s not going to be here.” It’s certainly a big deal. It’s a different animal because you have to pay to rent it out, union workers are involved, you have to bring in your own sound guy. … I feel like doing it at the Lobero is our version of saying, “Hey, we’re for real, and this is something that’s going to get bigger.” I feel like the Christmas show will be our bread and butter in Santa Barbara, and we want it to be the thing that everyone wants to go do for Christmas. Hopefully this will be the cornerstone to making it even bigger and having a bunch of other cool people involved.
Tommy & The High Pilots play the Lobero Theatre (33 E. Canon Perdido St.) Friday, December 23, at 7:30 p.m., with special guests Tim Lopez (The Plain White T’s), J.R. Richards (Dishwalla), and many more. For tickets and info, call 963-0761 or visit lobero.com.