The life of a touring band is rarely glamorous offstage, but somehow the crowded hotel rooms, impossibly long drives, and incessant engine problems are all forgotten in the triumph of a homecoming show. Such is the case for Tommy & The High Pilots, who typically dedicate at least nine months of the year to the road, building up their fan base through tried-and-true touring. Though all four members (siblings Tommy and Michael Cantillon, Steve Libby, and Matt Palermo) call Santa Barbara home, they spend the bulk of their time in Midwest capitals like St. Louis and Chicago, where their uplifting, folk-inspired pop rock has struck a rich vein of followers and fellow musicians. With the help of like-minded bands like Ludo, the Spill Canvas, and the Hush Sound, the boys maintain a full-time touring and recording cycle that leaves them little room for the Santa Barbara life.
Except, of course, during the holidays, when the High Pilots report home for their annual Christmas extravaganza, filled to the brim with area talent, new jams, old friends, and, of course, the coveted open bar. Last year they enlisted the help of Kenny Loggins, J.R. Richards, Tim Lopez, John Palminteri, Figueroa Mountain Brewing Co., and a menagerie of others to deliver an altogether outrageous time, and with a new record on the way, this year’s gathering promises to be a holiday rager to rule them all. To get wind of how the High Pilots fared in 2012, I took a call from Tommy, who phoned in from Sawhorse Studios in St. Louis — just one of three places the forthcoming album is being recorded.
Tell me about the decision to work with three different producers for this release. I guess, ultimately, it was everyone’s individual schedule. The producer we worked with in L.A. is Matt Wallace. He actually did Sugarcult and worked with Faith No More, Maroon 5, The Replacements, R.E.M.… so, as you can imagine, he’s a super busy guy, but he wound up hearing three or four songs that got him excited. If we could have done the whole thing with Matt, we totally would have. The producer in Chicago we worked with second, Marc McClusky, we work with a lot — he made our second record. When I get with him, I normally start a song from scratch, and it turns out really good because you’re not overthinking it. Thirdly, coming to Sawhorse, it’s an entirely different vibe here. There’s more of a raw, organic feeling, and the producer here, Jason McEntire, he’s more of what you think a Santa Barbara dude would be like. After making our third record here with him, there were some songs that seemed more appropriate to come and do here.
What else can you tell me about the new album? One idea we’re throwing around — we certainly haven’t named [the record] yet — but there’s one song called “Painted Cave,” and it’s about the fire that took place [in Santa Barbara] in 1990. That one track in particular is kind of guiding certain other songs on the record, and one idea is that we’re going to title the whole thing Painted Cave. There’s a common theme of enduring, going through the fire metaphorically speaking, and coming out unscathed. So that’s kind of the idea behind a lot of songs on the record, and that stems from our hometown, which is really cool to us. It’s tough because you try not to make everything in your province, but it seems like this record is going to speak to where we come from.
What sort of fire have the High Pilots been through? As any independent band that starts from the ground up can tell you, [touring] is certainly very unglamorous a lot of the time. … All of us having come from other bands and now having done this band for five years, we’re just going through all the crazy sort of trials and coming out of it with a positive attitude and hoping that everything works out. That can be tough to do when you’re 26 and in a van sleeping outside of Walmart, or sharing a hotel room with six people and sneaking three people in.
Last year’s Christmas show was a lot of fun. What can we expect this year? I can’t give anything away of course, but we have Natalie Noone opening the show; she’s a singer/songwriter. Her dad is Peter Noone, who is in Herman’s Hermits. He does a lot of Unity Shoppe stuff, like Kenny Loggins. That’s how we came to those guys; we did a peanut butter drive with the Unity Shoppe, which we’re doing again this year. We’re still putting the pieces together on everything that’s gonna happen, and of course it’s tough being here in St. Louis — we won’t get home until the 16th. It’s certainly going to be very exciting. We wouldn’t put on a Christmas show if it wasn’t going to be the best thing we could do.
A Tommy & The High Pilots Christmas comes to the Lobero Theatre (33 E. Canon Perdido St.) on Saturday, December 22, at 7 p.m. Bar opens at 6 p.m. Call (805) 963-0761 or visit lobero.com for tickets and info.