In this age of digital licensing, free streaming audio, and brutal touring schedules, the life of a musician simply ain’t what it used to be. And for those who choose to pursue the rock ’n’ roll dream without the help of a label, well, the road to success can fast become an uphill battle. Of course, with great risks come even greater rewards, and more often than not, those who go the DIY route come away singing the praises of doing things on their terms.
Just look at Tommy & The High Pilots. After the crumbling of Holden back in 2007, Santa Barbara native Tommy Cantillon ditched his N.Y.C. digs and came home to the West Coast. Without a band or a recording deal, Cantillon returned to the drawing board, crafting song after song, then gathering a group of close friends (and one family member) to start anew. In 2008, bassist Steve Libby, drummer Matt Palermo, and guitarist/keyboardist Michael Cantillon (Tom’s brother) joined forces to form Tommy & The High Pilots. At just 21, Tommy led the band into the studio to self-record and self-produce debut album Everynight, a crisp and solid first effort that was filled with catchy hooks, floor-shaking ballads, and straight-from-the-heart lyrics. Then, with the help of a few key friends and family members, the band took to the road. Two years and countless state fairs, shows, and high school gigs later, The High Pilots returned home to Santa Barbara and headed back into the studio.
The result, 2010’s American Riviera, is a six-song collection that epitomizes what two years of touring can do to a band. The guitars are punishing at one moment, quiet as a mouse at others, the melodies are shiny and infectious, and Tom’s vocals ring out crisp, clear, and heartfelt. Better still, American Riviera hinted at a move away from straightforward pop rock and into a more folk-tinged writing style. Album ender “Carried by You” even employs a twangy banjo hook to close the whole thing out.
In true High Pilots style, the release of American Riviera came with its own relentless touring schedule, but this time around, the stakes were raised. Not long after the album’s release, the band took to the road with drummer Matt Palermo’s other project, Ludo, and immediately found a following. Again, the band spent the better part of two years traveling the country, playing to sold-out crowds in countless cities across the States. And when it came time to finally head home, The High Pilots had big plans for what would come next.
“This is like my full-time job,” Tom explained. “I wake up, sit down, and we try to write as much as we can. Writing on the road gets tough because you’re leaving a venue at 2 a.m. and driving four hours to sleep for four hours, but I do as much as I can by calling my voicemail box and singing melodies into it and stuff like that.”
For the Sawhorse Sessions, The High Pilots actively sought out a softer approach, ditching the guitar-bound anthems for a more piano-driven sound. Album opener “On the Line” is bound to a sweet but insistent piano arrangement, immediately recalling ’70s-era Tom Petty. Elsewhere, “Lorraine” calls to mind the hopped-up, harmony-filled campfire anthems of bands like the Avett Brothers and Edward Sharpe & The Magnetic Zeros, all acoustic guitar strums and fervent handclaps.
In the months since Sessions hit iTunes, the Pilots have split their time between tours and more homebound writing and recording sessions. Most importantly, though, the band has acquired their own booking agent, finally relieving them from the task of booking and routing their own tours. Recently, the Pilots wrapped up a countrywide stretch with rising indie powerhouse Allen Stone before returning home to work on the next record.
This Friday, Tommy & The High Pilots make a short stop at Velvet Jones as part of a two-week-long run of shows alongside San Fran harmonizers A B & The Sea. The tour marks just one item in a long list of upcoming plans for the band, plans which include more writing, more demoing, and, hopefully, finding a label and producer willing to take on the next stage of the Pilots’ still-burgeoning music career.
“As of right now, we don’t know what the next record is going to be,” Tom said. “We don’t know if we’re putting it out on our own or if one of the deals is going to fall in our laps, but nothing is going to stop us from pursuing the next song and the next album”
Until then, though, Tom is exactly where he wants to be: writing music, traveling the country, and playing shows with his best friends at his side.
“When I started playing, I was like, ‘This is it for me,’” Tom recalled. “I was 15 years old when I started playing seriously, and I was 15 years old when I decided I didn’t want to do anything else, and from that point on I fully immersed myself in it. I definitely feel fortunate to have known for a long time what I wanted. They say if you’re doing something you love, then money doesn’t matter, and that’s certainly the case.”
Tommy & The High Pilots play a 21+ show at Velvet Jones (423 State St.) with A B & The Sea on Friday, May 11, at 9 p.m. Call (805) 965-8676 or visit velvet-jones.com for tickets and info.