Entering the small, ungated community that brothers Tommy and Michael Cantillon call home, it’s immediately striking how cookie-cutter pristine the place is. Tucked less than a mile off the 101, their little slice of prefab heaven could just as well be Anytown, U.S.A., save for the slight ocean breeze and the looming shadow cast by UCSB’s infamously debauched Santa Catalina dorms. The house itself is a modest three-bedroom that the guys share with a friend. It’s clean, sparsely furnished, and about what you’d expect from a place occupied by a group of affable bachelors.
Once you cross the threshold, though, it quickly becomes apparent that the Cantillon boys have spent the better part of the last few months on the road. The fridge is bare, save for a few flats of Vitamin Water, and their garage-cum–practice studio is overflowing with projects, from promotional posters to CD mailers to recording gear. This week the brothers, together with bandmates Matt Palermo and Steve Libby, will release their third studio album as Tommy & The High Pilots. The record, titled Only Human, is being put out by Redbird Records, a small record label in St. Louis, Missouri.
“We’re ‘putting it out on Redbird Records,’” laughs Palermo, making exaggerated air quotes as he speaks. In essence, the band explains, Only Human is an independent release. Recording, mixing, mastering, and packaging were all paid for by the band, the label, and their fans through a recent (and wildly successful) online crowd-sourcing campaign through PledgeMusic.
Listening to the 10 crisp, expansive tracks that make up Only Human, you’re immediately struck by how professional the whole thing sounds. It’s a big, buoyant, and catchy album that feels about as far removed from an “indie record” as it gets. But then again, this isn’t The High Pilots’ first rodeo.
Where to Start
Tommy, 26, and Michael, 25, grew up two of five boys. Brothers Jimmy, 33, and Kevin, 27, live in Camarillo with Pilots drummer Palermo, where they run Cantillon Entertainment Booking, a concert and tour production company. Brother Joey, 31, works in New York City as an actor. Despite raising a brood of entertainers, mom and dad lead pretty normal lives. Mrs. Cantillon spent her early years as a journalist, while Mr. Cantillon works for Raytheon, where he’s been since the family moved here in 1989. I inquire about the specifics of their father’s job, and Michael laughs, “I don’t know what he does. I seriously think he just sends us joke emails all day.”
Like most young Santa Barbara boys, the Cantillons grew up outdoors. They skateboarded, went to the beach, and played sports. It wasn’t until 5th grade that Tommy picked up music. “He’ll never own up to this, but when my mom went to buy me my first guitar, my dad told her not to,” he recalls. “‘He’s just going to put it down in a month,’ he said.”
As it turns out, the love affair lasted much longer. At 15, Tommy started writing songs and frequenting all-ages clubs like the now-defunct Living Room and Coach House. Not long after, he formed the pop-rock group Holden (named for J.D. Salinger’s Holden Caulfield, naturally) and modeled his sound after of-the-moment bands like Yellowcard and Further Seems Forever. Together with high school friends Paul Murray, Johnny Puailoa, and TJ Myers, Tommy wrote and released Holden’s debut, Hot Lunch Wednesdays. Two more albums followed, as well as a number of self-booked national tours. When the quartet called it quits in 2007, they’d sold more than 10,000 albums, all without so much as a recording contract. At age 20, and with no band to his name, Tommy decided to pull up roots and head east. He moved into a small apartment in Brooklyn and started working at a friend’s bar across the street from Yankee Stadium. “I was pretty messed up over the Holden thing,” Tommy recalls. “It was like my whole life was torn away, and I didn’t have any say in it. But I wrote so much music in New York. It was just me and an acoustic guitar; that’s how most of The High Pilots songs on the first record were written.” Back on his feet after a year in the city, Tommy felt the itch to start a new band, and he headed home to gather the troops.
Back in S.B., Tommy started plotting his next move. He quickly enlisted the help of bassist Steve Libby, whom he remembered from his high school days. A teddy bear of a guy, even as a youngster, Libby spent his teens playing in a host of Santa Barbara bands. “I think at one point I was in, like, eight,” he half-jokes. “No one played bass, so I was a hot commodity.” Brother Michael, who was living in San Francisco at the time, joined shortly after on keys. In 2009, the group finalized their initial lineup by adding drummer Aaron Ray. Tommy & The High Pilots was born.
Young & Hungry
“It felt like starting from scratch,” says Tommy about the early days. Within their first few months together, The High Pilots wrote and self-recorded their debut full-length, Everynight. Its release came with its own level of Santa Barbara–centric pomp and circumstance: a sold-out, dialed-in show at Center Stage Theater with no openers. The band would play the full album from start to finish, awash in pro theater lighting, to a roomful of friends and fans. By then, Holden’s self-made success story had amassed Tommy a strong legion of hometown followers; people turned out to see what the local-boy-done-good would do next.
In conversation, it’s immediately clear that Tommy is The High Pilots’ team captain. Surrounded by his bandmates, he’s confident and gracious, if slightly overexcitable. And given the opportunity, he’ll talk for hours, pausing only to flash a punctuating 100-watt smile. His wide blue eyes sparkle with intensity as he speaks about recording, touring, and what comes next. He’s a songwriter first and describes his days at home as a strict regimen of early wake-up calls, lots of coffee, and hours devoted to working on new material.
“Everybody has a role,” he tells me. “If a lot of the songs start by me writing stuff, then that’s just as important as it is for the other guys to be on the phone with our manager or sending an email.”
After that Center Stage gig, with brother Jimmy acting as the band’s manager, Tommy & The High Pilots hit the road, following the model laid out by Holden five years prior. They played high schools by the hundreds and booked national tours around county-fair season, hauling their gear from one small U.S. town to the next and making certain to stick around and meet every fan after every show.
“It’s great to walk up to the merch table and talk to everybody,” says Michael. “In the back of our minds, it’s cool to do because who knows when that’s going to be over. It’s not like Bono is going out and hanging at the merch table after gigs. Eventually that whittles away.”
Tired of the touring life, drummer Aaron Ray went his separate way in 2010. (He’s now designing iPhone apps in New York City, but Tommy assures that they’re still close.) Perhaps serendipitously, though, his departure came right around the time The High Pilots found their first big break, thanks in part to St. Louis rock act Ludo. Tommy had befriended the band years prior on tour with Holden, and he and drummer Matt Palermo had stayed especially close. “Matt and I really bro’d down,” laughs Tommy. “On that Holden tour, we stayed with his parents in Houston. I always knew that Matt was going to play with me in some shape or form. Luckily, he had that idea, too.”
Following Holden’s demise, the two started swapping song ideas, and when Tommy came home to form The High Pilots, he eventually caught up with Ludo and Palermo again. As time wore on, life on the road took its toll on Ludo, and the band eventually decided to hang up the towel, quietly passing the baton — and their drummer — to The High Pilots.
Palermo moved west, and the tour van rolled on, The High Pilots’ fan base growing with each cross-country pass through. In rare moments of downtime, Tommy would return home to his parents’ house in Goleta, hunker down, and get to work on new songs. In 2010, the band finally made its way into a proper recording studio to crank out American Riviera. It was quickly followed by the more folk-leaning Sawhorse Sessions EP. But by 2012, The High Pilots felt poised for something bigger and got to work on what would become their next album.
Ready to Fly
Sitting around the Cantillons’ kitchen table to discuss Only Human, the guys are literally buzzing with energy — that and a fair share of caffeine — which at times strikes me as the only way they could keep all these plates spinning. Just outside, Libby’s girlfriend packages albums and merch, gifts to the fans who donated to the Pilots’ PledgeMusic drive. Meanwhile, Tommy tries to articulate finding a balance between his roles as musician and businessperson.
“You can’t forget that at the core of all of this,” he says, gesturing to nowhere in particular, “are four guys that want to be in a great band that writes great songs and plays to people and creates those experiences that you can’t put into words. It would kill me if a month went by and I didn’t write a song because I was too busy sending emails about my band.”
After years of doing things on their own, The High Pilots jump at the chance to praise their manager, Redbird Records owner Tim Convy, as well as their fans, who played a huge part in getting Only Human off the ground.
“It was pretty special,” says Tommy of the PledgeMusic experience.
“I think it really pumped people up,” adds Michael. “For us it’s been this five-month process, and the fans have been involved from the get-go. With the way PledgeMusic works, they donate money and that gives them a preorder of the album, so they get it the second it’s out.” But that’s not to say that Only Human was fully funded by the fans: in fact, quite the contrary. The album’s 10 tracks were nearly complete before the PledgeMusic campaign began. (The money the band raised online went mainly to production and mastering.) For Only Human the guys worked with three producers — Matt Wallace, Jason McEntire, and Marc McClusky in Los Angeles, St. Louis, and Chicago, respectively — all of whom had befriended the band at one point or another and who liked what they heard enough to cut the Pilots deals on studio time.
“They’re three very different guys, so there was this concern about it sounding disjointed,” says Tommy, “but it turned out to be super cool. Matt even started emailing the other two guys just to start a conversation. We all kind of came together to make the best possible record we could.”
As an album, Only Human is a decidedly cohesive affair. Beyond the big production and airy arrangements, it features some of Tommy’s strongest songwriting to date. The songs lean on the inspirational, with titles like “Get Up,” “Young & Hungry,” and “Somebody Make a Move.” I ask Tommy if he writes these anthems to inspire himself, or others, and he hedges at the inquiry.
“I think they’re stories. For songwriting, you certainly pull stuff that you know, so it’s a little of both,” he explains. “Is it autobiographical? Some songs are, and some aren’t. I think it’s aimed at other people, though, and I think sometimes I’m sitting there going, ‘God, I should take my own advice.’”
I suggest that in order to write songs about pulling yourself up, you have to know what it’s like to feel down.
“Well, yeah,” he agrees. “The drives are tough. Not being able to sleep and getting sick is tough. There are a number of things that happen when you choose this lifestyle that can make you feel really depressed or bummed out. But I think in any line of work, you’ve got to pick yourself up sometimes.”
Nowadays, though, those rough patches seem like a distant memory. In addition to Only Human’s May 28 release date, The High Pilots are giddy about their upcoming gig: a proper hometown album-release party at SOhO Restaurant & Music Club on Friday, May 31. After that, it’s back in the van for a string of U.S. tour dates. They’re hitting radio hard, too. This month, the album’s first single, “Out of My Head,” was picked up by stations in Florida, Virgina, Wisconsin, Montana, Colorado, and Tennessee, among others. And next week, the guys make their late-night television debut on Last Call with Carson Daly.
“There’s other stuff, too,” Tommy says with a grin, “but we can’t talk about it just yet.”
What the band can talk about is their big distribution deal with Sony RED, the sales and marketing arm of the Sony Music Entertainment monolith that will help distribute Only Human.
For the first time in his 12-year music career, Tommy Cantillon has a real-deal team of music-industry people watching his back and going to bat for his band. And that, he says, is as surreal as it gets.
“It’s really cool to have this tight-knit group because everybody is as dedicated as the four of us,” he says. “I couldn’t ask for anything more than that.”
In a constantly changing industry, Tommy & The High Pilots just might be one of the rare few that self-starts their way into mainstream success. In the meantime, though, they’re living proof that with enough hard work, the sky’s the limit. And that sometimes, nice guys finish first.
Tommy & The High Pilots celebrate the release of Only Human, with openers Badflower and Night Riots, this Friday, May 31, 9 p.m., at SOhO Restaurant & Music Club (1221 State St.). For tickets and info, call 962-7776 or visit sohosb.com. For more on the band, visit thehighpilots.com.