Sally’s Diner is not a place. Oh, to be sure there are diners with similar names, but this is not one of them. No, Sally’s Diner is a band. A band started eight years ago in Stevie and Sally Stewart’s narrow, nearly shotgun, mint green Hollywood apartment. Stewart and his childhood friend, Kim Thomasson would write and record in the tiny dining room/recording studio. But the band was named for Sally because she’s “my wife and she put up with me recording back then [even though] the whole dining room was jammed full of [gear],” said Stewart, from his newer, bigger studio in their house in the sunny suburb of Sylmar, “now we have a bigger place jammed full of stuff and soon we’ll have an even bigger place jammed full of stuff, I guess. That’s how it works, [you always need] a little more space.”
Though the duo has been writing off and on for years, it wasn’t until recently that they have seriously begun to focus on finishing the music they’ve started. “The past year has been trying to establish really great arrangements to the songs…we’re really under no budget whatsoever.” Working on old systems has forced them to simplify and move past cheesy special effects. “[We’ve been] getting into songwriting: the craft of the message and the voice.” The voice is really important to Stewart who sees it as an essential part of getting across the meanings of their songs. Nowadays, he looks at old songs they recorded years ago, ones with ‘a billion’ tracks and pulls them down to just a piano and singing to see if it’s still a song anymore. “We’ve been getting to our sound a little more. Kim has gotten me to open up, as has [my son,] Ryan. [In] the vocal department I’ve always been this shriveled up little scared thing … it’s been a great journey [opening up,] I wish I would’ve known it three fucking months ago.”
Most of what the boys of the Diner cook up is concept albums. “We’re sixties kids. We miss how albums used to have a flow and [how] you may not have heard all the songs on the radio but you knew them all because everyone bought the album for the experience of the band, for the experience of what it was.” Because of that, Thomasson, who does most of the lyrics, starting putting together ideas, one of which was about the Civil War. This coalesced into Civil War: Ballad of Joseph Cole, out of which the single, ‘The Civil Gravedigger’ was born. The song tells the story of kid left to bury the “bloodied and blackened” bodies of dead soldiers. Originally it was called ‘Pitch By Pitch’ because that was “the simple thing” to do. However, they changed it to ‘The Civil Gravedigger’ because despite the words never coming up in the song, “it was what it was really about”.
Another concept album brewing in Sally’s Diner is Things That Kill Ya. The name is pretty much explains the concept. To that effect, the album contains songs with names like ‘Oil’ and ‘Radiation’. They are releasing a single off of this album as well. ‘Human Desire’ is “basically [about] death and murder” says Stewart. The song tells the story of a senator, a monk, and a nurse who allow their warmongering, ideas of redemption, and visions of mercy lead them to kill others. Stewart says that this album will probably come out first as Joseph Cole will require a lot of thought and he hasn’t gotten to wrap his head around the character yet.
A little farther in the future, they plan to get back to one of their original projects: a rock opera. Called Holy at the moment, it’s about priest who “actually doesn’t molest little boys,” says Stewart, laughing. Instead he falls in love with a married woman with a workaholic neglectful husband. The situation becomes volatile and deadly. They have twenty-two songs already, so it’s just a matter of getting back to it and perfecting them, says Stewart, “[but] it’s getting faster all the time…we’re like a machine now.”
There are a couple ways that a song can be born in the Diner. The most common is when Thomasson writes set of lyrics and presents it to Stewart who composes music to it. Sometimes, Stewart says, Thomasson “already has a musical idea and then I do something [with it] completely different [from what] he thought would happen.” After individually working on the song, they tweak it when they can get together in person. These meetings can be anywhere from days to weeks apart, as in the winter Thomasson tours as part of the improv comedy duo Stagebenders and in the summer Stewart plays keyboards in Sweet.
Stewart was asked to join Sweet six years ago, when he was in a band called World Classic Rockers playing with friends like Nick St Nicholas [Steppenwolf, Starwolf], Randall Hall [Allen Collins Band], Anysley Dunbar [Journey, David Bowie, Lou Reed, Whitesnake, Frank Zappa, among others]. When he switched to playing with Sweet it was all about carrying the message of the songs that they made in the sixties and seventies. “They have a great library and I always really liked it. Most of the fans are in their sixties now, but ironically [we have] fans that are from 0-90 because it’s been around so long that everyone’s had a chance to [hear it].” It’s a festival oriented band because of this, he says, which is great, but he wishes they were busier.
The upside to not touring much of the year is he has time to work on music for the Diner. Since they have no budget or production team, Stewart does all the production on the songs. “I’m buried from the minute I sit down until my wife gets home.” Though he’s learned a lot and is getting better and faster all the time, Stewart says he still wishes he had a production team to back him. “All the bands you hear, they have producers and a lot of people around that are calling these little decisions. There are a million you can make that are good or bad or whatever, but someone else in the room might’ve said ‘We gotta go up!’ instead of both of us in pain going ‘We gotta go down’.” A decision like that can make all the difference for a song.
Pain is a big problem for both men. Stewart has chronic back pain from spinal injuries that have required many surgeries, including one that ground down his vertebrae, put metal rods in his spine, and left him with exposed nerves. Thomasson broke his neck in car accident when he was sixteen and has had pain ever since. Living with pain is a rollercoaster ride, says Stewart, “one minute you’re like ‘There’s nothing wrong, I’m fine lets go!’ Then the next minute you’re doubled over [and] you’d give anything to have someone bury an axe in your spine just for some relief.” He talks about wanting relief so badly, he wanted to smash up his breakthrough painkillers and snort them. But, this is part of the problem, he points out, recommending switching what you are doing instead: “get up, move, don’t just go straight to the pill because eventually they won’t even help. And smoke more pot.”
Though not mentioned explicitly in their work, he speculates that the pain comes through subconsciously. “Maybe Things That Kill Ya has a deeper meaning. Maybe it’s more about our pain than we think, because our pain is killing us, we know that. It’s killing our productivity, it’s killing our moods, physically we’re just unable to work sometimes. [And] it doesn’t help us fit into a young snappy industry.” Despite this, they haven’t focused much on their own pain in their music, choosing instead to turn their focus outward to look at society’s problems and other people’s pain. Pain is a big problem nowadays, Stewart says, pointing it’s subjective nature and the way doctors and pharmaceuticals deal with and make money off of patients’ discomfort. Those who can’t get help, have an even bigger issue, “If you have pain and you can’t get pain meds, your going to kill yourself [trying to get relief]. It’s that simple.”
Despite and perhaps because of their pain, Sally’s Diner is gearing up for their grand opening, starting with the two singles, ‘Human Desire’ and ‘The Civil Gravedigger’, that they are giving away for free on Tube’s site. They are promising a music video for ‘Gravedigger’ by the end of March. “The Internet is the place for people for music,” Stewart proclaims, pointing out that physical CDs are rarely bought anymore outside of concert merch tables. The package doesn’t matter though, he says, “it’s about how you treat what you’re thinking. Our imagination goes on forever and you have to know when to say when. [It has to be] enough for somebody else to get, anybody can just throw something out there and say it’s art but that doesn’t mean someone’s going understand it.”