Diane Gentile: The Gentle Men, ‘The White Sea,” and New York City’s East Village

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When spinning Diane Gentile’s most recent album, Diane And The Gentle Men’s, The White Sea, the listener is immediately transported to New York City’s East Village. The ten songs that make up The White Sea evoke gritty streets, colorful characters, and culture thriving on every corner.

Diane’s songs capture a romantic nostalgia for the East Village – once the bastion of punk and bohemia in a rapidly changing city. Her songs are delightful time capsules, keeping the glam, tenacity and jangle of songs born in NYC alive while bringing her own melodies, experiences and hope into The White Sea. The songs meet somewhere in the middle of alternative rock and Americana with the spunk and attitude of Chrissie Hynde, Lucinda Williams and Deborah Harry deftly sprinkled in.

Diane has played different roles throughout her time in NYC. Recently, she spent a stint as general manager of the independent music venue, Bowery Electric. Currently, she is embarking upon a solo musical career and has recruited some of the most talented and accomplished players the city has to offer as her Gentle Men.

Diane’s voice is at the forefront of every song, beckoning us to join her on each of these sonic journeys driven by steady drums, punchy bass guitar riffs and undeniably groovy guitar parts.

After completing the songs that would become, The White Sea in 2018, Diane was in a freak car accident while on tour in Italy. Diane’s face was struck by a random rock, causing a full maxillofacial break. She spent a month in the Maggiore Trauma Center in Bologna.  When she returned to New York City, she underwent more surgeries.

Finally, recovered and ready to release, The White Sea, Diane sat down with Guitar Girl Magazine to discuss the record, what it’s like living in NYC during quarantine, what kind of gear she uses and what’s next for the songwriter.

You’ve had a long career in music in many different capacities (as a musician, as a venue manager, etc.)  How did you originally get involved in and with music?

I saw Tommy James and the Shondells perform “Crimson and Clover” on Dick Clark’s American Bandstand when I was a toddler.  I was crazy over the song. When they go into the outro after the psychedelic guitar jam, I flipped out then and I still do now.  I was really young and I had to have the 45.  I drove people crazy to get it for me.   Even as a child, that electric guitar with the tremolo blew my mind.  When I grew up, I was sad that Joan Jett covered that song before I got to do it, but she did a great job. Later in life, I registered to the New Music Seminar with what little money I had and went, by myself, to one of their very early seminars at the Marriott Marquis Hotel in NY.  I gave Mute Records my 4 song demo on cassette. I went for 3 days straight, to all of the lectures, listening to A&R Scouts and stood around looking like a jerk, trying to talk with anyone who would acknowledge me.  At least I tried.

Growing up in New York, who were your greatest musical influences?  What else about New York inspired you musically?

Growing up in NY, NY artists that influenced me: The Velvet Underground and Lou Reed, Patti Smith, The Stilettos, Talking Heads and the more contemporary sounds of Carol King, Carly Simon, Simon and Garfunkel, Madonna, Cyndi Lauper, Melanie, Billie Holiday.

What else about NY Inspired me musically?  Johnny Thunders, NY Dolls, Television, Ramones, Sonic Youth, Robert Gordon.

What about NY continues to inspire me?

Artists like Lana Del Rey, The Strokes, Jesse Malin, St. Vincent, are very inspirational.

I heard Bob Dylan was playing Forest Hills Stadium in Queens and I love that!  I love the Film Forum NYC, Rough Trade for record shopping in Williamsburg, and that Sunday nights downtown NYC are still my favorite live music nights!   Alfonso Velez plays every Sunday at the Bell, Book and Candle in the West Village and Tom Clark plays on Sundays at the Treehouse in the East Village.  Then we could get food in China Town after 1am.  This was all pre-pandemic.  Now my favorite mid pandemic Sunday is watching Todd Snider from the Purple Building in Nashville, online.

As the general manager of the Bowery Electric in New York City’s East Village, what did you bring from that role into your own music?

Being in a club nightly you get to see bands of all genres. Many of them are trying to mimic what is hot, or was hot.  The ones that stand out  are rare and are generally very original.  They usually have a great lead person who has “that thing” – that thing that draws you in visually, lyrically, melodically and emotionally.   Those bands usually have unique guitarists and exceptional rhythm sections.  It’s like seeing God when it happens. It does happen.  These bands don’t influence me. They inspire me to be better at my craft.  Erik Deutsch and Victoria Reed are a perfect example of two artists that played together on a show I will never forget. Bibi Bourelly was another one of those performers.  Hennessey, The Schizophonics, Matthew Ryan, Amy LaVere with Will Sexton, James Maddock, Uni, Jon Spencer’s Blues Explosion, Jim Jones Revue, quite a few others.

In 2012 you formed your band, The Gentle Men.  What can you tell us about the players who make up your backing band?

Jason Victor plays guitar. He is in the band The Dream Syndicate with Steve Wynn. Steve Wynn graciously produced my first single “Motorcycle”.  Jason plays sometimes with Matthew Sweet.  He has a super cool other band called The Skull Practitioners.  They are an incredible 3 piece and Henry Rollins has played their release on KCRW.   Matt Basile owns a small studio in Brooklyn NY called The Hooper.  He has a true bass vocal when he sings on his own songs or when he covers others, there’s a cool twist on the delivery.  He sounds like Leonard Cohen, Johnny Cash and Nick Cave.  His voice is really low and deep and cool, but he plays bass with me and he helps me when I write material to get it sorted out.  Colin Brooks is a drummer who I envisioned and he appeared.  He is my Charlie Watts. He plays with Dan Zanes and The Hurricane Bells and Sam I Am and is a really great “alright guy” – as the musician and singer Todd Snider would write. I think he is probably one of the world’s great dads!

As a songwriter do you find yourself writing about the same themes over and over? Where do you find inspiration for your songs? Particularly, where did you find the inspiration for the ten songs on The White Sea?

I hope listeners don’t hear the same themes over and over because I don’t really write about the same themes.  This album is about hope, loss, passion and more hope.  It’s about what’s churning in the water.  I would say The White Sea identifies reasons we angst and the process that we go through in an attempt to heal our hurt.  It’s diving in, getting hit hard, tumbling around and rising to the top.

You worked with three different producers on this album, Steve Wynn, Jesse Malin and Matt Bastile.  What was it like working with each of them? And what are the different things that each of them brought to the table?

Steve Wynn understands guitar melodies and the feel of a song the way I do. I entrusted that to him.  He is also great with finding the natural element of a song in the delivery and bringing it home. Jesse Malin is my lyric “go to guy” when I get stuck or feel embarrassed or hesitant about saying something the way I say it.  He’s got great instincts.  He is also honest as hell. Matt Basile has great musical taste. He hears the earnest in music and follows that to make sure it is achieved.  They are all superb producers, writers and musicians.

You’ve played shows with some incredible performers – you’ve toured with Jesse Malin, and Joseph Arthur, you’ve written with Chuck Prophet, you’ve supported Tommy Stinston, Laura Cantrell and Alejandro Escovedo.  What did you take away from sharing stages with performers of this caliber? These performers are true artists. To me, when watching them, it seems their biggest effort in life is to create. It’s pure truth.  I watch with fascination and always learn something:  The biggest thing I’ve taken away is a love for their writing and their delivery.  They really are all uniquely distinct and have given us songs that will be legendary.  Some are already.

Your songs “Motorcycle” and “Perfect People” were both dubbed “Coolest Song in the World” by Steven Van Zandt on his Sirius XM Show Little Steven’s Underground Garage.  What was it like to receive this kind of acknowledgment from such a renowned musician? I didn’t know what to say.  I was honored and yet shy about the whole thing. I mean, Van Zandt is on the Sopranos!!!  He plays with Bruce. What honor was bestowed on me and how the hell did I deserve that?  That’s what I kept asking myself. Then I listened to “Motorcycle” on the station when they played it, and I was really proud of the song and the delivery of it.

What kind of gear do you use to write? What kind do you use to record demos? And What kind do you use when you’re performing live?

I write on a1970’s Martin D18 Acoustic Guitar, a Baldwin upright Piano and my Gibson ’56 Melody Maker.  I recently broke my Melody Maker so I am looking for a new electric that’s similar.   Live, I play a D’Angelica electric hollow body sometimes; sometimes a later year Melody Maker, and I do play my Martin acoustic often. When I first began playing live, I played a ’74 whitish yellow telecaster.  I bought it at Willie’s Vintage Guitars in St. Paul. I’m using pedals now, specifically a boss reverb and a preamp with a boost.  My gear is based on my pocket. All of my demos originally for The White Sea were recorded on an older 8 track Boss but it broke recently. I am trying to figure out what to do.  I have 12 new songs and I’ve been using my iphone notes for now. I like to write guitar parts and piano parts, etc. so getting a new demo system is on my list.

You’ve toured all over and played venues all over the world.  What is your favorite place to play in New York City? What’s your favorite venue to play on the east coast? The West Coast? I was only a special guest at the Bowery Ballroom (twice) in New York City but that stage is awesome.  I love the shows we did at Bowery Electric.  In Los Angeles, I was thrilled to play the Hotel Cafe but again, got to guest appear at The Roxy and that was really rad too.   Getting to play anywhere is something I don’t take for granted so thanks to every venue that I have appeared at. They are struggling terribly now in this pandemic. There is no help for them. The people working in our Government should really be ashamed of themselves.

Now that we’re living through such uncertain times, has the meaning shifted from when you wrote them to now for any of the songs on The White Sea?

Well “Wicked Hours’ was written initially with the idea that when you feel really low, it will pass; that there are bigger things in the world that we need to think about when

we are feeling down.  That still stays true.  No matter how low you go, it’s all relevant.  None of the songs feel frivolous to me and I believe there is still hope in these uncertain times.  That message exists in many of the songs on the record.

Photo credit Oliva Jaffe

What’s next for Diane and the Gentle Men?

I’ve just written another 12 songs.  These songs are different.  So as soon as it’s safe, we’ll be in the rehearsal room working them out and then off to the studio to record.  We’re going to record in Rhinebeck NY this time and get all the basic tracks done there.  I have to figure out if we want to work with a producer or not, and if so, who?    What shakes out is yet to be seen but I have to have faith in my musical instincts. I saw Linda Perry interview Dolly Parton, Grimes, and Sheryl Crow last week, and they are all pretty much hands-on, as I have been forced to be in the past.   I did have help and I am grateful to all the people who helped me get to this point. They all know who they are and the list is long enough. I guess I can say thank you first to Tommy James and the Shondells for the very first inspiration.

The White Sea is out now on Velvet Elk Records and can be purchased via http://dianegentile.com or http://velvetelkrecords.com

Written by Sloane Small

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