Boise Music

Dan Costello - Earning His Own Merit

Dan Costello has some tough decisions to make. If you talk to him long enough about his music and about where his career is at, you get a definite feeling that he realizes there's a crossroads not too far in front of him. Despite how content and laid-back he might seem, this affable Idaho-born crooner -- who has undoubtedly become one of the kings of the Boise music scene -- knows that he's got it good here in Boise these days, which affords him a bit of comfort and security. But as every artist knows too well, comfort and security in the creative world are almost never a good thing.

Even if you've never seen Costello before, he's easy to spot. His sartorial habits are, in a word, dapper. The word scholarly also comes to mind, which has some merit, considering he's taught music at Boise State in the past. He's also hardly ever seen without the signature schoolboy cap, beard, and spectacles. Combine those facts with his habit of playing a whole lot of gigs, up to 250 shows a year in the recent past, and there's no way you can miss him if you venture out to enjoy even just a little bit of the Boise nightlife scene.

If there's ever such a thing as paying your dues in the Boise music world, Costello has done it. These days he showcases his singing, songwriting, and guitar-picking talents at the venerable Chandler's Steakhouse three nights a week and also serves as their music director, but such a high-profile and respected local gig was a long time coming -- about twenty years to be exact.

After getting his first paying gig as a young and presumably unbearded member of The Squids - a backup combo for the Borah High School Jazz Choir -- Costello filled in as replacement guitarist for another Borah-based band named Stella in 1991 when their regular guitarist moved away. This temporary arrangement soon became permanent, and he contributed his voice, guitar, and songwriting talents to Stella until 2007, with the band playing four or five gigs a month during their heyday.

"We played mostly original stuff, kinda out there. We were kind of a cross between Rush and Bela Fleck and the Fleck Tones, but then with this really folky side too," Dan says about Stella.

Because of their desire to play original tunes, Costello says he and his Stella bandmates weren't mainstays of the usual Downtown Boise bar scene, which loves its cover bands. Although they played Grainey's every once in a while, they really made their name as regulars at Sockeye, The Abbey (which later became The Plank and is now Woody's Sports Pub), and The Piper Pub. They were also one of the first local bands to play Alive After Five, and they played the Boise River Festival every year until it went belly up.

To say they had a good run is a very fair assessment. When Stella disbanded while putting the finishing touches on a CD, Costello took over the content of the potentially ill-fated album, remixed and rearranged it, and made it his own, which he then released as his first solo album, entitled Lessons. The demise of Stella didn't leave Dan completely on his own, however. He and fellow Stella member Rob Hill had already started a side band named Plan B, which was strictly a Grainey's band.

"We were Tuesday nights at Grainey's for like four years," says Dan. "I don't know if that's a red badge of courage, or a demerit, or what. But it was what it was, doing mostly covers."

And then, of course, there was Spindlebomb. When Dan joined Spindlebomb, they had already been playing a long time and were one of Boise's most well-known cover bands. In need of regular work, Spindlebomb seemed like his best option, and Dan took advantage of the chance to make himself a better musician.

"I hadn't really played all that much electric guitar, but it looked like a great opportunity to learn, so I dove in and was in the band for a couple of years," he says.

They played Grainey's a couple weekdays a month in addition to the prime Friday and Saturday slots almost every single weekend.

"I think we had maybe two weekends a year off, so it was a really steady band," he adds.

But the stigma of being in a cover band, despite how steady the gig and how well it paid, started to wear on Costello. Without the freedom to play original music and exercise his skills as a singer-songwriter, he soon found his heart just wasn't in it.

"I'm not saying that Spindlebomb was crappy. Those guys were dedicated and we learned the tunes pretty well, but I don't think anybody's heart was really in it."

"That's one of the reasons why I never really wanted to be in a regular cover band," he says. "You're never really earning your own merit. It's based on other people's songs that you're playing. And you can be playing them really crappy, but as long as you're just doing that gig, everybody still shows up and they enjoy it. I'm not saying that Spindlebomb was crappy. Those guys were dedicated and we learned the tunes pretty well, but I don't think anybody's heart was really in it. We knew we were all good musicians who should be doing more artistic things."

The artistic streak that curtailed Costello's stint in Spindlebomb has deep roots. While he was hitting the stage all those years as a part of Stella, he was also spending quite a bit of time at Boise State University studying music. Faced with a choice of majoring in jazz guitar or classical guitar, he followed the classical route. It didn't take him long to realize he'd made the right choice.

"I just fell in love with it," he says. "Just the tone of it, and the control. You know, all the finger picking stuff was just amazing to me."

The result of his stay at BSU was a degree in Classical Guitar and a love for the artform that he realized could never be satisfied by rehashing old pop hits on the Grainey's stage. He also knew he'd never be able to do the artform justice by merely hacking away at it now and then as an amateur musician.

"I knew I had to figure out a way to make a living through music exclusively," says Dan.

So not too long after graduating, he quit his day job at HP in the Mac Support Group and started drumming up gigs, relying on miscellaneous part-time work here or there to supplement the meager earnings of a budding musician.

"I knew the day job was pulling me away from what I wanted to do. It was never going to allow me to do it at the capacity that I thought I should be doing," he adds.

The end result of this dedication is a type of polished talent and versatility that allows Dan to thrive in what most people would consider a small live-music market. As a singer-songwriter guitarist, he can play a great solo show one night, play rhythm guitar and sing backup vocals for someone else the next, and play a full concert with the Truck Stop Orchestra (the closest thing he has to a band right now) the next. He says that sort of versatility makes a huge difference in how much work he can get, and he knows it wouldn't be the same if he focused on another instrument.

"I feel like the bricks that've paved the Boise music scene's road have been made out of acoustic guitars."

"Boise is a very acoustic-guitar oriented town," says Dan. "People like John Hanson, Rebecca Scott, Ben Burdick, and some of the other people who've been around for a long time really paved that road. I feel like the bricks that've paved the Boise music scene's road have been made out of acoustic guitars."

At this point, he says he can play "pretty much anything with frets and strings," including the guitar, banjo, mandolin, bass, and ukulele.

"When I decided to be a full-time musician, that was one of the most difficult things I had to decide: whether I wanted to try to carve a niche out doing one thing all the time the same way, which I knew was just going to kill me. I didn't feel like it was going to be viable in this town. I felt like I was going to burn out the Boise audience too fast if I was just doing the same thing all the time. So that would mean I'd have to tour, or try to get picked up by a label, and that I'd have to move. But I just love Boise too much. So I kind of went the other route and went as diverse as I could."

Despite his proficiency with multiple stringed instruments, his go-to instrument is the still the good ol' acoustic guitar. Although he plays his nylon-string Cordoba most often, he's got a special affinity for a certain 1939 Regal. It's a wooden archtop beauty he bought at a heavily discounted price a few years ago due to its being in pretty rough shape.

"I took it home and completely redid the bridge, got the intonation set up, got the string height all right, and just cleaned it up and gave it a little TLC. As soon as I got it dialed in, I was like, You've got to be kidding me; this is a magic guitar! I ended up recording my whole last album almost entirely with just this guitar, and I just really, really love the sound of it. It's a gorgeous old instrument."

The beauty of the instrument seems to resonate in the tunes on his last album, entitled Strangest Places. On over half the songs, it's just Dan singing and working his smooth-fingered magic on the Regal. There are no drums, keyboards, backup vocals, cowbells, maracas, auto tune, or other distractions to hide behind, which would be a risk for a lot of today's artists, local or not. But not Dan. He pulls it off beautifully, especially in a song like "Dandelions and Clover" that really showcases his guitar picking along with his voice and songwriting talents.

Although Dan says he can sit and write music all day, he's quick to qualify that statement.

"I pretty much have to go slam my hand in a car door before I get enough energy, enough emotional kick, to start writing a song. I don't think I've really woken that up entirely yet."

Part of the reason for this is that most of his writing until recently was always very personal, which seems to complicate his writing process.

"The last few tunes that I've written have been much more from someone else's perspective," says Dan. "I've written a couple tunes for weddings over the last few years that have been some of my best songs. There's no question in my mind that they're some of my best work. And I think it's my internal editor that takes their content and distills it down in a more practical way for a song. When it's my own stuff, I have a really hard time editing it down enough; there are too many other things I want to include in it."

"I pretty much have to go slam my hand in a car door before I get enough energy, enough emotional kick, to start writing a song. I don't think I've really woken that up entirely yet."

Fortunately, Dan doesn't have to worry about sifting through lyrics for his upcoming album. It's going to be an all-instrumental collection showcasing his classical guitar background.

"I'm going back to a lot of my nylon string and instrumental guitar roots that I learned at Boise State," he says. "I'm not doing the material that I was doing at that time, but I'm putting it out kind of in the sense that if I had continued to just be a solo classical guitarist, this is where I would've gone instead of the singer-songwriter stuff and the band stuff."

He says the project has a lot of his friends and fans scratching their heads and wondering why he'd strip his music down even more than his last album. The answer, according to Dan, is simple.

"I feel like I have an obligation to my education, to my teachers, and to my guitar instructors in the past. I have an obligation to fulfill the promise."

Fittingly, the name of the forthcoming album will be Prologue.

"The reason I'm calling it that, is that it's like the prologue or the introduction to where my career is today. It's kind of that first chapter. It's the author's note."

Despite the fact that he says he's getting back to his roots, one can also say that the upcoming album is the start of something new. Far from being the first chapter in a book that's already been written, it can also be seen as the prologue of a masterpiece waiting to be found. It is, for Dan, an opportunity to shake off the routine, start fresh, and avoid getting stagnant as an artist.

After all, when you've honed your craft and risen to the top of the Boise music scene, where do you go from there? Is it counterproductive for an artist to hold down a prestigious and well-paying semi-corporate gig such as Chandler's? Does such comfort merely contribute more to the hand-in-a-car-door handicap in terms of making new music? Has it all gotten too easy and familiar? Quite possibly to some extent, and that might be why Costello is looking outward. Far from settling in, he's now looking to make a name for himself outside of Boise by breaking into the regional arts market.

"It's a bit of a paradigm shift for my focus," he says. "I still pick up a gig here and there, but I'm not as relentlessly seeking out local gigs anything-anywhere-anytime. You know, stack 'em up, I'll do seven in a week-end. I'm not actively doing that. If it comes my way and I'm available, I might do it, but I'm more likely to turn some of those down."

For a guy so used to taking whatever Boise gigs he can get because he loves performing here and he's got a mortgage to pay, turning down gigs can't be easy. But he knows that he needs to get out there beyond Boise and show people what he can do. He's been out on the road before by himself in limited stretches, and he's also toured as a guitarist with Ned Evett's band, so he's not entirely unfamiliar with the road. In fact, the time he has spent on the road made him appreciate the Boise music scene more. But to really see what's possible for him as an artist, he knows he'll need to make a greater commitment to playing afar.

He says he's ready. After attending booking conferences for Arts Northwest, the Wyoming Arts Council, and the Montana Performing Arts Consortium, he knows he's got as good a chance as anyone to do well on the road.

"I'm learning that I'm way ahead of some people that are out there doing that for a living and getting paid a lot better than what I'm getting paid to perform at the level I'm performing. I'm at least comparable; I'm competitive enough with that market," says Costello. "That stuff really starts in earnest in 2013, where I've got a couple bigger performances lined up for a seated auditorium. Hopefully that'll be a bigger percentage of the future than it ever has been before. I'm looking forward to exploring and finding out what my fit is with that, or if I want to go back to slugging it out in bars."

Therein lies the artist's dilemma. Wish him well.


To check out more music from Dan Costello, visit any of the following websites:


Article photo courtesy Dan Costello.