Industry’s Got Talent: Steve Emspak on Working with Steven Tyler and Drunk Unkles

We’ll ‘let the music do the talking’ in this CI interview with Steve Emspak of Shen MIlsom & Wilke on his musical journey from Steven Tyler to the Drunk Unkles.

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Industry’s Got Talent: Steve Emspak on Working with Steven Tyler and Drunk Unkles

Drunk Unkles on stage during an NSCA Educational Foundation benefit performance.

Raised on the music of the 1960s, Steve Emspak, partner at New York City-based Shen Milsom & Wilke LLC, has followed his heart to forge a successful and respected career in the AV industry.

Along the way Emspak has been able to fulfill more his career goals as he’s been able to satisfy his musical appetite as a songwriter and guitar player.

This Industry’s Got Talent

This is the first story in Commercial Integrator’s series of interviews with industry musicians. Stay tuned for more!

Just over a decade ago, Emspak merged his two passions as a founding member of the Drunk Unkles, which over the years has helped to raise money to support the NSCA Education Foundation‘s ongoing educational efforts.

The band’s latest industry appearance is rapidly approaching as the Drunk Unkles will perform on June 14 at B.B. King’s Blues Club in Orlando as part of InfoComm 2017 to once again raise funds to support the NSCA Education Foundation. In its first 11 years, the band has raised more than $1 million for various NSCA charities.

Emspak spoke recently with Commercial Integrator to reflect back on his musical influences, as well as his contributions to a classic Aerosmith song, and his ever-changing lineup of guitars, amps and effects pedals.

How long have you played an instrument? During your formative years did you take lessons or were you self taught?

Just like many kids, I first started in grade school. My first instrument was the violin, and I still love the violin though I don’t play it; I keep saying that I should go back to it. The overall tone, attack and enveloping sound totally do it for me.

That was followed by the trumpet. Not sure why, but you asked.

In the early 2000s I took guitar lessons at a local music store and spent a few summers at a week-long “guitar camp.” That was very helpful and very cool.

Who were your influences when you were young? Do you still draw inspiration from them today?

My influences are widespread. I guess my very first was Pete Seeger. Pete was well known for his folk music, and that was a fixture in my life beginning when I was maybe five or six years old. He was best known for his banjo, though Pete wielded an amazing 12-string guitar.

Shortly after that I started listening to Bill Haley and the Comets and Elvis of course. As I got a little older—still not even a teenager—I met Danny Kalb. Danny was a family friend; our parents knew each other socially. I met Danny at a summer camp, a few years after meeting Pete Seeger at the same camp. Pete would come up every summer and play a concert for us.

Steve Emspak

Drunk Unkles’ Steve Emspak posing with his t-shirt after being inducted into the AV Hall of Fame.

 

Danny amazed me—here was this guy, a few years older than I, and he had mastered this guitar. At camp Danny was playing folk music and “campfire tunes.” A few years later—maybe 1964ish—I ran into Danny once again, as the founder of the Blues Project. At the time one of the most progressive groups in a folk music world that was also a burgeoning early rock/blues scene in New York City along with some guy from Minnesota named Zimmerman [better known as Bob Dylan].

Other influences include Mike Bloomfield, who many would say that Mike, had he lived beyond his 20s would have surpassed [Eric] Clapton as a master of modern guitar. “The Kings,” BB, Albert and Freddy, Chuck Berry and so on are also influences.

And yes, listening to any of them brings out something new every single time.

What are some of the new artists that you are listening to and are inspired by?

New? I would maybe say modern? That’s a tough question for me, but there are guys that are amazing, Brad Paisley is one, Prince—rest in peace—is another. I honestly spend more time listening to the stuff from the mid 1950s through the 1980s more than anything else.

How has your playing evolved over the years? Are you a better player now because of your years of stage experience? Do you have time woodshed?

Well, there’s a misconception. I don’t have years of stage experience, not by any means. As a shocker to many I got my first electric guitar for my 50th birthday when a friend of mine decided I needed to start playing again after having neatly tucked my 12-string under the bed for 20 years. I received that guitar and an amplifier from Marc Hochlerin and Mike Phillips among others that chipped in.  Little did any of us realize that in a few short years we would start jamming, adding John Cardone and Felix Robinson to the crowd that evolved into the Drunk Unkles.

So, years of experience, I think not. My first real gig on a stage with a large crowd was November 20, 2003 what we called “Cliff’s Jam.” Marc decided we would be called the Steve Emspak Blues Band. I hated that and it lasted one night, but a night that raised over $45,000 in Cliff’s memory and that was the mold for the Drunk Unkles.

Am I a better player? Well, I suppose so … I am a different player that’s for certain, just try playing what we play on that 12-string. Over the years I have been gradually losing my hearing to the point where it is getting very difficult to keep playing as I am having trouble discriminating between notes, tone etc.

At times, it’s all noise. I don’t know how much longer this will continue.

You co-wrote “Somebody” with Aerosmith’s Steven Tyler. Many fans consider the song one of the band’s classic tracks. How did the writing process for that song develop? Did you have any idea at time the song would become a classic track?

Beginning in the very early 1960s as many of my contemporaries did, I took a fancy to the guitar. We had been listening to some amazing music for a few years but then the world seemed to stop and restart at a whole different pace as we were swept into the British Invasion as it was called. Interesting, as those guys took American blues, turned it around and hit all of us square between the eyes. The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Yardbirds, The Animals, Spirit, the list goes on and on … and some better than others. Some were one-hit wonders, but it didn’t matter; the tunes were cool.

To be truthful I was basically lazy. I loved listening to the music but was basically too lazy to learn it—a trend in my life. So, I would simply make stuff up, lots of stuff. I found out quickly that I was not much of a lyricist, though I could but together some sort of flow for a tune. Rhythm was (and still is) a bit of a challenge, but that was offset by a guy I met in junior high school with same first name: Steven.

Steven Tyler had a terrific sense of timing, and he was a drummer, singer and harmonica player. At times some thought he was working hard to mimic a British guy, but he was just being himself, and by all accounts was nuts. He also had a very quick mind, and was excellent at rhyming. He was a good unofficial writing partner.

In 1963 I somehow convinced my mother to buy me a 12-string acoustic guitar—it wasn’t my first guitar but it was my first serious guitar. At that time, we were hearing songs that had an incredible sound – soon to realize what it was The Lovin’ Spoonful and The Byrds a little later.

That guitar, which I still have, was terrific as it was so full of tone. It was [hard] to keep in tune and even harder to play. The neck was huge, like a baseball bat, but the sound was and still is amazing. Tunes evolved from riffs on that guitar while hanging out in backyards, bedrooms, living rooms, kitchens and even bathrooms.

“Somebody” came from one of those riffs, along with some others and was somewhat formalized in what will sound very weird now, but the summer of 1969 when we were living in a converted cinder block garage stealing brown rice and cans of tuna from the A&P because we had no money. No lie.

Do you still have the time to write original music? If you do, have you ever considered recording and releasing those songs to supplement the Drunk Unkles’ fundraising efforts?

No and no. Writing is telling a story of life experience. I’m not too certain that at this point in my life there is much of a story to be told about the life of an AV guy and the analog sunset. But one never knows what will come around the corner tomorrow.

Do you use the same gear at home for practice and recording as you do live? What are some of your favorite pieces of gear?

Yes and no. I use whatever I am in the mood to use. I have a very modest selection of amplifiers. I tend to use a vintage Fender Princeton Reverb more than anything else at home, though I will switch back and forth between it and a Vox AC-15 and my Dr. Z amplifier.

This Industry Rocks!

Don’t miss the Drunk Unkles playing their annual InfoComm show on Wednesday, June 14 at B.B. King’s in Orlando. Doors open at 8:30 p.m. and the show starts at 9 p.m. The gig benefits the NSCA Education Foundation, with this year’s focus on NSCA Ignite.

Find more info here. 

On stage you use Gibson products, including Les Pauls and ES-335s, into Dr. Z amps. Do you plug straight into your amps or do you use a pedal board?

That’s not entirely accurate. Yes, my preference tends towards my 1959 reissue Gibson Les Paul and my Gibson 335, but I have been using a Fender telecaster with very heavy strings for my attempt at slide guitar, and I also use a PRS Custom 22 guitar. More recently I have been playing around with a couple of Fender Stratocasters. You might see one of them in June.

I do use my Dr. Z, but it is heavy to haul around, so when gigging around New York City I will use my AC-15. When we do the NSCA Education Foundation fundraiser we rent stuff, typically I will use a Vox AC-30TB.

I use a pedal board as well. My pedal board is Limited: A Fulltone Wah pedal, an Ibanez Tube Screamer and a Voodoo Lab Sparkle Drive, with a revolving door for other odds and ends. I have modified all the pedals to my preference, whatever that may be. Generally, the ‘distortion’ pedals are adding more gain, and not so much distortion. The idea is to overdrive the front-end of the amplifier so that it gets tone, sustain and distortion that way.

Are you like a lot of guitar players in that you’re never satisfied with your gear? Are there any guitars, amps, pedals, that you would like to have at some point in your musical career? Would the new gear make appearances at Drunk Unkle shows?

That is correct. It’s a serious problem always playing with stuff, tweaking—hence the modified pedals, looking for whatever I don’t know. I’d love to have a Leslie cabinet but that is real stupid. The first part would be trying to figure out how to use it. Unless I am totally comfortable with something I am not bringing it to any show.

I spend a lot of time trying different gauge strings and constantly setting up my guitars differently, string height, pickup height etc. Many don’t realize it but the string gauge and the relationship to the pickups make a big difference in the overall tone.

Are there any musicians that you would like to play with that also work in the industry that you haven’t yet?

Sure, I just don’t know who they are.

In your opinion why does it seem that so many musicians are drawn to work in the electronics industry beyond the obvious that they never got their big break?

Good question. Maybe it’s the ‘Fiddle Factor’? I know I started with electronics at an early age. They just seem to go together.

How often do the Drunk Unkles get together and rehearse? How does the band formulate its set list to ensure that they are not only engaging the audience, but to also keeping that spark of playing live together interesting?

Well, we don’t get together enough for me. I’d play every week if everyone, including myself could manage their time.

The set list is based on tunes that we as a group like. Someone will introduce something new, we play with it—Unkleize it as the saying goes—and in it goes. Everybody gets a veto and if a song gets one veto it goes.

When we put the set together we look for a flow. We know that after the second or third tune we need to step back, maybe make a technical adjustment, whatever. We also know that there will be a point that Chuck will want to say something about the sponsors. So we try to modulate the tempo of the evening, watch the crowd and so on.

Generally about three-quarters of the way through the set will change on the fly. That can be an exciting moment with someone—typically Felix Robinson— calling a tune.

What can Drunk Unkles fans expect at InfoComm 2017?

Fair question. Tracking any social media lately and you may see a change in our ‘logo,’ the Yokel as we call him. You might notice a halo … you might notice horns, but one thing I will talk about is the guitar we have raffled or given away for the last few years.

This year will be a little different. Rob D’Addario—musicians will recognize the last name—has become a good friend of mine as well as the band. He has joined us on stage for the last couple of years, and through Rob’s connections he has gotten the D’Angelico Guitar Company to donate a beautiful instrument that we will be auctioning off. It is drop-dead gorgeous and it plays oh so sweet. More will come out as we get closer to InfoComm.

As for the Unks, we will do our best to put on a great show, and as we have in the past, we will try to bring some of our many coworkers and frustrated musicians up on the stage with us to join in the fun and hopefully leave the stage with the same feeling that we leave the stage, which is one of love and affection for our friends and our little AV community.

About the Author

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Robert Archer is CI's product editor. He has been covering the electronics industry for more than a decade.

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