From his early days listening to The Beatles with his dad growing up in the northern Virginia and Washington D.C. area, he was born into a generation of post-grunge and quickly evolving regional rock music.
Attempts at starting a band over the years and those trials and errors has led him to what he thinks has become a newly formed hope here in New York City.
For the last five years he has been the lead singer, guitarist and chief songwriter of the Brooklyn-based modern grunge-inspired rock band Libel.
Dunaway is joined on stage by longtime friends Julie Rozansky on bass and Nick Bzroza (Benji) on drums. Guitarist Justin Gonzalez, a veteran of several local bands, recently came on board to complete the current lineup.
While Libel has recorded numerous EPs over the last five years, they are finally releasing their first full-length album.
I met up with Gavin at the Agne Noir Café on Varet Street in Bushwick to discuss the new album Music for Car Commercials, as well as the road that led him to Brooklyn.
How did this band first begin?
Really we’ve been doing it for about five years. From when I first moved up here, I really wanted to kind of join other people’s projects. I led a band in D.C., and burned out on being a leader. I recorded a bunch of demos and Julie talked me into playing them live. So then that’s how the band started out.
Julie and I had been in a band together in D.C, I had been in a band with her boyfriend, and now husband. I actually officiated their marriage a few months ago. We’re very close-knit.
Last Friday, Libel opened up for our Smashing Pumpkins cover band at Fort Useless. It was really fun. It was about two hours worth of Pumpkins songs.
Does Libel have that long of a set right now?
Oh no, we usually do 30 to 45 minutes. Our songs sort of split the middle of nice little pop ditties and epics.
How long have you guys been doing The Smashing Pumpkins thing?
We’ve been doing that for about seven or eight years.
Is it the same group?
We’ve switched members over the years. A couple of roles have switched. I’ve been James Iha, but I think I’ve graduated to Billy Corgan. People jump around. Benji, the drummer, has always been Jimmy Chamberlin, and Julie is D’arcy.
So I take it The Smashing Pumpkins was a big influence of yours?
In particular, Benji and Julie are big Smashing Pumpkins fans, but I’ve got to say Siamese Dream was huge for me. It was perfect. It was exactly what I needed. It really made me think a lot bolder of the music I was making at the time.
So you’ve always been involved in playing music?
Oh yeah. By all technicalities, I started playing guitar when I was seven.
How did you get into that so early?
I was obsessed with the Beatles. My dad was just constantly playing the Beatles for us when we were kids and I grew to worship George Harrison. One of the most heartbreaking moments of my life was when I found out the guitar solo on “My Guitar Gently Weeps” was Eric Clapton. I mean I like Cream. Cream was great, but that song just made me want to be a guitarist.
What was your first guitar?
A three-quarter sized nylon string acoustic because I was a bit of a runt.
When you got the guitar, did your parents just say have fun with this or did you get into lessons?
I learned classical guitar. Later in high school I was in a classical guitar program and I was in the jazz band in high school. I don’t think I was really that great at the classical or jazz, I think I just wanted to play rock.
So you just put up with that because you had to then?
Yeah, but I learned a lot. I can stand in some music theory conversations, but after you get to a certain point, I’m like, “okay.”
Did you take that into college with you?
I had the opportunity to go to the Berkley School of Music, but I wanted to do rock and I didn’t really see the point.
When did you start your first band?
We started when I was 13.
What was that band?
It was called Carnegie Stew, like Andrew Carnegie. It was just something that came to me in a dream, and that name would not go away. For years and years, every band I was in was just like, “Oh, can we just call it Carnegie Stew?”
What was your inspiration for starting a band?
I met this kid who played drums when I was in seventh grade, and it was a stereotypical story. We were both outcasts who were always fighting off bullies and what not. We were both obsessed with Nirvana at the time, and we were both like, “we can do this, yeah.” We found a couple of guys, and we had a rotating cast of bass players for a while.
So was the name Carnegie Stew some kind of sign that you had to come to New York?
It just came to me in a dream, but you know, maybe it had some sort of hidden message. I honestly didn’t think I would ever move to New York. I had a girlfriend who lived here when I was in college. Hanging around the NYU area, in like 2002, I was just kind of like, “meh.” Things were changing fast down there and it wasn’t that fun. I became very obsessed with the D.C. music scene.
What was happening down there in early 2002?
Well, unfortunately that was when Fugazi sort of went on hiatus, but there were still some good bands. Q and Not U was still going pretty hard. There was a band called Medications, and there were still some good Dischord (Records) bands here and there.
My band after college, The Alphabetical Order, we actually recorded in Inner Ear Studios. That was actually where Fugazi did a lot of their stuff. A bunch of other bands recorded there too, like Jets to Brazil and Jawbox did a few albums there.
We found this weird picture of Elliot Smith there and he looked like he was in bad shape, just around the time he was calling it quits. There were all these pictures of scream albums; Dave Grohl had recorded there.
What brought you up to New York?
Well, I moved here at about 27, my band Alphabetical Order had broken up, I had a career in publishing and there wasn't so much to do in D.C.
Did you go to school for that?
Yeah, I went to George Mason University in Virginia.
Did you think you were about to call it quits?
No. My friend Benji was already up here and Julie was up here, too. They kind of talked me into coming up here. Alphabetical order was kind of like this post-hardcore, very Fugazi-influenced band. We were always told we would do better here in New York because in D.C. they were kind of over that. So I wasn’t ready to give up on my music pursuits. I came up here and played in a bunch of bands over the last five years.
Are you still in other bands now besides Libel?
No. Libel was sort of a side project. We kept releasing albums and playing shows. Julie and I were in another band called The Art of Shooting, I toured in a band called the Jaguar Club and the last couple of years I have sat down and made Libel my focus.
What made you decide to turn a side project into the one you wanted to stick with?
I was shy about being the lead singer. I kind of wanted to be off to the side on guitar, but I guess I had grown some nerves and gotten over some insecurities. I also met my girlfriend, who later became my wife, and she’s been a big believer in my band and my abilities. Also, my bandmates, too. They kept convincing me that this is good and you don’t need to be playing around in all these other bands.
Where did you move when you first came here?
I moved to Bed-Stuy, then to Williamsburg for about three years and then a couple of years ago when my wife moved here we finally moved down to Bushwick.
There are so many bands here in Bushwick right now. Is that a driving force behind staying in the “art” scene?
That was one of the main reasons I wanted to move initially to Brooklyn, and now I am glad to be in Bushwick, because I feel like this is where the community is. I feel great when I’m in this area, and I have trouble leaving on the weekends because there’s just so much great stuff to do around here and it keeps getting nicer. And as far as the music, you’ve got DIY venues, stuff like Silent Barn. Every week there are just more places cropping up.
Who are some of your favorite bands right now in the neighborhood?
I’ve got to give a shout out to The Planes – I was actually in that band for a while – but it’s a very good friend of mine’s band. Really tight garage rock.
What’s the trend around here right now?
I feel like there’s a bit of a 90s throwback going on right now. There are a lot of straight up grunge. I hear a lot of bands who love their Dinosaur Jr.
What about the electronic influence on rock right now?
Around here, I don’t notice that as much. It’s just two guitars, bass and drums. I am glad that the musical duo has seemed to have gone away. Bass is so necessary.
Libel is hosting an official album release party for Music for Car Commercials on Nov. 20, at Pianos, 158 Ludlow St. in Manhattan.