Like his favorite poet, Charles Bukowski, Rolf Gehrung doesn’t hesitate to write about drinking. And his new alternative country album, “Drinking Poems” — as the title suggests — invokes plenty of imbibing references.
Gehrung, who has an English degree from California State University, Long Beach, and plays bass for the North County rock band Machine, grew up on punk music in Orange County. And while marketing has provided a better living than music, he has sold some of his songs to TV shows such as “The West Wing,” “Dawson’s Creek,” “Diagnosis Murder” and “Brooklyn South.”
Gehrung’s album features twang-less, California country that will put a tear in your beer.
We spoke to him about drinking songs and TV music at his home in Templeton.
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Q: You did the rock thing with Machine before. What personal problems made you go to country?
A: It’s interesting. I grew up in Southern California — I grew up with punk music in Orange County. And that’s what you did. You were into Duran Duran or you were into the punks. That’s kind of how I grew up, and then I moved here in 2000. And I think you’re just kind of a product of your environment. I always tell people the sky is bluer, there’s not as much traffic, and people wave at you. So I started listening to country music. And I’m a farmer, technically, because I make wine. And I got a degree in writing, and the thing about the country genre is that it’s storytelling.
Q: What’s a good song to listen to while drinking?
A: I’m doing this duo right now called Rewined — because we play at wineries—with a lady named Emily Smith. And one of the songs we do is called “My Next Five Beers” by a band called the Trailer Choir. And it’s all about this guy who sits down next to this girl at a bar, and she starts talking about her five-year plan. And she’s like, “In the next five years, this is what I want to do: I want to be married, I want to buy a BMW and join a country
club.” And she’s like, “So what do you want to do in the next five years?” And he’s like, “Well, I haven’t given it much thought but” (sings) “in my next five beers, I’ll probably still be sitting here, working on my goal to drink ’em while they’re cold and livin’ life by ear.” That’s me — I’m the next five-beer guy.
Q: How did you get those songs on TV shows?
A: It’s a little different than it used to be. I was in this touring band, kind of like a Gin Blossoms-sounding band. And we had some relative success. We toured the Midwest, and I was trying to do that thing in my 20s and early 30s. And at that time there wasn’t a lot of home recording going on. And they wouldn’t take music from signed artists because it’d cost them too much. So in our case, we had a friend whose dad was the music attorney for the Red Hot Chili Peppers, and he represented us. It was just handing stuff to people. But now it’s harder. There’s such a flood of accessible music out there, that to get yourself heard makes it even tougher.
Q: Did you make any money off of that?
A: Oh yeah. It’s great. I have my college diploma (displayed). And in front of my college diploma is my first royalty check from BMI. They send you statements every quarter, and then it goes into syndication. So you get stuff like two cents from Japan.
Q: When “Dawson’s Creek” goes to DVD, does that help you a little bit?
A: Yeah, it does. It was like season five. But a lot of people get their hands in it. So the one song that was on “West Wing,” they probably paid 10 thousand bucks for the song. But by the time it got to me, I got a thousand or two thousand dollars. I got royalties, but there’s always people down the line who are getting their cut.
Q: What kind of a TV show do you think would be interested in “Drinking Poems” songs?
A: The second song— which is getting played right now on Krush, the local radio station — that was a song that we actually wrote in a five-hour period in response to a movie listing. The movie listing was: “Looking for a song that sounds like Wilco. This is the scene: It’s a guy and a girl driving down a dirt road, and they’re in love.” So early in the Machine days, we just sat there and said, “Hey, let’s write this song.” And that’s what came out — this kind of folkie country thing. It didn’t get picked up, but here it is, six years later.
Q: What’s your favorite TV theme song?
A: Probably the most badass song is the theme to “Barney Miller.”
Q: When did you pick up the guitar?
A: Bass was first because I’m a practical guy. So I was like, “If I’m gonna learn an instrument, this has got less strings.”
Q: What was the first song you learned how to play on bass?
A: I was a big Stranglers fan. But the first song I learned, I was in a talent show in high school, and it was INXS. ( “Don’t Change”)
Q: So is the next one going to be a punk record?
A: Possibly. I’d love to just play bass in a punk band.