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Interview: Tomo Nakayama of Grand Hallway
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Published 09-11-2009 (originally on The SunBreak).

Let me just get this out of the way: Grand Hallway are amazing. Every time Tomo Nakayama's voice rings out over a crowd, that crowd is instantly smiling at the beauty of the world. The audience is inspired by the lush and changing instrumentation of the 8-piece band and their lilting and plaintive melodies. It's like Grand Hallway breaks your heart and makes you feel awesome about it at the same time. I know that every time Tomo ends the set with a heartfelt "I spend most every night wondering how you are" that I end up telling my show-going companions that there is something in my eye. I mean, that must be why I'm smiling and crying at the same time, right?

Tomo was gracious enough to take a moment to answer some questions for the curious public. They'll be celebrating the release of their new CD, Promenade, at the Fremont Abbey on September 17th. Ladies and gentlemen, this will be a special show, as Grand Hallway will be accompanied by the Seattle Rock Orchestra and a kid's choir. It will likely be one of those shows that Seattle folk look back on and brag about being a part of. If you miss it, your friends will hold it over you for the rest of your music-loving life. However, if you're not able to attend, they'll be doing an in-store at Sonic Boom Ballard on the 19th.

How long have you guys been playing together?

Grand Hallway as a band has been together for a little more than 3 years. This current lineup has been together for about a year. I've known most of them for years, so it's been a real natural progression, playing music with people we like. We've all been in many different bands, and we've always done our thing, but it's only been fairly recently that we've received any sort of recognition.

Describe some of the instrumentation changes that the band has gone through since the beginning.

The emphasis with our lineup from day one has been multi-instrumentalists. Our practice space is kind of a mess. We literally have dozens of instruments to choose from, and anyone in the band can pick one up at any given time and try it out. It makes for a fun writing and recording process, but also kind of a logistical pain when it comes to presenting the songs live.

What is your goal as a band/musician? That is, what do you see as the future for the band in say, three years?

I think the dream of every musician is to make a living doing it, and I hope to be there in three years. I'd like to tour overseas at least once a year for the rest of my life.

Why did you choose the name Grand Hallway?

It was inspired by David Berman's poem "If There Was A Book About This Hallway". It's about finding a story and meaning in a place of transience, and that's how I view music, I guess. You have these brief moments of beauty and human connection that only last as long as a song goes on. And then I added the word "Grand" because it evokes a sense of timelessness and also because I thought "Hallway" by itself sounded stupid.

Of the shows you've played so far, what has been your favorite and why?

I honestly love playing music with these guys, no matter how many people are watching or how crappy the PA may be. We seem to find a way to have fun on stage. That being said, one of the more memorable shows for me was when we played on the day of my grandfather's funeral. Over the course of our set, I went from being emotionally numb and closed off to being completely open. It was the most cathartic moment of my life, and I felt completely in tune with the music, and supported and carried by my bandmates.

If you could set up the perfect show for yourselves (no restrictions), who would play, where would it be, and when would it happen?

I'd like to do a traveling revue with Neil Young, Bjork, and Sam Cooke, and an opening trio of Todd Barry, Eddie Izzard, and Mitch Hedburg doing stand up comedy. We would play at the Budokan, Benaroya Hall, Carnegie Hall, and the Olympia in Paris.

What was the inspiration for the "I Go Camping on Mondays" YouTube video series?

That was a spur of the moment idea that Chris Zasche and I came up with. He had just bought a truck with a canopy in the back, and he wanted to take it out for a drive. It was mid-April and we figured it'd be warm enough to go camping, and it was, for the most part, except at night when it started snowing. We didn't bring any camping gear, just a jar of pickles, a bottle of whiskey, and a camera. One of two things could arise from that combination, and luckily we ended up with the one that we could show in public. "I go camping on Mondays" is an expression of freedom, but it also means sometimes we have to sleep in random parking lots in the freezing cold.

You guys are going on tour in December, describe some of the logistics of taking an 8-piece "orchestra" on the road.

I honestly have no idea. It sort of feels like a high-wire act. We're blessed with some awesomely generous friends who are willing to help us book shows and let us sleep on their floors and couches. We try to approach things one step at a time, and somehow it seems to turn out ok.

How much of the music derives from formal training and how much comes from self-teaching?

The level of formal training in the band is about 50/50. We have enough knowledge across the board to communicate in a common language, but there's enough ignorance to allow us to approach it unconventionally, in a way that is interesting to us.

You're writing more guitar songs these days, of the two -- piano and guitar -- which instrument do you prefer, and why?

My first instrument is the guitar, and I had reached a point where I had grown tired of it. Grand Hallway started as a musical challenge to myself to learn how to play piano. I felt I accomplished that with the first album, thus I no longer had to restrict myself to the piano. Once I went back to playing guitar, it felt fresh and exciting again. Now I feel comfortable going back and forth between the two, and I think the next album will be more balanced. Either that, or I'll take up the harp or cello or something.

Tell me a bit about the Fremont Abbey show: was the orchestra and all of everything else your idea or did they approach you? What else can we expect from this show?

It was pure luck and synchronicity. A few months ago, our violinist Alina played with the Seattle Rock Orchestra in Jeremy Enigk's show, and she had mentioned us to Scott Teske (who leads the SRO). He listened to us on our website and offered to collaborate. Luckily for us Shenandoah Davis is a fantastic arranger, so she and I worked together to transcribe the parts that Alina and Jaclyn wrote into a full score. There are upwards of 100 tracks on some of the songs on "Promenade", so there were a lot of parts to choose from. And then somewhere along the line, one of us joked that we should get a kids choir, and Zasche happened to be friends with the music teacher of an elementary school. So we got the orchestra and the choir, and everything else fell into place. I still have no idea how it'll all come together, but like I said, we take things one at a time, and trust that things will turn out alright. At the very least, you can expect to see upwards of 50 kids and adults in one room making a whole lot of noise together, which is something you don't see every day.

How have you perceived the response to your upcoming record so far? Is it what you expected?

The record's been really well received so far, and it seems like everyone has a different favorite song, which is great. The record's kind of sprawling, genre-wise, and I'm glad people are listening with patient ears.

What do you think of the local music scene these days? What would you like to see changed, or what do you particularly like that is happening?

The Seattle music scene is really thriving right now. We are lucky in that we're part of a solid community, not only of amazing bands like the Maldives, Widower, Sleepy Eyes of Death, Voyager One, and Shenandoah, but also bookers, sound engineers, graphic designers, and bartenders, many of who grew up together in the scene. So it's awesome to see everyone kind of stepping up and hitting their stride at the same time. I'd like to see it continue to grow, and I hope it retains that sense of mutual respect and support.

What's your favorite Grand Hallway song to play?

It depends on the mood of the band and the audience, but "Sirens" is always a fun one to play.

What do you want people to walk away from your shows talking about?

Not to sound trite or sentimental, but I really do hope people walk away from our shows feeling inspired to do what they love and to create something awesome in their own lives, be it music or art or a delicious omelette for breakfast.

Keywords: promo, grand hallway, tomo nakayama, fremont abbey, show, sunbreak
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