By Rachel Delanoix
“Honestly, if I would have known guitar was this hard to do, I would have never started it,” Joe Premo leans forward in his chair, “because it’s that hard.”
About once a month, Premo can be found out on the MOD patio, surrounded by pedals and wires, performing live for the local crowd. His unique style of evocative guitar music and his laid back personality provide the perfect atmosphere for a warm summer night in historic Downtown Galveston.
A Texan by birth, and a Galvestonian for about five years now, Premo started playing guitar early, but it didn’t stick. “It was too hard to play the guitar so I just stopped. I was probably 18,” he explained.
After moving to Irving, Texas, for college, Premo made some friends who encouraged him to pick it up again. Twenty years later, an exacting professional, Premo doesn’t shy away from pushing himself to the physical limit. “Some songs you have to press on the strings really hard, and you have to press on the strings for a long time in the same position. And my fingers will start burning like somebody’s holding a match to them.”
Inspiration comes almost too easily for Premo, a prolific writer, who has mastered a routine that seeks to capture the fleeting spark that can be maddeningly elusive.
“Some songs come really fast. I’ll usually get up and record it on my phone, and then I’ll play it back, and I can figure out the notes. There’s so much in that moment, that I have to record it and come back to it.”
Premo describes the creative outpouring in reverent tones, taking credit only for his process, his attention to detail. “It’s taken a little practice to get used to writing songs like that. I have to just let it happen. If I work at them, they kind of lose their potency a little bit. They can start to feel forced, and you can’t force them. If I can wake up and hear it in my head and write it down right then, I’m good. If I wait, I might forget something that’s really cool and really special about it. It’s like a thunderstorm. Like thunder and lightning. You better be ready because it’s coming for you.”
These early morning recording sessions aren’t taken lightly, though. Premo’s exuberance is borne of humility, so he keeps a stockpile in case the spring runs dry.
“There’s a whole lot that I haven’t gone back and looked at yet. But I think some good stuff is in there for when I need it; kind of like a bank, like my storage bank of songs.”
Premo is devoted to perfecting the style he’s developed and admits he has to be careful not to listen to too much live music. His eyes light up as he rattles off name after name of deeply influential musicians: Jimi Hendrix, Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Tom Petty, Led Zeppelin, Jimmy Page, BB King, Jeff Beck, Clarence White, Thin Lizzy, The Rolling Stones.
His passion has driven him into a detailed exploration of the mechanics of sound. “I started getting into amps and how amps were connected and wired, and speakers and tubes and everything, you know? I just kind of dug into that a lot because I like electronics. I studied electronics. I really was into the sound just as much as I was the music itself. I always wanted my guitar to sound the best that it possibly could. I decided I’m gonna have the best guitars, the best amps, the best speakers, the best wires, even the plugs that plug into the cables are the best that you could buy. You wouldn’t believe how much just a little connector would change your sound.”
Premo’s perfectionism pays off. “I was in a band called Southern Embers,” he says, “and we played a gig at the Balinese Room in 2005, the one and only time I got to play there.” Premo pauses to remember the scene, “I could stand on the stage and look down at the water. I looked out the window, and there was the water right there. It was so awesome; I loved it.”
There is almost a moment of silence in his story, but soon, his eyes light up again. “I really liked playing electric because you could turn these amplifiers up so loud that it would make your pant legs shake, and you could feel the wind coming off of the speaker! And that night we were playing at the Balinese, we were really into our gig, and I just remember right at the end of the song I hit this big power chord, and it just shook the whole building. There were a bunch of guys up against the wall from the other bands, and they let out this huge cheer because they felt it in their bones. It was like a big E chord, like the lowest, baddest chord you could hit, and it was cranked up really loud. And when I hit it, it made a reverberation through the whole building. Everybody could feel it; they were just shouting and cheering. That was like my best moment.” Premo’s face breaks into a huge smile. His love of performing is infectious, which explains his devoted local following.
Soft-spoken and humble, Premo offers a simple shrug, “If you have a dream you need to follow it every day, even if it’s just a little bit. It’s always a lot of fun to play out here. I just hope people like it.”
Joe Premo will be performing live during ArtWalk August 26th, in front of MOD Coffeehouse, 6-9pm.
MOD Coffee is located at 2126 Postoffice St., Downtown Galveston. For more info call (409)765-5959 or go to modcoffeehouse.com.