For the Airport 77s, music is about attitude — and altitude. Grounded in the timeless tenets of power pop, the Maryland trio assembles a sturdy airframe of killer hooks, catchy beats and sneaky Zevonesque wordplay, then applies enough energy to take flight. If you find yourself dancing, well, that’s the entire point.
Based in Silver Spring, Maryland, bassist Chuck Dolan, drummer John Kelly, and guitarist Andy Sullivan came together over a shared love of obscure 1970s nuggets like “Back of My Hand (I’ve Got Your Number)” by the Jags and “Nuclear Boy” by 20/20. Over the subsequent five years, they forged their sound in bars, VFW’s, front porches and Fourth of July floats across the Washington region.
Sweet Sweet Music spoke to Chuck, Andy, and John about irrational confidence, doing eight songs in two days, the flight crew look and playing Cheap Trick’s “Surrender” and Tom Petty’s “American Girl” on Independence Day.
When was the last time you thought ‘I just wrote a hit!’?
Andy: The last time I thought that was two days ago, when I finished a new song. That does not necessarily mean that the song is any good. Irrational confidence is a requirement for songwriters, just as it is for civil engineers, entrepreneurs and anybody else who launches a project that probably is going to end in failure. For every song I’ve completed, there are probably five that are lying in pieces on the floor. With that caveat, I knew “James McAvoy” was headed straight to Number One on the Adult Contemporary Modern Urban Power Pop chart as soon as I came up with the dinner-date concept.
How did this record come together?
Andy: In the Before Times, we gigged steadily as a cover band, working the occasional original song into our set. When live music was shut down, we used our rehearsal time to hone our original material, selecting seven of our best songs, along with a lesser-known power pop nugget, “Girl of My Dreams,” that was a staple of our shows. We had our arrangments down cold by the time we headed to Inner Ear Studio in Arlington, Virgina. We recorded the material over two long, grueling days, and mixed it about a month later.
Is recording a record easier than getting it heard nowadays?
John: There are some great studios around Washington, where a lot of music that we like was recorded. We went to Inner Ear in Arlington, Va., to work with Don Zientara who engineered a lot of Dischord stuff. Don likes recording the bass and drums on tape, then dumping that to digital. He made it easy to record. We did eight songs in two days, then went back a month later and spent two days mixing them. As for getting it heard, it’s a DIY world. We’re just trying to contact as many people as we can online to get our music to their ears.
(Read John’s column ‘With no gigs on the horizon, my band decides to go into the recording studio.’, for The Washington Post here.)
As an artist, you chose to show your emotions to the world. Is it always comfortable to do so?
Chuck: John and I had played in a new wave/power pop band prior to working with Andy so we knew how the cover songs would go over with our local crowd – there was safety built into the initial set list. Still there are gigs, especially playing a venue for the first time, when I can tell we’re going to need to win the crowd over and that can work against the loose feel you need to play your best. I knew from the earlier band that dressing sharp buys some goodwill – the ’77s put the flight crew look together pretty much on a whim but I quickly sensed a kind of benefit of the doubt from people who hadn’t seen us before and that knocks down one of the barriers to getting a good show rolling. There’s always a risk involved with stepping up on stage but there are things you can do to stack the deck in your favor. Turns out showbiz gimmicks are there for a reason.
You can’t control the way people ‘hear’ your music. But if you could make them aware of certain aspects, you think, set your songs apart. What would they be?
Andy: We don’t want to waste listeners’ time, so we try to hit as many pleasure points as possible in three minutes. Songs are kept short and packed full of hooks. We’re not a ‘joke band,’ but there’s a lot of humor in the lyrics. We use unusual rhyme schemes, key changes and other technical tricks to keep things fresh, but we don’t let those seams show.
What’s the gig you will always remember? And why?
John: There’s a funky little suburb of Washington called Takoma Park, Md. It’s a leftie enclave full of creative people who are proud of their community — and their country. Takoma Park has a funky Fourth of July parade every year. Our first time playing the parade we set up in the back of a pick-up truck with a little generator running the amps and PA. Our “float” was sponsored by the Silver Spring Yacht Club. There are no yachts in Silver Spring, Md. — there’s no water. It’s basically a drinking club. We played a few land-based gigs for them. So there we were: dressed in sailor suits, being borne slowly through the streets of Takoma Park, Boy Scouts in front of us, a Caribbean steel band behind us. It was a blast to play Cheap Trick’s “Surrender” and Tom Petty’s “American Girl” on Independence Day. Of course, it was hot as hell. We almost lost Chuck, the bass player, to heat stroke, but we revived him to play again.
(Read John’s column ‘Forget Carnegie Hall. Nothing beats a pickup truck for a true concert experience.’, for The Washington Post here.)
Chuck: One that sticks out to me was our set to open up the Adams Morgan Porchfest in 2019 – before moving our gear to our assigned porch we played one set at a busy corner plaza on a gorgeous fall day. The setup was a little strange – we were on an elevated walkway, set up back from the edge so we couldn’t really see the crowd – but the sound system was top-notch and we could hear the cheering even though we couldn’t see anybody. On video it looks like we were playing to an abandoned Sears parking lot but we knocked out one of our best sets to date. The DC summer haze had finally cleared and I made a point of taking a mental picture of the deep October sky over the old townhouses along 18th street.
That plaza is slated for demolition now.