DC’s Velvet Lounge is one of very few punk venues in The District. Remnants of rebels past declare themselves; black and white stickers adorn the walls, staircases, windows, and tables—“HAVE FUN” is scrawled across a wall in black marker. But the man on stage carefully strums an acoustic guitar, rather than smashing through power chords.
Donning a 90’s-worthy striped sweater, singer-songwriter Geoff Koch charms the audience with a dimpled smile and a rich, smooth voice. He finishes a twangy ballad with a resounding major chord, and the crowd warmly responds. With a winning grin, Koch introduces himself as “phonetically challenged” and reminds his audience, “It’s ‘Jeff”, not ‘Ge-off”, and it’s ‘Koch’ like the soft drink.”
The St. Louis-born Koch announces his next piece, “an acoustic rock n’ roll song” called “Oh, Tonight.” “Oh, tonight I will come alive again for you,” he declares, “If you don’t want to die / Stay with me my entire life.” He delivers his catchy, melodic, pop-rock songs with genuine emotion— think acoustic Ferraby Lionheart. The man was born to sing love songs, to which the locked eyes of many female audience members can attest. In a short set of six songs, upon an anarchy-sign-bespeckled stage, Geoff Koch has proven his wit, charisma, and talent.
WRGW sat with Koch for an intimate conversation after his show. He explains his musical start, his current state, and his hopes for the future (as well as a love for Radiohead).
WRGW: You’re in DC on a tour sponsored by Chevrolet. Tell us about your involvement with Chevy.
GK: This tour, which I’m about halfway done with, is from Nashville to DC and back. About a year ago, Chevy came to St. Louis to film a music documentary about a dozen or so local musicians. I was one of the musicians that they featured. They set me up with another singer-songwriter and we worked together one day, recording our singles and other songs. These sets were to air as mini-episodes on a CBS affiliate in St. Louis as part of the documentary. Then they told us that later in the year, Chevy would give away a free tour van to one of the St. Louis artists. After much cross-promotion and competition, I was entered in the random drawing. They called me the day of the drawing and told me I won the freakin’ van! Everything just fit and made sense. Whether or not I won the contest, I was planning to go on this tour anyway. It fell into place; I got to go on tour, be here for the inauguration, and do some blogging for Chevy on the way.
Sounds like a very symbiotic relationship. It was meant to be.
Yes! I’ve never driven anything like this before. I feel like I’m driving a tank.
How has this tour treated you? Have you had any crazy roadtrip stories?
Actually, the first day, I was waiting for a friend to arrive in Nashville so we could drive together to the first stop, Johnson City, Tennessee. It’s about four hours away. She calls me and tells me that she’s going to be late. And about 45 minutes outside of Tennessee, she gets a flat! She gets it fixed, but it’s a three-hour delay. So we’re running late. I call the venue and apologize, but we’re going to be epically late. Luckily, they were open really late, very casual and understanding. But right off the bat, day one was a total war road story. Plus for the last two hours of the trip, the roads were covered in snow. Eastern Tennessee had just been bombed with snow and ice and black ice. I started counting and counted over 125 cars spun out, abandoned, or stalled on the side of the road. But again, like you said earlier about things being “meant to be”—if we had been on time, we would have been caught in that terrible mess. But the roads were at least passable for us. So who knows?
Since August 1st of last year.
Have you noticed that the change affected your songwriting process or your style?
I think the most powerful thing that Nashville has done for me is give me a big kick in the butt. It’s an awakening. If you move to Nashville, and if you’re not pounding the pavement writing and rehearsing, being a professional musician, well, you don’t need to move to Nashville. I might have phases of not being very active, where you feel like you need to take your foot off the gas, but then I catch myself. I can feel myself losing momentum and tell myself to get off Netflix, or get out of my schedule. I’ve had to realign myself like a chiropractor, you know. I remembered why I was there. The music thing is who I am and what I do. I love the challenge of writing really good songs and performing them is so fantastic. I love this. But waiting tables also satisfies a different part of my personality: hospitality. I like people, I like good food, and I like taking care of people.
What is your favorite dish on your restaurant’s menu?
Pan-seared shrimp and grits.
Wow, that sounds great. And from Tennessee, it’s gotta be good.
And the shrimp are from some federally protected land in the gulf of Alabama. And they’re cheddar tobasco grits. So it hits you with spice at first, then it calms down and it’s just an avalanche of cheddar.
The South knows what it’s doing with carbs. You spoke earlier of writing constantly and trying to
keep up with that. What is your songwriting process like?
That’s a good question. I’m at my best when I’m following my gut and when I’m doing whatever my intuition is telling me what I need to do that day to keep the pile moving forward. Sometimes I find that I need to be around a lot of quiet. So maybe I won’t pick up a guitar one day, or after a full day I’ll tinker around. I need to listen to myself. Sometimes I need to read and be meditative and contemplative and I end up writing a lot of lyrics in a two, three, four-hour wave. And then sometimes I feel the need to just sit and enjoy playing guitar. Sit until my fingers fall off.
That’s a good way of keeping your sanity, too.
Yeah. So it all ends up balancing. A lot of people ask me, “Do you write the music or the lyrics first?” And I’m constantly writing. I have notebooks all over the place. I write down these ideas, these cool concepts that I want to keep in my orbit, on my radar. So I’m constantly writing lyrics, it’s just that they might not show up in a song until years later. Then I’ll remember writing the lyric and think, “Man, that’s still a cool idea. I can put that in this song right here and it would actually make sense! It has a home now.” You know? So a lot of cases the lyrics come first, but usually I will play a melody that I think is great over and over and over again.
It sounds like you have a similar theory of writing as many non-musical writers. You always hear about fiction writers that have piles of notebooks and ideas. Every once in awhile they’ll pick one up and apply it.
I think that’s the way my brain works. I find a lot of value in an idea that… well, it doesn’t have to be sitting on a shelf for four years to be good. I think it’s intresting if it is still good after months and years. That’s usually how it happens. I don’t have the melodies yet for all these lyrics, but I might find this one snippet I wrote on a piece of paper a long time ago. And reading it might put me in a mood, which matches the mood of this riff I just came up with, then boom. Just fill in the blanks.
So you are performing as a solo singer-songwriter. But you have recorded with a full band before. Which do you prefer?
GK: When I recorded with a band, it was in Nashville. The studio provided me with their musician friends they had hired. So Tuesday would be guitar day, we have a guy coming in to play electric guitar on these eight songs, and we’re going to knock them out until we can’t think straight. Wednesday would be bass day, then another day percussion, and another day for extra vocals. So it lined up like that. That was fun but I haven’t duplicated that experience yet. Usually I do solo stuff for the sake of planning a tour. If I want to tour, I can just go. I don’t have to worry about nineteen peoples’ schedules, and that person can’t go because they didn’t request off work in time. I get myself together and do it. Now that I moved to Nashville and I know that’s the right place for me to be, I’ve gotten more proactive. I have a cellist, and a friend of mine does female vocals. I do want to build a band because I think that my songs can be performed well with just me and an acoustic, but with a cellist and maybe a string quartet, how awesome would that be? Or to play a shows with the same five songs but with a full rock band!
Is that where you’d like to see yourself in the next five years or so?
Oh, yeah, for sure. That’ll happen within… well, I wouldn’t even say five years. I’ll keep working until I have a band together. I’m not sure if I want to be known as “Geoff Koch,” like when you see the name you think, “Oh, that’s Geoff Koch and his rock band.” I’m not quite sure. But I want to have all those moving pieces available for whatever kind of show I want to play.
That is the musician’s dilemma. Even in bands with great members, there’s something about a singer that pushes them forward a little bit. It’s a risk you have to take sometimes. Who inspires you musically?
Right now there’s a singer-songwriter I think he’s in Boulder, Colorado. His name is Gregory Alan Isakov. I love this guy. Folk, you could say indie folk. But not like Silversun Pickups. Not that kind of indie. Like, maybe I-just-took-a-Xanax kind of indie. You know, spacey. But there are these beds for beautiful melodies. I mean that as a compliment.
One of the songs you played for us today was a cover of “Karma Police”. That’s extremely spacey. But you don’t usually perform that way. So do you see covers as an outlet to try something new?
Yeah, that’s a good question. I think it’s a mistake to try something new just for something new’s sake. A Radiohead song like “Electioneering” just wouldn’t work with a solo acoustic guitar. Like “Smells Like Teen Spirit”—you can’t just pull that off solo acoustic, you know. You shouldn’t try it just because you can try it.
Some do try.
Some do, and more power to them. I pick my covers based on whether it’s a song I think I ca sing well and be inspired by, because that’s huge. I could sing anything well but if I don’t actually like it and think it’s good, that’s going to come across. I also like to play “Oh My Sweet Carolina” by Ryan Adams. If you think about the lyrics though, it’s a sad song. It’s about this guy that just lost it. That’s what I’m picking up on lately. There’s so much beauty to it, that’s obvious. But as I studied the song on some deeper levels I realized, “Oh my god. This guy’s ready to end it”. This is a crazy person singing this song, you know. I think that’s beautiful when something wows you like that. When it’s at a completely different level than I thought it was.
To move away from the business-talk side of the interview, we also have some fun questions. What is the strangest thing someone has yelled out to you during a show?
Okay, there’s a song that I have called “Say You Will”. The lyrics in the last verse are something like, “At the end of the night, can I sing one last song in your ear?” And it’s very quiet. Then some girl yelled out, “YES!!” So the entire audience knew that this girl liked me.
At least it was something supportive.
It was very endearing, yes.
Also, let’s talk about dream lineup. Two versions of this question. What’s your dream lineup, two or three bands, that you do not play with but would like to see. And another lineup in which you play with these bands or musicians, and in what position do you play?
Okay- On my wish list, I would like to see At The Drive-In open for Nirvana. Then I would like to play guitar for both of these bands: Bloc Party opens for Kings of Leon. I think that would be awesome.
Where would that show be? Where would you like to play?
Put me in London’s O2 Arena. I have an infatuation with The Civil Wars, too. I would love to be in an acoustic duo like that. That’s the ultimate, to me. If you can play any city in the planet in front of one-to-three thousand people and you can hear a pin drop for an hour and a half—that is the ultimate. That’s my… I can’t say “goal,” because that would be incredible if that happened for me. That’s something I dream about. To communicate on that level. When you go see The Civil Wars, it’s a very serious, adult kind of melody. Love songs and loss and all that. And they look nice. They’re in a black dress and a tuxedo. So you don’t show up in sneakers and a wifebeater. It’s an event. You dress, up, and you go, and you know that you’re going to shut up and just let this experience happen, let these people sing for you. And that’s going to be it. And I want to be the singer on that end.
Check back soon to see Geoff perform in-studio at WRGW as part of our Glass Case Sessions!
Photo credits: Helen Jiang