You would think Frank Thewes had planned this whole thing out. For more than three years now, he has been a bartender at Triumph Brewing Company in Princeton. And for a little more than year now, he has booked, hosted, and participated in a singer-songwriter showcase at Triumph.
Coincidence? Part of a master plan? To the laconic, philosophical Thewes, the singing bartender, neither one is totally true. “It might seem that way,” he says. “But I had to put in a good 2 1/2 years before I got a chance to play.”
He had approached Roxanne Klett, who at that time booked bands and performers for Triumph, for those 2 1/2 years before he got a shot at performing — and when he did he impressed both her and the Triumph audience. At first, says Thewes, his singer-songwriter showcases were held monthly, and then, a few months ago, became weekly. “Triumph is a real good venue as far as acoustics,” he says. “Lots of brick and glass and high ceilings.”
At 9 p.m. on Thursdays, he opens the performance with 25 minutes of solo work, singing and playing guitar, then serves as the emcee for the night. Every second Thursday, he is joined at Triumph by djembe player Edgar Diaz and Dan Lavoie, a childhood friend, on something called the harp guitar. “I am the sound check guinea pig,” says Thewes. As far as the talent who appears at the showcases, “sometimes I find them, and sometimes they find me.”
Thewes is now embarking on a new phase in his musical journey. He just released his first CD, “Peripheral Division,” which he self-produced. He says a couple of the cuts of the record have been played on the college radio circuit as well as on XM Radio channel 43. “Loosely speaking, you could say that ‘Peripheral Division’ is a mix of Bob Dylan, Metallica, Pearl Jam, and Hendrix.” Indeed, the 10 cuts on the record share a hard-rocking edge but also have thoughtful, literate lyrics. “This is modern rock with a classic rock influence,” he says. “It does not sound like classic rock but it draws on some of the guys from the 1960s and ’70s, who always wrote their albums as a progression from track one to track ten, a progression of moods that goes throughout the CD.”
Thewes, 30, grew up in West Windsor. His father, Frank, was an insurance agent and broker with several companies, including Continental Insurance. His mother, Kathy, is a nurse at Princeton Hospital. According to Thewes the stereotype about nurses as excessively caring, even altruistic people, is true as far as his mother is concerned. “Nursing is demanding but it is a good career for people who are suited for it. Some people are naturally built to care for people.” His older sister, Jen, is also a nurse.
The impulse to play music came naturally, he says, at a young age. “It feels as if, since I have been able to stand up and run around on my own, that I’ve wanted to play music. I played a concert with a recorder when I was five, and that started it. I began playing piano at five, and sax at 10 or 11.”
He says both of his grandfathers were “multi-instrumentalists,” who played for beer money at pubs and private gatherings. His father was a saxophonist and his mother was an accordionist. “My father has a huge 45 and LP collection.”
It was his sister, Amy, seven years older, who first got Thewes interested in rock. “She had a lot more access to different music than I did,” he says. “She always was blasting Kiss and Pink Floyd around the house.” And so it was rock — classic rock — that formed Thewes’ early musical tastes. “It’s always been the guitar that has been the most expressive instrument to me.”
Thewes lists a huge array of influences on his Myspace.com page (www.myspace.com/songwriter), which, of course, he uses to promote his music. He says he has received almost 60,000 hits in total. His influences include both sides of the continuum between singer/ songwriter and rocker: Jeff Buckley, Mazzy Star, Metallica, Albert King, the Doors, Bob Marley, Prince, B.B. King, Nick Drake, and about 30 others.
Says Thewes: “I am learning how to be a better songwriter, how to better focus my influences. When I listen to my record, that is what jumps out at me. I may not always hear the influences in the way that most people expect. Even though the record was written on acoustic guitar, it is definitely a modern indie rock record.”
In order to record “Peripheral Division,” Thewes, acting as his own producer, had to come up with all of the money and other considerations. He paid for the studio time, the musicians, the album designers, and the promotion. As far as he has been able so far to calculate, the record has cost him more than $10,000. “And that’s a shoestring budget as far as albums go,” he says. Old-fashioned networking helped keep the costs down.
“I had lots of help in terms of friendships in skilled areas,” he says. “A friend owns the studio; the person who did the photography, design and layout is a friend; and I met the musicians through friends of friends.”
The record — and that’s what Thewes calls it — was recorded at Homeplace Studios in West Orange. Bassist Antar Goodwin and drummer Corey Rawls, working studio musicians, accompanied him. Goodwin and Rawls helped give the driving rock songs a musical bite, says Thewes. “I actually met them through Dan (Lavoie). They are phenomenal musicians who usually work playing jazz and the blues, so for them to pick up and play rock — and they don’t get to do that often — really brought something to this. I am really happy with the job they did.”
Thewes, who graduated from West Windsor-Plainsboro High School in 1994, has had a varied and interesting employment history. He worked as a paralegal in New York, among other jobs, but soon tired of it. “If you have to get up at 6:30 in the morning in order to get to New York at the beginning of the day, it’s really tough to be playing music until three in the morning.”
But he said he changed his life and his hours around a couple of years ago so he could devote his time to playing music. “Bartending is not a bad gig. It’s pretty flexible, and you’re paid in cash.”
Thewes, however, has greater aspirations. “Ideally, I would like to make a living playing music. Now I am making more money than I ever have playing music, and it is a great supplement to my bartending. I’d like to sell a few thousand copies of this album — it doesn’t have to be 100,000, just enough so that I can take myself to the next level.”
Frank Thewes Singer Songwriter Evening, Thursday, June 22, 9 p.m., and every Thursday, Triumph Brewing Company, 138 Nassau Street. With guests Ben Carroll and Long Live Logos. 609-924-7855.