Empire Drift wins first Song of Toledo titleWritten by Julie Ryan | | email@example.com
FOX Toledo profile.
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Michael S. Miller column: “A Good Place to Call Home”
The members of Empire Drift wanted to write the best song they could before the Song of Toledo contest deadline. They also wanted to shine a positive light on Toledo and show it as a “little big city” just right for them.
On May 20, Empire Drift was crowned the winner of the inaugural Song of Toledo contest. The band was selected by nine judges and glorified with recording time at Strawberry Fields Recording Studio, stage time at Smoke on the Water — Ribs for the Red Cross and at the Michigan International Speedway.
Empire Drift’s guitarist, Rick Shugarman, said the band was “excited and thrilled” to win the contest and believes it will give them momentum going into summer — especially considering the competition they faced.
“There was a lot of competition, and we respect the other bands that were in there,” he said. “And a lot of the songs were great, too.”
Shugarman said he is looking forward to preparing for Smoke on the Water and other opportunities.
“We have been growing as a band, maybe for the past year and a half or so, the four guys have been working very hard and some of them have full-time jobs,” he said. “I’m really proud of them for how hard they’ve been working and sometimes it can pull your relations and it can pull at your job and everything, but the chemistry has remained good.”
The winning song
David Pfenning’s voice woos listeners into Empire Drift’s winning song, “A Good Place To Call Home,” as he sings that he doesn’t want 40-minute drives or six-lane highways. David, the lead vocalist, along with twin brother Michael on bass, Shugarman on guitar and Allen Spencer on drums, managed to use the song to showcase the best Toledo has to offer.
“We tried to make no mention of anything negative,” said Shugarman, also the band’s manager. “Some of the songs are kind of talking defensively about Toledo. Our intention was not to defend Toledo but talk positively about it.”
With the Walleyes, Mud Hens and concerts at Promenade Park, Shugarman said you get big-city stuff without big-city crowds — the focus of the song.
“The basic theme of the song is to present Toledo and focus on how great it is because of how balanced it is. You have this incredible balance between big-city things — like all the national food chains,” Shugarman said. “We get all the P.F. Chang’s and for the girls they get their Coach and designer stores in the mall. But you also get your little-city feel with the fact that you’re not in Chicago: You’re not waiting 40 minutes to drive five miles.”
For David, who has a 2-and-a-half-year-old son, a line less than a minute into the song rings true.
“I just like how you can raise your family here; it’s a good family city,” he said. “I grew up here and had all my friends in town.”
Typically, the band creates a song with a single inspiration and can spend as long as a year writing, practicing and recording.
“We kind of just say everybody is writing everything,” Shugarman said. “But actually, it will start when somebody will have a seed and brings it to the band, and the band together waters it and it grows.”
When the Song of Toledo contest was announced in Toledo Free Press March 8, the band had less than 26 days to produce a song.
Spencer said he had a friend who moved away from Toledo for six months, and when he returned a year ago, he told Spencer that Toledo needs pride.
“That’s one thing Toledo really lacks a lot of. So many people are so quick to rag on Toledo and put it down,” Spencer said. “My buddy, he’s involved in music, and he said, ‘Someone needs to write an awesome song about Toledo.’ And a year or so later, this competition popped up. I couldn’t believe it because it was the second time in a year someone was like, ‘We need to write a song about Toledo.’ ”
“We were reading Toledo Free Press and looked at everything it was talking about for writing the song and we just thought, ‘Let’s try it out,’ ” David said.
Spencer said the band got right to work: Shugarman spent an “enormous amount of time” creating lyrics and listing Toledo’s attractions. After a night of practice, and incorporating David’s guitar riff, the band had a song. They moved into a week of practice and then headed to Big Sky Recording in Ann Arbor where they recorded the song over two sessions.
Empire Drift has plenty of Toledo pride. Shugarman said he would love to hear their song playing at the Toledo hot spots such as the Mud Hens stadium or when the Walleye play.
“I’d love to play it live at a Mud Hens game,” Spencer said.
Upon hearing the song, with its shout-out to her, longtime Congresswoman Marcy Kaptur said, “I’ve listened to the song twice and now I’m singing along with Empire Drift. I’m honored to be included in their bouncy score, which aptly describes our community as a wonderful place to live. Again, the arts lift us and speak for us.”
The exposure from winning has already paid off, according to Shugarman. The band was invited by Kaptur’s office to play their awarding-winning song during a visit from the “auto czar” May 21. Ed Montgomery, who was picked by President Barack Obama for the position, toured the Glass City and listened to the entire song, Shugarman said.
“It was really an honor,” Shugarman said of the train station performance for the czar. “I keep using the word ‘honor,’ but that is what it was. I felt we were representing Toledo.”
Shugarman said the band hoped opportunities like this would arise after winning the contest, but never imagined the day after they would be playing for Obama’s go-to man.
“In a way, I felt close to Obama,” he said.
The winning band
David and Shugarman had played together for eight years when they started Empire Drift as an acoustic duo in summer 2007. In September 2007, Spencer joined.
“Literally, the first or second practice with him, he could just play everything; he was a really natural fit,” Shugarman said.
They played as a three-piece acoustic electric band until February 2008, when Michael Pfenning joined because they entered the 2008 Regional Superstar Competition.
Michael had played with David and Shugarman in Exhibit A in 2005, a band that lasted a year. Michael said he picked up his first guitar at age 14, began playing seriously at 18, and since then, it’s filled a void.
With his help on bass, Empire Drift won the regional competition, a recording contract and played at the biggest show Club Bijou hosted for unsigned bands in April 2008.
Next, Empire Drift conquered The Blade’s Battle of the Bands by co-winning and, in 2009, were voted runner-up for best rock band in Toledo City Paper.
Shugarman said the band has given away 17,000 CDs and will send anyone an album if they e-mail their address to firstname.lastname@example.org.
“We play all kinds,” David said. “There’s great variety between the 25 originals, everything from soft acoustic love songs to modern alternative rock-type sounds. People might label us, but between the variety in songs we write and the cover songs we play, we try to hit everything at once.”
On the Web: visit www.empiredrift.com.