When it comes to the music scene around Connecticut, The Alpaca Gnomes have been a major presence for a little over a decade. They have a groovy sound with a dedicated fan base and they’ve done outdoor gigs in village greens and as part of festivals while also playing the local club circuit. On December 1, the band will be keeping themselves warm while putting on a fun time in Hamden. That’s when they’re going to be taking the stage at the Space Ballroom and hoping to feed off the success of the last few times they’ve performed at the venue.
The show starts at 8 p.m. with New Haven soul-blues act O.K. Company kicking the night off.
I talked with vocalist and guitarist Benny Mikula about the origins of the band, a live record they put out a few months ago, performing solo and about getting back into the studio to make a new album.
RD: The idea for The Alpaca Gnomes becoming a band started over 10 years ago at Brennan’s Shebeen in Bridgeport. How did the initial meeting come about? Were you a solo performer at the bar before the band started?
BM: I had been performing there with our drummer Mike Gargano and our current guitarist Chris Barry. We had a band called Spiral City and we had a private party at our percussionist Matt Summ’s house. When we did that, our fiddle player Kimberly Curtin was there and she jumped in with us. Then a little bit after that, I started playing more with Matt and Kimberly while Chris had moved out of Connecticut for a little bit. We did a yearly benefit concert called “Light Up The Point” down in Fairfield that’s hosted by Chris’ family and he came back around a year after that, then we decided to bring everybody together.
Mike and myself had been playing with a bass player named Marty Amidon and we just kind of put all six of us together. After we played that benefit concert, the following January we did our first show at Brennan’s Shebeen.
RD: That’s a cool story. Back in April, you guys released a live album titled “Live In Litchfield”, so where exactly was it recorded and did you already have plans to record the performance for an album or did the record come about in a more spontaneous way?
BM: It was definitely spontaneous. We’ve been recording shows for the last year or two, Mike’s been handling that and we wish that we started doing it from the very beginning to document some of the earlier shows but it is what it is. This particular one came out great with the full complement of the band, we were outside of a community center or something like that. It was our first time playing in Litchfield and it was this outdoor summer concert that had a nice evening vibe. When Mike went through the recording, it came out really well so we just ran with it.
RD: I know the band likes to play both covers and originals while performing, so how does the band find a balance between playing covers and playing originals when it comes to crafting a setlist?
BM: When we began, we did mostly covers. We would throw a song in there, we probably started with a full night of three hours with one or two originals and we’ve slowly flipped it to where it’s quite the opposite now. We’ll play a show with over 20 originals and only a few covers, but we still enjoy throwing those covers in there and I enjoy writing the setlists to try to make them as different as possible for each show. We’ve kind of stumbled upon a thing where for the last three shows, we’ve taken some songs that we haven’t covered in a while and we’ll put them in a hat. Then we let the crowd choose which covers by picking from the hat and it’s a good way to shake up our performance.
We have some covers that we lean on that we’ve been doing for years that are comfortable for us and people like to hear. We always want to include new songs, but we couldn’t find a good way to do it, so that was one way. Sometimes we’ll just pull songs that we enjoy and we’ve never played for a certain show. We just try to keep the fans on their toes and have them coming back for more.
RD: That’s a good approach to have. Outside of the band, you also perform solo as “The Lone Gnome” is various establishments around Connecticut. Do you prepare yourself any differently for a solo performance versus for what you usually do with The Alpaca Gnomes?
BM: Solo performances are very calming, I don’t write a setlist. For a long time, the band didn’t write a setlist either. We’ve had a couple lineup changes over the years, so we couldn’t do quite what we started out doing where we could pick out any song and play it on a moment’s notice. We’ve been more particular with choosing what we play, but as far as playing solo goes, I have a wide variety of songs. I don’t write setlists or anything so I don’t really prepare much for them. If I’m in a restaurant, then there’s a lot of covers and if I’m doing a proper show then there’s mainly originals with a cover or two.
I really love to take requests because if I’m playing a song for at least one person in the room and I know they want to hear it, then it helps my performance. As far as the name goes, I’ve used “The Lone Gnome” for quite some time. I ended up doing a solo album with six Alpaca Gnomes songs being played by myself acoustically, which I named “The Lone Gnome” and then I’m planning on having my next album named after myself.
RD: After the show at Space Ballroom in Hamden, what are some plans that you and the band have going into next year?
BM: First off, we’re really looking forward to the Space Ballroom show. Our last two shows there were very well-attended and the energy was just awesome, the room has got a great energy there. It’s a little smaller than some of the other places we’ve played so we’re really looking forward to it. We pulled out some interesting covers during the last time we were there and we’re also looking forward to figuring out which ones to play at the upcoming show. We also have another gig coming up at The Warehouse at the Fairfield Theatre Company on December 29th, so we’re looking forward to finishing the year off on a high note there. Going into 2024, we have some shows scheduled that we haven’t announced yet. We’d like to get back into the studio and make another studio album, it’s been quite some time so we’re