Story by: Linda Dudinsky
Photos: Joe Kukuczka
The skies are pulled over with dark gloomy clouds on an unusually cold, rainy day on the Sunset Strip in West Hollywood.
The raindrops become larger and heavier as the night grows longer, making everything in sight glisten with colorful sharpness. Puddles gathered on the streets reflect the neon signs of liquor stores and flickering marquees of tiny clubs seeded along the road.
A marquee reads, “Gina and the Eastern Block,” in black solid letters, slightly off tilt and backlit by an off white glow.
The bouncer sits inside the entrance, out of the dampness of the rain, as patrons stand outside in rain-appropriate party gear, cupping their hands to keep warm.
Inside the tiny world known as The Viper Room, the lights are turned down low and the floor is packed from wall to wall with twenty-somethings, drinks in hand.
The loud thumping sounds of hip-hop music in the background gradually quiets and the black, heavy curtains split to expose the stage.
Whistles and cheers echo throughout the club.
To the left side of the stage is the band’s guitarist, Todd Weinstock, 32, from New York City.
He holds a sea-foam green Fender Jazzmaster guitar in hand. His short curly hair, tight black jeans, tattered v-neck T-shirt and unlaced black boots make him look like he was pulled off the stage of a ’70s punk rock band from London.
Behind him is a stack of Marshall amps towering halfway to the ceiling, hooked up to nearly a dozen guitar pedals covering the floor just at the edge of the stage.
Not to be outdone, at the back center of the stage sits a seven-piece, midnight blue DW drum kit and in the driver’s seat is Marc Jordan, 38, from Los Angeles.
In true drummer style, he’s dressed in green plaid pants and a vintage rock band t-shirt, which will later come off. His hair is curly and he wears a 10 o’clock shadow. To his right sits a Mac laptop ready to play loops.
With one click of the space bar, the loops begin to play loud and hard as the crowd cheers.
A petite woman dressed in black tights, black high heel boots and a tight black mini-dress enters the stage with a slow sultry walk to the microphone.
Her long strawberry blonde hair is intentionally messy and swoops across her face, just barely covering her eyes.
She commands the stage and oozes confidence as the packed audience stares in awe.
“We love you, Gina!” yells out a male fan. He is barely heard over the distorted guitar and massive sound of the drums.
She doesn’t skip a beat, winks at the fan, and with a nod to her band the boys join the loop and she starts her song with bold lyrics and commanding dance moves.
So many dream of being on this same stage and seeing their names on the flickering marquees of Hollywood clubs; confirmation that they have somehow made it in this city saturated with up-and-coming artists, musicians, and actors.
Gina Katon, a 26 year-old dancer and singer from Hell, Mich., did just that.
“I really did come from Hell,” she says and bursts out laughing.
But she didn’t have a hellish time “making it.”
Her desire to be a performer of any sort began in early childhood, where she and her friends would record homemade videos performing popular songs accompanied by self-choreographed routines at the age of 10.
They not only rehearsed the moves and perfected their singing, but also put together outfits to match their performances.
Throughout her school years, Katon knew she wanted to be something extraordinary and unlike everyone else.
Later, while other students in her high school were busy studying for their SAT exams, Katon had different plans in mind.
“I told the guidance counselor at my high school that I wanted to be Madonna,” she remembers with a laugh. “They were a little bit worried.”
After graduating high school in 2002, Katon auditioned for the EDGE program for dancers, which would take her to Los Angeles for an intense curriculum for performers in the dance industry.
“I didn’t take it seriously that time around,” says Katon. “So I didn’t make the cut.”
After failing to get a spot in the program, Katon changed her focus.
She applied for college in New York and attended one year of performing arts classes, quickly realizing that school life outside of dance just wasn’t what she wanted to do.
In 2003, she auditioned once again for the EDGE program.
“This time I knew I really wanted it so I put my all into my audition,” she says. “Thankfully, I got the scholarship.”
After learning that she got the scholarship, like so many aspiring musicians, actors, writers and artists, Katon gathered her every possession, packed it into a car, and traveled 3,000 miles to the Mecca of stardom that is Hollywood.
But it wasn’t an easy transition for Katon.
“I lived in this dingy hotel where the neighbors would shoot up heroin and do all sorts of drugs, and yell and fight on a nightly basis,” she reminisces. “It was horrible! There were sirens and gunshots on random nights. I wanted to hide or run away from that place.”
After a grueling year of living in Venice Beach, going to practices and classes three times a day at the Los Angeles Dance Center, Katon completed the EDGE dance program and received not only the honor of completion, but also the connections needed to launch her dancing career.
“It was amazing,” she says. “We got so many networking possibilities with agents, artists and the entire dance network.” While still in the EDGE program in 2006, Katon met fellow dancer Ace Harper, 23, from Hollywood. Harper approached her to join a group she was forming for an all girl singing dance group, backed by seasoned rock musicians.
After officially auditioning for the dancing rock group, Katon became one of four members of the Darling Stilettos.
Decked out in vinyl, barely-there outfits, 6-inch heels, faux-hawks and abs that made every gender jealous, the girls belted out rock anthems and mesmerized their audiences with dance moves only a group called Darling Stilettos can pull off.
The girls opened for big-name acts including Slash and the star studded Roxy Theater regulars, Camp Freddy.
In 2009 while on tour with the group, she and another member attended a Lady Gaga concert. Katon watched in awe and was reminded that she wanted to improve as a performer and do more than just blend into the stage.
“I wanted to be in the spotlight. I wanted to do everything: sing, dance and just perform on my own stage,” she says.
In early 2010, she broke the news to her band-mates that she was leaving the Darling Stilettos to pursue a solo career and to expand her talent in a different direction.
Katon’s departure from the group wasn’t taken lightly, but it wasn’t unexpected either.
During this time, the group ended up breaking up all together and replacing all but one original member; Harper.
“I was terrified to leave,” she recalls. “But, I wanted to do something nobody can describe, and fit into no genre. I want my own genre.”
“It annoys me when people follow in other artists’ footsteps,” Katon says. “Just because all the Rihanna songs are popular, doesn’t mean you have to try and sound like her.”
She knew this was the only way to step out from the shadows of a group and to make a splash as an individual artist.
“It’s your job [as an artist] to find a way to stand out from the rest,” says
Brad Fuhrman, a Los Angeles-based band manager of Sanctuary Artist Management Group who works with such musicians as ZZ Top, Tommy Lee and others. “Artists that make it in Hollywood are doing something different and unique. Often times you can see the star quality in people right away, you can tell they know what they’re doing and they won’t settle for anything less than success.”
Since the beginning of 2010, Katon, Jordan and Weinstock have spent their time concocting a style of music nobody can really describe. They barely follow the standard process of putting songs together.
“Marc [Jordan] and I will sit at the studio and he’ll just give me a beat and we go from there. Then we send it out to Todd [Weinstock] in New York and let him do whatever he wants to it,” Katon says.
“He usually comes up with some kind of crazy magic, sends it back to us and we just run with it,” she continues.
Even the band struggles to describe their music style.
“I like to call it ‘sweaty chic’,” says Jordan. “It’s ‘artsy pop decadence-to-fuck-to’ music.”
“I think that’s what excites people about this music,” Katon says. “It shocks them because they’ve never heard anything like it before.”
Gina and the Eastern Block are no strangers to shock value. During their debut performance at a New York City club, they woke the crowd up by doing their own rendition of a controversial song called “Fuck The Pain Away” by Peaches.
“I ended up humping the floor and stroking the mic stand at the end of the song,” she remembers.
“People in the crowd didn’t know what to think, and that’s exactly what I wanted. I want them to talk about it after the show,” Katon says with a laugh
The band appeared for the first time as “Gina and the Eastern Block” in late November of 2010. With a handful of original songs, they booked their first gig in New York, and have since played almost 10 shows.
Their quick success and popularity is unusual in the music industry, as most bands tend to spend months working non-paying gigs in unknown, half-empty venues.
“It’s as hard as it sounds,” says Fuhrman. “Brand new bands rarely book more than five substantial shows in their first six months, but you have to make sure you believe in what you’re doing and don’t take no for an answer. You’re in Hollywood, if you’re doing something right you will be heard!”
“I once heard the quote, ‘never work harder for a band than they work for themselves’,” says Fuhrman. “[Managers] want to work with bands who are willing to get their hands dirty and are serious about the business. You won’t succeed if you aren’t willing to commit 100 percent and work your asses off.”
That is exactly what Gina and her block do on a daily basis. Between booking their gigs themselves, trying out dancers for the shows, handing out flyers, rehearsing, recording, writing, and rubbing elbows with the right people, there’s little time left to be a starving artist in Hollywood.
“So much of being a budding musician in Hollywood is just doing the leg-work,” says Katon. “We don’t mind it at all. We’ve met so many people along all our roads that it’s like talking to friends when we book gigs. People actually approach us to come play their venues!”
A. Celina Denkins, who has booked international talent for the last six years for the world famous Whisky-A-Go-Go and has seen such names as Buckcherry, The Killers and Taylor Swift become household names, explains that no matter your status, you have to remember that when dealing with a venue, you are an invited guest. If you do everything right, you will always be welcomed back and will always be put at the top of the venues booking priority list.
However, according to Fuhrman, being on the priority list doesn’t always mean more money, as ticket sales have declined in recent years due to the economy.
“[Fans] are more likely to spend the same $75 seeing 5 smaller local bands and get more music for their money.”
Denkins still has hope for musicians though.
“Music and alcohol are recession proof! What the economy has affected is the amount of presale tickets bands are able to sell, but all in all, people enjoy drinking and listening to music whether they are happy, sad, rich or broke.”
Indeed they do.