jason kundrath goes in depth with one of the performers at pop-break’s Shipwrecked At The Shore Showcase tomorrow at the Wonder Bar in Asbury Park, N.J. …
The Montclair, N.J.-based alt-rock quintet Those Mockingbirds had an eventful 2011, to say the least. Between making their television debut on FOX 5 NY, releasing the both the limited acoustic EP BETA: alpha and the critically-lauded EP Fa Sol La, playing tons of shows around the Garden State, and hitting the road for some regional touring, Those Mockingbirds were all over the radar.
So when Pop-Break decided to curate a series of rock shows for its “Shipwrecked At The Shore Showcase,” it was a no-brainer to ask Those Mockingbirds to play the kick-off show tomorrow night at the Wonder Bar in Asbury Park, N.J.
In anticipation of their performance, I visited the band at their rehearsal space for what I assumed would be a standard interview. A few hours later, I emerged with a smile on my face, an overwhelming amount of audio to transcribe, and a new, expanded vision of the band and their potential for greatness.
Full disclosure: I came to the interview with a lukewarm impression of the band and a preconceived notion of their sound. Undeniably, frontman Adam Bird is a product of the ’90s. From his RAT distortion pedal, to his ragged growls, all the way to his new-Grunge wardrobe, the man wears that much on his tattered sleeve. And to this point — violinist Tory Daines notwithstanding — their sound had seemed to be his very competent if workmanlike take on big-guitar ’90s alt-rock.
That alone would be interesting enough, as there is certainly a lack of straight-ahead, unpretentious rock bands on the scene these days. But as the band treated me to a private performance of some new material, it was immediately obvious that Those Mockingbirds aren’t about to be painted into a corner. Rather, they are only beginning to discover their power, with a sound that is exciting, expansive and dynamic, exploring a range of moods, and taking full advantage of the musicianship of all its players. To say I was surprised is an understatement.
As they played their first new song — “Model Myself” — I listened to the quiet, restrained mid-tempo ballad, as Bird roundly plucked his guitar strings with his fingers, and I patiently awaited for them break out into full rock mode. A minute passed. Then another. I scratched my head. Eventually, a shift seemed imminent. There was a pause, and I observed Bird reach for his guitar pick. “Here it comes,” I thought to myself. But I was wrong again. Yes, there was a change. And it was powerful. But it was subtle. I was stunned. This wasn’t surprising simply because it was Those Mockingbirds. This kind of dynamic expression is rarely seen in rock bands.
They continued with “Salt” — a song they explained they’d been working and re-working for the better part of year. But from the first note, this slinky, bluesy number seemed ready for it’s close-up. A sexy groove leads into a hooky but restrained chorus, before giving way to Jon Gianino’s engrossing guitar atmospherics in the instrumental bridge. “Destroy My Love” featured Bird’s increasing use of his falsetto, and demonstrated the band’s overall tightness with inventive rock rhythms and complex syncopations. Lastly, “How To Rob A Bank” showed that the band still knows how to let loose and rock out with a raucous shuffle, complete with gang “whoa-oh’s” in the chorus, and a truly badass breakdown riff.
In the end, they made a believer out of me. Seeing them in the rehearsal space, a very positive picture emerged. So many things can go wrong for a band. If a band is lucky enough to find the right players with right attitudes — as Those Mockingbirds obviously has — the timing can still be off. By the time a band gets its act together and builds enough momentum to get enough people paying attention, it may already have reached its creative peak. It seems, however, that Those Mockingbirds are gearing up for an even greater 2012, and they haven’t even begun to hit their stride.
During the interview, I sat down with Adam Bird (vocals/guitar), Tory Daines (violin/keyboards/vocals), Rob Fitzgerald (bass/vocals), Kevin Walters (drums), and Jon Gianino (lead guitar), and we talked about where they’ve been, what they’ve become, and where they’re going.
Pop-Break: After hearing the new stuff, it definitely seems as if your sound is broadening and expanding. Do you guys feel like you’re evolving?
Adam Bird: Yeah definitely.
Jon Gianino: I think the whole point of doing anything like this — whatever art form you decide to take — it’s always a means to make it better or to make it exciting for yourself. If we just sat here and played “Honest, Honest” over and over again, what would be the point? For me, I just want to challenge myself, and I think it’s kind of the same idea for everyone else.
Kevin Walters: And I think it’s also worth noting, too — we haven’t all known each other for 15 years. We haven’t all been playing together for an extended period of time. So I think on a basic level we’re still finding out about each other musically, and when Adam brings in a song, it’s interesting to see how it morphs from what he conceived as the nugget of what that song is going to be. Then Tory takes it in one direction and Jon takes it in another direction. We all share a common thread of bands we probably all like, but we all have different musical backgrounds which I think is evident more so on the newer stuff than on the older songs. So it’s definitely evolving and I think it’s interesting to see how it’s morphing. And not to say you can define what we sound like — like saying “Coast To Coast” defines us as a band. But I think some of the newer stuff really is a definition of what we sound like because it really is a collective effort. And even then you can’t really say, “Well, this new song is what we sound like.”
AB: Absolutely not. I think for anybody who hasn’t heard the new songs, the best way to put it is [pauses] “Bloodiest Gums” off the new EP really kicked the door open for us as a band. And while I don’t mean all of our shit’s gonna be fucking weirdo stuff from there on [laughs], putting that song on and having it work for us, and having it work next to the other tunes really showed us okay – now we can do a song like “Salt.” I don’t even know what style of music that is. It sounds like spy music. [laughs] And then it kicks into a Stones chorus, you know?
JG: I think it’s also just fun to see how far you can really stretch something. The curiosity of it.
Rob Fitzgerald: The end result might not be as far out – we may pull it back into some sort of comfort zone, but the point is we’re not trying to do the same old thing. We’re trying to mix it up.
AB: Listen to a song like “Destroy My Love”. The whole thing sounds like Tattoo You Rolling Stones and then at the end we turn into Metallica. [laughs]
RF: But like Kevin said, I didn’t even know Jon until he was in the band. We had a dude before Jon for a couple of months who kind of unceremoniously split. And we had a couple of shows coming up — actually, our first Maxwell’s show and the Bowery Electric in New York. We were like “Alright, let’s find a dude that we know is good.”
JG: I had two weeks to learn the set.
RF: So we stole Jon from the Death of Me. He was playing with them. So that was kind of funny.
AB: Yeah, but I got them a bass player!
RF: You did, but they’re our roommates, and we stole their guitar player. So it’s easy for Jon. He just came on a different night. [laughs] But Jon has a style. And I’ve never played with anyone like him. And we have a violinist and keyboards and stuff. So there’s a lot more ingredients to it than it being just guitar/bass/drums, y’know? Well, what can you do? Let’s put some sprinkles on this cake. Let’s do some red velvet. What it comes down to is that it’s all going to have a common thread when it’s done, but we can still have a song it’s based just around Jon’s guitar. That’s how those two instrumental tracks [“Mountain Slang I” and “Mountain Slang II”] came about on the record. We wanted to give him a little bit of an area to do some stuff. I think it’s the idea that if your lows are really low, your highs will be even higher. If everything is 10,000 feet above sea level, it’s just plateau.
AB: We’ve now been a band for as long as the old lineup existed. The band’s about two years old. And for me and Tory — we’ve been around since the beginning — it still feels split right in half, and it’s such a contrast.
Pop-Break: This is really the first sounds of the new band coming together. And I must say it’s much more interesting than the old stuff.
TD: It’s funny that “Honest, Honest” even happened. Listening to the way things are now, it’s really nothing like what we sound like.
AB: The thing I think it’s also really cool — we were just talking about dynamics. We played you the four newest songs that we have down at the moment. But that whole fucking thing [he motions to a dry erase board with a long list of song titles on it] is new shit that we’ve been kicking around. In all honesty, no two those songs sound like the same style, really. We’ve been experimenting so much with styles. As long as we start with the core of a good tune that works with a basic melody and acoustic guitar [pauses]. “Salt” is a great example. You just heard what it sounds like now, but when it started it was just me and a guitar. I don’t even really play guitar on it anymore.
TD: Kevin changed the rhythm on that one.
AB: Yeah, Kevin and Tory totally shaped where that song went. I stopped playing guitar on it. And it just sort of became this bastardization of what it was. But it’s so much cooler now.
JG: But it’s also cool because I feel there was a lot of work that went into it.
AB: That was a song that forced us to grow up, I guess. I mean, we worked on that fucking song for months. And we knew it could be better, but we weren’t good enough to do it yet [laughs]. We were scared of playing that song at practice.
KW: And yet we showed you two versions of that song tonight. Because yet again we’re like, “Well, what if we did it this way?” We’re still experimenting. I think this is the longest I’ve ever worked on a single song. “How to Rob a Bank,” on the other hand, was finished in, like, 30 minutes.
Pop-Break: So considering all the ways it could’ve gone, you must be pretty happy with the band you ended up putting together.
TD: I’m really happy with where we are, and I’m really happy more so with the potential that is there. Like, as the songs keep progressing, it sounds very different. I feel like if we didn’t have this lineup, we’d just be stationary and I think…
AB: We wouldn’t be a band anymore.
TD: Yeah, we wouldn’t be, but you know, when you have a healthy group of people together — of good musicians — you’re going to keep progressing in sound. And if you’re not, you’re not working. So I’m happy with the way things are.
AB: I’m just more shocked by the way it went, because we lost all three of our members on the same day. And at the time, I was freaked out by it, but at the same time I knew, “okay, this is a really great opportunity.” Because I knew that people saw potential in our band, but nobody thought we were there yet. Nor did I myself. And I knew there were pieces that just were not right. And I didn’t know how to handle it at the time. But it was just kind of crazy how it came together and how the pieces came together. Like, the way Rob plays bass — I never thought I’d play with someone who plays that way. Like, right. Every bass player I ever played with was either a guitar player filling in on bass or whatever. And I don’t mean that to be insulting towards previous bass players. But Rob plays bass like when you go to a big rock show and you’re like, “Oh my God.” Like when you see Nate Mendel play for the Foo Fighters and you’re like, “What the fuck? Bass players can do that?” And then Kevin came along. And mind you, I used to play in a band with Dave Leo from Rye Coalition. And he, to me, was like god on drums. But now Kevin has raised the bar on that. I don’t even sit down behind the kit anymore. In my old band I used to sit behind the drums all the time and play beats. [Leo] would play them better than me, of course. But with Kevin, I don’t even go near the kit. And what’s even better, is that Kevin has made me a better guitar player. Because he’s always showing me up on guitar. So I’ll be like, “show me that chord to that song.” And I’ll go home and practice it. And now we call those “big boy chords.” [laughs]. Just because I grew up listening to fucking punk rock and grunge. That’s all power chords or standard chords. That’s all I really did.
KW: You see, if you’re not surrounded by people who are challenging you, then what’s the point? You’re going to be in that same box forever. I know I am constantly trying to get better. And we all are. But if someone’s not telling you, “Hey you’re singing out of key,” or “Hey, your guitar’s not tuned right,” you’re just going to assume that everything is cool all the time, if you don’t ever get that criticism.
AB: That’s probably the biggest difference. In the old lineup, we didn’t really tell each other that anything needed to be better. We just were what we were.
JG: Yeah, we care. [laughs]
AB: in this lineup, we just force each other to get better.
Pop-Break: You had a pretty exciting 2011. What do you have planned for 2012?
AB: We’ve got a couple of really good opportunities lined up. Exciting things. Working with some people that we didn’t think would ever give a shit what our name was. So I think we’re going to try to capitalize on some of those things.
RF: I think playing live and touring; it’s kind of a big thing. I mean, we’ve all kind of acknowledged that rock ‘n’ roll bands by and large live and die by their live show. There’s a reason that bands like the Rolling Stones are still relevant nowadays even though no one has cared too much about what they’ve put out on record for awhile. I mean, there’s exceptions, but you know what I mean.
The last Rolling Stones’ record certainly didn’t get as much press as their last tour. Even Springsteen is a good example to a certain extent. We might have a skewed perspective since we’re from Jersey, but as good as his records may be, his live show is still his bread and butter. And that’s just something we recognize.
Rock bands can make great rock records — and that’s what we really want to do — but there’s something about being in front of that audience, you know?
We’ve been talking a lot about songwriting, but from a performance perspective we’re thinking, what can we do with these songs to give the show a special flow and vibe for the evening. And I think that’s another one of our motivations for expanding the sound, songwriting wise. Because we want to have the option — if we’re playing a longer set — to have a section in the middle where the arrangements are really stripped down. Like three of us will walk off the stage and it will become something else.
AB: We want the music to sound like Those Mockingbirds without there being a style that is Those Mockingbirds.
Pop-Break: So we’ve all witnessed the music industry change dramatically in our lifetimes, and the definition of success is hard to pin down. What do you define as success?
AB: For me, this past year has definitely been successful in my eyes. I mean, selling out Maxwell’s is a success. Having people who would have never given us the time of day two years ago — or people I would try to email five years ago who would laugh when I would send them things about my old band — for them to hit me up a couple of months ago because they saw my band. Those are the things where it’s like, “Holy shit. That happens?” When someone who has been making records you’ve loved for years tells you your band is one of his favorite bands. [pauses]. There’s a monetary factor, of course, because of the world we live in. And yes, you have to make a living. But some of those milestones just blow your mind. I mean, I’ve done things already in the last year that I couldn’t have ever dreamed I’d live through or see happen.
Pop-Break: So are you guys thinking about a new record?
AB: We’re always thinking about a new record.
RF: We’re actually gonna have another single very soon.
AB: A brand-new single. Not from Fa Sol La. We have this song called “The Difference Between Love and Addiction” that we wrote with Fa Sol La and was a shred of a fiber away from being on Fa Sol La but we opted not to put it on for whatever reason. But we kept it in our live set and felt good about it. So we went back into the studio and we’ll be putting it out in a couple of months. We’re not necessarily looking at things in terms of “records” so to speak. It’s more like just music. Whether it comes out as singles or doubles or EPs.There’s going to be a lot of new music this year. And that’s the best way I can answer that.
Those Mockingbirds will perform tomorrow night, Feb. 2, at Pop-Break’s Shipwrecked At The Shore Showcase, with Crobot and Only Living Boy at the Wonder Bar in Asbury Park, N.J. Tickets are $5 at the door, and you must be 21 years or older to enter. There are $2 Coors Light specials, shot specials and the kitchen at the bar will be open. There will also be a giveaway to the Holdfast record and clothing store in Asbury Park for all those who sign-up for Pop-Break’s newsletter.