Interview: River City Extension

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Absence makes the heart grow fonder.

But, absence can also make a band stronger.

After two years (roughly) since they released their amazing album Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Your Anger, the band has re-emerged with a brand new line-up, new music and a wonderful new sound that is still, at its heart, vintage River City Extension.

The band’s new album Deliverance, set for a 2015 release, is a record that explore all the trials and tribulations River City frontman Joe Michelini and company have experience since their 2012 release. Based on the lead single, ‘Something’s Gotta Give’ – you can tell this record is going to be another lyrical gem from Michelini. Musically, there’s a sense of maturity, a sense of adventure and a sense of musical craftsmanship that has masterfully applied to the sonic landscape of Deliverance.

I recently caught up with Michelini to talk about River City Extension’s new music, the new line-up, the band’s sound and their upcoming Simple Gifts show at The Stone Pony in Asbury Park on Thanksgiving Eve.

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I listened to your new single “Something’s Gotta Give,” now I have to ask – was this song inspired by the Diane Keaton/Jack Nicholson romantic drama?

No, I’ve never seen it.

You don’t need to.

Okay that’s good to know. I think my parents have the VHS, but I haven’t seen it.

You know what, if they have it on tape then I definitely think you should watch it.  I think at this point anything that you still have on tape you should give it a whirl.

Like Milo and Otis?  I think I have Milo and Otis on tape.

Hey, Milo and Otis, the copy of Terminator 2 you taped off ABC with commercials in it, whatever you’ve got on tape – watch it.

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There you go.  So what’d you think of the single?

Dude, I loved it. I’m an unapologetic fan of you guys, and but I notice it is a little different, in my opinion. Talk about the conception of the song, lyrically and musically.

I think that song and this record was going to be what it was going to be either way. People will look and see changes that happen within and the personnel of the band, but we’re just being ourselves. People change, and that’s what’s great about people. And I’ve changed, and so what I’m making as a songwriter obviously changes a little bit. This particular song though, is one of the last ones to get written for the record.  We really wanted to write a good opening track and it was hard to know what to write about.  The whole record is about doubt.  It’s about dealing with self-doubt, and if it’s worth it to doubt yourself, and what we should be doing in the small window of time that we have with our lives, or what we shouldn’t be doing.

“Something’s Gotta Give” is sort of about all the adversity that the band’s faced since making Don’t Let the Sun Go Down, which felt like a good opening track for this record. I felt this was good subject matter to pick up on. Our bass player (Colin DeMeo) had just left the band, and I had just started listening to a little bit more Bruce Springsteen.  For the first time I started to discover his catalog, and so when he (Colin) left I was working on the song. I had the melody and so on, and then it just came to the right thing to write about —  in that it had more ground to cover than just Colin leaving the band.  I think it does do that.

I think it’s difficult.  It’s a difficult lifestyle,  being on the road, and wanting to make records. It was hard with the band between Unmistakable Man and Don’t Let the Sun Go Down. I do think that they do deserve payment for their hard work, and not just monetary, but respect and acknowledgement for their hard work.  But there would be times where we were on tour and they’d say something like ‘Well when are we getting a bus?’ and they were joking, but they weren’t joking.  It’s not like I don’t ever look to the future and say when is the band going to be more comfortable?  When will this get easier?  It will get easier over time.  Eventually we will be a headliner, eventually if we ask for fizzy water in our green room it’ll show up in our green room, one day.  But it all comes down to the work.  It all comes down to the music and how badly you want it.  There’s a lot of people in this industry that want it and there’s a lot of people that don’t want it bad enough, and a few people who do.

And so part of it is just looking and saying ‘I don’t know how long this is going to take, it might take a really long time, but I’m going to stick with it no matter how long.’ And part of it is just saying like …

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Something’s gotta give?

Yes.  Well, that’s how I felt at the time.  That is how I felt.  But it really is about the work.  I mean even with Deliverance, if this record absolutely wrecks the band’s career for some reason, we’ll still be happy with it.  We’ll still like the record.

That’s highly doubtful.

I doubt it too, but you put out something that you think people are gonna like to some extent, but we like it. We think it’s good music by our standards. By the research that we’ve done, and what we think we are able to create, we have called ourselves to the highest standard, and that’s all you can really ask of the band. If we get these amenities, if we get these touring amenities, or whatever it is, I hope we only ever get them because the work is good. I really won’t accept any alms or anything on any other grounds. That being said, things have just been hard for so long. I was saying something’s gotta give, but at the same time we’re singing about this character in this song, really about Colin and you have to make a decision about whether you really want to do this or not. After a couple of years on the road it’s not fun anymore, and you say, ‘Okay something’s gotta give.’ You’re either going home and restarting your life, or you’re going head first into the abyss.

Now the next question is the line up. It’s radically different from when you recorded the second record, and when I saw you at the record release party in 2011. This is more like a perception question — do you worry that the band has changed so much that the optic, to your fans out there, is that there was something wrong with the band, or maybe people won’t vibe with the band like they once did?

I guess so. I think that the records are still there, and it’s a little confusing because when The Unmistakable Man came out there was some percentage of people that listened to it because folk music, or folk pop music was about to be really big.  We didn’t know that at the time, it just sort of happened throughout this record that’s kind of folky, Unmistakable Man, you know.  Then we found ourselves on that circuit with The Apache Relay, and the Kopecky Family Band, and all of those guys.

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When we put out Don’t Let the Sun Go Down, which is this dark, introspective songwriter sort of record. It’s still a little bit folky, but not in a poppy way. We lost most of those people (who loved the folk pop sound) ‘cause there wasn’t like hype about the band. The people who were coming to see the band because it was this wild, untamed, live experience where you didn’t have to really enjoy the songs. It was just fun because it was fun, and the people playing the music were having fun. There’s nothing wrong with that either, but those people stopped coming to the shows.  All of a sudden you needed to like the records to want to go see River City Extension because… I don’t want to say it was less gimmicky because I don’t think that takes into the whole thing into account.

The folk pop thing was so trendy at the time that anything that even resembled it I think the people who go with the fads gravitated to that, and as soon as the fads started going away they gravitated away from it. 

The fad started going away, and the band stopped being like a potential suitor of that fad. People stopped getting their fix for that type of music from us,. I think anyone who thought we were doing something … I don’t know with the horns that we weren’t doing, (which really we were just sort of using for some sort of – to augment ourselves orchestrally, and augment the arrangements) were disappointed when that left.  I think there was just a time when people were coming to a River City show and it was like, ‘I don’t really have to pay attention, like it’s just fun, it’s kind of crazy, you’ve got all these people in the band and whatever.’ That kind of became a joke amongst us too that no one was really listening.  We would always say to each other after the show, ‘Tight show, great energy, I really liked the part where you guys go out to the crowd.’  We were sort of blowing off steam – because it was like of all the work that we put into these intricate arrangements, and all the time that I spent writing songs – people really just want to see you head bang a little bit, and jump into the audience. That’s not what music is about for us.  I don’t think that there’s anything wrong with a crazy live performance.  But to answer your question: I’m less insecure about that because I feel like I’ve been given the opportunity to pursue a live show, and a career for the band that is more in line with what we are feeling is musical, and interesting, and honest.

So let’s do the flip side of that.  There’s a whole bunch of new guys in the band, what have they brought to the table for you?  How do they inspire you in your writing, and what have they brought differently to the live aspect, and the recording aspect that has you excited about having these guys in your band?

Well, Deliverance was just John (Muccino), Pat (O’Brien) and I.  That was an interesting process in that record because Pat Noon did it. He worked on our past two records, but this was the first one that he mixed, and engineered, and totally did himself.  He has known the band through all of its different phases and he had a huge influence on the process of that record. I felt he really understood us.  So one of the exciting things I think is having finally had peak communication with him in the studio.  John, and Pat (O’Brien), and I all felt like we had adequately expressed ourselves at the end of that recording experience. I think the new guys in the band love the music for the same reason that we do. They seem to like the River City catalog for the same reasons that we do, and like the record for the same reasons that we do.  They’re fantastic musicians, and we just don’t feel bound by anything right now.  I think we’re going to be able to develop whatever the next batch of songs are, and also rework everything in the past catalog for the live show, and make it more interesting, and more musical than it ever has been.  I think they’re willing to do the work that it takes to get a good product out on that level. I think they’re excited about doing the work, we all are.

Speaking of excited, how excited are you for coming back home to Stone Pony, the annual Simple Gifts show with the new music, with the new players, and with this kind of like as you were saying about how you’re going to be changing up some of the, I’ll say classic, River City songs?  How does it feel to be coming home to a big show like this?

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Good. It feels really good. I think we’re excited. We’re a little bit nervous about – I guess we’re just nervous about being ourselves.  We’re not nervous that we won’t be ourselves. It’s just that we’ve started to discover our identity as a band, which is different than it used to be, and our personal music identities. I know that everyone in this band feels like they have no other choice than to be themselves, and for the band to present these songs as a band, as ourselves.

Do you consider the Stone Pony show the big coming out party for this incarnation, this, I’ll say it, kind of reborn version of River City?

Yes we do.  That’s exactly what we consider this show.

I want to get some commentary on some of the bands that are going to be performing with you.  I mean this is your guy’s show so I figure you pretty much kind of curate the talent that’s there, to use the parlance of our times.  So if you wouldn’t mind commenting on some of the guys you have coming out with you: Gods, EdTang, and the Prehistoric Forest. 

Well it’s an all local bill this year, which I guess the bills have always been semi-local, you know.  But the music scene has changed in Ocean/Monmouth County, you know, like Brick + Mortar isn’t really around anymore, The Front Bottoms aren’t really around anymore.  I mean they’re around but they’re not local so much anymore.  You know, all the guys that we started playing with you see bands form, and then bands fall apart, and we were just listening to the Accidental Seabirds record in the van, and yeah it’s great.  I think it’s just Jesse and their drummer now though, which is just weird to think about.  But that’s how it happens, bands change and grow, and all kinds of different stuff happen.  So I think that this bill is particularly interesting because it’s sort of a new batch of New Jersey bands.  EdTang has been around for a little bit, but he’s just starting to pick up a good following in Monmouth County.  Gods are some of the guys from Parlor Mob, Scott List might even be in the band.  I’m not sure, but that would be rad.  Prehistoric Forest – I’ve known all those guys for a really long time, and they’ve been seeing a ton of different bands, and they’re from Toms River, and so I’m excited to hear them.  Pat Noon just mixed their record, which they have coming out this fall as well, so that’s a cool connection to have.

Awesome.  I do want to talk a little bit about the new record, and this will be my last one for you, with the sound of it.  You said the first one was more that folkier, poppier sound, the second record was very songwriter based record, where’s the evolution of the River City sound taking us on Deliverance?

You know it’s funny, I think what we shot for, and what we got were two really different things, but we were pleasantly surprised.  Initially, I had put a lot of thought into what the record would sound like in general, and made up sort of flow charts, and lists, and what we wanted to express as a band, and what kind of tones we wanted to hear. I wanted to write something that was to the point, and I think I wanted to write a pop record, like a good pop record, like Wildflowers or Graceland, or something like that.  We ended up with this sort of surreal art rock record with a chorus here and there, and I’m really proud of that.  I’m really happy with the way that turned out.  I think that the band’s willingness to experiment, and know when enough is enough, and know when something needs to be a little bit stranger, and know what we can or cannot get away with really made the record something other than just a pop record.  I think it’s a really interesting sort of avant-garde rock record, and I’m proud of that.  I thought the band did a really good job in the studio saying like this could be weirder, this is too weird, and letting a big chorus fly when it needed to be a big anthemic chorus because that’s what the song calls for.  We were just in the service of the song, and we desired to make something new, and we were listening to a lot of music that was providing steady guidelines for us, and giving us permissions here and there to indulge a little bit.  So I’m really happy with it.

River City Extension performs on Thanksgiving Eve, November 26th, with EdTang & The Chops, Prehistoric Forest and Gods at  The Stone Pony in Asbury Park, New Jersey. Charitable nonperishable food donations are accepted. Click here for tickets.

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Bill Bodkin is the owner, editor-in-chief and co-founder of Pop Break. Most importantly, however, he is the proud father of a beautiful daughter, Sophie. He can be seen regularly on the site reviewing The Walking Dead, Doctor Who, and is the host of the site's podcast, The BreakCast. He is a graduate of Rutgers University with a degree in Journalism & English. Follow him on Twitter: @BodkinWrites

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