On a chilly Spring night in 2014, a friend and I loitered nervously on the sidewalk outside of a New Brunswick house dubbed “The Banana Stand.” As newbies to the scene, it took a lot of courage to walk up to the door and knock. It turned out to be one of the best decisions of my life, as we were welcomed into the house by friendly musicians and music lovers who invited us to head downstairs since Deal Casino had just started.
Descending into the fairy light-illuminated basement, we were met by the sight of nearly 30 people crammed into the tiny space, with Deal Casino playing only inches away from show-goers’ faces. Their presence, energy and music instantly captivated me and held me spellbound until it was over. The physical intensity of their sound in those moments made the emotions inside of me battle to break free. It was almost unbearable—in the best way possible.
I still remember the gripping effect of “Blanck” with its slow start, heavy build-up and Joe Parella’s sultry vocals. After their performance, I felt awake, revived and excited. I had discovered something special, something that would become a big part of my life, and from then on, I was a fan of Deal Casino. I attended their shows in New Brunswick and Asbury Park and I even interviewed them for a college internship back in January 2015.
Now, as a part of The Pop Break, I had the opportunity to interview Deal Casino for a second time to discover what has changed with them over the course of two years. We discussed their identity, gaining Chris Donofrio as their drummer, their songwriting dynamics, and most importantly, their new self-titled album, which they released independently on July 14.
Deal Casino is Joe Parella on lead vocals and guitar, Jozii Cowell on guitar and synthesizer, Jon Rodney on bass, and Chris Donofrio on drums. While they first formed in 2013, these Sparta, New Jersey natives moved to Asbury Park in 2014 to dedicate their lives to music. They’ve had a number of residencies, from playing The Saint in Asbury Park for the summer of 2014 to Milkboy in Philly in July 2016. Deal Casino is undeniably a big name in Asbury Park’s music scene, and they have the awards to prove it.
Along with their debut self-titled album, they have five EP’s under their belts, including the Human Cannonball EP, Nika, Heck, The Runaways and Cocaine Love. Fans are sure to have blasted these EP’s from their speakers for weeks at a time.
On July 21 at The Stone Pony, Deal Casino played a sold-out show to celebrate the release of their first full-length album. Their close-knit community of fans and fellow musicians, as well as hundreds of new enthusiasts flooded the Stone Pony to be a part of this event.
“It’s the hardest we’ve worked on a live performance at this point as far as promotion and how we’ll perform our set list,” Donofrio said.
As our interview took place a couple days before the release show, Deal Casino had hoped for a huge crowd in front of the stage and they wanted everyone to have a good time. This is an understatement, as show-goers packed themselves in front of the stage to shout the lyrics while dancing and jumping around to the music.
Deal Casino began with the lead track on their album, “My Gun” followed by “Red Balloon” and the throwback “Bare Hands.” The crowd’s enthusiasm peaked toward the end when a mosh pit broke out during the fan favorite, “Human Cannonball.” Deal Casino closed out the show with the spirited and catchy “Bang Bang Bang,” much to the crowd’s delight. As a surprise, they slowed everything down with an interlude featuring subdued instrumentals and vocals before revving the tempo back up to launch into the ending of “Bang Bang Bang.” For the grand finale, Parella swung his guitar over his head and slammed it down on the stage repeatedly until it broke, as a true tribute to rock ‘n’ roll.
Since my interview with them in winter of 2015, Deal Casino has undergone some changes as far as their aesthetics and stage presence.
“When we talked to you last, we were really focusing on the experience and figuring out what Deal Casino was,” Cowell said. “We were still experimenting. With this record, we all just understood who we are and what Deal Casino means.”
Cowell explains that back then, they were thinking a lot about what they wanted to look like. Now, they’ve figured out that whatever they look like is Deal Casino. They have a strong sense of what each other is thinking, and they know how to act on stage, Cowell said.
“We are just more free-flowing,” Cowell said. “We’re letting whatever happens happen. We’ve played so many times, that rather than focusing on what we look like on stage, we’re just having fun. It’s all about the music and the feeling.”
Cowell stresses that making sure listeners have a good time at their shows is most important. As many fans can attest, the major distinguishing factor of Deal Casino’s identity is their spirited live performance, and that’s how they always want it to be.
“We just love playing in front of people,” Cowell said. “We want people to have fun with us and experience what we created.”
Behind their dynamic live performance are songs that have undergone a fully collaborative songwriting process, which is another identifying attribute of Deal Casino.
“We jam all the time and we just latch on to things that we like,” Cowell said. “Then, that will evolve into a new song or an interlude to play live or a new jam section.”
These instrumental interludes occur frequently during Deal Casino’s live show, and it adds dynamism to their performance. Whether it’s a new lead in for “Hurricane” or a bridge between songs, they always mix it up for listeners to keep thing fresh.
Following this idea, Parella explains that as they get better, learn more and write new songs, they’re able to spot the ones that can hold up. While a lot of their older songs don’t reflect who Deal Casino is now, other tracks like “Bang Bang Bang,” “Hurricane” and “Flying Cars” will always be around as they still hold value for them, Parella said.
“Even then, live, we try to change a few things because the way we used to play them isn’t as good as it is now,” Parella said. “It’s things like that that make the song a little more new and exciting to us.”
Over a year and a half ago, Deal Casino had a change in their lineup and gained Chris Donofrio as their drummer. Jon Rodney explains that as soon as they started jamming with Donofrio, making him a permanent member of the band was a no-brainer.
“We just fit like a glove, which was really cool,” Rodney said. “As far as the dynamics, it kept it the way we felt everything should go. He’s a hard-hitting drummer, we’re loud guitarists and bassists, so everything just fell into place.”
Shortly after Donofrio joined the band, they decided to add synthesizers to their musical arsenal.
“I bought a synth just to see what it was about and then I brought it to practice,” Cowell said. “When you’re writing a song, there’s so many ways to do it. You can pick up an acoustic guitar, you can sit down at a piano. Or you can sit at a synthesizer. We wanted to see what else we could do.”
Donofrio adds that the signature sound of Deal Casino starts with keys and goes from there.
“Now that Jozii [Cowell] has become the multi-instrumentalist in the band, it has really given us a lot of options as far as sounds that we can pull off,” Donofrio said. “Usually, there’s a synth of some sort, a guitar, a driving bass line, drums and a lot of vocals. Singing is a point of emphasis, we all sing.”
Ever since the Human Cannonball EP came out in December of 2016 with its purple cover and the track named “Purple,” fans have probably been curious about the significance of this color.
Upon listening, people will discover that the song “Purple” is about someone who’s struggling with her identity and trying to find happiness. She’s making all these changes in her life from dying her hair purple, to wearing different perfumes and living in the city, but it doesn’t make her feel any happier—everything just feels the same.
Cowell agrees that this is an accurate interpretation of the track. He thinks that as a whole, the Human Cannonball EP and the full-length album include tracks that present a dichotomy between the lyrics and the music itself.
“You have these uplifting songs—they feel uplifting, they sound like it and then you listen to the lyrics and it’s contradictory,” Cowell explains. “The color purple, you can associate it with spring time or happiness, but also, based on how you look at it, it could be a morose color.”
When you think about the songs on both the Human Cannonball EP and the full-length album, the feeling is a mixture of uplifting and happy, yet there’s a subtle, underlying awareness that nothing’s really perfect, Cowell said.
Deal Casino’s debut self-titled album features 10 tracks that explore the politics of people whether it’s identity, nostalgia or the pressure we feel in everyday life.
As far as themes on their self-titled album, Donofrio explains that it’s their social commentary in a way.
“It’s speaking from the perspective of our generation and how we see the world,” Donofrio said.
Parella expresses that the album is about topics within people and society.
“The lyrics have a lot to do with the pressure that people feel and the way that pressure changes their personalities and who they end up being as people,” Parella said.
While listening to the album, fans may find themselves pondering the meaning of each song and relating to the feelings expressed in them. Donofrio elucidates that listeners will notice a nostalgic vibe in some of the songs.
“That’s definitely a feeling we tried to capture on a number of the songs in the sounds we used and the themes of the lyrics,” Donofrio said. “We were trying to capture good feelings of the past and there’s a bit of uncertainty about whether they’ll ever happen again.”
Along with nostalgia, there’s also a retro sound in some of the songs, from the 80’s synth at the beginning of “Blueberry Pop” to the 60’s Beatles vibe of “Purple.”
“A lot of the equipment that we have is just old,” Donofrio said. “Those sounds that you hear are actually synths from the 80’s. You can’t program them, you can’t use a computer; It ends up sounding retro because in those times, you had to play the instruments.”
Donofrio explains another fundamental attribute of Deal Casino.
“We perform everything that you hear,” Donofrio stresses. “We don’t play to any backing tracks, and we don’t like to record it if we can’t play it.”
With this new album, Parella shares that he’s simply happy to have something fresh to give to listeners.
“We’ve been playing these songs for about a year, but nothing’s been released,” Parella said. “Now that they’re coming out, it’s like they’re new songs to us again.”
Parella feels that lyrically, the final track “La La Land” encapsulates the meaning of the album. More generally, he said that the songs are really different musically and each has its own personality.
“The first and last songs round the whole album out. The first one is super harsh rock, and the last one is nice and quiet. They give a good idea of the spectrum of this album.”
Mirroring this, the identity of Deal Casino lies within the subtle differences in each of their personalities, and I doubt that fans like myself would want it any other way.
“I talk too much, I don’t shut the fuck up,” Donofrio said matter-of-factly. “Jozii doesn’t talk enough. Jon is a goofball. Joe P is too serious. And that’s the damn truth. Somehow, it’s a big ying-yang and it all works just perfectly.”