Joe Michelini on the Birth of American Trappist, Leaving River City Behind & Returning to Asbury Park


It’s no secret that I was a massive fan of the Toms River-born, Asbury Park-bred folk outfit known as River City Extension. They were one of the first bands that really accepted us into the Asbury music scene, and their Thanksgiving Eve show at The Stone Pony in 2011 still ranks as one of my favorite shows at the famed venue of all-time.

So it was a complete and utter bummer when the band called it a day a few years ago.

But we’re not here to lament the past, because out of the ashes of River City came American Trappist, the new band from RCE’s heart, soul, and voice — Joe Michelini.

The concept of American Trappist has been absolutely enthralling since the jump — the music is Michelini’s most adventurous and creative work to date, the promotional side of things has been innovative and clever as all hell, and the potential this band posses within itself is staggering.

Recently, I had the honor of catching up with Michelini as he and American Trappist get ready to open for Langhorne Slim at the House of Independents in Asbury Park on Saturday.

Photo Credit: Brian L. Tice, Jr.
Photo Credit: Brian L. Tice, Jr.

First off, I love the name American Trappist. What’s the backstory behind this name, and how does this name reflect the sound you’re striving for with the band.

I wanted to make something distinctly American, but since we’re all immigrants maybe I should say “through an American lens,” or maybe I could go back even further and just say I was interested in being myself. I was interested in making something more about who I am and what I have experienced than who I’m not. I felt like I was running for a few years there. I grew up interested in world music and European culture, and I am still interested in those things in specific ways. But, I can’t say I really knew what I had here, or knew what it meant to grow up in New Jersey. The more I chose to recognize myself as a product of this area, the more encouraged I was to make something new and distinctly American, er “nothing more than what I am, nothing less” – something like that. I think for some artists this is a given, for me it wasn’t. It took some time.

The Trappist part well, like everyone else I got swept away by the craft beer boom, specifically Trappist ales. They are the root of a lot of the funkier, open fermentation beers that people call “American Sours.” I’ve been to Belgium now and visited some of those monasteries & breweries. There’s something about the monastic lifestyle I really connect with, like I’m able to circumvent my own religious upbringing. The way they think about god makes sense to me. At that time in my life I was also falling in love with Leonard Cohen. He had a lot to say about god and writing and beauty. He was a monk himself at one point, albeit a different kind. It all just sort of came together for me. I thought, “American Trapppist- that’s me. That’s really who I am.”

Photo Credit: Chris Loupos
Photo Credit: Chris Loupos

The social media marketing for the band has been one of my favorite things about this band, outside of the music of course. What was the inspiration to make these old school camcorder videos?

Like most people my age, I grew up with those camcorder home videos. We also didn’t have cable growing up, so if we watched TV it was PBS or something like that. I guess when I thought about how I would communicate with the outside world via social media, I wanted it to be entertaining but I also wanted it to be natural. I heard about an application for the iPhone that allowed you to film fake VHS home videos and I thought “ah- that’s it!”

American Trappist, in my opinion, is a very different band from River City Extension. How did you discover what you wanted this new project to be about? Was it something you always wanted to do, and once the old band ended you finally got the chance to do it, or was it more of a natural, evolutionary process that eventually came to you in a eureka moment?

It was a super natural, evolutionary process. I mean with River City ending there was a lot of pain in my heart, and that’s good; pain is a good place to start. In some ways, not being in River City did free me up, but I don’t think we ever really felt caged in that band, maybe to a fault. Especially as the years went on we became more confident that we just had to make what was in our hearts. I don’t think that’s how you play the game, necessarily. But then you ask yourself, am I here to play the game? What am I doing? That led to me writing my mission statement right before RCE broke up. But now I get to look back on the band’s catalogue and still feel the reward of those choices. I still like those records because we made them our way. Can’t put a price on that, even if the price was the end of our career as a band. Everyone else moves on but all you have is what you made. All anyone has is what you made, unless they’re married to the head of a record label or friends with the artist, and the majority of people who enjoy art are not.

I started writing the American Trappist record at the very end of River City. I had a few pieces here and there, a chorus, a verse, etc. It wouldn’t have turned out this way though if I had recorded it with those guys. Lots of them still played on it anyway, but it wasn’t a “band effort.” I guess I didn’t realize how interested I was in being in a rock band. I was always looking for that energy onstage in one way or another, but now when I get onstage with just a strat and try to make it sound as ugly as possible, and strats are not ugly sounding guitars, something in my heart & mind really aligns. It feels natural.

Was there a difference in the writing the record from both a lyrical, and musical standpoint than when you wrote the River City records?

No I don’t think so. I mean yes it’s there, it is different, but it’s linear. It’s just who I am now. Leaving River City helped me along and moving to Philly helped me along, but I just wrote songs the way I always have: I wrote about what I could, said what I could how I could when I could, worked on them until I thought they were ready and then picked the best ones. I considered trying to be a pop writer for just a second after the band ended, but it’s just not who I am, I’m not good at it. Also, at this time, I had already committed to getting better at being myself, so writing for radio didn’t last very long.

You moved from the Asbury/Jersey Shore area out to Philadelphia — did a change in scenery help the evolution of American Trappist?

Yeah, and specifically I moved from Toms River. I guess I feel the need to bring that up is because I always felt like I was with the Asbury scene, but not of the Asbury scene. I’m not trying to talk it down, I just think there is a distinction that both myself and the bands there can appreciate. Asbury has a sound and an energy to it that I always enjoyed, but it never really made it into my writing process. At least not the way my strange suburban Seaside Boardwalk life did. I got into Bruce really late, for example.

But yeah- moving to Philly had a big influence on the record. Even though eventually, I would come back to Toms River to record it in my old bedroom at my parent’s house. I’ve always loved the Philly scene, and I think even now I’m not sure if I belong to it. I think I’d like to, there’s a lot of good stuff going on there, but I wouldn’t pretend to wear any stripes I haven’t earned. I’m a very small fish in a very large and interesting pond. I like that. Keeps you humble and fresh, like you always need to make a new piece of art to defend yourself with. It’s energizing and inspiring. I think when I moved to Philly I felt threatened or something. That was good for me too. Made me want to make something really good.

You were the voice, and the heart and soul of River City Extension for years — were you ever concerned there’d be resistance to this new project from your existing fanbase?

No, I never really worried about that. I think the greatest disservice I could do to our fanbase would be to lie to myself & them about who I am and what it is that I want to make. There are other people better at lying to themselves and deceiving their fanbase in that way than I am, and I don’t think that’s why people started following River City Extension. I owe them my real self. It’s a sign of respect.

You performed weekly in Asbury Park this summer at the Asbury Park yacht Club, how was it coming back to Asbury with a new band and performing?

Photo Credit: Chris Loupos
Photo Credit: Chris Loupos

Phew! We played a lot of shows over the summer. It was great. It was really hard. For a while it was just Shane Luckenbaugh and I, with Shane on drums. He also co-produced/engineered the American Trappist record with me. We lucked out when Peter decided to give us a shot. That residency helped form the band; it helped speed up that ugly, difficult learning process. We had some really bad shows there, and some really good ones, but we owe the good shows to the bad shows. Justin Sanford (of Breathing Blue, Modern Television, Bounders) and Lewie II (of Algebra II) joined on keys and bass respectively for the last month of that residency. I think those last few shows really gave us the chance to become a live band, one that was able to feel comfortable with one another onstage.

I read your mission statement on the American Trappist website. You have a lot of things you want to accomplish with this band — with the first full-length record out, do you feel you accomplished any of these goals, or are on the road to accomplish them?

I think I’ll spend the rest of my life trying to fulfill that mission statement. I may even abandon it at some point. I just needed a center. Near the end of RCE, someone asked me why I wanted to make music, and up until then making music had just been very impulsive for me. I grew up making and playing music, so why wouldn’t I continue to? But I realized I wanted an answer to that question internally and I was ok with that answer changing over the years. So I wrote that mission statement and it hasn’t changed it yet. I think we are currently accomplishing what I talked about in that statement and I hope to move even closer to those goals in the years to come.

What does the future hold from American Trappist?

It’s impossible to tell. I just want to be in a good band, that’s all. American Trappist doesn’t have to be the biggest band in the world, I just want it to be the best band in the world, by our own standards. I’ve played so many shows and I would hope by now I know what I’m doing. I have no interest in the music industry. I’m interested in art that took diligence and soul searching to perfect. I’m interested in art that had many drafts, that felt inferior and threatened, that in turn grew strong and self aware. I’m interested in art made against other art. I’m interested in expressing new emotions and facets of the human condition through written & recorded music. I’m interested in art that tries hard to be the best version of itself. I don’t really care for anything or anyone that doesn’t care about themselves or what they’re making. I understand that’s a trend now. Disgusting. Who you are and what you make is all you have, and when you die what you made is all anyone else will ever have of you. Memories fade, context changes, people die- art lives forever.

American Trappist performs with Langhorne Slim Saturday at House of Independents. Click here for tickets.

Bill Bodkin is the gray bearded owner, editor-in-chief and co-founder of Pop Break. Most importantly, he is lucky husband, and proud father to a beautiful daughter named 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