Hello Robert. How goes it in these interesting times?
Hi James. Yes, these are definitely interesting times. I’ve been keeping very busy, mainly due to the new Better Day release. I’m pretty much in my office morning, noon and night, so I don’t go out much and when I do there’s nobody on the roads, which is strange and cool at the same time. I live in the upper Northeast corner of NJ on the border of NY, so there’s a crazy amount of traffic and now it’s all gone. It’s my favorite thing about this pandemic, but unfortunately this is where the highest number of covid-19 cases is in the state because of all the people who commute to NYC every day (I’m only 25 miles from mid-town Manhattan). So I don’t go out if I don’t have to. As you said, these are interesting times.
What are the stand-out tracks from Better Day?
For me it’s about the first 5 or 6 tracks on anybody’s recordings today. I think of it like the entire side of a vinyl record, including mine. I planned to put all positive songs on the Better Day album before I started recording because I wanted to put out as many positive vibes in the world as I could. Little did I know what would be coming and how much I would need those vibes. So I would say the tracks that really standout on Better Day are the first 3—Better Day, The Wish and One More Chance. They really set up the record in a strong way.
Can you lay out an interesting anecdote concerning Better Day or specific songs from the release?
There are a couple on interesting anecdotes and they both involve The Wish. I’ll tell the first one because it happened when we went to record the basic track. I’d been playing around with the music for 25 years! At one point I took the chorus from it and put it in One More Chance to finish that song. So I finally decided I was going to record this song, which still had no lyrics when we went into the studio but I knew I was going to call it The Gift or The Wish.
You can imagine that after 25 years I could only hear this song one way. It was very up-tempo and I went in and cut a demo for it to send to drummer Steve Holley and bassist Paul Page. Now we’re in the studio and we’ve already recorded something like 13 or 14 tracks during the sessions and The Wish is going to be the last one to be recorded. Just before we get ready to run the song down, Steve Holley says he has an idea for the track. Instead of another up-tempo track, he hears it in “half-time” and adds that it will sound like a cross between Neil Young and Pearl Jam. Interesting, right?
Now for 25 years I’ve only heard this song in one way, so I really don’t understand what Steve is talking about unless I can hear his idea. When I’m in the studio I try to keep as open a mind as possible so that I can basically turn on a dime if I feel the need. Steve has caught my attention with his suggestion and what you need to know about Steve Holley is that when he talks, you listen. The man is a legend in musician circles and one of the most sought-after drummers in NYC. He’s played with everyone, including guys like Paul McCartney, Elton John, Joe Cocker and Ian Hunter. He just might be the best all-around musician I’ve ever had the luck and pleasure to play with. So I’m really listening to what he has to say. Lol
But the truly outstanding thing about Steve Holley is that he’s probably the most humble, down to earth guy you could ever meet. You would never know that he has this amazing resume, and if you did and he walked about all into himself, you would totally accept it because you’d be thinking, yeah that’s Steve The Man Holley!! LOL
We run Steve’s half-time rhythm idea down a few times to get the feel for it and once we do, it’s immediately obvious to me that it’s right on the money. I turn on a dime and we record the track you now hear as The Wish. I actually love when something like that happens because it kind of frees me up from being in my own head too much. Thank you Steve!
Your new single “Modern Ways” is being released in late May. How did the track come to be?
Again, this is one of my older tracks. This one just turned 40!! I can’t believe I just said that. LOL
It was written around 1978 or 79 when RnR was making a comeback with New Wave . It was a very cool time, when Elvis Costello, Dave Edmunds, Nick Lowe, The Pretenders, The Police etc. were making the scene from the UK and guys like Tom Petty were just starting here. Punk was gaining acceptance. I was in a band called The Tupelos and Modern Ways was the opening song to our set. It was a bit faster back then—short & sweet. Some nights the song was a total blur, depending on our adrenalin. 🙂
When I left the band to work solo it was one of the first songs I re-worked and recorded. I took the tempo down a notch to give it more of a pounding RnR feel by adding piano. I also decided to embellish and expand it a bit by adding a Chuck Berry type of guitar intro as kind of tongue-in-cheek to set up the listener as a play on the title—old school RnR in a song called Modern Ways. I wanted to make a bit of a statement with it because around the time I wrote it, Telephone Solicitations started to occur. This is before call-waiting and the anti-spam software we have today. So every day after 5pm the phone would start to ring and you would answer it because you had no idea who was calling and you answered the phone back in the day. Then you would get the pitch and waste 30 minutes of your life trying to get off the call. lol
I decided to revive the song because it’s probably more in sync with today than it was 40 years ago. Also, knowing I had Steve & Paul to play on it? I mean they’re also the rhythm section for Ian Hunter’s Rant Band, so how could I pass on the chance to make a RnR statement with them? Let me tell you, it was really FUN! I also brought in guitar ace Lance Doss to help me give it the guitar edge it deserved. Lance is like a guitar player’s guitar player, if you know what I mean, so I couldn’t wait to hear what he would add.
I’ve said in previous interviews that part of DownTown Mystic’s mission is to help bring rock’n’roll into the 21st Century. The Modern Ways single does just that for me because I also included a 2nd track called History, which is about how RnR started. I also included History because it was co-produced by my friend and longtime engineer Ben Elliott who sadly passed away a few weeks ago. I did the video for History as kind of a memorial for Ben. Then John Prine died the next day and it reminded me of how I came to write the song Tomorrow’s Clown after meeting and watching Prine perform on a show that my band opened for back in college! On the album, Tomorrow’s Clown is song #4 followed by Modern Ways, what are the odds?! So it’s a bittersweet moment right now with everything that’s going on.
Better Day features a glamor shot of you on its cover. Why is that an important differentiation from the rest of your corpus of album art?
Wow James, that’s a very astute question. You were paying attention. 🙂
Obviously I’m not a young man and with the name of the project being DownTown Mystic, I wanted to create an aura of some mystery. I mean there were always photos on the inside of the cds but not on the cover. I’m not really into, as you say “glamor shots” because I prefer to let the music do the talking and I’m not a big fan of having my picture taken, especially posing for them.
In this case I had been contacted by an LA photographer named Mark Maryanovich on LinkedIn, of all places. He would email me and send things and one day I finally called him to see what he was up to. I’d looked at his work and could see he was really good, plus I liked his vibe. But the thing is today, everybody has a phone with a camera, so the idea of an actual photographer taking your picture seems strange somehow, you know?
About a year earlier Mark told me he was coming to NYC to do a photoshoot for the band Dream Theater and maybe we could get together. The one photoshoot I had done was already 6 or 7 years ago, so I decided I needed to get some new shots to use in the future. When I decided I was going to record a new album I called Mark and said let’s finally do this because I really needed to get my head back into being an artist again. I wanted to be in the right frame of mind to go back into the studio because it had been awhile and by being Mark’s center of attention, it helped me to focus on myself and what I was doing. Plus we had one of the most epic mornings you could ever have in NYC, starting at 5am. We still talk about it.
I have a massive 4 or 5 part blog post I’m currently writing on the making of Better Day that’s up on the DownTown Mystic website. The photoshoot is Part 1. I always felt that the photoshoot with Mark would actually be the start of the Better Day project and it was…glamor shots and all. LOL
“Read the Signs” makes its re-appearance on Better Day. How is this iteration different from its original appearance in 2007?
There are 2 songs on Better Day that were not previously released digitally—Read The Signs and Tomorrow’s Clown. They were bonus tracks on the DownTown Mystic cd so nobody heard them. Lol When I decided to release One More Chance as the 3rd single on the run up to the album I added Read The Signs because I wrote One More Chance with Bruce Engler, who originally did the track and we also wrote and recorded Read The Signs together. So it just made sense to me to include it as part of the single, but I wasn’t going to put it on the album. There were a couple of other songs ahead of it, but eventually, I had to put it on because it became part of my story.
Going back to interesting anecdotes concerning Better Day…fun fact—a month into recording I was diagnosed with MDS which is a condition for pre-leukemia. Suddenly all of the song titles took on very different meanings, which wasn’t lost on me. That’s when I knew Read The Signs had to be on the album.
Regarding this iteration of the song, I had it re-mastered from the original mix. It’s a bit different sound-wise because the original master had more things going on to enhance the recording and I took those out for this one. And not to leave you hanging…I looked at the MDS as a good thing because I finally had a diagnosis for some health issues I’d been going through for the last 2 years. The good news for me was that there’s a cure for MDS with a Stem Cell or Bone Marrow Transplant.
I got a Stem Cell Transplant almost a year ago. They kill off your immune system to make way for your donor’s stem cells and after the transplant; you get the immune system of a new born baby. I have to get all my vaccinations again. It’s wild! When I got out of the hospital I had to self-quarantine in a bubble for at least 100 days to be germ free. How bizarre is it that 6-7 months later everybody in the world has to do what I’ve been doing for almost a year now? Welcome to my world.
While you represent the soul of DownTown Mystic, you always incorporate a number of individuals into each aspect of your releases. Who contributed to your cast this time around?
My main men were Steve Holley on drums and Paul Page on bass. They did most of the album. I‘ve already mentioned Lance Doss adding his guitar on a couple of tracks. Another bittersweet moment was having the songs that drummer Tommy Mastro played on. Tommy passed away a few years ago from ALS and was the guy who inspired me to try out and record some of my songs when I was managing a band he was in called The Discontent. Little did I know at the time of the session that it would light a fire in me and develop into a full blown project called DownTown Mystic. I recorded 6 tracks at that 1st session with Tommy and Discontent bassist Eric Hoagland. Lost & Found was one of the songs we cut that day and it’s the last track on Better Day.
The last session I ever did with Tommy we cut 4 tracks, starting with One More Chance in the afternoon and 12 hours later ending with Tomorrow’s Clown. It was just Tommy, Ben and me recording at 1am and you can hear Ben’s voice at the top of the track say “we’re rolling” after he punched the tape machine. It’s something he must have said in my headphones a few hundred times in over 20 years of recording with him at his Showplace Studios in NJ. Ben recorded everything DownTown Mystic ever did and it’s the end of an era for me and a quite a number of other people. He will be greatly missed.
I should add that P.J. Farley of Trixter fame plays bass on One More Chance and Tomorrow’s Clown. He cut One More Chance with me, Tommy and Bruce Engler in the afternoon session then had to leave for a gig and came back the next day to record bass parts on a few songs including Tomorrow’s Clown.
There are 2 other people who had a big hand in the making of Better Day. The 1st is Stephen DeAcutis aka Stevie D. After recording at Showplace I did the rest at The Spa Studios because Steve had just got a new Neve board for mixing. Plus he’s a really cool guy and also a great guitar player. He was finishing up his 1st solo album featuring Corey Glover on vocals of Living Colour fame. Steve would rescue me one night by playing his great solo on The Wish.
The 2nd guy who shows up on about half the album is another great guitar player and longtime collaborator, Bruce Engler. Not only did we co-write 2 songs on the album but I also covered his song One Step Closer. The only cover I ever recorded was She Said, She Said by The Beatles for the 5oth anniversary of Revolver a few years back, so Bruce is the 1st artist I’ve ever covered. I used to manage Bruce when he started out as a singer/songwriter and I’ve always loved his voice and style of playing. I especially liked One Step Closer when he wrote it and I knew I had to make it part of Better Day because it really resonated with what I was going through.
What has the fanfare (popular and industry) been for Better Day?
The response has been great so far, especially at Worldwide Radio. The Better Day single was released with the digital album in late January and became my biggest success at UK Radio with over 80 stations playing it. It’s currently getting airplay on over 300 stations in 27 countries. Added to that number are 24 of the top In-Store media companies that are playing Better Day, with a combined total of over 1 million stations in 41 countries. Even if only 1 % of those stations are playing me that would still be 10,000 stations!! My mind just exploded. LOL
How can listeners hear tracks from Better Day?
Everyone can hear Better Day on Spotify: https://tinyurl.com/ybwyls8o
Modern Ways Single: https://tinyurl.com/ydbpun4j
What are your plans for the rest of 2020?
I’m just getting started with the release of Better Day. I’ve been working it since the digital release in January and now the cd was released on April 17, so I’m back at Americana Radio for the 1st time in 4 years. The only problem is this pandemic has closed down colleges where some of the radio stations are and they won’t let anyone pick up their mail. So my cd is sitting in a mailroom somewhere at these schools. So it could be another month or so before things start moving again. I’ll just have to bide my time and be patient, right James? lol
Thank you so much for your time.
Thank you, James for the opportunity to talk your ear off. It’s always a pleasure.