bill bodkin speaks with a New Jersey band destined for great things …
“Hailing from Toms River, N.J., River City Extension is a high-energy folk band who sounded and performed exactly how they looked: indie, sweaty and unique. What impressed me the most was their seemingly undying love for their music and the absolute endless energy they performed with. Definitely have to love a band who brings everything they have to a concert.” – Pop-Break, 2009
These are the thoughts I had after standing two inches away from River City Extension when they opened up for Nicole Atkins nearly two years ago on Thanksgiving Eve at The Stone Pony in Asbury Park, N.J. Since then, River City Extension has become the shining star of the Asbury music scene — they’ve graduated from opening act to headlining The Stone Pony’s biggest night of the year (Thanksgiving Eve), they’ve gone outside the local circuit and have toured the country gaining glowing accolades from major music publications like Spin Magazine and Alternative Press. They’ve performed at Bonnaroo, The Bamboozle, The Warped Tour, The Voodoo Festival and soon will tour outside the country in Australia.
So it makes perfect sense for River City Extension to return home on the biggest reunion night of the year — Thanksgiving Eve. It’s the night where everyone goes out, reconnects with old friends, has a few beers and enjoys great music. On this night of reuniting, River City Extension will be bringing everything they’ve experienced, learned and created from the past year on the road, touring the nation and sharing it with their friends, their hometown crowd.
Pop-Break recently spoke with River City Extension’s lead singer Joe Michelini while he was in Chicago working with the band on their new, yet to be released record about the Thanksgiving Eve show, the new record and their touring adventures.
Pop-Break: On your website it says, “First and foremost, thanks for your patience and support over the last year. I can’t help feeling like this show is overdue.” Why do you feel this return is so overdue?
Joe Michelini: This summer we did a lot festivals, and it kept us busy. It didn’t just keep us busy, it kept us out of the area as far smaller club shows go. I like doing festival during the summer, but I also like club shows because they’re more intimate and you’re having more of an experience with your audience than you are at a festival. And that’s why I feel [the Stone Pony show] is overdue. We haven’t played any club support shows in New Jersey for a while, and what’s nice about this fall is we’re playing D.C., New Jersey and Philly all within two months. I feel like it’s time for this to happen and I’m happy to be back in these areas — playing markets we’re familiar with and seeing a lot of familiar faces.
PB: Was it intentional for River City to not frequent the Jersey area, or is that just the way it worked out with all the touring and festivals? And does not being in the area and returning make hometown shows a bit more special?
JM: When you come back and you see people [you know], you want it to be special. You want it to be important. You want it to be a cheap show. You want it to be a really special thing. We’re trying to tour a lot, so that happens by default, we’re not in the area a whole lot. I think that we want it to be a one of a kind thing. When we’re with our crowd, playing a show in New Jersey we want it to be a special, intimate experience and it’s hard to pull that off a couple times in the year. You don’t want it to get old, you want to keep it interesting and let those nights be both those nights.
And that’s what was cool about this summer, it wasn’t like we weren’t around, it was just that on these festival dates we were getting shorter sets, smaller sets but we still got to interact with people in New Jersey and the tri-state area. And to come back, we’ll be able to do an hour and a half, two hour set and showcase a lot of bands that we love. I don’t want to overdo that — I want it to be a really, really special thing. Anything like that, you don’t want too much of — you want it to be just right. And because we’re touring so much, this will be just right. And next year, we’ll be playing New Jersey more. I think we’ll be playing more club shows than we did last year, it just happened to work out that way.
PB: Going back to the Pony show, the first time we saw you live you were opening up for Nicole Atkins in 2009. That night had been her gig for quite some time, but last year it became yours — the baton was passed in a way. Can you go back to that night and tell us about the emotions you guys were going through that day?
JM: That was wild. That was really, really crazy. The fact that we booked the night was a big deal for me and the band. I remember getting ready for that show and being in the green room and someone came in and said, ‘There’s a lot of people here.’ I hoped there was a lot of people, we had just started touring and this was our first time back from the road. I couldn’t have imagined it the way it was, though. I remember saying, ‘I don’t wanna go out, I don’t wanna go out, I don’t want to see all the people.’ I didn’t want to get disappointed or overwhelmed. But I did peak out during Brick + Mortar’s set and it was like, ‘Wow, this could be cool. This could be really cool.’
It felt like a first of some kind, I don’t how to describe it, but it just felt like a first. Walking out on that stage and playing that show and playing tighter than we ever had as a band before because we were touring together and seeing the room more full than I had ever seen it, at least one of our shows, it was a really, really awesome night. Our friends bands played, our friends were in the front row, there was a bunch of people who didn’t know on top of that. The Stone Pony is such a cool club — we just felt comfortable.
PB: Here’s a bit of a broader question: Nearly 365 days later, how do you feel that the band has evolved and matures in terms of sound and as a band itself.
JM: Everything is different. I mean … we’re still here, we’re still the same people, we’re still making music for the same reason, but it’s just different. We’re in the studio right now. We’re making a record that I feel is different for us and hopefully is a step in the right direction. I think what’s cool about the fact that its been a year and that we’ll be able to deliver something different.
We toured a ton this year, and that really changes a band. There’s a lot of new songs and recording them is really changing us as a band — how we’re playing them and how we’re delivering a live show. I wanna give off something that’s dynamic and emotional. I think that was always something implied by our records and live shows, but was never quite there. You have to have a really intense live show without a set of intense songs. You have to bring it down to a really sad emotional level sometimes and then you have to bring it back up and then bring it back down again and that dynamic helps. You just get a well-rounded meal so to speak.
I think we’re learning to appreciate different things within ourselves and what we can and cannot do. I mean, it’s going to be weird, this record is going to be in two weeks…done done. It won’t be out until April or May but when we come back for The Stone Pony we’re going to spend a while in the rehearsal room and be like ‘Okay what are we going to do that’s like this record, what are we going to change to make it more live show friendly.’ That’s going to be a challenge but I’m really looking forward to that. It’s always gamble, I never know [how it's going to turn out] and I never think I should know. I had nightmares about this show two weeks ago that we were there and there were 10 people there and we hadn’t rehearsed and our backline wasn’t loaded up. I don’t know, these things freak me out and they always will.
I guess the goal is to give off an image of growth and the growth that’s internal. But no one should make the mistake [in thinking] that every time I walk on the stage I’m not shaking … we all are. I think this will be something we can enjoy and everyone else can enjoy. We can spend time with our friends and loved ones.
PB: Let’s talk about your new record. Who’s producing you guys? Where are you recording? And how is recording this new record different from The Unmistakable Man?
JM: We’re out in Chicago right now. We doing our record with Brian Deck, he produced a bunch of our favorite stuff. He produced the new Margot And The Nuclear So And So’s records, some Modest Mouse, a plethora of Iron & Wine records, a Counting Crows record. All bands that have an influence on one or all of us in the band. And that’s been really special. He’s such a great producer and a great person. He’s really forced us to open up as band and work hard as a band. It’s different for us being in a new city and actually living at the studio. We’ve got apartments connected to the studio and some of these sets will be performed in our pajamas. It’s really different. When I wrote the record, I thought. ‘Oh this is going to be something different.’ And the Brian started talking about ideas for the record, and I thought, ‘This is going to be REALLY different.’
There was a point the other day when Brian was working on an idea and I was so … I wouldn’t say appalled, but I was really put off by it. I was like, ‘I don’t understand what you’re doing, I don’t understand where this going’ and I had to excuse myself from the studio. I had to say [laughs], ‘Okay, you need to finish your idea in the studio before I completely shoot it down.’ Because I was sitting there being grumpy about how it didn’t sound the way I wanted it to sound. I went for a walk, relaxed and when I got back they had finished fleshing out the idea, Brian had in his and it was really, really, really cool. It’s about trust in this situation, it’s going to feel a lot more natural. We have a lot of space this time to do live tracking so that’s good when you’re getting a take where the energy is actually there. A lot of the songs that we play live, a lot of the newer songs, are on this record and those sound completely different. I feel really challenged by it and I feel awesome about.
We’re running this blog right now called I Am In Bloom, which shows the progress of the records from now until the release date.
PB: ‘Different’ is the word you keep mentioning about this record. I loved your last record, it was really beautifully done, so very much alive. So tell me how is this record your working on right now sonically different from Unmistakable Man?
JM: There’s a lot more subtle layering to it, there’s a lot more pieces to it, but it’s not overcrowded. This is a darker record for sure. It’s not specifically a dark record, but it’s darker than the last one for sure. It’s very emotional. I would like to sit down and say that I sat down and wrote this dark, deep, emotional record but that’s just not the case. These are the songs I wrote after Unmistakable Man. I didn’t sit down to and say, ‘I’m writing these songs this record.’ I did on some songs, I really wanted to finish them so I could put them on the record, but I have too much to learn yet and artists that do that [write songs for a specific record] are absolutely insane, and I hope to be that one day.
For the most part, this is the next collection of songs that came. So it’s pretty natural, it’s pretty organic. We didn’t make an effort to make it different, it just came out that way. There’s some stuff that has a classic rock ‘n’ roll feel to it, there’s some that are very emotional in a classic country/folk kinda way.
[In regards to influences,] I think when you hear someone do what they do naturally it’s just the greatest thing in the world. The Kanye West album that came out last year, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, if you listen to that record, it’s so, so natural. He’s not rapping, he’s just creating, it’s just completely inspiration. And I hope to make a record like that not just, ‘Here’s my story, he’s my song, here’s my folk song, here’s the chorus.’ Rather I’d want it to be, ‘Here’s this emotion I’m going to try and communicate to you. It doesn’t matter if it’s a rock song, folk song, country song, rap song. Here’s me and all I have to give to you and all I have to express to you.’
And I think those are the most natural sounding records to me. Maybe I’m just trying to convince myself of that because I can’t write The Crane Wife [the album by The Decemberists] but maybe not. There’s a lot to do with spirituality on the record as has come up in our music before, but now in much more of an evident way. The record was written in three particular times of my life — it’s more or less about three people who’ve had an impact on my life and whose lives I have had impact on and the bad decisions I’ve made along the way and of growth and forgiveness. The main theme of the record is forgiveness and love and letting go of anger and understanding how to show that to people and how to move on.
PB: You’ve been on tons of tour and fests this year, and it seems with every new show more amazing praise comes your way. It was earlier this year that SPIN Magazine called you one of the Top 10 bands to watch at The Bamboozle Fest. How do you wrap your head around all these accolades?
JM: I giggle, I guess. That’s crazy to me. It’s awesome, you kinda let be what it is. Reading good reviews is the same as reading bad reviews of you. If you read a bad review and you’re, ‘Oh man, I’m such a whatever band. They called me this.’ It’s not worth it to get down on yourself. And reading good reviews is bad too, because then you start to put value in those things. It’s not that I don’t love seeing our stuff in magazine and newspapers, but music is so relative. It’s like a shot in the dark if you’re reviewing a record — especially if you’re minus an interview. Everyone who reviews a record should interview the artist first even if they hate it. Music is about perception, 100 percent relative — it’s about how was your drive to work, how was your life, etc. The same thing happens to a person who reviews your record. It’s not that the reviewer is doing something bad to you it’s their interpretation and preception of the record and that’s why you have reviews in publications you trust. But it’s all about perspective, the point you’re at in your life. Some music you hear it, and you don’t like it right away, but six months down the road, you do hear it and you do like. It’s hard to take anything in print without a grain of salt.
But to answer your question, when I see things like that, I am simply flattered.
PB: You guys played the Warped Tour this year. I’ve seen your name on other fests, and it always made sense. However, with The Warped Tour — it’s a legendary punk, hardcore and ska festival. Was it difficult winning over fans? Did you have a hard time fitting in or has this festival changed so much over time that you guys fit right in?
JM: Yeah, it was kinda difficult, but everyone likes music for a different reason and it is not my place to judge. If people come out and go, ‘Oh, that’s cool, man. I love so and so who’s on the Warped Tour and I saw you guys and you had a cello in your band and that was crazy.’ It’s not my place to turn around and say, ‘It’s not about the cello, man.’ I mean, who am I? He digs the cello, let dig him the cello. When we got an offer to do the Warped Tour, when a group we didn’t mean to be a part of digs us and wants us to play, why not? I just want to play. We didn’t lose money on the tour, we didn’t waste our time, we became a better band, we fought through a hard festival. We made friends and communed with bands we normally wouldn’t be playing the same night with, and we met a band of fans that would never have come to one of our shows. You gotta look at the good in things and appreciate the fact that people appreciate music.
PB: Did this make you guys push harder? Did you see performing on the Warped Tour as a challenge that you wanted to tackle head on? Were you motivated to play that much harder to prove yourselves to an audience that, like you said, wouldn’t normally come check you out?
JM: Yes and no. Warped Tour is a really hard tour to do. You get there at 7 a.m., you’re out of there at 4 p.m. or 5 p.m. or 7 p.m., depending when you play. Then you have 12 hours where you overnight in the van until 7 a.m. the next day. We were on a relatively small stage, which was cool because even though we were playing with bands who fit the style a little bit more, we really made some really awesome friends because everyone was at the same grind. Everyone lugged their gear, however many hundreds of feet to the stage, everybody set-up, everybody was hot and thirsty, tired and grumpy. Through that we never thought we needed to win these people over. It was more like it was going to be what it was going to be. Somedays we’ll sound good, somedays we might not sound good. We’re just going to do the best we can but we didn’t intentionally challenge ourselves because there was a such challenge that presented itself from touring on the Warped Tour with a van and trailer.
PB: And finally, you guys opened for The Avett Brothers at The PNC Bank Arts Center in Holmdel, N.J., earlier in the fall. How did you guys get hooked up on this and can you talk about performing at the biggest outdoor concert shed in New Jersey?
JM: We’ve played with them before. We inquired about the show and then someone from another party who didn’t know we inquired, inquired about us — so it just happened to work out. It was intimidating at first. We walked out onstage and I had earplugs in and I couldn’t hear the crowd, I just heard whatever, a dull noise like wind blowing. When you’re up there, they have these big white lights from the back that shine in your eyes. So I couldn’t see anything, I couldn’t see the front of the stage, people, whatever. So after 30 seconds, it was just another show.
Then for the last song we were closing with “Something Salty, Something Sweet,” and I took my earplugs out and I remember having this moment on stage during the musical break and Mike is doing a drum solo and I hear people just screaming and screaming and I just kinda welled up and I thought I was going to cry and throw up at the same time. And then I just snapped out of it and we finished the set. Then I walked off stage and then I collapsed. It was cool!
River City Extension’s East Coast dates include: Tuesday at The Space in Hamden, Conn.; Wednesday at The Stone Pony in Asbury Park, N.J. with Waking Lights, Wild Rompit, Prairie Empire, and The Front Bottoms; and Friday at the 9:30 Club in Washington D.C. They also have a New Year’s Eve date with Good Old War at the Theatre Of The Living Arts in Philadelphia.