Do yourself a favor. The next time you feel the urge to rush off to a corporate megastore with the intention of purchasing the latest Top-40 soul sucker from Max Martin and friends, log in to YouTube instead and type in “Frank Zappa Interview (MTV, 1984).”
I suggest this, because perhaps the science being dropped by Zappa throughout the course of the discussion will enlighten you to the error of your ways. If you can’t bring yourself to turn off the E! Network long enough to absorb anything of consequence, allow me to give you the gist of what he acerbically lays out for the viewing audience.
What he said is that mainstream music is becoming nothing more than a marketing tool used by suits more concerned with profit than elevating the artistic culture at-large. He believed that MTV’s pay-for-play business model was responsible for compromising the integrity of what a lot of serious musicians had initially set out to create.
Not only did he say these things while speaking with a reporter from the same network he was raging against, but he also said them at a time when music videos were reshaping what industry executives deemed important.
Not much has changed, sadly, as we sit here in 2015 at the mercy of a scene that appears to have sold its soul a long time ago, so it’s a good thing that we still have groups like 10,000 Maniacs around to serve as a beacon of hope in our otherwise sun-deprived climate.
As a lifelong western New York resident, 10,000 Maniacs have held a special place in my heart from the moment I caught a glimpse of the band’s mesmerizing performance on MTV Unplugged back in 1993.
Although original vocalist Natalie Merchant is long gone, the guys have soldiered on with Mary Ramsey at the helm ever since and their latest album, “Twice Told Tales,” is a beautiful recording decorated with enough soulful, perspicacious moments to pass even Frank Zappa’s test for authenticity.
After all, who would ever confuse an album inspired by traditional British folk songs as being motivated by anything other than a pure love of the craft?
I spoke with vocalist Mary Ramsey and bassist Steven Gustafson recently about the record, and, needless to say, their enthusiasm was infectious.
MNOD: Where did the idea for Twice Told Tales originate from?
Gustafson: Folk music has always been at the root of our band and original member John Lombardo came to us with some tracks that warranted further investigation. We were always into the 70s folk of Sandy Denny and Fairport Convention, so this material came naturally to us once we all got in on the process. 13 or 14 of the tracks were a cappella at the beginning and recording them was almost like putting a Butler Yeats poem to music, which is a beautiful thing.
Ramsey: Celtic and traditional music are part of my background, so the style comes easily to me. I began singing a few folk songs during our shows and they really grabbed the crowd’s attention, so we decided to build an entire album around them. I came across a few fiddle tunes from the 1700s called ‘Lady Mary Ramsey,” which happens to be my name, and they’re also included on the album.
MNOD: How did the idea of crowd funding the album come about?
Gustafson: That sort of thing is quite popular these days with sites such as Kickstarter, so we wanted to get involved. We didn’t have a label or a sugar daddy looking to fund our album, so we met with the head of pledgemusic.com and decided that it would be a good fit for us. This way, the fans are intimately acquainted with the process through video updates which I provide and über-fans are able to gain further access to the process if they’re willing to pay for it. Without our fans, we’d be in an endless rehearsal process, so it feels great to be able to give back to them for their support.
MNOD: Are you looking forward to taking the material on the road?
Gustafson: We’ve already done it in Washington D.C., which was fun to play, because both casual and über-fans show up looking to hear both the new and old material. I call them über-fans, because I know exactly who they are. There are about 400-500 committed fans of our band that want to hear stuff that we haven’t played in forever and get really passionate about everything we do. So far, though, the new material has gotten a great response from what I’ve seen.
MNOD: What does it mean to be having the release party in Buffalo?
Gustafson: We did it, because it’s easy and convenient to play for fun in our hometown. It’s always special whenever we play Buffalo, so, when the topic came up on where to have the release, we thought that Buffalo would be the right place.
Ramsey: It’s always nice to be home, because our family and friends can come out to celebrate with us.
MNOD: How excited are you about this record compared to others?
Gustafson: It was a very intense process and I’m sad to see it go. Every album feels about the same to me, because they’re like your children. You give birth to ideas and the process of bringing them to life on record can be both really fun and really challenging.
Ramsey: It was a really rewarding process for me. Every new creation is always special, but getting the audience’s immediate response to this material in the live setting is even better.
MNOD: What was it about these particular songs that stood out to you?
Gustafson: They really came out of standards that artists such as Bob Dylan have covered in the past. John Lombardo was able to make them dramatic, atypical songs whose arrangements fell right into our wheelhouse, so we worked them out quite well.
Ramsey: I’m always drawn to songs that have an emotional story to tell and a lot of these were sparse a cappella pieces that were made whole by our approach to them.
MNOD: Do you feel as if they process of making an album is still worth it given today’s marketplace?
Gustafson: With any creative endeavor, I like to do what’s naturally occurring and try to avoid letting outside circumstances interfere with our direction. Making music is what we do, so it’s always worth it for us to get our ideas out into the world. Making a record is like a cooking a big soup, because you pour your heart and soul into the recipe hoping to craft something you’ll be happy with.
Ramsey: Creating an album can be a cathartic process for both the artist and the audience that consumes it, so it’s always worth it for me.
MNOD: Because of the fans’ direct involvement in the formation of this record, does your excitement level become even greater when you see how many people still want to hear the band?
Gustafson: It’s very rewarding. We’re able to connect with the fans while receiving both emotional and financial support.
Ramsey: When I first became the lead singer, my expectations were just to be true to myself and to do the best job I could. I love our fans and the opportunity to share an experience with them night after night is always amazing.
MNOD: You’ve been immersed in the WNY music scene for a while now. What’s your favorite thing about living in Buffalo?
Ramsey: There are so many different things going on and a lot of talented people. I especially love having Canada so close and how well the artistic community is flourishing at the moment.
MNOD: Being one of the founding members of the band, what does it mean to you that the band is still going strong after all these years?
Gustafson: It’s a beautiful life. We’re able to travel and meet people from all over the world. For those who don’t mind touring every night, it’s an amazing experience. As a band, the task of proving ourselves every night is what drives us, because we never want our worthiness called into question. We were 23-years-old at the start and now some of us have adult children, so time goes by fast. The camaraderie and friendships we’ve cultivated through the years are always motivating factors to keep on going.
MNOD: Do you still get the same level of enjoyment out of playing the classics alongside the newer material?
Gustafson: Some of them have that “not that again” feel, but we’re always rotating songs in and out as the tour goes on. I think we’ve gotten into a nice mix we’re comfortable with, so the back and forth with the audience really propels us to work harder than ever to deliver. Even the older songs can be unpredictable on the stage, because there are new touches that arise that can change how we feel about them.
MNOD: How did starting out in Western New York impact the direction in which the band decided to go?
Gustafson: Well, Jamestown was kind of a sleeper town where we felt isolated, because it was difficult to hear new music on the local pop stations. Thankfully, our proximity to Toronto enabled us to hear the FM stations that would influence our sound, but the reason we started writing our own material is that we couldn’t play covers very well. I think it was a great story for the media to cover in the beginning, because we weren’t just another LA or New York band emerging on the national scene.
MNOD: What are your favorite moments from being in the band thus far?
Gustafson: Our first Tonight Show appearance is definitely up there for me as is the USO show we played in the Middle East near Bahrain. One moment in particular that stands out, though, is the first gig we ever played, because we had only been a band for six weeks and weren’t very good. We were playing a bar in Erie, PA and got into an argument with the owner about the show, which led to a fight made worse by the fact that we had all been drinking. Getting kicked out of our very first gig made us believe we were definitely going places.
Ramsey: For me, playing for the troops in Bahrain and Kuwait was really special. We were in a tent city right near to Iraqi border. Also, the Clinton Inaugural Ball in 1997 was a great experience for us.
10,000 Maniacs will headline Rock the Barn on July 17 in Clarence, NY.
See http://www.rockthebarn.com for details.
“Twice Told Tales” is available now at your local record store.