Let’s start with some introductions. After all, there’s a lot of family members for you to meet.
No need to take notes. A veritable genealogical chart of Jersey’s historic indie music scene will soon convene under one roof. All you need to really do is come hear them all play.
A trilogy of bands — The Campfire Flies, Wild Carnation and Yung Wu — will take the stage at Rent Party on Friday, March 9 beginning at 8:00 p.m. The event will be held at The Woodland (60 Woodland Road) in Maplewood, NJ.
Founded in 2009, Rent Party is an engaging, live music series based in Maplewood/South Orange, New Jersey. For almost a decade, Rent Party founder Chris Dickson has curated a series which features notable bands while also inviting younger audiences to celebrate the very best of Jersey indie rock history. And to top it all off, proceeds from the shows help fight hunger in the surrounding community.
The upcoming show is particularly exciting. “These bands all have such a powerful history and they are all part of the special fabric of New Jersey’s indie music scene,” says Dickson. “We are very grateful that they are also all an important part of Rent Party’s history, too!”
In preparation for the upcoming show, New Pulp City spoke with members of all three bands to discuss music styles and the rich background shared among these long-time collaborators.
The Campfire Flies
While the band was founded roughly 18 months ago, The Campfire Flies boasts a lineup of seasoned musicians from a bevy of notable and influential bands. “We’ve all been around for a long time and had sort of parallel lives,” said Deena Shoshkes, guitarist, singer and one of the four songwriters in the band.
Shoshkes, along with her husband/music partner Jon Fried, formed The Cucumbers in the early 1980s. Known for their whip-smart indie pop, the band was part of the Hoboken sound emanating out of the music scene from the once-iconic Maxwell’s on Washington Street.
(Read Donny Levit’s article and interview about the recently reunited Cucumbers).
In addition to Shoshkes and Fried, the new sextet includes John Baumgartner (The Trypes, Yung Wu and Speed the Plough), Toni Baumgartner (The Trypes, Speed the Plough), Matt Davis of The Thousand Pities, and Ed Seifert (Speed the Plough, Ed Seifert and the Stimulus Package).
The Campfire Flies is “all-acoustic. We have no drums, we sing a lot of harmony and the vocal arrangements are key,” describes Shoshkes. “It’s new for me because I’m usually fronting a rock band.”
Songwriting duties for the group are split amongst Shoshkes, Matt Davis, John Baumgartner and Ed Seifert. Shoshkes notes that she’s been inspired by her collaborators. “Ed [Seifert] has been writing these gems for decades,” she says. “He never became quite as well-known as some of the others because he wasn’t out front. But his songs are our secret weapon.”
Shoshkes met some of the musicians through the “Saturday Afternoon Song Swap” which she describes as a “songwriter-in-the-round with a lot of incredible moments.” Formed 10 years ago, the gatherings have fostered collaborations among area musicians “with an eclectic combination of interests and songs.” Rent Party founder Chris Dickson would stop by “the swap” to listen to musicians for future inclusion in his music series.
The Campfire Flies hit the stage on Friday night after taking a slight hiatus from performing while they record their self-produced debut album.
Shoshkes says she’s looking forward to playing on the same bill with Wild Carnation and Yung Wu, two bands chock-full of musicians from The Feelies. “We feel very connected with this family,” says Shoshkes. “We [The Cucumbers] were like their in-laws.”
In the late 1970s, Haledon became an unlikely focal point for what would develop into a hotbed of the Jersey music scene. With a population of barely 6,600 residents, the tiny borough in Passaic County was home to The Feelies, founded by guitarists Glenn Mercer and Bill Million. Their debut record, “Crazy Rhythms” (1980), featured a frenetic post-punk jangle with crisp, clean guitar sounds. The Jersey musicians were cited as a major influence by R.E.M. and others, while The Village Voice called them “The Best Underground Band in New York” in 1978.
Instead of heading back into the studio to record a sophomore effort, The Feelies went on hiatus and wouldn’t release their follow-up album until 1986. In the meantime, Mercer and Million focused their energies on other projects, including The Trypes, Yung Wu (we’ll get to them, of course) and The Willies. Mercer and Million would collaborate with a coterie of other musicians.
At the time, Brenda Sauter was an art student who became a fan of The Trypes — featuring members of The Feelies as well as other Jersey musicians. “I fell in love with that sound. It was like nothing I’ve ever heard before,” Sauter recalls. And she had no idea at the time that she’d later become the bass player for The Feelies. “It was a lucky break,” explains Sauter. “I was in the right place at the right time playing the right instrument…the Haledon bands didn’t have a bassist at that time.”
In return for offering bass lessons to Janice Baumgartner (sister to Trype’s musician John Baumgartner), Sauter was able to jam with the band. That’s how she got to know Mercer, Million and other Feelies members. “In the Haledon world, bands don’t often break up. They just stop playing and then start again with a different name and with different people.”
While Sauter has played in other Feelies “family” projects, Wild Carnation was later formed by Sauter with her husband, guitarist Richard Barnes. Drummer Christopher O’Donovan filled out the trilogy for their impressive first album, “Tricycle” (1994).
The record is a mix of out-and-out rockers (“The Rising Tide”) as well as acoustic and softer turns (“Susquehanna 142”). Although Wild Carnation can be delicate, Sauter’s lyrics and Barnes’ distorted guitars aren’t afraid to show their teeth. “With Tricycle, Rich [Barnes] would come up with the chords and I would come up with melody and lyrics,” says Sauter. Her voice is very much at front and center, providing a soft-touch vocal approach complemented by a driving rhythm and thick guitar. And yet the band is unafraid to soften up and slow it down.
Keyboardist Anne Hopkins later joined Wild Carnation as a full-time member in 1999. The quartet recorded their second album, “Superbus” (2006). The album was produced by James Mastro and recorded at The Pigeon Club. “Jim had all kinds of gadgets lying around, keyboards, a mellotron,” says Sauter. “There were a lot more layers.”
The bassist and singer is looking forward to playing new songs from their upcoming album. Asked to describe Wild Carnation’s sound in 2018, Sauter says that “some of the songs are a little more jammy, a little more kind of like droning, two-chord progressions back and forth rather than three or four-chord progressions.”
As the bassist for The Feelies, Sauter’s poise and contained stage movement serve as a significant counterpoint to the frenetic Mercer and Million as well as the insistent rhythm of Stanley Demeski and Dave Weckerman (drums and percussion).
“I move around more than I used to. In the 80s, I stood still. It wasn’t until I saw a video of us playing that I realized I didn’t move,” says Sauter. “At practice, everyone was pretty calm. Bill [Million] and Glenn [Mercer] were not jumping around. I remember Glenn coming up to me after my first show as a Feelie. He was smiling and asked, ‘Why aren’t you dancing?’ It was a surprise to me.”
Expect a healthy dose of new songs, including tunes from both “Tricycle” and “Superbus” at Rent Party on Friday. In addition, you’ll likely witness a tight band built on decades of strong collaboration and shared aesthetic.
The Feelies released their second album in 1986. Titled “The Good Earth,” the record was produced by R.E.M.’s Peter Buck and featured Glenn Mercer (guitars, vocals and keyboard), Bill Million (guitars and vocals), Brenda Sauter (bass, vocals and violin), Stan Demeski (drums and percussion) and Dave Weckerman (percussion).
“1986 was a big year for us. It was a turning point,” says Brenda Sauter. The band would tour as the opening act for R.E.M. and went on their first full tour of Europe. However, the group of musicians continued to experiment, shuffling their lineup in a series of side groups.
In 1987, the assemblage — or rather reassemblage — of the band featured percussionist Dave Weckerman as the frontman and primary songwriter. They called the band Yung Wu. In addition to the five Feelies, John Baumgartner (The Trypes, Yung Wu, Speed the Plough, Campfire Flies) joined the band as keyboardist.
“The band actually started as an offshoot of The Trypes,” says Dave Weckerman. “We’d rehearse during the day and then perform at a place called The Peanut Gallery in Haledon. I had some original songs. I said, ‘why don’t we have another band and then we can open up for ourselves?'”
In 1987, Yung Wu released what would be their only album. “Shore Leave” features the gentle and vulnerable sounds of Weckerman’s original songs as well as a trilogy of fascinating cover songs.
“The Feelies played a ton of covers,” says Weckerman. The intriguing selections include “Big Day,” a Brian Eno/Phil Manzanera song from “Diamond Head,” Manzanera’s album from 1975. “Child of the Moon” is the B-side to The Rolling Stones’ “Jumpin’ Jack Flash.” In addition, Yung Wu covered Neil Young’s “Powderfinger.” “We always felt that last great Neil Young album was ‘Rust Never Sleeps,'” says Weckerman.
Weckerman laughs as he recalls how the band chose its name. “We were ordering takeout Chinese food. Elbrus Kelemet sang for The Trypes; he was an eccentric figure,” says Weckerman. “Elbrus said, ‘What happened to the container of Yung Wu?’ We all thought it was very funny and that became our name.”
The cover songs served a practical purpose. “We didn’t have enough songs for the album, so the covers filled it out,” Weckerman says. “When we were on tour in Europe, we’d sometimes run out of Feelies songs. So the band pushed me to the front and we’d do songs by Yung Wu.”
“Shore Leave” will be reissued by Bar/None Records on April 20. The album will be available on CD, vinyl, and digital formats.
For the Rent Party show, Ed Seifert (Speed the Plough, Ed Seifert and the Stimulus Package) will be playing guitar in place of Bill Million.
“Surprisingly enough, we haven’t played in five years as Yung Wu. When we had practice, it sounded almost better than it ever did,” says Weckerman. “Maybe that’s the secret: when you practice too much, the chaos factor disappears and you don’t have the edge and it becomes too slick. Hopefully, it’ll be as good next Friday.”
What: Rent Party Presents The Campfire Flies, Wild Carnation and Yung Wu
When: Friday, March 9 at 8:00 p.m.
Where: The Woodland, 60 Woodland Road, Maplewood, NJ
How Much: Suggested donation at the door: $10. Money raised will fight hunger in the nearby community. As per the Rent Party motto, “But the more you give, the better you feel.”
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