by: Tim O'Brien
A week from today, Jamestown's 10,000 Maniacs will release Peace Train, the first single from their new album. And the band is planning to film the video to the record locally.
The band's second major-label album, In My Tribe, is due in record stores nationwide July 22.
Lead vocalist and lyricist Natalie Merchant said the new record is more personal than the band's first national release, 1985's The Wishing Chair.
"I seem on this album to avoid really broad issues," she said.
That's not to say the Maniacs will not tackle important issues on the album: The topics include child abuse, alcoholism, homelessness and illiteracy.
Michael Stipe, vocalist for the band R.E.M., accompanies Ms. Merchant on A Campfire Song, a song about exploiting natural resources.
One of her favorite songs on the record, she said, is Verdi Cries.
"I wrote it last summer when we were rehearsing at the Palace Theater," she said. Producer Peter Asher then enlisted a quartet, three strings and a piano, to perform on the record.
"It was just really exciting to work with the players he hired," she said. The song was recorded in one take, an unusual occurrence in rock music.
What's the Matter Here?, written by guitarist Robert Buck, is another favorite, Ms. Merchant said.
"I like them all, which is good because we'll be doing them another three years - or 10 years, depending on how long we go on doing this."
If the album was not by her band, Ms. Merchant said, she would still buy In My Tribe.
"I think I would really like it. And that's the way I listen to music. I don't look for a particular sound or style. On this album, there are so many different styles represented. I think I would really be enticed by that."
The record encompasses bits of gospel, folk pop, rock, disco and string music, she noted.
Unlike The Wishing Chair, the new album does not refer to local places. "I did write a song about my brother. It's a home reference, about him joining the Army against my wishes."
All but one song is original. Peace Train is a cover of a Cat Stevens' song. But Ms. Merchant said she is not sorry the single was not written by the band. "I think it's the best way to introduce people to our band."
Once people become familiar with the single, she said, "Maybe they'll be more open to our original material."
The video to accompany Peace Train will be filmed locally next week, Ms. Merchant said. It may film in Allegany State Park or by Kinzua Dam. [webmaster's note: they ended up shooting the video in Connecticut]
But she added she wants the video's content to remain a surprise for now.
The band's records - which include two independent releases - have received greater recognition overseas than in this country. Half the copies of The Wishing Chair were sold in Europe. And the band has received letters from fans in Japan and even Poland.
While the first album only sold 70,000 copies, Ms. Merchant said Elektra, the band's record label, has not put undue pressure on them to come up with a hit this time. The band's contract calls for them to produce eight records.
With In My Tribe, she said, she would like to see the band at least double sales of its first album.
The band's agreeing to work with Asher, who produced hits for Linda Ronstadt and James Taylor, helped Elektra keep faith in them, she said.
"A lot of people hear horror stories about the way people in the record industry manipulate bands," she said. But the Maniacs have never experienced any problems with their label, perhaps because its president is a fan.
Asher also was receptive to their ideas, she said. "Every step of the way, he was very diplomatic. He kept reiterating, 'I want the band to sound like the band.' He just improved on the actual sounds of the recording."
While the first album was designed as a whole, the Maniacs focused on writing some singles for In My Tribe, Ms. Merchant said. "We had written songs that could get us on the radio."
To write a song, Ms. Merchant said, "we usually come into rehearsal with a chord progression and decide on a rhythm pattern."
She then picks out a melody, and the lyrics flow from it. "I get certain images in my head when I hear music," she said.
The new album will be released on compact disc, and The Wishing Chair will also be available on compact disc for the first time - with two more songs.
Ms. Merchant said she grew up listening to bands like Roxy Music and David Bowie and knows what a "powerful addiction" music can be. That's why musicians must be careful about choosing what they say.
"I think music can unify people in a way," she said. "What can be more personal than a person singing about something they feel strongly about?"
While Jamestown's 10,000 Maniacs are eagerly awaiting critical and commercial reaction to their second major album, In My Tribe is only one part of their growing career in the music industry.
The band, whose Elektra debut The Wishing Chair drew critical raves but limited sales, has been receiving various offers as a result of their popularity in Europe and growing respect among other American musicians.
The band's growing recognition has prompted offers to be involved in many causes, lead vocalist and lyricist Natalie Merchant said. "We were just asked to play a benefit for a hospital in Nicaragua."
People for Ethical Treatment of Animals has asked them to record a song for a benefit album, and the cause is one Ms. Merchant, a vegetarian for seven years, strongly supports.
"There are so many tests performed on animals that could be done in test tubes," she said.
Amnesty International, a well-known peace organization, also is organizing a tour which could put them in the same lineup as rock star Peter Gabriel.
Up-and-coming artists Crowded House and Suzanne Vega have asked the band to perform as their opening acts. The Maniacs have already opened for some of Ms. Vega's performances.
"We're getting to a really good point in the career," Ms. Merchant said.
Ms. Merchant said she does not think she wants to perform in a rock band forever but she envisions herself involved in music all her life.
"I do see music as my entire life, but not just in a rock band," she said.
She would like to write a musical and have it filmed, she said. A Rochester band called Nehru Zombies has already asked her to choreograph a dance.
Guitarist Robert Buck would also like to become involved in film scoring, she said, and he has the technical talents to do so.
The band will begin touring the United States in August, and it will be in Europe throughout September before returning for more U.S. concerts. No performances are yet scheduled in Jamestown.
If the new album is a hit and enables band members to give up their part-time jobs and buy homes, she said, it is likely the band will leave the city where all five members still live.
"I think because we've seen all of America, we've seen places that would suit us more," she said.
Since she no longer has family living in the city, she said, there is less tying her to the area. "But it is home, and it's good to come home."
If she leaves, she added, she would miss Chautauqua Institution, the summers and, yes, even the snow.
But Ms. Merchant said she would prefer living in a large city with a variety of cultures like New York or Toronto.
"I love to be in cities where there is a mix of people from all areas," she said. "It makes me feel like a citizen of the world."
On A Campfire Song, lead vocalist Michael Stipe of the popular band R.E.M. accompanies Ms. Merchant on vocals.
Like R.E.M., whose fourth album quietly achieved $1 million in sales, 10,000 Maniacs is being given a chance by its record company to catch on over a series of albums.