by: Mark Hendrickson; page 13
With a name like 10,000 Maniacs you might expect a bunch of punk rebels. Or worse, country mongrels. And you'd be right. Because this quintet of Jamestown, New York musicians are both those things and more.
Ever since their debut album, The Wishing Chair (Elektra), the Maniacs have sent writers scrambling for adjectives to describe their sound. Is it a combination of punk and country, gospel and reggae, folk, rock or classical? After hearing the much more sophisticated In My Tribe, one would say the Maniacs blend all those styles. And elegantly, too. But with their cult following blossoming into a bonafide legion, 10,000 Maniacs are faced with the common problem of commercialism versus innovation. Only time will tell whether or not this fresh young band can find the balance between the two. Including the Cat Stevens hit Peace Train on their latest record maybe the first step towards that balance. But for now, the Maniacs are enjoying the recognition they richly deserve.
I spoke with Natalie Merchant, petite lead singer, musical force and spokeswoman for the group, on the eve of the Maniacs' performance at The Ritz.
MARK HENDRICKSON: Let's talk about Jamestown.
That's not a place usually connected with musical creativity.
NATALIE MERCHANT: No, it's not! And I guess you're asking why 10,000 Maniacs are the exception? Probably because we were so alone up there. Isolation played a major role. Without other bands there was no one to compete with and/or be influenced by; we sort of had to do things on our own, as we wanted them done. I mean the only influence any of us really had were those records we put on our turntables.
MH: And what were some of those?
NM: Fairport Convention, Joni Mitchell, Joan Baez, The Mighty Lemon Drops even. I tended, as I know most of the others did, to go after more obscure tastes. I suppose that's where the real inspiration comes from for most bands. How many bands do you know have been influenced by, say, The Go-Gos? Not too many, I hope!
MH: So it was this "isolation" that caused you to blend country, blues, punk, etc.?
NM: I don't think the Maniacs made a conscious effort in the beginning to blend all those styles. I think it just came from taking from what we liked, whether it be reggae this week or folk the next. Sure we wanted to be different, every band probably does, but we also knew we had to be honest to ourselves and play what we liked. That way it doesn't get boring night after night and we can stand ourselves!
MH: When you started out in 1981 you were led by John Lombardo. He since has gone on to try other projects. Why did he leave and is "led" too strong a word?
NM: No, led is pretty accurate. John was like our big brother as well as our musical mentor. He was at least ten years older than anyone else in the band and he'd 'been around,' as they say, for a very long time trying to make "this music thing," as he called it, work out. And when things didn't happen quickly enough for him, he split. He recorded a couple of albums with us and he's definitely the dominating factor on those records. But now he's gone and that's probably the best thing that's ever happened to us.
NM: Because suddenly it's like, where's John? What do we do now? Well, it was pickup the slack time! Suddenly everyone had to carry their own weight musically and it really helped us become a tighter unit. As a band, especially with the rhythm section, we needed to come together more. And John's departure helped us do that. That's not to say we wouldn't have matured more and integrated more with John staying. I'm sure we would have grown either way, stay or go. It's just that John's leaving gave us a much needed kick in the ass.
MH: So, having established that there ain't much happen' up there in Jamestown, what did you do next? How did you break out of the muddle?
NM: The muddle. I like that! Well, we went to England, so to speak. We recorded an EP called Human Conflict Number Five and an album, Secrets Of The I Ching, that did fairly well in London. So, we sort of went there, in one sense! One song in particular, My Mother The War, even got some airplay in and around London.
MH: You made those records on your own label, didn't you?
NM: Yes, Christian Burial was the name of it. I know, it takes a lot to go ahead and start your own record label, but we did it! We did everything from record the music to package this material! We also did all the selling! We did everything.
MH: Most bands wouldn't have the gumption to do things like that.
NM: "Gumption"? I love it! That's what my mother used to say! You've never been to Jamestown, have you?
MH: No, but I've watched Petticoat Junction a few times.
NM: It's not at all unlike that! Anyway, back to the point. Yeah, private record labels are ,a good avenue for young bands to get recognized. I wouldn't necessarily recommend the process for every band, because the work is so exhausting and it doesn't always pay off, but for us it did.
MH: Then Elektra Records discovered how popular the Maniacs were becoming?
NM: Basically! No, seriously; Elektra saw we were building up a large underground following so they signed us. By the way, I hate that phrase, 'underground following.' Sounds like a bunch of gnomes crawling around drainage systems.
MH: Not far off the mark when you're talking about college kids!
NM: True. Very true. But at least college kids are nice gnomes!
MH: Back to the point. Elektra signs you and you record The Wishing Chair, with John Lombardo still in the band.
NM: Yeah, I guess you'd say that was our first 'breakthrough,' although I don't really know what it was that we broke through! That album was great, I really loved, the songs on it. But something was lacking in the rhythm department, everyone felt it. We did a remake of My Mother The War for the album and it did all right, but nowhere near our expectations - or Elektra's. But at least the world was 'introduced' to the 10,000 Maniacs sound.
MH: And how would you describe that sound? 'Cause a lot of us 'critics' are finding it difficult to categorize this band!
NM: Good! And you know I was going to say that, didn't you? Actually when you first described us as a blend of country, blues, punk, gospel that was pretty accurate. Maybe I'd thrown in reggae as well. .
MH: How do you feel about the new recorded In My Tribe, your first without John Lombardo and your first with producer Peter Asher?
NM: I like it a lot, I really do. Of course, you always think you can do better, but I'm really satisfied with the rest of the album the way it came out. But I'll ton you. It was a unique experience working with Peter. Neither Peter nor the band had ever worked with someone like the other before. Peter has never worked with a band before, where almost all the decisions are democratic. And we had never worked with a name producer. It was an experiment, and I think it worked.
MH: Let's talk about you briefly before we wrap this up. Do you ever worry that you, the cute lead singer, the woman, will get more spotlight than the rest of the hand (Dennis Drew, Robert Buck, Steven Gustafson and Jerome Augustyniak)?
NM: At first I thought about that, briefly. But then we all decided that maybe having my ugly face in all the pictures and me doing most of the interviews wouldn't be too much of a bad thing. It allows the group to concentrate on the music, letting me take all the heat! And that's really the way it is, too. I mean, I take all the heat, but we all share the glory!
MH: Doesn't seem quite fair, however.
NM: Who says life is fair! Seriously, I have broad shoulders. I guess I'm just a natural leader of sorts. I can take it.
MH: You've also been compared recently to Suzanne Vega...
NM: Not a comparison I enjoy. Not because Suzi's not a great person, she is. It's just that our styles are completely different. Maybe it's because we both sing about controversial issues. Maybe that's where the comparison lies. Anyway, I don't think we're very similar. But I guess when you have two women in the music business singing about important topics it draws comparisons.
MH: How about Lone Justice and Maria McKee?
NM: Not at all! We are much more diverse than they are! To be honest, I really don't listen to Lone Justice much, or Suzanne Vega, or much of anyone new. I'd rather put on Fairport Convention or someone like that.
MH: And there's another one! Sandy Denny is someone you're often paired with.
NM: Well, she was an influence, no doubt. So I guess I don't mind that one! But really, I think all the comparisons and stereotypes stem from the press' attempt to categorize us, to define our style. I realize it's not an easy thing to do. Of course, if I have a choice, I'd much rather keep you guys guessing! Redundancy can be so boring!