10,000 Maniacs

“MY UNCLE CHARLIE read somewhere that we were a cult band so he thought we were playing for the Moonies. He even confronted me with it; he said, ‘are you giving all your money to the Moonies? Is that why you don’t have any money?'”

The image of the typical American band is changing; maybe not quick enough for 10,000 Maniacs guitarist Robert Buck’s uncle Charlie to cotton on to the term ‘cult band’ but definitely to the extent that whereas a year or two ago your average Brit beat buff might cite Van Halen or the Go Gos as typically American bands he could now drop such hallowed names as R.E.M., Dream Syndicate, Let’s Active – and indeed the 10,000 Maniacs.

Six ex-students out of Jamestown, New York via every dream they ever had, the Maniacs represent an old breed of band given a new lease of life by the interest currently being shown in the American independent scene.

Of course several of the above have already taken their place amidst the corporate machine that they were once reacting against (a costly move on the part of the Dream Syndicate, judging from their recent disappointing London show recently), but for the time being the likes of the Maniacs stand as the long neglected, currently feted (their recent London shows went down a storm) antidote to homogenised schlock rock.

The reason for this lies not, surprisingly enough, in their music – a brave but a trifle bookish bringing-together of black and white musical influences behind poetic lyrics best described as a sombre shade of grey – but in the way they have chosen to operate – not on the interstate route af AM airplay and stadium supports but along the ‘blue highways’ of self-contained self promotion.

With their Christian Burial record label and ’75 Dodge Tradesman schoolbus I’d probably call them modern day troubadors but the band prefer to see themselves as the last of the pioneers with a twentieth century version of the covered wagon.

But despite their sixty thousand miles gig trail and healthy sales of their Human Conflict No.5 EP and Secrets Of The I Ching LP (both finally available in the UK after months on import) independence doesn’t necessarily mean a place to call your own.

Welcome to Jamestown? “I suppose it’s like all those terrible places in teen movies like Fast Times At Ridgemont High, someplace with little substance, the kind of town that has no real arts scene and where most of the bands are real uncool.”

You get the impression it doesn’t pain John Lombardo too much to make disparaging remarks about his hometown. After all, it was merely an accident of birth or further education that brought himself and the remaining five maniacs (Buck, vocalist Natalie Merchant, keyboard player Dennis Drew, bassist Steve Gustafsan and drummer Jerry Augustyniak) together.

Their aim? To get out out Jamestown they reckon, but alI agree it was never a conscious (i.e., wildly careerist) as that.

Natalie: “We started out as a warehouse jamming party. We’d invite people over and we’d sit around experimenting with different instruments. The first time I went along I never thought we’d play a gig, never. I was really irked when somebody said, ‘hey we’ve got to learn twelve songs and get ourselves some gigs’, because I thought that would take all the fun out of it. As it’s turned out, it hasn’t.”

Within the Jamestown scheme of things the 10,000 Maniacs were the fledgling exception to an ear-numbing rule – the Top Forty ‘covers’ band. But at those early gigs non-originals played an important part.

John: “We did covers in the beginning but only because we hadn’t been approaching the band from the ‘let’s write songs’ angle, and we only did songs we liked.”

“It’s embarrassing looking back on it now but we used to do a lot of new wave stuff we liked – the Cure, Joy Division, the Gang of Four, stuff like that – and a whole lot of reggae.”

Natalie: “We used to do a Gang of Four medley. It consisted of just one bass riff with me singing the entire Gang of Four catalogue over the top of it!”

Dennis: “But that’s how we principaly learned to play because Steve had never picked up a bass before and I’d never really tried playing the organ, although I’d played piano for a while.”

Natalie: “Because we used to play a lot of reggae we used to get written up as a reggae band. People would come along to our gigs expecting dreadlocks and robes and find a bunch of middle class white kids.”

However tenuous, the association did get them a support with Steel Pulse in Buffalo for which they received the notice “occasionally compelling”. A grudging summary but one the band must learn to bear.

Beside their fettered recorded work the live appearance I witnessed at the Marquee the other week (along with representatives of every record company trading methinks) was both full blooded and frequently exhilarating but the musical hybrids served up made me doubt not so much the band’s coherence as their confidence.

Where was this band’s viewpoint?
The answer lies in the midst of Natalie Merchant’s haunting if despairingly humourless lyrics. They’re without doubt the focus of the band’s contributing energies – they often ride roughshod over musical concerns.

But if Merchant’s words are being read aloud in poetry classes Back Home where does this leave music of the kind that gurgles quietly beneath the harrowing solemnity of a line like “Faces scorched of all familiar bearing” (‘Grey Victory’)?

John: “It’s the same use of irony that makes everybody mistake us for a hardcore band on the strength of our name. There’s a lot of irony in putting harsh lyrics on what many people consider to be pretty music – although I personally think it sounds kinda sad – but some people miss out on it.”

And the music itself?

“When you’re playing records at home on your stereo you generally play maybe a reggae track followed by something completely different. We’ve all got the kind of attention span that flits from style to style because that’s how we consume music.”

Jerry: “But a guy came up to Robert once and said ‘Hey, you guys are real good but you should do all dance music because when you played one of your slow ones I have to sit down and listen to it’!”

We all laugh at the underlying attitude exposed by such a remark but we know we should be weeping. The 10,000 Maniacs are intelligent people – several members of the band want to return to college when they’ve saved the funds needed under the US system – and it’s the intellectual famine they acknowledge to be rife in America that their difficult, sometimes cumbersome music seeks to combat.

Not with any surly pretentiousness or mindless irascibility, but a sworn effort to serve up some unpopular facts (chiefly the impending Holocaust) in a palatable way.

All power to their elbows – and that Dodge truck.

© Bill BlackSounds, 6 October 1984

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