July 17, 2012
No, I’m not talking about a tribe of mud people who live in the woods of West Virginia; I’m referring to a brash and unstoppable force called River City Extension, who are, as you read this very sentence, unleashing one of the freshest sounds of the summer, shaking booties and destroying genre classifications along the way. While their sound brazenly defies traditional classification, if we must, let’s mix equal parts folk, Americana, and punk. With such an eclectic brew, the question is fully begged: is it possible for a band without a clear genre to gain a following, especially in a time when labels are everything?
New Jersey’s River City Extension‘s sound satisfies as deeply as late night comfort food. We may occasionally dabble in adventurous dishes like “ambient cucumber tartare” or “psychedelic love oysters” flown in from the fog-hooded waters of San Francisco, but we’ll always come home to solid, rocking grooves and jolly tambourines as happily as tomato soup and a grilled cheese. This is not to say that RCE are predictable like that storied rainy day meal; they are, in fact, anything but ordinary.
RCE released their debut, The Unmistakable Man, in the spring of 2010, followed by a far-flung touring schedule that led them into the next summer’s festival circuit, including Bonnaroo, the Newport Folk Festival, and the Vans Warped Tour. The eight-piece outfit quickly gained a reputation for high-energy, wall-busting live shows lead by the compact and unexpectedly soft-spoken Joe Michelini, who demonstrates a remarkable ability to transform a crowd of strangers into fast, huggy friends with an hour of energetic, impassioned performance.
Even if Michelini won’t declare the new record a step forward, Don’t Let The Sun Go Down On Your Anger certainly brings the band to a new level. Producer Brian Deck (Margot & the Nuclear So and Sos, Modest Mouse) lovingly polishes each song while leaving them slightly rough along the edges, showcasing the raw folk and bluegrass influences. RCE gives fans exactly what we want: powerful singalongs (“Ballad of Oregon”), heart-wrenchers (“Standing Outside a Southern Riot”, “Glastonbury”) and energetic danceable tracks (“Welcome to Pittsburgh”, “Everything West of Home/Brooklyn (Reprise)”).
Though the summer is still young, this release has earned a place among the season’s most exciting. The band allows guitars to dominate some tracks, ceding to horns on others, all the while allowing each of the members to weave their personal threads into the group’s fabric. Over an ominous bass line and brooding cello, Michelini croons, “Whatever nonsense brings you down/if you need someone to hang around/till last call when we can’t even speak/to the fall and the need to be free.” He tells listeners that River City Extension will be around for as long as audiences will have them, which I predict to be a long, long time.
TNB Music sat down with Joe to pick his brain about beer, the Avett Brothers, and Don’t Let The Sun Go Down on Your Anger, which was released June 5th.
First, how about a quick history of the band?
I knew Mike, our drummer, from high school. And I knew Jenn, our cellist, from playing cello together when we were both young. I had gone through a couple of acoustic ensembles and then the three of us started playing together senior year. We met everyone else through shows and through a music scene. We met our guitarist Nick, who recorded on this record, after he opened for us at a couple of shows, and Danny was his roommate, and so on and so forth. It was a very organic process.
With so many people collaborating, what is the songwriting process like?
The arrangement and recording is collaborative but the songwriting process isn’t. I come to them with the songs and then we discuss them generally as a band. Sometimes I’ll come with a specific idea, but that doesn’t always mean it’s the best idea. There are also times when [the band] gets inspired by something that they want to try. But we always work together.
A lot of your songs have to do with places you’ve been, like “Mexico” and “Waiting in the Airport.” How much influence does travel have on your songwriting?
A lot! Sometimes songs just come out of you, like the song “Mexico”, even though I’ve never been there.
Does “Standing Outside a Southern Riot” have a similar history?
There’s a story behind that. We were at The Camel venue in Richmond, Virginia after a show. And we were hanging out at the bar, taking shots of Jameson. That night, there had been an important VCU basketball game, and there was a riot. It was really inspiring, standing out there and seeing this riot happen two blocks away and going out and dancing with all these people. But I went on to have other thoughts. That song had started a year or two before that night, but I had sort of put it away. And when the riot happened, the idea came back and became a cohesive idea.
What’s it like being on the road with a band of eight people? Is it a constant party? Are there any rules of the road?
For the first year, we were really scared. For the second year, it was a constant party. Now that we’re in our third year of touring, it’s become about what the most sustainable thing is. We do have a lot of rules, actually. But it’s not restrictive things; it’s a matter of function. We’re a lot of people tying to do a lot of things. If we have a structure that we can weave ourselves in and out of, it helps provide direction. This tour is really different, too. We have a new record coming out, we’re trying new things, and touring with different members. What you put in your body, what you’re eating and drinking, how much you’re sleeping and exercising will affect a tour. This is the first tour where I’m eating healthy and have made a promise to not drink beer until after our set. Sounds like I had an issue, but it wasn’t like that. Beer constricts your vocal chords because it’s a diuretic. You’ll sing flatter than normally. Also, you can’t really hear yourself when you’re onstage. Instead, you have to trust muscle reflexes. So if you’ve drank something, and you can’t hear yourself, you might sing right below where you think you are. Learning about stuff like that has helped us make a tighter tour and a tighter live show.
Are there any locations on this tour you’re excited to visit?
This (Washington, DC) was one of them! And this night was awesome. I’m excited to go back to Austin, San Fransisco, Portland, and Pittsburgh. Akron, Ohio, also. Those are all the band’s favorite cities to play in.
Where do you hope River City Extension will be at the end of this tour, as friends and also as a musical group?
I feel progress every day, with individuals and with the band. A lot of people on this tour came on a bit last-minute. So we’re still learning to trust each other and get our sea legs. This record is a huge step for us—that doesn’t really mean a step up, but a step in any direction. And it’s different than the last record. I hope that people hear it, understand it, and are excited about the change. I hope I come home happy with the decisions I have made and ready to take on the future.
What music have you listened to recently that really excites you?
I’ve been listening to a lot of My Morning Jacket recently. I also really like St. Vincent. And I’ve been listening to this band from Brooklyn called Merrily and the Poison Orchard. When you hear a record that’s that good, of that caliber, it hits you. It’s like the first time you see a really great movie. Sometimes you only see it once and you remember it. But I had a chance to dig into her record over and over again and I fell in love with it. I think that she’s a great writer, musicians she plays with are very talented, and the arrangements are beautiful. The record that’s out right now is called Time in Hell.
I would call RCE genre-defying. How do so many musical influences mesh well?
I don’t really have a lot of trouble with genres because I don’t take it that seriously. There’s nothing wrong with saying “This is rock.” My Morning Jacket is a rock band—they’re more than that, but they’re a rock band. I grew up on a little bit of folk: Jim Croce, John Denver, James Taylor. I grew up on a lot of church music and classical music. That’s exciting to hear that someone would find us genre-defying. I just write what I want to write and we play what we want to play. When we’re working on a song, we think “What’s the best thing we can do for this song?” When you record a song, it cries for something. For instance, “Welcome to Pittsburgh”, on the new record, cried out to be a 50’s pop song. That wasn’t my vision for it, but it just felt like the right thing to do.
The new album, Don’t Let The Sun Go Down On Your Anger, comes out June 5th. Are there any prominent themes on it?
It’s definitely thematic. It has a lot to do with traveling, but it’s mostly about forgiveness—forgiving yourself and forgiving other people. That’s what the title means. Let the issues of the day be the issues of the day, because otherwise they turn into resentment. We should give as much grace to other people as we can allow ourselves to give. Also, a lot of this record is about change. I was a less responsible human being for a couple of years. As a result of that, and as a result of being clumsy, other peoples’ lives were affected. When it came down to growing up, there was a lot of talk about the past, hurt, forgiveness, and growth. Many of the songs on this record were written during that time.
What do you want your audiences to take away at the end of the album?
Whatever they want! Whatever they interpret it to be, however they apply it to their own lives. There have been people who have misheard our lyrics, but those words meant the world to them—to me, their versions are the lyrics. I want people to think of it as their record, apply it to their lives the way they want to, and just enjoy it in general.
On your dream tour, who opens for you, and who do you open for?
Damn. For this record, we’d open for My Morning Jacket and Deer in the Headlights would get back together and open the show. In general, the dream tour is headlined by Paul Simon and the Avett Brothers are with us. But then again, I would never let them open for us. I would always play before the Avetts. I have so much respect for them.