Together since 1997, The Cryptkeeper Five just keep getting better and better, as does the Trenton music scene that spawned them despite a recent tragedy that will be overcome!
Trenton-based The Cryptkeeper Five are one of my favorite Jersey bands, among 12 that I say that a lot about — part of a less formalized version of the Makin Waves Dirty Dozen feature I used to write annually in East Coast Rocker. They also are the embodiment of what I call the Jersey Sound, a cross between the anthemic edge of The Clash and the rootsy lyricism of Bruce Springsteen. Together nearly 20 years in TCK5 and longer in previous acts, vocalist-guitarist Johnny Ott and guitarist-vocalist Jimmy Harrington Jr. also are the bridge between the great old Trenton scene of the City Gardens days and the new burgeoning scene resting largely on the strong shoulders of Joe Kuzemka and Griffin Sullivan of Pork Chop Express Booking.
For them, TCK5 — also bassist-vocalist Mikey Groch, drummer Brian Mazzarini, and multi-instrumentalist and vocalist Buzzy Jones — often play Millhill Basement, Champs, Trenton Punk Rock Flea Market, and Art All Night. So do Hub City Stompers, Molly Rhythm, Experiment 34 and Chalk & the Beige Americans, all of whom will play Makin Waves’ “Trenton Makes Takeover” of Asbury Park Brewery on July 14. Each has strong, longtime connections to the Trenton scene and a style and sound that the AP scene needs to know better.
TCK5 also were supposed to play a Makin Waves show on Sept. 7 at The Court Tavern in New Brunswick with The Vansaders, Bobby Mahoney and the Seventh Son, and Chris Brown — in a nod to that Jersey Sound. But since the Court closed again, that show is in limbo (anyone want to host? Too great a bill to cancel).
When not demoing the follow-up to The Stronghold, last year’s best-ever among several TCK5 albums, the tireless band also can be seen July 13 at Dingbatz in Clifton; July 18, Aug. 18 and Sept. 15 at the Millhill; July 21 at Asbury Park Yacht Club, with The Vansaders; and Aug. 16 at Debonair Music Hall in Teaneck, with the Chris Skel Band.
Enjoy this chat, in which most of the band talks about their history, love of Trenton, and evolving sound.
Q: To me, The Cryptkeeper Five are one of the best examples of what I call the Jersey Sound: a cross between Bruce Springsteen and The Clash. Comment on how and why those acts are an influence?
Johnny: We actually get told that we have a “Jersey Sound” a lot. It’s something I’m always happy to hear. We do have a bit of Jersey pride.
I’ve always liked Springsteen. My first taste of his music was a few 45s my old man had on the jukebox at home, but I wasn’t a huge fan until I was in my early 20s. As a little kid, I was, however, a huge fan of the movie “Eddie and the Cruisers.” I’d say watching that was the first moment I truly realized I wanted to play music. The soundtrack that John Cafferty & The Beaver Brown Band wrote for that movie IS completely Jersey … It’s also completely Springsteen, which I didn’t realize ’til I started REALLY listening to Bruce.
Mikey: To me the “Jersey Sound” encompasses so many different things. The Clash has been a huge influence on me, personally. I can see that comparison because the Clash and Springsteen both have songs that make you want to dance, and we try to do that, too. We’re a band with both punk and heartfelt rock roots, and I think that heart is really where our sound comes from. It’s always evolving, but we always put everything we have into what we do.
Q: What other influences are most important to you, why and how?
Johnny: The Ramones will always be my No. 1 favorite band. They are everything I aspired to be when we started TCK5. No muss, no fuss … Get in, play music, get out.
As we’ve evolved over the years, people have compared us to everything from bands like Rocket from the Crypt and The Cramps to Against Me! and Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers, which I am more than happy to hear.
All music can be inspiring. Old. New. It’s hard not to want to incorporate something that makes the hairs on your arm stand up. So our lists are always changing.
Jimmy: Ramones were definitely a giant influence on our band. For me, a lot of bands in the ’80s got me hooked. I have an older brother who use to make copies of different bands on cassette tape and would walk over to my bedroom and tell me to check this band out and the next. Back in the early days, I got inspired and hooked by old U2 albums, The Clash, The Police, Ramones and more.
Q: How have The Cryptkeeper Five evolved and changed over the years musically and personnel-wise? Are Johnny and Jimmy the only original members?
Johnny: We’ve gone from being a punk band in the same vein of The Misfits and The Ramones to being a seven-piece rock ‘n’ roll band very comparable to The E Street Band, to whatever we are right now. I’m not sure what that is, really.
Me and Jimmy are the only “original” members in TCK5. We’ve been blessed to play with so many great musicians.
Jimmy: For me, I feel Johnny and I’s style has changed dramatically since the first era of The CK5. As years pass, we shape a more unique style instead of trying to sound too much like our influences.
Buzzy: I’m the “new guy” in the band. I’ve been playing piano and acoustic guitar for TCK5 for only a few months now, but I’ve been in their orbit as a friend and a sometimes member of the band from the beginning. I’ve done stints as their drummer and bass player and have filled in on lead guitar for them, so it’s always easy for me to slip back into the lineup.
I’ve always been incredibly impressed by how TCK5 continue to evolve as songwriters and performers. The songs just keep getting better and better.
Q: I really like the Stronghold tune “Frankie.” Is that autobiographical? If so, how? Can you elaborate? What inspired it, and how did both The Clash and Bruce Springsteen influence it?
Johnny: It’s pretty cut and dry. “Frankie” is a song about growing up in the Ott household with my twin brother, Frankie. My old man wanted to teach us how to fight at a very young age so he bought us boxing gloves when we were 3 or 4. He’d watch us fight on the front yard after he’d come home from work.
I think you can hear a little touch of Springsteen’s “Seaside Bar Song” in the outro.
Q: It’s also like a prequel to “Highway Patrolman.” Which CK5 tunes do you like the most and why?
Johnny: I like the songs on The Stronghold the most. I find sincerity goes a lot further than I realized when I was younger, and the songs on that album are the most honest songs I’ve ever written.
Jimmy: “Balboa.” Johnny wrote the song but the guitar melody I wrote for it is so fun to play. Everything from the lyrics to the drums pounding is so powerful. I love it!
Buzzy: That’s an almost impossible question to answer, especially for someone who still considers himself more of a fan than a member of the band, but right now, “Ignite” from The Stronghold, I can’t get enough of. The lyrics in that one really resonate with me. When Johnny screams, “I want to set the world on fire!” at the end, it’s just the best.
Mikey: I love them all, but some of the ones I have the most fun playing are actually some of the covers we mix into our sets.
Q: What new, unreleased songs are The Cryptkeeper Five playing live, and when and how will they be recorded and released?
Johnny: We have a few songs originally recorded for The Stronghold we never officially released that we play live: “Hey Glenda,” “I Am Spartacus,” a cover of The Green Goblyn Project’s “Song Right Now” and an Arcade Fire cover, “Wake Up.” We also have about 10 new songs. We play a few of the more finished ones live from time to time.
A song we intend to record when we get back into a studio is called “Idiopathic Heartbreak.” It was originally written for a band me, Jimmy and some friends, including Anthony Catanese (Honah Lee/Pissed!), were in called The Blacklight Devils.
Q: You have been a part of the Trenton music scene for a long time. Did you grow up right in the city and do you live there now?
Johnny: I technically grew up in Hamilton Township, the first town east of Trenton, although our mailing was always Trenton. I now live in Bordentown.
Jimmy: I spent most of my childhood in Hamilton Township. I currently live on the Hamilton/Trenton border. I’m originally from Iowa.
Buzzy: I grew up around the corner from Johnny and Jimmy and have been friends with Jimmy’s brother since high school. That’s how I originally met those guys, through Jimmy’s brother. Right now, I’m living in Ewing, about a 10-minute drive from downtown Trenton.
Q: What do you like most about the Trenton scene right now and why, and what do you like least about the scene and why?
Mikey: The Trenton scene is all about people trying to do something positive. Trenton gets a bad rap, but there are a lot of people doing incredible things, especially with music and the arts. It’s a tight-knit scene because we all want to accomplish the same things and come together for something we love.
And what do I like least about the scene? That’s like asking what I like least about my wife. Kind of a loaded question (laughs).
Jimmy: I like the Trenton scene a lot. A lot of great bands, you got the Millhill, which is a great place to play in Trenton. For me, it’s like the CBGB of NJ. You also have the annual Art All Night festival, which is amazing. I highly recommend people go and support the local music and art scene.
Q: Tom Gilmour, Asbury Park’s former director of economic development who brought Madison Marquette and iStar to town, now is the executive director of Trenton Downtown Association. What do you think the chances are of his being able to redevelop Trenton the way he did Asbury Park? Could the Delaware River, arts community and the city’s venues be a focal point the way the ocean, boardwalk, arts community and venues are in AP? If so or if not, why and what do you think can be done about that?
Johnny: I’m a big fan of Asbury Park, but there was a long period of time that I can remember people referred to Asbury Park as a ghost town. I’ve never heard anyone compare Trenton to a ghost town.
There’s already a pretty devoted arts community in Trenton bringing a lot of love to the city. I’m pretty sure Artworks and Art All Night alone had like around 400 volunteers. That’s pretty impressive.
I think the revitalization of Trenton, through a lot of people’s hard work, is something that’s been happening for quite some time so I think redevelopment is totally a possibility.
Q: What do you think realistically can be done to improve the Trenton music scene?
Johnny: Nothing. Improvement, is completely welcome, but I’m completely happy with the scene as it is.
Johnny: Hah. Yeah.
Q: What do you think of the Makin Waves Summer Concert Series at Asbury Park Brewery and your “Trenton Makes Takeover” show on July 14?
Johnny: I think it’s my birthday so people should buy me some drinks!
Jimmy: Yes! Buy Johnny lots of drinks. Make sure you wish him a happy birthday.
Johnny: All the bands are rad! We’ve been playing with most of the acts, or members of the acts, since the beginning of The CK5. One of our former members (Ceilidh Madigan) plays sax in Chalk & TBA. I’m pretty excited!
We shared our first bass player with Inspecter 7 back in ’96/’97. Travis (Nelson, HCS singer) shared vocal duties with Giuseppe back then. We’ve played a few shows with I7 over the past few years, but I don’t think we’ve played with Travis in, maybe, over 18 years.
(HCS guitarist) Rob George used to sing and play sax for Buzzy’s former band, Bongo Jones. Me and Jimmy would watch Bongo Jones practice, now and then, when we were 15 or 16. They were a huge inspiration to both of us. So yeah … I’m pretty excited!
Q: Besides the upcoming Makin Waves concerts, what do Cryptkeeper Five having going on and coming up in the way of shows, touring, collaborations, videos and anything else?
Johnny: We have that all. We’re in a development process of some videos. We’re gonna start the demoing new songs soon. We’re just organizing everything right now.
Q: What side projects do you still have cookin’ these days, who else is in them, what do they play, and what’s coming up for each?
Johnny: Me, Jimmy, Mikey and our old drummer, D.T. Graves, are part of a band called The Roving Midnight backing up our friend Argyle Goolsby, formerly of a band called Blitzkid.
I play in The Mighty John Caseys with my nephew Joey Affatato of The Carousers, and I also play in Wild Hearts Can’t Be Broken with Amazing Amy.
Buzzy: I’m the frontman and songwriter for the band Pretty Goats. We have a sort of David Lynchian gypsy-punk vibe. And I’m also the drummer for a Trenton band called Band of Beards.
Johnny: Brian is also drumming for a really great Philly-based band called Alcyon Lake.
Q: Is there anything I didn’t ask on which you would like to comment?
Jimmy: Thanks Bob for thinking of us and giving us the opportunity to do this interview.
Johnny: We appreciate all the support you’ve sent out way. Thanks so much.
Bob Makin is the reporter for MyCentralJersey.com/entertainment and a former managing editor of The Aquarian Weekly, which launched this column in 1988. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org. And like Makin Waves at facebook.com/makinwavescolumn.