Makin Waves takes you back to 1987 and the release of one of the best indie records ever made by a Jersey act: The Wooden Soldiers’ “(hippies, punks and rubber men).” The 30th anniversary of the influential release will be celebrated with a performance by the band on April 7 at The Court Tavern in New Brunswick during an ’80s reunion that also will feature Chris Harford, Jigs & the Pigs, Don Dazzo of Whirling Dervishes and a reincarnation of Spy Godz.
I remember hearing (hippies, punks and rubber men), The Wooden Soldiers’ 1987 debut album on Absolute a Go Go Records for the first time in a dorm room at Rutgers University with my buddy Henry Atkins, who had introduced me to the Court Tavern about a year earlier. I was dumbfounded that a local band I had seen in a dive bar had made something that was so professionally produced, composed and performed, and that sounded like an excellent cross between R.E.M. and The Velvet Underground. To this day, “Commercial Avenue” and “Henry David Thoreau” remain two of my favorite songs released by a Jersey band because they are as much fun as they are intellectual, as well as playful, both musically and lyrically.
After going to see The Wooden Soldiers perform the record live and sell copies of it at the Court, I got the urge to get back into music writing again, which I had done for the Asbury Park Press from 1980 to 1986. Within a few months of that show, I quit my dreaded Madison Avenue PR job and this column was born in East Coast Rocker, thanks in part to The Wooden Soldiers.
The original lineup of the band — singer-songwriter-guitarists Greg Di Gesu and Paul Rieder, drummer Matt Guzda and bassist Paul Marangelo — will reunite on April 7 to play the Court Tavern for the Hub City Music Festival and will recreate (hippies punks and rubber men) in its entirety in celebration of its 30th anniversary. The ’80s reunion night also will feature Chris Harford, Jigs & the Pigs, a reincarnation of Spy Godz (click here for an interview with Sharief Hobley), and Don Dazzo of Whirling Dervishes spinning tunes upstairs. Hub City Music Festival will include 21 other shows from April 3 to 22, all to benefit the Elijah’s Promise food justice and empowerment program.
The following chat with Di Gesu and Rieder recalls those fabulous days in the late ’80s when it took five minutes to get from the stage of a packed Court Tavern to the bathroom 100 feet away. We also discussed the subsequent years for both songwriters and their bandmates, including second bassist Claude Coleman Jr., later of Ween and Amandla.
Q: How did the two of you meet and when, how long after that did you form a band, and was that band The Wooden Soldiers?
Greg Di Gesu: Paul Rieder and I met early on at Rutgers through our mutual friends Lou and Steve. We talked music, realized we both played and wrote, and eventually started playing together. Paul and bassist Paul Marangelo knew each other already, so the three of us would play. Our first live show was outside of Brett Hall (my dorm) with a drummer named Eric. We were billed as Psychedelic Breakfast. All of this was 1984 to 1985. Balaam Floyd became the next drummer as we morphed into The Wooden Soldiers with Matt then coming in as our Ringo!
Q: How did Bob Dylan and Lou Reed influence the band, what other influences did The Wooden Soldiers have, and which ones did you two share, especially from a songwriting standpoint?
Di Gesu: We loved Dylan and The Velvet Underground, absolutely. I’d say The Beatles were the underlying musical glue: the two songwriters, song-for-song, that kind of thing. Paul (Rieder) turned me on to Big Star, and I made cassettes for everyone in New Brunswick. We both had our ears pointed toward them and Alex Chilton and so much music between us at the time, with bands like The Replacements, Violent Femmes, Meat Puppets, Minutemen, Hüsker Dü, The Clash, Camper Van Beethoven, The Bongos. And the local New Brunswick bands that were around inspired us to start playing out: Crossfire Choir, The Blasés, Opium Vala, Frozen Concentrate, Young Turks, Jigs and the Pigs, Petting Zoo, Lord John. Man, the list could go on!
Paul Rieder: Hearing ‘Tangled Up in Blue” on AM radio in the ’70s made me realize that a song could say anything it wanted to for as long as it wanted to, and probably made me want to do this more than anything else. The Velvet Underground albums are the grainy black-and-white photo of some mundane experience that makes it looks like it was from a French New Wave film, and every band should aspire to being that consistently interesting. I think the far-off goal of WS was always a shambling platform of everything, like “The White Album.” I personally have also nicked ideas from Hank Williams, Woody Guthrie, Doc Watson, The Beatles, Syd Barrett, Neil Young, The Clash, The Mekons, Talking Heads, Andy Partridge, X, The Feelies, The Replacements, The Minutemen, and made them all somewhat worse.
Q: While you had distinctive songwriting and vocal styles, how often did you collaborate on songs together, particularly from the get-go?
Di Gesu: We were more in the Lennon-McCartney vein. When rehearsal would come around, we’d each have new songs ready. We always went one-for-one on songs. And we wrote alone. There were some that were collaborations, like “Amnesia” and “Opium War” and the fleeting “Mr. Van Driver,” but even then, it would be a break or some lyrics. However, Paul and I were egging each other on silently just by the nature of us each being prolific songwriters. Getting together, just the two of us, to go over new songs was something I liked, playing new songs for each other. Those “whaddya got” moments.
Rieder: We would exchange unfinished bits or make suggestions but were mostly autonomous. There are a few songs that are a kind of mind-meld of different things, but usually one person would have to finish it.
Q: In addition to The Wooden Soldiers, two other New Brunswick-based ’80s bands that I really liked a lot were Spiral Jetty and your Absolute a Go Go labelmates Tiny Lights. You three seemed to be the triumvirate at the Court Tavern throughout the late ’80s after you each had a record out. What are your most fond memories of those days, those two other bands and that venue?
Di Gesu: Memories? I can’t remember!
I love both those bands. All good friends and shared many bills and good times together.
The strongest memories are under the roof of the Court Tavern. There was such a strong, talented musical community at that time and so many people who came out to dig all kinds of music. And in that town, there was live music all over the place, all the time.
Q: Out of all the venues that existed in the 1980s and ’90s in New Brunswick, which did you each prefer to play the most and why?
Di Gesu: Court Tavern, Home of the Stars. And a shout out to Kirk Miller for making it sound so good down there!
Rieder: The Court Tavern was like playing in your own basement, if you somehow got paid reasonably well for playing in your own basement. It was always the home field. All credit goes to Bob Albert for that, I think. Most venues are either indifferent to you or actively hostile.
Q: What did you like most about working with Brad Morrison and Henry Hirsch, and what did you learn from them?
Di Gesu: Brad first showed us that we could do different things in the studio: plan it out, overdub instruments, play with sounds. We were so straight-up as a band at that point. But even still, before our debut release, we had been in studios a few times already, but just playing through the songs into microphones.
With Henry, we focused further on the sounds and getting performance to tape. He became my mentor and anything that has to do with audio engineering, I owe to his teaching and to our working on sessions together.
The Wooden Soldiers had a follow-up release to our debut called Lazy Man’s Load. Henry recorded it, and it sounds great. Based on the circumstances at the time, the album was never released. But due to the magic of the Internet, it is now eternally available for anyone’s ears to adventure. (Check it out here: gregd.bandcamp.com/album/lazy-mans-load.)
Q: In working with Brad, did The Wooden Soldiers come in contact with Phish at all or were you kind of like passing ships on Absolute a Go Go?
Di Gesu: Passing ships then and passing ships now.
Q: It’s rare that a band has two strong singer-songwriter-guitarists fronting it. How did that make The Wooden Soldiers different and how did it also bring challenges to the band?
Di Gesu: We were different in that not many bands have the two-songwriters thing going on. It brought no challenges to the band. It was effortless. Paul Rieder and I had a comfortable compatibility with songs, whether they were ours or on a vinyl excursion to All Ears Music or Princeton Record Exchange. Paul Marangelo also added gems to the Soldiers’ catalog, like “Give Texas Back to Mexico,” “‘Northern Lights” and “Pitchfork.” Matt gave us his “Bubble Song.”
Q: Paul, why did you leave the band and what did subsequently you do, musically?
Rieder: Ultimately, I think would rather play guitar and sing a harmony than sweat out front. I subsequently did that as much as possible with Greg, with Adam Bernstein, with Mark Bradley, with Pamela Wyn Shannon, with Andy Ogilvie of The Barleycorns. And now, I mostly play informally and acoustically, which I hope will preserve my hearing, while keeping that part of my brain working.
Q: Paul, were in Mark Bradley’s band, Walt Whitman’s Beard, at the same time you were in The Wooden Soldiers or was that after you left?
Rieder: Afterwards, I think, but I played as a duet with Mark before. Mark’s thing was always pretty loose.
Q: Was the 50th birthday tribute to Mark in 2015 the last time the two of you worked together?
Di Gesu: I do believe that was the last time Paul and I played live together. It’s never work!
Rieder: Yes. Mark wrote so much, we could do 10 more shows with different songs, and they’d all be just as fun. I still think there’s a chance that 100 more songs of his will turn up in a shoebox of cassette tapes.
Q: Why did Paul Marangelo leave The Wooden Soldiers, and what did he go on to do musically?
Di Gesu: Paul literally hit the trail, the Appalachian Trail! Everything was cool and communicated. We knew he was leaving the group, and Claude was lined up as the next bass player. Paul had plans to hike and go further in education and career, which ultimately led to his becoming a conservation ecologist. He has also continued as a musician and songwriter. (Check Paul’s songs out here: reverbnation.com/paulmarangelo.)
Rieder: My memory is he left right after we played with The Pixies at CBGB. Maybe he felt that he had just captured the best possible story to tell. Paul learned to play traditional music on the Irish flute and played with us when we played in Brooklyn a few years ago.
Q: How did Claude Coleman Jr. come to be in The Wooden Soldiers and what did he bring to the band?
Di Gesu: Claude joined the band via an ad we put up on a telephone pole. He showed up to rehearsal in a poncho with his bass. I remember meeting him at the basement entrance of the house that Paul and I were living in at the time; straight in to play. He was known as Matt Coleman back then, and what Matt added was relaxed, musical bass lines to the evolving songs Paul and I were writing. And we all got along and connected right away. Some real pinnacle live shows.
Q: How else have either of you worked with Claude besides The Wooden Soldiers?
Di Gesu: When I started out as a recording engineer at Waterfront Studios in Hoboken, Claude was the first person I brought in to help me “cut my teeth” before doing booked sessions. I chose him because of our friendship, my love of his songs, and the fact that he can play multiple instruments. He was a learning engineer’s dream. We made some real nice recordings together, like “Smile” and “On a Ferry.”
We were all hoping Claude could be a part of this upcoming show, but The Dean Ween Group will be touring Australia at the same time, and he’s very needed on drums! Another reason for cloning.
Q: Greg, a couple of years after Paul left, The Wooden Soldiers broke up, and you formed Fishermen’s Stew. How was that a departure from The Wooden Soldiers and in what ways was it similar?
Di Gesu: In a way, it wasn’t a departure because the songs I was writing could have been Wooden Soldiers songs. Even today, my current songs could still fit in the Soldier mold. The big difference was that Fishermen’s Stew was intentionally formed to be me and a revolving door of musicians. Hence, the catch of the day, Fishermen’s Stew, intentionally plural because at the same time, I was looking for what others would bring to my songs.
Q: What did Matt do musically after The Wooden Soldiers broke up?
Di Gesu: We played together in the early part of my “solo” career and as a member of Green Lipped Mussels along with Chris Harford and Dave Dreiwitz. Matt was always playing and currently plays with Toys in Trouble, TV Tramps and Ziggy Schock, and perhaps others. Even when there’s no music going on, he has his sticks, a drum pad and paradiddles!
Q: In relation to The Wooden Soldiers, what did both of you think when you heard for the first time Uncle Tupelo, who formed a few years after you with a somewhat similar edgy, roosty sound and personnel structure?
Di Gesu: That’s interesting you ask that because I’ve said that The Wooden Soldiers were the predecessors to Tupelo. In a lineage. I like Uncle Tupelo, especially that record, Anodyne.
Q: When was the last time The Wooden Soldiers played together, where and why?
Di Gesu: The Wooden Soldiers played in Brooklyn on Dec. 2 of last year at a rehearsal in preparation for the show at Hub City Music Festival on April 7. I needed to be up North, and it was a good time for us to check in and play. The meal together before the rehearsal was just as good.
We get together as friends. The last live show was the Court Celebration in May of 2012 at the Brook Arts Center in Bound Brook with Adam Bernstein on bass.
Q: How does it feel to be reuniting on April 7 at the Court Tavern, why are you both coming from so far away to do that, and what do you think of the ’80s reunion lineup with Spy Godz, Jigs & the Pigs, Chris Harford and Don Dazzo?
Di Gesu: It feels normal in a strange way.
Q: The April 7 show is part of an Elijah’s Promise fundraiser, Hub City Music Festival, which I believe you’ve both played before. Why is Elijah’s Promise important to you and why do you want to help them by playing this show?
Di Gesu: Paul and I have been around New Brunswick for a long time, and Paul even more so, being raised in the area. There’s been a great many changes, and with struggle being a reality for so many in the New Brunswick area, Elijah’s Promise provides services that help on a grassroots level through the power of food.
Q: On April 7, you will be performing (hippies, punks and rubber men) in its entirety in celebration of the 30th anniversary of its release. Are you surprised by how well that album has held up and how much of an influence it had on the New Brunswick music scene?
Di Gesu: It was an amazing time and place thing for this release to be received so well locally and nationally. Keep in mind, there were only a couple thousand copies, and some are still appearing presently on eBay and in random record stores.
As far as holding up over time, I think the band would agree that those recorded performances were really fueled by fast, youthful energy, and maybe a pot of coffee! Be prepared for the metronome to be set at middle-aged.
Q: Do you think there will be another Wooden Soldiers reunion down the road?
Di Gesu: Based on the fact we’ve had more than one show in the past bunch of years, it’s no longer a reunion!
Rieder: Of course! We still need to do that cover set of Beatles songs that nobody likes.
Q: Is there anything I didn’t ask on which you would like to comment?
Di Gesu: If you’d like to stream or download (hippies, punks and rubber men), Lazy Man’s Load or (1990’s) Roses of Steel, go to thewoodensoldiers.bandcamp.com. There are still some remaining copies of the hippies EP for sale on Bandcamp and available at the show on April 7 at the Court Tavern to celebrate the annual Hub City Music Festival in support of Elijah’s Promise.
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 email@example.com. And like Makin Waves at facebook.com/makinwavescolumn.