Thirty-five years after releasing a collaborative album titled Nuts and Bolts (see videos, below, of four of its songs), Richard Barone and James Mastro of The Bongos will perform as a duo, once again, at a benefit for NJArts.net at Tierney’s Tavern in Montclair, Oct. 6 at 8 p.m.
Glenn Mercer, an old friend of theirs from the days when The Bongos and Mercer’s Feelies were the two most prominent bands in the Hoboken rock scene, will also perform with his own Glenn Mercer Band, and Elk City will both open the show, and back Barone and Mastro on some numbers.
The Bongos formed, and started releasing singles, as a trio — singer-guitarist Barone, bassist Rob Norris and drummer Frank Giannini — in 1980, and their debut album, Drums Along the Hudson, came out in 1982 on the indie label, PVC. Mastro then joined, on guitar and vocals, and Nuts and Bolts (on Passport Records) and a Bongos EP, Numbers With Wings (on RCA), both came out in 1983. Nuts and Bolts had an unusual format: One album side was devoted to Barone’s songs, and the other to Mastro’s.
The Bongos released a full-length album, Beat Hotel, on RCA in 1985. A follow-up album was shelved, at the time, but came out as Phantom Train, in 2013, on Jem Records.
After the Bongos split up in 1987, Barone became a solo artist, and Mastro formed the band, The Health & Happiness Show. Both have been involved in countless different projects — as bandleaders, sidemen, songwriters, producers, etc. — over the years.
Barone paid tribute to 1960s Greenwich Village music on his 2016 album Sorrows and Promises, and organized this summer’s all-star “Music + Revolution: Greenwich Village in the 1960s” concert at Central Park SummerStage. He also has taught at NYU and The New School in New York. Mastro frequently tours and records with Ian Hunter, and recently played saxophone, for the first time, on a reunion tour by Hunter’s band, Mott the Hoople. He also owns the Guitar Bar and Guitar Bar Jr. music stores in Hoboken. And The Bongos still get together, occasionally, for reunion shows.
Since the Oct. 6 benefit is a rare opportunity to hear Barone and Mastro, as a duo, I thought it was a good time to do a joint interview with both of them, about Nuts and Bolts and many other things.
Q: Are you going to concentrate on the Nuts and Bolts stuff at the show?
Mastro: That’s kind of the plan. We never really did those songs live. We did a couple of them with The Bongos. But, I think, Richard, we only did one acoustic show (back then), right?
Barone: I think there were two shows. It came at an interesting time. We had just signed to RCA. We were trying to squeeze in one record that we could do on our own, before recording exclusively for RCA, so we did that album, and then pretty soon we had Bongos shows to do. So we never really focused too much on doing concerts for the Nuts and Bolts material.
Q: Did you not use the Bongos name to keep it from being part of the RCA contract?
Barone: Well, it wasn’t so much about the name. It was just to do something completely independent. It was our first time signing to a major label, with RCA. There were gonna be certain kinds of restrictions on how we recorded, and where we recorded, all that stuff. We wanted to do one completely on our own. And it turned out that James and I had been writing songs on the road, independently, that were more acoustic-based. Songs a little different from what The Bongos were doing at that moment. So we thought we could do an album of those songs. It was really about the songs, I think.
I had worked with (producer) Mitch Easter … I had just done a record recently, right before that, with Steve Almaas, called Beat Rodeo. And Mitch was just so great to work with. I thought the free-form spirit of that studio that he had, Drive-In Studio in North Carolina, just gave us a lot of open space to do what we wanted to do.
Mastro: Our lawyer had told us, from the day that we signed, “It’s gonna take a year and a day, from the time you sign your contract, till the record comes out.” And he was spot on the money. So what we did was take that time, and make it useful, and have some fun.
Barone: It was really about the songs, and having some fun with the music, just to experiment with stuff. It was a cool experience because we tried instruments that we don’t normally play. Like I know James played violin on a couple of tunes. Mitch happened to have instruments around that we could try out and use, maybe, for the first time. So there was a lot of experimentation within the pop song structures that we had on that album.
Q: Was it just you two, playing all the instruments?
Mastro: And Mitch played drums, right?
Barone: Mitch played drums on most of it. I think that was really the main thing he played. I think on the instrumental we did, “Jacob’s Ladder,” he played a toy xylophone. But normally he played drums.
Mastro: Yeah. And a lot of crazy tape effects with stuff. And Richard and I did the rest.
Q: So were the sessions pretty quick?
Barone: Yeah. It was also kind of a vacation. We kind of took our time with it, because we wanted to, I think.
Mastro: There was no rush. We were having too much fun. We’d do a couple of tracks. We’d go out and get lunch. Drive around. Look for Corvairs to buy. Or guitars. It was really just a good working man’s holiday.
Q: How long did it take, to make the whole album?
Mastro: That’s a good question. Do you know, Richard?
Barone: It was more than one trip. We were both there for a couple of weeks, and we came back to Hoboken. It was at least two trips down there, to make the album.
But we weren’t, like, on a clock. That was done in the most casual way, like a project that you just kind of do, because you want to do it. We were never looking at what time it was, or what day it was. We were just there, hanging out. Like James was saying, we would go out and look for cars, which we bought. (laughs) And we would make some more music, and go out. It was very casual. It was the most casual recording, I think, I’ve ever done.
Mitch’s studio was at home, at his mom’s house. She did handclaps, I think, on “I’ve Got a Secret.” One thing I do remember, always … the studio was their garage. His parents’ garage. Sometimes his mother would be walking through. She’d bring laundry in, or something. And we also did our laundry there. I remember all my Ralph Lauren polo shirts, of all colors, hanging on the clothes line, through the middle of the studio, while we were singing, sometimes. So it wasn’t a normal studio atmosphere. It was a family room.
And it was on a farm. Basically, they had a farm outside the door. There was a lot of space. It wasn’t the usual claustrophobic studio building, wedged between other buildings.
So all of those elements made it very at-home, and very casual. So when you say, “How long did it take?” … we were on a different time. I can’t think of the phrase.
Mastro: It was Southern time.
Barone: Southern time! It was fried chicken and Southern time, yeah.
Q: Has Nuts and Bolts ever come out on CD?
Mastro: No, it never has.
Q: Is there any possibility of that happening?
Mastro: Well, Richard’s been talking to a couple of labels, and it looks like it might happen.
Barone: We think next year we might have it out on different formats, for the first time.
Q: Would there be any bonus tracks, or anything that would be released in conjunction with it, or would it be just that?
Mastro: There’s definitely some stuff that we’re going to listen to, and see if it fits with the other stuff that’s there.
Q: Going back a little little further, I’m curious about both of your memories about how Jim came to join the band.
Barone: Shall I?
Mastro: Yeah, yeah, go ahead.
Barone: I came from Florida … I was actually living with a band that played at CBGB a lot. They were called The Laughing Dogs. And one night, James was in a band that played there, called Fast Car. It was Fast Car at that time, right, Jim?
Mastro: Yep, that was it.
Barone: So I saw Fast Car and I really liked them. Of all the bands I had seen, they became a favorite. And I went to go talk to Jim’s brother, John, and I started to think, “Well …,” because I was just here in New York. I didn’t have a band or anything. I wasn’t working with anyone yet. So I actually met James before I met the other Bongos. And I think he was in high school at the time.
Mastro: Yeah. So Richard and I just stayed in touch. But I had already met Frank and Rob, because they were in a band called Tin Can, that was a West Jersey band. So I had known them before they knew Richard. So it was just this funny triangulation of meetings.
Barone: I met the other guys through an ad that Glenn Morrow had put in the paper, in the Village Voice. They were looking for a guitar player. It was a perfect ad: It was the only one I ever answered. It said, like, “into Television, The Velvet Underground, Talking Heads, Brian Eno.” It had a few things that really caught my eye. And that’s the only ad I ever answered, looking for a guitar player.
Q: And that ad was for (the band) “a”?
Barone: Correct. And it just happened that James knew them, separately from me.
When I came in from Florida, I didn’t really understand what New Jersey was. I came in from Tampa, Fla., and didn’t really understand that New Jersey was right there, and the scenes were kind of interconnected in many ways. I didn’t even know that Jim was in New Jersey, nor did I know that the ad that I answered was from guys in Hoboken. I may have heard of Hoboken, but I didn’t really know anything about Hoboken. And it was certainly not a music scene, at this time. So it was all new to me, and these connections were just musical and personal connections.
Q: So why were the early singles and Drums Along the Hudson recorded without him?
Barone: Well, Jim was also, in the middle of that, in The Richard Lloyd Band. He did a lot of things, too. Part of the time he was still in high school, and then he was in The Richard Lloyd Band.
And then The Bongos got signed, in an interesting way, to a small label in England called Fetish Records, and they brought us over to England to record. So those things happened kind of fast, in a way. We were suddenly performing in London, and we made most of the album in England. It may be called Drums Along the Hudson, but most of it was done in England.
And when we made the album, we overdubbed a ton of different things. We had a lot of layered guitars and things. And we started wanting to have other people in the group to play those parts, so it wasn’t just the one guitar. We wanted to make it as close to the album as possible. So when we came back, I think Steve Almaas might have been playing with us for a while, on acoustic guitar. Then he went off to do Beat Rodeo, which I produced, that debut of his. And somehow, we had an opportunity to ask Jim if he would come on tour with us, I think. We had a big tour coming up.
Is that what it was?
Mastro: To be honest, I don’t remember. I remember Steve and I would alternate sometimes, sitting in — whoever, I guess, was around. It was a very easy thing to do. At that point, I had moved to Hoboken. So, these were guys that I was hanging out with, during the day, whether we were playing music or not. So getting up to play guitar with Richard and Frank and Rob, it was just, “Okay, and now let’s go eat.” (laughs) It was that simple.
Barone: Inviting people to come on tour was a fun thing. So inviting Jim to come on tour was a fun thing. And I think we did a very big tour that year, with The B-52’s, right?
Mastro: That was later, I think.
Barone: That was later? Ah, it’s a blur. Everything was so spontaneous, at the time. Nothing was pre-planned, or scripted. It’s hard to remember how it fell together. But out of the spontaneity came the fact that he was on tour with us, and eventually became a permanent band member, when we signed. When the RCA contract was presented to us, we were playing together, so we all signed together.
Mastro: And at that point, Hoboken … if you saw somebody with a leather jacket, you knew you’d see him at Maxwell’s, later. It was a very small, isolated town. So there were only a handful of people who were your peers, or who had the same interests. So that kind of led to that bonding, and helped create that scene. The same with CBGB. The outsiders finally had a place to go inside.
Q: So skipping ahead to the present … Jim, I know you’re doing a lot of stuff with Ian Hunter. In fact I saw a video of you playing saxophone with him and Mott the Hoople. Is that your first time playing saxophone?
Mastro: I lied to Ian. I told him I played saxophone. Probably the way I lied to Richard and told him I played violin!
Mastro: Yeah, but a lot of the later Mott stuff had saxophone. There were going to be four guitar players on this tour, which seemed kind of crazy to me. So I figured I’d give saxophone a try. And I didn’t get fired, so it worked out. And it got me very excited about playing music again, just doing something totally different. It’s just good to mix things up every once in a while.
Q: Were you practicing for a long time before the tour?
Mastro: Two months. It was a workout. But yeah, I made it into the mixes, so I guess it wasn’t totally unbearable.
Barone: That’s kind of the spirit of how we approached Nuts and Bolts. When you said, “Who played the instruments on that album?” … James and I both split the duties of all the different instruments, in that same way. I played keyboards: I don’t really play keyboards, but on the Nuts and Bolts record, I did. On James’ song “Time Will Tell,” for instance, I’m playing the organ. I don’t even know how to play organ; I just picked it up and saw what we could get out of it.
Q: Are there any more shows coming up with with Mott the Hoople?
Mastro: There are strong rumors about it, in the spring. I should know any day.
That was really more fun than I expected it to be. There’s always a danger that something like that … you could feel like you’re in an oldies act. But it didn’t feel like that at all. It was really vibrant and rocking. If it happens again, I’d be happy and honored to do it.
Q: Anything else I should know about things coming up, with you, Jim, first?
Mastro: Well, I’m actually finishing a record. It’s been in the making for about 10 years. Again, Southern time, just moving slow. But I’m probably about a day in the studio away from finishing. So, I’m reuniting with myself.
Q: Will that be a self-release, or are you talking to labels?
Mastro: Once it’s totally done … I guess I have to (talk to labels), and see if there’s any interest. But we’ll take it one step at a time. If someone wants to put it out, great. And if no one does, it’s easy enough, these days, to get it out there.
Q: So maybe it will come out, like, early next year?
Mastro: Yeah, that’s kind of the plan.
Q: Great. So, now, Richard, I know you started teaching at The New School recently. How’s that going?
Barone: Well, I’ve been at NYU for four years, doing a different kind of class. What I’ve been doing at The New School is a new course based upon what we did in Central Park, with the 1960s Greenwich Village Era. It’s called “Music and Revolution,” and it’s really, like, the 15-week version of the concert we did in Central Park, with some of the artists coming in. And I’m exploring, with the students, how that music happened. Why, between 1960 and 1966, there was so much amazing music coming out of, like, a four-block radius. It was a very unique time in music, and it’s been an interest of mine from my Sorrows and Promises album through the touring and the Central Park show.
We’re also working on a documentary about the making of the (Central Park) concert.
When James was talking about the fear of Mott the Hoople becoming a nostalgia show, that’s just another example of how much we think alike. I didn’t want that show in Central Park to be a nostalgia show. I wanted to make it a very current, live event. That’s why I mixed in a lot of the younger artists, and a lot of different artists, from a lot of different generations. And they were all onstage at the same time, so no one was being treated as a museum relic. It’s music that they wrote at age 22, and it’s still appropriate for people who are 22, now. It’s not necessarily all for older people. It’s a very young approach to music.
And the ’60s Greenwich Village approach is very close to what we did with Nuts and Bolts, and with The Bongos, too, which is just let things happen, and see what influences come in, and let them play themselves out, into the music. If it’s really bad, you can edit it out, later. But not planning first allows you to try anything.
Q: I also wanted to ask you both about Glenn Mercer, who’s going to be at this show as well. The Feelies and The Bongos are probably the two bands that most people look at as the two signature bands of the early Hoboken scene. Were the two bands close? I imagine you did a bunch of shows together, and stuff.
Mastro: Yeah, absolutely. I actually roadied for The Feelies when I was, like, 15. Vinny DeNunzio, the original (Feelies) drummer, is the one who suggested me to play with Richard Lloyd in the Richard Lloyd Band. So, we’ve known those guys for a long time, and they’re just very dear to us.
Barone: With myself, and Rob and Frank, we loved The Feelies and would go to see them, anyway. I think we might have lured them to Hoboken, at one point. Maxwell’s … it didn’t start, out of the box, as a venue that bands knew about or played at. So if we liked bands, Rob and I especially would tell them they should come play Hoboken. So The Feelies … I know that (original Maxwell’s co-owner) Steve Fallon also loved The Feelies, but we might have suggested to them that they should play at Maxwell’s. Because as fans, we wanted them there
I remember doing a Bongos and Feelies show at Irving Plaza that was also a very big deal for us: to be on a double bill with them, in that way.
They were a little ahead of us, on the time scale. They already had their first record out, before The Bongos started. But we were fans of theirs, who then became friends of theirs. So yes, we’re very connected to The Feelies. Love them.
Here are some examples of the “Nuts and Bolts” music.
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