With Sad About Girls, Tom Lucas continues to embrace the jangly joy of power-pop music

sad about girls


Tom Lucas of Sad About Girls.

Hunched over his guitar with his back to the crowd, Tom Lucas hesitated for a moment before quickly spinning around and launching his band, Sad About Girls, into one of his trademark jangly pop songs.

With a rhythmic flourish, he punched out the chords to “She’s Not Here,” an infectious ode to unrequited love (listen below) and one of a half a dozen numbers that the six-piece group tackled on a cold March night at Crossroads, a popular live music venue in Garwood that was hosting four bands.

This is also one of his newest creations, which appears on one of two recently released EPs on Bandcamp — his latest effort to raise the band’s profile in the highly fragmented world of popular music. And true to form, it offers the same joyous lift as countless other songs in his growing portfolio of originals, many of which he has penned with writing partner Rob O’Connor. Together, the songs suggest that Lucas is something of a prince of power pop, albeit little-known outside a small slice of New Jersey.

The genre got its name from several bands that emerged in the early 1970s and seemed to effortlessly blend catchy hooks, soaring melodies and driving rhythms into unforgettable earworms. The earliest progenitors — and some of the biggest names — were groups such as Badfinger, Big Star and The Raspberries, although many other combos contributed to the genre.

At the time, these bands occupied what could only be called a niche in a music scene that was largely dominated by a variety of heavier rock sounds. Most lasted only a short while, gigging here and there before disappearing into the cosmos. But some managed to sell enough records and get radio airplay to capture the imagination of a couple of generations of kids.

Lucas was one of those kids.

A South Orange native, he came of age at a time when rock music was splintering in countless directions. Amid the metal, prog and punk that largely dominated the airwaves, though, was a strain that made kids want to sing harmonies and clap out the beats — not just play air guitar. As in many of The Beatles’ biggest hits, catchy counted for a lot.

Sad About Girls (from left, Rich Feridun, Tom Lucas, Tom Cottone, Erica Cohn and Ed Iglewski) at Bowery Electric in New York.

“I was kind of lucky,” said Lucas, who is 58 and still lives in the house in which he grew up, near the center of town. “My dad was 46 years old when I was born, but he loved groups like The Beatles, The Stones, The Who. He played guitar a little. All of that was a big influence on me, because I heard all these songs growing up and may not have heard some of them otherwise — at least not for a while.”

This set in motion a lifelong pursuit to make music of his own. By the time he was just 9 years old, Lucas was taking lessons on a nylon string classical guitar his father had bought for him at an E.J. Korvette store in West Orange. The first song he learned to play — and sing — was “Lyin’ Eyes,” a popular song about cheating by The Eagles that featured silky smooth harmonies.

“When I think about it, that was a pretty funny song for a little kid to be singing,” he says. “But I liked the melody and the memorable and hooky chorus. I like all that kind of stuff from the ’70s. The first record I ever bought was ‘Rock the Boat’ by The Hues Corporation. I bought it at Two Guys in Union. That was, like, a dance record, but so catchy. And I played the shit out of it.”

As his teen years wore on, Lucas pursued a path like countless other kids, forming bands with friends. His first, The Ferrets, debuted at The Ethical Culture Society in Maplewood. It was during this time, at the tender age of 14, that Lucas discovered that he was drawn not only to playing guitar, but also writing songs.

He credits his parents’ extensive record collection for much of that inspiration. They listened to The Beatles (“I remember a favorite was ‘Baby, You’re a Rich Man,’ ” he says), Elton John and Carole King, for instance. His interest was also jumpstarted by catchy new wave bands like The Cars that were played on the radio in the late ’70s and early ’80s.

“Listening to their songs was like going to a university,” he says. “And unconsciously, I was drawn to their songcraft. It got into my DNA. There were a lot of bands on every corner, all across the country, singing other people’s songs. But one of the best things about writing your own songs is being able to draw on your own experiences.”

He slowly pursued this approach as he moved about the Northern Jersey music scene, one of countless pockets of youthful creativity that could be found throughout the state and across the country. His next band, The Defects, graduated from gigs at Columbia High School in Maplewood and Newark Academy in Livingston to a few clubs, which taught him about the music business.

Sad About Girls (from left, Erica Cohn, John Ferrari, Tom Lucas and Ed Iglewski).

One particular gig illustrated the challenges. Instead of getting paid actual money, the band was given 40 jars of jelly and 30 jars of garlic after playing a jelly factory and fashioning the stage themselves from wood pallets. Then there was the bar in Dover that also featured adult dancers, an eye-opening proposition for a band of underage musicians.

Experiences like these were unforgettable and instructive. “For a kid from South Orange,” Lucas says, “it felt like being on a world tour.”

Lucas attended Seton Hall University, where he studied English literature, and continued playing in bands, often gigging at The Dirt Club in Bloomfield. It is long since gone — a Home Depot now occupies the spot — but Lucas remembers it as the equivalent of a graduate school program, because bands with original material were warmly welcomed.

For a time, he thought about becoming a recording engineer, which seemed like a good way to enter the music business while continuing his own playing. But then his father died, forcing a huge change, since his mother didn’t work. “I really wanted to just jump in a van and go on tour, but I had to put my rock ‘n’ roll dreams on hold,” he says. “Every decision I made was now about how to keep the house going.”

A long-running series of jobs ensued, from restaurant waiter to music store clerk, before Lucas settled into his current role as a data content editor for an educational software company. Along the way, he studied recording and occasionally interned in recording studios, which proved to be a valuable experience.

“I learned things like figuring out signal flow, microphone placement and how to get certain sounds,” he says. “Why one amp sounds better than another. The most important thing was psychological, which is how to make a person in the studio comfortable and get something out of them during recording. You become part taskmaster, cheerleader and psychologist.”

This also provided inspiration for building a studio in his basement — a predictably cramped, do-it-yourself space that is overflowing with stacks of recording equipment, instruments, and a wide variety of old amps. In this cozy cavern, Lucas, a self-professed gear nerd, continues to nurture his ambitions while doing the same for musicians who harbor similar dreams.

In February, for instance, Ali McDowell and Lou Tambone of the local band Mixtape Meltdown spent a few hours on a Sunday afternoon finishing a song. Lucas patiently sat at the controls as they redid vocals, tweaked guitar parts and added percussion. Through it all, he offered a mix of comfort and confidence. “You just tell me what you want,” he told them.

The studio, launched in 1992 and called Laughing Boy, is part clubhouse where Lucas’ extended network of friends and musicians show up to record, and part self-styled cocoon. Although chatty and friendly onstage, Lucas is modest to the point of being humble, a characteristic that is unusual in a world where dogged self-promotion is the norm, even for introverts.

So he has often retreated into the studio, which he refers to as his “safe space,” to experiment at his own pace and on his own terms. In fact, he spent the better part of a decade taping his own creations — much like Paul McCartney, who recorded his first solo album, 1970’s McCartney, by himself at home, playing all the instruments. In 2009, he formed Sad About Girls, but nothing was released until 2017.

The name is taken from an obscure Elvis Costello song and the current lineup features Erica Cohn on harmony vocals, Rich Feridun on lead guitar, Ed Iglewski on bass, David Lieb on keyboards and Tommy DeVito on drums. They gig on what can be called a semi-regular basis, because a couple of members live out of state, yet they always manage to sound as if they just rehearsed for a solid week.

The cover of the Sad About Girls album, “Wild Creatures.”

Over the last few years, Lucas has released, on Bandcamp, 10 Sad About Girls EPs that contain hooky pop gems in which he distills ’80s influences such as Marshall Crenshaw, Squeeze and Rockpile. Examples include “Can’t Break a Heart” (listen below) and “Square One,” both from 2022’s Wild Creatures, and “Every Move Makes a Sound” (listen below) from 2020’s She Walks in Beauty.

“Tom’s got a great melodic sense,” said Bob Perry, a singer-songwriter from Ringwood who helped launch the cooperative label Cropduster Records and worked with Lucas in the studio on Sad to Go. “That era of ’70s and ’80s jangle pop, if you will, is his ballpark.

“He’s so prolific. He’s got about 100 songs recorded, he reaches out to everyone to work with, to write songs with.”

Lucas, in fact, is collaborating more as a way to expand his reach. He also has worked with Deena Shoshkes, who, along with her husband Jon Fried, co-founded The Cucumbers, one of a few bands that was part of the famed Hoboken scene in the ’80s and remains active. Another collaborator has been Rebecca Turner, an equally accomplished singer-songwriter based in Maplewood.

Although he harbors no illusions about sudden breakthroughs, Lucas sees these efforts as a way to ensure he’s true to himself.

“I admit I have a hard time putting myself out there and original music is a hard sell, especially at this stage of my life,” he says. “I don’t do as much promotion as I should, but I believe in the music. And when I listen back to it, I find myself saying, ‘Yeah, this is pretty good.’ ”

For more about Sad About Girls, visit sadaboutgirls1.bandcamp.com.


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