Photo by Amy Martin Friedman
NJ Scenario For Anything
Interview by John Wisniewski
Otherwise known as a sprawling north New Jersey town that houses the massive Willowbrook Mall, Wayne is also the home to a great indie rock band that spawned out of a record store in the early '80's. Obvious music fans from the start, store owner (and bassist) Chris Wood, guitarist Mark Englert, singer/songwriter John Easdale, guitarist Pete Wood and a succession of drummers would form the whip-smart group Dramarama, first gaining wide recognition with the powerhouse song "Anything, Anything (I'll Give You)" which not only got solid radio airplay but also wound up in one of the Nightmare On Elm Street films. A move to L.A., major label contract and guest appearance by classic rockers somewhat helped their rep but after a string of impressive albums (1985's Cinema Verite, 1987's Box Office Bomb, 1993's Hi-Fi Sci-Fi, all celluloid-titled), they broke up in 1994. VH1 series "Bands Reunited" saw the re-emergence of the group in 2003 and their first new album in 12 years, Everybody Dies,. 2020 saw yet another release (Color TV) and the band remains active touring. An email chat with Mr. Easdale here fills in the details.
PSF: What bands were you in before Dramarama?
JE: I started playing in "organized" bands when I was 16 and was only in a few before Dramarama, they were all cover bands. Two of which, The Fux and Department of Public Works (DPW), also included Dramarama guitarist Mark "Mr. E. Boy" Englert. Dramarama's other guitarist, Peter Wood was also in DPW. Our big claim to fame was a show at Nick's Place--a restaurant in the Lionshead Lake neighborhood of Wayne in which both Mark and I lived. I played bass and sang the backing vocals in both The Fux and DPW. Our "catalog" was basically a rotation of what we listened to at the time--British Invasion, glitter and punk rock. It was fun, but at that time anyway, I never even hoped to consider music as a career option.
PSF: When was Dramarama formed? Tell us their story.
JE: Looney Tunes was a record store in our home town of Wayne, NJ, owned by Chris Carter. I made the jump from customer to employee in late 1979. There were a lot of DIY labels at the time and the store carried a plethora of them. Chris had also been in a few cover bands previously and, cocky as we were, we thought we could make better music than a lot of these bands. We started making recordings in the basement of the store; Chris was on bass, Mark and Pete were (and continue to be) the guitarist and I played drums, sang and wrote the songs. We enlisted another friend, Ron Machuga, the first of our many drummers, when I came out from behind the drumkit to start playing live, and released Dramarama's first single, "You Drive Me," on our own DIY label, Questionmark Records.
A year or so later, Peter and Chris were judging a high school Battle of the Bands competition, saw Jesse playing drums and we recruited him. Voila! The original line-up of Dramarama was cemented.
PSF: Could you tell us about writing "Anything" and "Last Cigarette"?
JE: Even after 40-plus years, the creative process is still a strange and mysterious thing to me; I really don't know how to explain it. I can tell you that both songs are autobiographical and that the events in " Anything..." all actually happened and were inspired by my first failed marriage, and also that, in part at least.
"Last Cigarette" stems from an encounter my then-girlfriend/now-wife had with a gentleman on a street in San Francisco who was asking for spare change to buy a bus pass. The lines in the song tell pretty much how it went, I gave him a dollar or two and he tells me he now has enough to go buy a bottle. We walk away, he calls us back and offers up his bus pass. Not needing a bus pass, I asked him for a cigarette. I suffered from addiction for several years and cigarettes were one of the hardest to quit. It's kind of like those cartoons with an angel on one shoulder and a devil on the other--knowing the right thing and what you should and really deeply want to do, but at the same time, the nagging of the demon persists.
PSF: Could you tell us about writing "Haven't Got a Clue"?
JE: I'd done it before with a song called "Questions" on our first album, but those were specifically directed at an ex's new boyfriend. Haven't Got a Clue is, at the start at least, pretty much questions that I imagined my daughter(s) may someday ask me and for which I had no answers. It progresses to become me questioning/commenting, to myself mostly... Why do some people live in ridiculously large homes and other, hard-working families live seven to a bedroom? But truly it is a love song to my daughter(s) because regardless of what may or may not be happening in the rest of the world, I would do anything for them and they will always make me smile.
Live 2020, photo by Conni Freestone
PSF: What was it like recording Stuck in Wonderamaland?
JE: It was a strange time. We had done a month-long tour in Europe in 1988, and broke up almost immediately upon our return. I had been offered the opportunity to make a solo album by our French record label and I wrote a lot of it while we were apart. I'd been feeling more and more out of place in Los Angeles, and I was also influenced by the fact that I was about to become a father for the first time. But we were all pretty broke and when we got an offer to play at Universal Studios, we needed the money and got back together. Bygones being bygones, we went into the studio and the songs I'd written for what was going to be my solo album became Stuck in Wonderamaland.
PSF: What broke the band up?
JE: We had been together as a band for 12+ years, and our upward trajectory had ended with the release of HiFi SciFi. Our management had abandoned us, as had the record company we were signed to.
The feelings of career stagnancy were pretty overwhelming. I was battling an addiction relapse and thus was not in a good place mentally or emotionally. We were just ready, and for MY sanity's sake, at least, it was necessary to take a break from each other, and from the music business. It was rough, but I never would have had a chance against my personal demons had we not taken that break.
PSF: Why did you decide to reunite for an VH1 special 30+ years later?
JE: It wasn't like we all sat around and decided on our own to get the band back together. In August of 2003, we were each individually "ambushed" by camera crews at our homes and places of business and asked to decide on the spot whether we would be willing to reunite for a "one night only" event that would be made into an episode of VH1's "Bands Reunited" TV series, and we all agreed. I never really stopped playing with Mark or Peter. I spoke to Chris with some consistency so the only member with whom I didn't have some sort of regular contact with was Jesse. Jesse had left the band in 1990, moved to Pune, India to connect with people on a more spiritual level and, in his words, "search."
After "Bands Reunited," we were invited to perform at a festival called the Inland Invasion that was being put on by KROQ, the radio station that had originally "discovered" us. Chris declined to join us, Jesse was back in Montreal, where he now lived, so the bass player and drummer from the John Easdale Group (Mike Davis/ bass, Tony Snow/Drums) filled the spots. We played the show and were overwhelmed by the crowd's response, and we've continued playing together ever since.
See the Dramarama website
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