Book of Your Life: An Interview with John Faye
by Pete Crigler
Unfortunately, The Caulfields were one of those great late '90's alt-rock bands that never got their fair shake. They achieved some modest success with their debut, 1995's Whirligig but it's their sophomore record, 1997's L, that is their masterpiece. Great hooks, excellent lyrics and a tone that doesn't take itself too seriously while also hearkening back to a time when musicality was cherished. The band broke up not long after the record's release but frontman John Faye has continued writing and performing songs in a Caulfields-type style. There's a lot to be found in the band's future in 2020 and that can all be found at johnfaye.com.
PSF: How did you get interested in playing music?
JF: Music was a huge part of my household when I was a little kid. I had three half-sisters who were all at least 10 years older than I was, so all the records that they were listening to became the foundation of my interest in music. This would've been the late '60's and early '70's, so there was lots of Beatles, Beach Boys, and countless "AM gold" 45's, all of which I eventually inherited. My dad passed away when I was six, and at that point, music started to take a more important role in that I could escape into it. Once I got into my early teens, I was fantasizing elaborately about playing in a band, spent many hours in front of my record player with a tennis racket as a guitar. My eventual point of entry into actually playing music was a set of blue sparkle Andy K drums that my friend Keith sold to me for $40 when I was about 14.
PSF: How did the Caulfields come together and what was the scene around the band at that time?
JF: The Caulfields technically started around 1992 in our hometown of Newark, Delaware, but it was basically all the same members, except one, from a previous band called Beat Clinic. When our previous guitar player Chris Ryan left the old band, I was becoming more confident as a songwriter and began to take a lot more creative control over what was previously a pretty collaborative group when it came to songwriting. We were all in that band for about six years and were very invested in it. We had already put out two independent CD's, had played overseas in Germany, and had done the whole label showcase thing. We changed the name because I felt we needed a fresh start and a clean slate, which created unanticipated problems for us because this was all pre-Internet and getting the word out that we were changing the name was actually really difficult. We kind of had our feet in a couple different "scenes" at the time. In our home state of Delaware, we were friends with a good handful of really great bands who were amazing people and we all supported each other in a pretty insular community. But we also had our sights set on doing things in Philadelphia where it was a lot more difficult to find our place. Eventually, we hooked up with our manager Doron Segal in Philly who helped us through some pretty dark times in terms of trying to get some forward momentum. We were actually pretty down on ourselves right around the time we started working with him. I was working a job I really disliked and we didn't feel like we were going anywhere. I always say that we were probably about a month from breaking up when things began to turn around.
PSF: What were your primary influences both musically and lyrically?
JF: I had a lot of influences, but I think the most apparent ones that show up in the Caulfields songwriting are artists like Elvis Costello, Squeeze, the Smithereens, the poppier side of Nirvana. It all goes back to the Beatles one way or another.
PSF: What was it like getting signed to A&M and do you feel it was a good move?
JF: Getting signed to a major label is the main reason I still do music today. As I said, we were all at this crossroads that felt like our time in music was potentially ending right around when things started to go right for the band. We were all in our late 20's by then. A&M didn't sign us because we were the hot new thing. We barely had a following. This was still an era when labels like that would sign a band just because they liked the music and thought we could make a cool record. A series of fortunate events led to our meeting our A&R man Mark Mazzetti because he had grown up in Wilmington. Our manager suggested I get a demo to a musician/producer I already knew named Rudy Rubini. He flipped out over the tape, which contained four track home demos of songs like "Devils Diary" and others that wound up on the first album, and asked if he could give it to his friend who worked at a record company, who just so happened to have a grown-up across the street from him. I thought nothing of it at first- I was so used to demos being handed off and going nowhere. Thankfully, Mark loved the songs and asked us where our next show was so he could come see us. We didn't have any shows so we ended up just rehearsing in front of him and that was that. He signed us on the spot. A lot of bands second-guess whether it's a wise move to sign with a big label, but for us, it was the only move. It wasn't like we were picking between A&M and Sub Pop or anything. They were the one and only label that wanted us.
PSF: Tell me about recording Whirligig.
JF: Well, it was a simultaneous dream come true and also a very difficult process. We were flown out to California to spend the whole summer of 1994 recording in Sausalito at the Plant, which was this famous studio where Fleetwood Mac had recorded Rumors and Sly Stone had basically lived there and had these massive parties in the early '70's. While we were recording in studio B, Metallica had a permanent lock out down the hall on studio A. I remember going in there and stealing their comic books. It was a world a little beyond our comprehension and sometimes it was hard to focus because all of a sudden we were given all the trappings of a kind of life we were not used to. We were working with known people in the music business. The producer was Kevin Maloney, who had worked with U2 and Sinead O'Connor. And we had a separate recording engineer who was also a producer named Tracy Chisholm, who had worked with Blake Babies and Belly, bands I absolutely adored. I felt some degree of pressure to live up to the setting in which we were trying to make this record. While this was going on, one of our band members was dealing with some substance abuse issues, which created a pretty big distraction while we were trying to record. There were also some tensions between myself and our drummer, who was dealing with pressures of being a new father and leaving home for several months. Suffice to say, it was not what you would call a carefree environment. However, we got the job done and made a pretty good record with an unbelievably high price tag. Pretty sure it cost upwards of $150,000 to record. I think we were part of the last generation of new rock bands that had that kind of recording budget. It all seems so crazy now to of spent that kind of money to commit 12 songs to tape.
PSF: What was it like touring the country and getting a moderate amount of airplay?
JF: It was a very bipolar existence. "Moderate" is a pretty good word to describe how we were received at modern rock radio, although it was more of a feast or famine situation. If a station played us, they really played us in heavy rotation, so our hometown stations in Philly, Y100, and WDRE, and stations like 99X in Atlanta and tons of middle market size stations all over the country made "Devils Diary" basically a hit song in those cities. But big major markets like LA, New York, and Chicago did not bite. So, when we were on the road, we might play to 1000 people one night and literally 15 the next depending on where we were. My favorite shows were the many radio station festivals we ended up playing. It allowed us to meet some bands who were our heroes. I'll never forget watching the Ramones from the side of the stage in Milwaukee and hanging with the Violent Femmes, who were doing a lot of the same festivals as kind of a comeback tour sort of thing. Once, we were out promoting the record on the road, a sense of fiscal responsibility definitely set in with us, and so it was all traveling in a van, never once even seeing the inside of a tour bus. We knew at that point that we had to stretch our money as far as it would go. The intimacy of that world inside a 15 passenger Dodge Ram is something that I really treasure. It was very much "us against the world."
PSF: Was there pressure from the label when it came to making L?
JF: I wouldn't call it pressure. There was actually a lot of optimism because the label was very encouraged by how well the first record had done. The only element of stress in actually making that record was in the beginning of the process when we were submitting song demos. This is before even choosing a producer or anything. Mazzetti heard my first round of songs and hated them. I mean HATED them. I had this song that was supposed to be kind of a humorous take on the idea of male conquest called "Big Fish Story" and he was like "no band of mine is going to have any song on a record that has fucking 'fish' in the title!" So I went back to the drawing board and actually co-wrote a handful of songs with our bass player Sam Musumeci and our drummer Ritchie Rubini (Rudy's brother), and those tunes really set the tone for making a much more serious record. It's interesting- people always ask if the label tried to fundamentally change how we worked or made music, and I would say that for the most part they left us alone to make the kinds of records we wanted to make, if it's even reasonable to say that we actually knew what we wanted.
PSF: How do you feel about that record?
JF: All of us in the band love the second record and feel that it is way better than the first in most aspects. We're definitely more confident and just better musicians by that point. Ritchie didn't play drums on the first album but his playing and influence musically on L is a major contributor to the record's quality. The reason it doesn't get a lot of love is that I don't feel it was really giving a chance. Only our most avid fans even know it exists because although the label did release it- they had fired Mark literally weeks before the album came out. Without your A&R guy at the label to fight for you and help prioritize you, it's pretty much a losing battle. We went out on the road and tried to generate little pockets of support in cities where we had had previous success and radio station programmers who wanted to play the new record told us that they were literally getting messages from the label not to play it. We knew we were fucked. After about six months of touring on our own dime, the band imploded. We did our last show at a festival in Michigan and announced our break up on live radio. It was obviously a huge disappointment to watch our major label career end as quickly as it came about. We asked to be released from the label when it became clear that they were no longer going to support us anyway. I guess there's some small satisfaction in doing the whole "you can't fire me, I quit" thing, but the writing was on the wall either way.
PSF: Was there trepidation when putting together the Power Trip?
JF: I was definitely at another serious crossroads. I was now married and my wife really wanted to start a family. I was obviously very unhappy with how things ended with the record label and with the band, but there were a few people who really still believed in me, one of which was my friend Steve Barnes who was the morning DJ at 99X in Atlanta. He invited me to come down and play a show at his house and he invited a manager he knew to see me play. This was just a solo acoustic thing, in his front yard, if I recall correctly. The manager, Lanny West, was married to his on-air partner and now program director at the radio station, Leslie Fram. Getting new management was such a shot in the arm for me and before I knew it, I was recording record in GA with my friends from back home, drummer Dave Anthony and guitarist Cliff Hillis. We tracked at our producer Don McCollister's home studio, which was in his house in Decatur and I felt completely renewed as a musician and songwriter. The JFPT (John Fay Power Trip) album came out on Wiley records, which was an Atlanta based label and sold more copies than L and I actually did more touring behind that record as an independent artist than the Caufields were able to do to support L. We ended up getting the opening slot for a bunch of Matthew Sweet dates, the single got played on the radio, and just like that, I was back in business. I was very happy with how well the record did and eventually the touring band for JFPT evolved into my next band IKE.
PSF: Did you keep in touch with the others during this time?
JF: I kept in touch with most of the members of the Caulfields for a couple years after the band broke up. I kind of fell out with our old guitar player around the time the Power Trip record came out, because he had some not so nice things to say about it. Sam and Ritchie never left my life. Sam, especially, is someone I talk to you pretty much on a weekly basis.
PSF: What have you been doing the last few years?
JF: When the Power Trip record came out in 1999, I went on a pretty prolific run with IKE. We put out our first record in 2003, which was co-produced again by Don McColllister with a couple of tracks produced by Butch Walker, then we put out three more full lengths, a live album, and EP, and a DVD between 2003 and 2011, when we pretty much ran our course and went on "hiatus." Around 2011, I started a garage rock duo called John & Brittany which released two EP's, a full length album, and a live album up through 2014. A couple of songs from that band were chosen as "coolest songs" on Little Stevens Underground Garage on Sirius XM. I went "solo" again after that and put out a record in 2015 called Meddling Kid, which was my first album playing all the instruments. My last recorded output was in 2016, which was a couple of singles with my live band "Those Meddling Kids." At the end of 2016, I went into what I called "semi-retirement" from music so that I could begin writing a memoir, which as of 2020 is about 2/3 done. Another thing worth mentioning that I've done in the intervening years is that I started teaching. I have been a song writing professor at Drexel University in Philadelphia since 2005, and now focus a good deal of my musical attention on producing up-and-coming artists.
PSF: What are the Caulfields plans for 2020? What are the other members been up to?
JF: Because 2020 is the 25th anniversary of the release of Whirligig, we wanted to do a couple of shows to celebrate, but not go over the top with trying to do a big tour or anything. We're all pretty entrenched in our lives. Right now, we have two shows planned, one in the Philadelphia region on 6/27, and one in Delaware down in Dewey Beach on 9/11. The other band members have been active in music over the past many years. Sam Musumeci has played in numerous bands since the Caulfields and Ritchie Rubini is still a gigging musician and a very prolific producer of artists in the Delaware area.
PSF: What do you hope will be the band's and your own legacy?
JF: I guess as for the band, there's a part of us that still thinks we have something to prove because so much of our story is one of unrealized potential. It doesn't mean necessarily that we feel like we need to make more records, but we want to play shows that give people in our home region a chance to see what the band could really do. Like I mentioned, we weren't really that much of a known entity when we were starting out and so, weirdly enough, a lot of people in Delaware and Philadelphia really only knew of us after we started getting played on the radio, and through that lens, it's very possible to view us as just sort of this one-hit wonder type of band, and we know we were so much more than that. We finally got our two albums up on Spotify, so we're happy that the music is accessible now in a way that it hasn't been for the last two decades or so.
As for me personally, my whole life has been a journey of just wanting to connect with people through music, and so I'm trying to make it easier for people to access my body of work and I think both teaching and writing this memoir is also part of what I want to leave behind as a legacy. I've had some pretty intense highs and lows in my life and I'm grateful for all of it.
|MAIN PAGE||ARTICLES||STAFF/FAVORITE MUSIC||LINKS|