Going the independent route is nothing new for 10,000 Maniacs — as their promotional biography notes, they were “the original indie band,” having released an EP and an album independently on their own prior to signing with Elektra to release their second album The Wishing Chair in 1985.
But when they starting laying the groundwork nearly three decades later to work on the album that would become their 2013 release Music From the Motion Picture, they were cautiously optimistic about how things might play out. They used PledgeMusic to fund the record and when the Pledge team told them they could raise $25,000 to make the album, they didn’t believe it. But, in fact, they made that goal and then some, discovering in the process that there was still a sizable fan base out there that wanted to hear new music from the band.
Bassist Steven Gustafson recalls that with $23,000 already pledged by fans, the group got a big bump in the closing moments of the campaign. The band was about to play a gig when Gustafson’s phone beeped, letting him know that he had a new email. A fan had pledged $10,000 for a house concert from the group, which energized all of the members when they heard the news. “We played a good gig that night, we were so frickin’ excited.”
Gustafson reached out and wrote, “Thanks, man — this is fantastic. We really appreciate that. That’s really cool. When do you want to have that party?” He was surprised to get no reply back from the fan and a few months later, he tried again with the same results. Similarly, PledgeMusic also had no luck making contact. “We got his name, but he’s like this ghost. It was really freaky,” Gustafson says. The process of working on the album really brought positive energy to the group, as singer Mary Ramsey shares.
“I think it really did reenergize us,” she says. “Then when we were touring, we were able to have a new product and share new songs and have them sandwiched in with the older songs. I think that makes it different from being a [nostalgia act] where you’re showing that it’s progressing and that it’s still a group that’s showing its creativity with songwriting, etc. It did help us a lot in many ways. It helps us with understanding each other, because when you’re in a project together, it brings out a lot of emotions and a lot of positive emotions and then you feel like you’re creating something together, so there’s a bonding [experience] there. Then to perform them and have the reaction of the audience to them, it’s nice.”
The good reception to Music From The Motion Picture has kept the Maniacs in a productive mood. They decided to launch a second Pledge campaign earlier this year to fund Twice Told Tales, an album of traditional folk songs from the British Isles, an idea that developed out of the live shows that the group has been playing.
“During our shows the last couple of years, there was a point in the show where I would sing an a cappella version of this [William Butler] Yeats poem called ‘The Song of the Wandering Aengus,’” Ramsey says. “And it sort of really added a more dramatic element, you know, after playing a folk/rock song or love song, we would do that and the whole audience would get quiet and it was kind of a magical moment. So [keyboardist] Dennis [Drew] brought up the fact that this is kind of up our alley. I’ve done a lot of performing of traditional Irish folk songs with John Lombardo. You know, we have a duo called John and Mary and John was [also] part of 10,000 Maniacs. So it was quite nice to put these songs together. So we all got together and talked about it and brought John in on this project, because he and I have played so many of these songs. So a lot of the songs that are on this CD are some that we’ve performed as a duo and they work very nicely as a band.”
The recording process for the new album, which will be released next year, went smoothly and Gustafson can point to at least one reason why that was the case.
“When the red light goes on and you’re recording something, that’s when it gets emotional. That’s when you’ll be like, ‘Oh my God, am I playing something good?’” he says. “It’s just a really hard time for some musicians. But because they weren’t our songs and because the lyrics were all written out and all we had to do was come up with simple arrangements to them, it was really easy. There was no sort of ego involved, like, ‘This is my song and I’d like you to do it this way’ kind of thing. It was really fun and we had a great time doing it. We had to break out the champagne at the end, it was really so much fun. It went really well.”
The band will be in town this week for a sold-out show at the Music Box Supper Club and he says that there’s no better place to be when that’s the case.
“If everyone’s there and there’s people waiting to get in, all we have to do is deliver the goods and everybody has a good time and it works for us. Word of mouth like that is the best stuff you can get for publicity.”
Social media is another key element when it comes to getting the word out and also making sure that the fans have the right information. “You know, getting the truth out is important to me,” he says. “There are still people that come to our shows and say, ‘God, [former singer] Natalie [Merchant] was great tonight,’ after I’ve introduced Mary Ramsey.” It’s been more than two decades since Merchant departed from the group to pursue a solo career and while he finds it frustrating at times, he understands that there are some fans who just simply get caught up in the music.
“I think a lot of people get transported to that time in their life when they loved that song and that’s all they’re thinking about and who they were hanging out with — they don’t know anything but that and that’s a wonderful thing. It’s great to go to concerts to feel that — I love it. You know, a lot of songs have been signposts in my life and it’s that way with everybody.”
At the end of the day, the Maniacs are still having fun -- as Gustafson says, if they weren’t having fun, they wouldn’t be doing it. They’ve also come a long way from their early days when they simply wanted a name that wouldn’t attract the wrong crowd.
“We weren't very good musicians, just punks having fun, but the punk scene in Jamestown at the time was still gaining its footing,” Gustafson remembers. “There was a big hair metal cover band thing going on. Shredders and 12 cymbals on the drum kit. They dominated the popular club and bars, relegating us to old factory bars with a back room. We weren't interested in attracting that hair crowd. They wouldn't like it. Our first band in January 1981 was called Still Life. We got thrown out of our first gig. Chased out by the club owner wielding a blackjack. Chairs flying everywhere, running down the street, it was wild! When John Lombardo joined us that summer, we were Burn Victims for a month then we picked 10,000 Maniacs from a list of 200 names John had come up with. We liked the numbers and thought Maniacs would keep the hair crowd away. It worked at first. Nobody came!”
10,000 Maniacs, Jenn Grinels, 8 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 8, Music Box Supper Club, 1148 Main Ave., 216-242-1250. Tickets: $35 ADV, $40 DOS, musicboxcle.com.