(Written By All Access Contributor: JIM VILLANUEVA)
“The band really is like a family. Maybe even better because we don’t fight, though they may have a few squabbles about who has to share a hotel room with me. We all get along really well, which is important, especially when you’re all together for hours in a van.”
Dramarama fans who have patiently (to say the least) and anxiously waited 15 years for a new album from the New Jersey-bred, longtime West Coast-based band will be well rewarded when they wrap their ears around the dozen tracks on the just-released collection titled Color TV. Founding member/lead singer/main songwriter John Easdale has penned a series of mini-movies sure to induce as many tears as smiles. Song subject matter runs from love to loss, addiction to affection and nostalgia to navigating the now. And that is just scratching the surface.
I recently spoke with Easdale about the long drought between Dramarama albums, the close bond he has with his band-mates (Mark Englert, Peter Wood [lead, rhythm guitars], Tony Snow [drums], Mike Davis [bass]), commercialism and consumerism and much, much more.
John, it has been far too long. It’s great to talk to you again. I hope you and yours are all healthy and happy as we get through these strange times.
Great to talk to you, my brother. It has been too long. I hope you guys are healthy as well.
The far-too-long-awaited new Dramarama album is titled Color TV. Is the record in any way a commentary or indictment on society seeing things as black & white, blue or red, liberal or conservative these days? Or is it much more personal and/or nostalgic than that?
I guess it’s actually both. The title works on several levels. The band’s album titles have a history of media references – Cinema Varite, Box Office Bomb, Vinyl, Hi Fi Sci Fi – so this fits nicely in there. Also, one of the themes of the album is our society’s, as well as my own, obsession with technology – though I’m pretty inept – and commercialism. I vividly remember when I was four or so and my family got our first color TV. Throughout my life there have been advances in technology that have quite affected me, particularly as a musician. Dramarama is still just an old-fashioned rock and roll band – guitars, bass and drums without the computers, triggers tracks or anything other than the sound the band itself makes. But the whole marketing, distribution, etc., part of it has gone through so much; the change from records to cassette to CDs to downloads to streaming is head spinning.
So, this might be a good time to ask you about your – what I call – proverbial, or in some cases, literal Beatles on Ed Sullivan moment. When did you first realize music was going to become such an important part of your life? Was it a song you heard on the radio? An album you heard. A concert you went to. What was the spark?
I was only two years old when The Beatles first played on Ed Sullivan, so I really have no memories of that. What eventually became my career path started in 1966 with The Monkees TV show, at age 4, not long after we got that first color TV, which, by the way, was one of those long console jobs that also had a turntable and an AM/FM radio built in. My first 45 was “I’m a Believer”/”Steppin’ Stone,” and my first album was the first Monkees LP. I probably didn’t discover The Beatles until the ripe old age of 5.
I rarely – if ever – go song-by-song in these conversations, but you wrote so many good ones I may have to break my own rule. Could the lead track “Beneath the Zenith” be the sequel – or prequel – to (the song) “70’s TV” off the 1989 Stuck in Wonderamaland album?
Not exactly. I grew up pretty much glued to the floor in front of our TV in the living room, and over the years I have developed the nasty habit of including TV references in my songs. “Beneath the Zenith” is autobiography mixed with social commentary, starting out with me as a little boy learning manners and hygiene right up to the present-day proliferation of screens. We all carry one around in our pocket.
Perhaps the best line on (the song) “Up to Here” is “the commercial’s more important than the news.” Talk a bit about consumerism. Also, you describe this song as “a former altar boy’s lament.” As a former altar boy and recovering catholic, I would argue that Catholicism and commercialism have been linked for decades. I seem to recall the story of Jesus going into a temple and overthrowing the tables of the money changers, or something like that.
I definitely think many organized religions are as much about the collection box as they are about spirituality. I suppose there needs to be a bit of marketing to keep ‘em in the pews. As far as consumerism goes, idolatry and religious icons have long been staples of fashion, but I don’t know how much is actually associated. I’ve yet to see a church gift shop, but I’m sure there are plenty. And I am always entertained around Super Bowl time when the news shows cover that year’s commercials as much, or more, than the game itself.
“The Cassette” sounds like a lyrical mixtape tribute to a friend. Would you like to expand on this?
I wrote the song as a tribute to my best friend, the same man I wrote (the title track to the 2005 album) “Everybody Dies” for. He’s been gone nearly 17 years, but I still think about him every day. He loved turning people on to new music. He’s the one who first introduced me to (Bob Dylan 1985 song covered on Color TV) “Abandoned Love.” We shared a lot of the same childhood and musical touchpoints. He had an incredible ear and used to make incredible mix tapes and mail them out to friends all over the country. People still come up to me at our shows and tell me they first heard about Dramarama from one of his mix tapes. I miss him.
“Swamp Song” is as sonically gritty as the subject matter. Sounds like you’re singing about swimming in a swamp of substance abuse. The reoccurring refrain “gimme something” is particularly eerie? And I’ll add this: the first two lines of “It’s Only Money” seem to sum up the entire song. That is to say, the solution to the problem is staring at you in the mirror – and not ON a mirror.
I wrote “Swamp Song” and “It’s Only Money” way back when I was first coming to grips with the idea that maybe I was an addict, something I eventually realized was an absolute fact. Luckily, I was able to eventually kick the habit, as they say, and with any luck, from now on, I will only – fingers crossed – be able to look at it in the rearview mirror. It’s amazing to me how, considering where I am in my life now, any reasonable soothsayer would have counted me out.
Okay, let’s shift sonic and subject gears here. I think track seven, the three-minute, mile-a-minute “What’s Your Sign? Is just pure pop power punk.
Yeah, “What’s Your Sign?” is just meant to be a fun song. A little comedy. No deep meaning intended. At least none that I am aware of. Do people still ask that question when they meet somebody? You really don’t hear nearly as much about the Zodiac and Astrology as you used to. I’m a Virgo – logical, practical and systematic in their approach to life. Perhaps I’m the exception that proves the rule.
I’d like you to tell me about the “you” that you sing about in both (the songs) “Everyday” and “Hold Me Tight.”.
The two songs are polar opposites. “Everyday” is a warning to keep away, because “you” will ultimately be hurt and disappointed. I wrote that back around the time I wrote “It’s Only Money” and “Swamp Song,” when I was doing a lot of damage and really treating my wife and family like crap. I was totally selfish. A personality defect that most addicts share. “Hold Me Tight” is, hopefully, a reflection of things as they are now. A promise that everything will be alright. I will never let “you” down. My wife has stood by me through thick and thin, and I am lucky she didn’t kick me to the curb a long time ago. God knows I have given her enough reason to.
You’ve said that track 10, “The Only Thing (Stupid/Brilliant),” is “an ode to my family…including my band brothers.” One of your band brothers also happens to be one of my “brothers from another mother.” Let’s embarrass your bassist Mike Davis for a bit by explaining why we both love him so much.
The four-string menace! Mike is amazing! I like to call him “the new guy” because he’s only been playing with me for 23 years. He was actually the original bassist in Lizzy Borden in the ‘80s, and when I met him in the ‘90s I think he had pretty much retired from playing. But after I asked him to join my solo band, he got back into it. So much so that he ended up playing bass and got to tour the world with (Judas Priest frontman Rob Halford’s solo band) Halford. The band really is like a family. Maybe even better because we don’t fight, though they may have a few squabbles about who has to share a hotel room with me. We all get along really well, which is important, especially when you’re all together for hours in a van. Tony Snow, the drummer, has been with me since the ‘90s. He started playing with me a few years before Mike did. I’ve known guitarist Mark Englert my entire life. We grew up on the same block and graduated high school together, along with our other guitarist, Pete Wood, who I first met in junior high school. All these guys have such passion, talent and energy that have really pushed me to up my game.
The second to the last song on the album is “You, You, You,” which is as hauntingly beautiful as it is personal. What would you like to tell us about this track?
This is probably the most personal song I’ve ever written. It might be my favorite song on the record, not only because of the subject matter, but also because of the way it turned out. When I write a song and share it with the band, I usually have a very good idea of what the final results will sound like. But, in the case of this one, when we originally recorded it, it was with the full band – bass, drums, electric guitars, etc. But when we started mixing it, we stripped away almost everything and came up with what you hear on the record. The atmosphere that was created still gives me chills when I listen to it.
Finally, the album ends with a cover of the Elliott Smith song “Half Right.” Why end Color TV with such a long, stark, dare I say, sonically black & white track?
I actually always planned for “You, You, You” to be the last song, and “Half Right” would be what we used to call a CD bonus track, or a B-side, but instead we ended up using it as the last song on the album. Elliott Smith was a brilliant songwriter, and I think the substance of the lyrics perfectly compliment the substance abuse subject matter of some of the other songs on the album.
Well, John, thanks again for taking the time to talk with me. It had been far too long, my friend. Take care, stay safe, stay healthy and I hope we can see each other face-to-face again soon.
Thanks, Jim. Thanks again for setting this up and helping to spread the word. Stay safe!