Jim Testa Q&A: On the Trump & Christie Double Bill, Jersey Bands, and Making Music in North Brooklyn
Whether you are fourteen or forty years old, your parents went through some boom years, either the go-go ’80s or the post-war Baby Boomer era.
People were making good money, but some songwriters knew there was a lot going wrong on the social and political scene.
Now Jim Testa has appeared as the critical voice for our time.
Here is his take on the music industry, a favorite radio show, and Mama Coco’s Funky Kitchen.
GP: You’re the doorman at one of Greenpoint’s new clubs, Aviv, but you grew up in Jersey. Me too. A lot of people think you had to grow up here to have caught new great music, can you change their minds?
JT: While I was lucky enough to discover CBGB’s in the late 70’s, I saw far more great shows at Maxwell’s in Hoboken, which for decades was a place that not only fostered a great local scene (the Feelies, Bongos, dB’s, Yo La Tengo) but was also a major tour stop for the alternative bands of the 80’s and 90’s.
For many years in the Eighties and Nineties (and well into the ’00’s) Pat
Duncan did a show on WFMU-FM that specialized in punk and hardcore. He had bands come into the studio to perform live, as well as do interviews.
A lot of bands that I wrote about in my fanzine Jersey Beat wound up on Pat’s show. It was this NJ radio station that helped some of these bands, like Adrenalin OD to Ween to Screeching Weasel, establish their deserved fame.
GP: Your new EP, American Spirits and Artisanal Cheese, does not pull its punches when it comes to satirizing the current music and political scene. You’ve got some nice digs at Chris Christie and Donald Trump, and lament that the punk scene in the East Village and Bushwick is suffering.
I love the lossless version here, it has a lushness that gets lost in click-on streams. How did you get that sound?
JT: I can’t take any credit for the production on the EP, all the glory goes
to Oliver Ignatius, the owner/producer/engineer at a DIY recording studio in Bushwick called Mama Coco’s Funky Kitchen.
Oliver not only runs the studio, and performs on many of the records made there, but through social media and special events, he’s coalesced a collective of like-minded musicians – a “scene” within the Brooklyn scene, if you will – who often collaborate.
The musicians who play with me on the EP are all Mama Coco’s regulars except Jack Tabby, the violist, whom I met working at Aviv.
GP: Moving from your music family to your real family, you get personal on your new EP too. Tell me about the track “Sinatra on the Stereo.”
That’s about as autobiographical as I’ve ever gotten, that’s how I grew up. Church on Sunday morning, then my dad and I would listen to records while my grandmother and mom cooked a big Sunday dinner.
Those records (Sinatra, Basie, Ella Fitzgerald, Duke Ellington, Broadway cast albums) were the first music I fell in love with. Even today, if you want to know a song I’ll like, listen to Cole Porter or Irving Berlin and they’ll explain it to you: Catchy melody, clever lyrics, and everything rhymes.
When I write songs, I mostly write in couplets because of those Great American Songbook songwriters.
GP: With regard to your website, the other day I was on Facebook and someone was complaining about the state of media journalism, saying that some sites traffic in good reviews. A user commented, “Thank God for Jersey Beat.” One thing I love about Greenpointers is that their Sponsored Posts announcing events are clearly labelled, and no one is pressured to write positive reviews. It’s a rarity.
JT: Yes, there are websites today where you send a guy five bucks and he’ll write a good review of your record; for $15, he’ll write a rave review. I went to journalism school, and journalists had ethics. A lot of that has gotten very blurry in the digital age, but I still believe a critic’s first job is to be honest with himself, and honest to his readers.
GP: But there is that guilt about dissing a local band, where maybe it’s just not your style of music, maybe you just aren’t getting it.
JT: In today’s market, when there are trillions of bands trying to get heard, it doesn’t do anyone any good for me to jump up and down and stomp on some poor indie musician’s dreams. If they suck, they’ll find out soon enough.
If I find something I like and want to share it with my readers, I’ll write about it. I’d rather use that energy to promote good music. Life will sort out the rest.
I’ll write a negative review for an artist with an established reputation who puts out something that I find a disappointment, or where I disagree with the rockcrit hive mind. Titus Andronicus is an example that comes to mind.
Testa does Twitter
I dunno, would you lay out a couple of hundred dollars to watch Axl Rose do AC/DC karaoke? — @jimjbeat
GP: In addition to Jersey Beat, where else can we catch you?
JT: I do a podcast affiliated with the Jersey Beat site, you can reach that here. And of course, keep an eye on the concert calendar at Aviv. When you stop by be sure to say hello, I love talking music with people at the club.