(Posted February 23, 2002)

MOONEY SUZUKI: Singin’ A Song About Today

By ROBERTO CALABRO
(First published in the Italian rock-magazine "Fun House" n. 3)


While the media are lauding The Strokes from New York City as "the new big thing", a real rock’n’roll band comes out and does it 10 times better....Mooney Suzuki play garage-rock with strong MC5/‘60s British R&B influences. Their debut album on Estrus ("People Get Ready") was one of recent rock’s most inspired records. They’re preparing to unleash a new one. We’re looking forward to listen to them again. In the meantime, we got in touch with Mooney Suzuki singer-guitarist Sammy James Jr.

R: Let’s talk about "People Get Ready", your first album that gave you an international media and audience exposure. Most of the people compared your music to the 60’s Motor City scene (MC5 above all) and the Stax-sound. Personally I found more similarities with the Rolling Stones and ‘60s British R&B. Anyway what did you find true in all of it and do these comparisons annoy you?

S: Part of our artistic goal is to unapologetically celebrate the music we love. All art has its sources and raw materials. Jimi Hendrix is one of the most innovative, unique, groundbreaking, iconoclastic, and ORIGINAL artists if all time, and simultaneously, he is very loyal to traditional blues music. We don't get annoyed that people "bust us" on our influences. It's funny when people get it wrong: "Oh you guys are so MC5" of course we love MC5, but someone will say a song of ours is "so MC5" just because we say "oh yeah" in it. . . it's just the thing to say now "you guys are so MC5" we're trying to sound like Led Zeppelin!

We had a riff the other day and were like "this is kind of Stooges, but also kind of Hendrix". And that's where our sound is. We were like, "we'll, we're not good enough for it to sound like Hendrix, but we play our instruments too good for it to sound like the Stooges".

R: Legend says that Dave Crider of Estrus sent you into a studio with Tim Kerr to play and record or better "just let the tapes roll and see what happens". Is it true and how was working with Tim Kerr as a producer?


S: That's the story. Dave was very casual about it, we had been on fire to make a record for almost two years. So it was like that first teenage orgasm actually experienced with another person! Something we'd wanted more than anything for so long that when the opportunity rolled around, we were ready! We had been practicing a lot! Tim was awesome, we are talking to him about working with us on our next record.

R: The band has existed since 1997, but you’ve released your debut-album just one year ago. Was difficult to get a record contract, also considering that you didn’t have a booking agent/management working for you?

S: Yeah, like I just said, we were trying for a while! We did some singles on smaller labels, and a few offered to do a full-length, but at that time, we had are hearts so set on Estrus, we were like "well, we'd rather be the best band that never put out a record" than settle for anything less than our "dream label".

R: Your music is so original and peculiar even if your sound shows a legacy with the Sixties garage/R&B/rock’n’roll. How d’you define your sound and which are the bands/artists who mostly influenced you?

S: Thanks! That's a nice compliment! This is an easy question to answer. I got into it a bit earlier. I think our sound, and many artists' styles, are defined by limitations. If I could play guitar like Jimi Hendrix, sing like Otis Redding, write like Sly Stone, and be James Brown, that's what I would sound like. That's what I’m trying to do, but it doesn't come out like that, does it??!?!?

Of course, we are also musically influenced by things more directly: the Who, the Kinks, the Yardbirds, the Animals - proper English teenagers trying to sound like authentic black American r&b artists. MC5, Stooges…blues, soul - the Memphis sound, Stax/Volt Mg's etc. - tons of other stuff too, Frank Zappa…

R: Many bands are re-discovering the roots of rock’n’roll/soul/R&B these years. Is any band you like in particular or you feel close to you?

S: I think the most vital, significant act around right now is the White Stripes. Our artistic mission has been to create music with nothing you haven't heard before. To limit ourselves to a musical vocabulary that everyone is completely familiar with: rhythm and blues. The statement being not to get hung-up on "new sounds" or "new technology" or "the latest thing" the idea being, if you have something worth saying, it doesn't matter what language you use to get it across. Sure, it might be pro-tools and a sampler, but these traditional American folk and blues sounds that people are trying to sweep into the dustbin and forget are just as valuable as anything that today people herald as "new" and "indispensable".

I think the White Stripes express this best. Great honest music with a very distinct personality and spirit - and there is no note they play that you couldn't have come up with sitting in your living room messing around on a guitar. In fact, most of their parts are things you've played while messing around on your guitar. They make "new" music out of the things everyone's fingers first move to on the guitar. Ideas most people say "I can't use that, it's so obvious and over-used." but they take those "clichés" and make new art out of it. To me that's where it's at.

R: What kind of records are you listening to?


S: The White Stripes, the Go, the Sympathetic Sounds of Detroit comp, Cream, the Animals. . . after seeing a screening of "The Wizard of Oz" synched up to "Dark Side Of The Moon", I have been fighting the urge to dig out the old 70's Floyd records. . . and losing the fight. . .

R: You come from New York City. Since the Velvet Underground and the CBGB’s (Ramones, Patti Smith, Television, Heartbreakers), New York has always been a legendary place for rock’n’roll. Do you feel to be part of the NYC rock’n’roll tradition?

S: I’ve been playing in New York for a long time. My first show I played in a rock'n'roll band in NYC I was 17. Since then, there have been times where it seemed "oh, maybe this is the beginning of something cool. . .like some kinda 'scene'. . ." but it always seemed to lose steam… People get distracted, do other things. In New York City, at any given time, every person has the opportunity to pursue an unlimited amount of things.

Take the North West in the 80's. Isolated, ignored, things had the opportunity to incubate: you get K Records, Kill Rock Stars, Estrus, Sub Pop and all the well defined, characteristic musical and visual aesthetics they all represent. Artistic identities were forged in a certain environment. I think the same thing is going on in Detroit right now.

New York is not isolated, New York is not ignored - there is no underbelly for anything interesting to fester. In "Please Kill Me" they say how at the time, there were no venues to play at if you weren't big 70's sap pop rock or prog rock. Arena dinosaurs were the only music shows. The "cb's scene" was isolated and ignored, they had hunt down a place to play. Maybe you need to be ignored for you to come up with anything interesting.

R: Which is your relationship with musical press both in America and in Europe? On this side of the globe, Mojo wrote a rave review of your album and the Spanish mag Ruta 66 gave you a three-page interview, for instance…

S: Great! We love Mojo, that was very exciting - and yeah, doing interviews with Spanish and Italian press is cool - it's kind of like "I can't believe people are taking us seriously!"
It feels good! I’d say our relationship is good. We have seen very little "bad" press on us. And by "bad" I don't mean negative, I mean boring. We've seen a lot of press by folks who don't like the band, but they HATE the band and rip us apart - to me, that's just as good press and a rave review. I like getting people riled up like that, it's the same as someone loving the band .

R: How much is the live dimension important for you? I’ve been told your live-shows are explosive and legendary…

S: I'd be tempted to say it's more about the live show than anything. The songs are an excuse to perform something. Some of us in the band are definitely performers before we are musicians. I know I am. I think I am a performer first, a musician second, and a songwriter third. But it's all just expression anyway… Some artists struggle to "capture the magic" they have live on a record. Some struggle to "recreate the magic" they created in the studio in a live setting. We're definitely the former.

R: How is selling the record and how much is helping you in getting ‘famous’? Are you playing more after the release of "People Get Ready"?

S: I don't know how the record is doing, to be honest. We should be finding out in the next week or so. We toured for seven months after the record came out, and I'm sure that helped.

R: What are your future plans? Are you going to release a new album soon?

S: We are working on a new record right now to record in Detroit. We're very excited to record with Jim Diamond at his studio where the White Stripes and most of today's Detroit bands recorded many of their records. We've played Detroit four or five times this past year, and there is a really inspiring community of musicians and creative folk going on there right now.

R: In conclusion, a curiosity to satisfy. Your name came out mixing the second names of two members of 70’s kraut-rock band Can. Isn’t such a strange thing considering that your explosive rock’n’roll sound is very different from the music of the German band?


S: The name began as a joke. We dig Can, but what a dumb band name! But right from the start, we started to get so much attention from the name, from press, from promoters from Can fans that paid to come to our show just to tell us how lame they think we are - starting off as a band in New York city, you need any gimmick you can get - so we stuck with it! Still, it gets a lot of attention. I've read interviews where Malcolm Mooney talks about us. And Damo Suzuki did some shows recently where there were posters of ours in the venue. He emailed and wished us good luck on our music and sent us a Christmas card and now we're email pals. So it's a silly name. . .


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