9,999 Maniacs -- Life Post Natalie AinÕt Half Bad
Even though tax day is long past, I invite you to do a little math with me and find an answer to the following: 10,000 - 1 + 2 = ?If you said 10,001 youÕd be correct in the computational sense. However, if you answered a new and improved version of the 10,000 Maniacs you would be more accurate. Ousted is the once shy and naive Natalie Merchant who decided to go it alone and in her place are new lead singer/viola player Mary Ramsey and guitarist John Lombardo, the latter being one of the founding members of the band back in the early '80s who has returned for a second go-around.Certainly itÕs human nature to ask about the most recognizable player in the group, but one has to remember that the boys in the back were not just cigar store indians and that they did make up the majority (80 percent) of the gang. Hard to believe, but there was even a pre-Natalie stage when guitarist Robert Buck, keyboardist Dennis Drew, percussionist Jerome Augustyniak and bassist Steven Gustafson initially formed the core of a group that would bear two independent albums, five Elektra records and tour incessantly for nearly a decade.So, it should not come as a total shock that the men who constructed the backbeat sound and had chosen to be wallflowers in the media spotlight should want to continue fashioning music their way.Steven Gustafson recently took a few moments out of his home life to provide an insiderÕs perspective of the past, present, and future of the 10,000 Maniacs.BVW: IÕve noticed that the band is playing a lot of shows in venues that have liquor licenses (The Big Kahuna being one of them). Is that a product of the times or is that a conscious effort by the band to concentrate on a particular fan base?SG: No, weÕd love to play all-ages shows everywhere we go, in fact we try to insist on it. ItÕs based on numbers, what a promoter in an area might think we can fill. We try not to overstep our bounds by playing a place too big or asking for too much money from promoters because we like to be fair about it and keep ticket prices from getting too high. When it comes to Wilmington, Delaware, there arenÕt many places to play but the Big Kahuna. We played last year for a radio promotion thing and met the owner of the club and he was a great guy so we said what the heck, we have a open date to fill, weÕll be in the area, letÕs call it in and see what they say. Really, for the most part, we have to be invited to come and play a concert. We try and explain this to our fans who say, why donÕt you come and play our town? And we say, well someone has to invite us because we just canÕt call up a promoter and say we want to play. Someone has to put up the money to cover expenses and put the food in the babyÕs mouths. So, weÕre limited to where we can play unfortunately. A place like Chicago has always been a good town for us-going back to the old Maniacs days.BVW: When you refer back to the "old Maniacs days" you refer to... Pre-Mary Ramsey.SG: I tend to describe the age of a band not in years but in terms of albums and tours. It has only been one album since Natalie departed. At what point do the Maniacs say to themselves, "We have to stop talking about Natalie Merchant? We are the Maniacs now and thatÕs the way it is." Well, we don't talk about her much. People always ask us about her. Even when she was in the band people always asked questions like, "Hey Steven, whatÕs Natalie really like?" One of the reasons she was the star of the band was because she was a singer. Singers get asked all the questions and are the ones, in almost every band, whose names everyone always remembers while everyone else remains anonymous. You know, we pushed her to do videos by herself for a reason, because we knew it was going to sell records. We made a conscious effort to push her to be the star, we wanted her to do it.BVW: So now Mary Ramsey has filled those shoes?SG: Sure, itÕs new for her. Natalie had 10 years of practice before she became a star and Mary has been kind of thrust into this position and at times has even said to herself, "Wait a minute, this isnÕt what I expected." She went from doing her little folk thing with [John] Lombardo, pretty low-key as far as the number of interviews, the amount of travel, the time in the studio and all the pressure from a major label which sheÕs never had. It was a lot for her to absorb and itÕs going to take her a while to come down from this last record. I think it will all calm down a little bit by the time we [post-Natalie] get our second record under our belt. Natalie has her second album out now and they barely mention the Maniacs when talking about her in interviews.BVW: I remember seeing a show back in 1990 and you had John and Mary open for you.SG: Yeah, that was back about the time when we were consistently doing album-tour-album and we were pretty exhausted at that point (following the BlindmanÕs Zoo tour) so we took some time off. While we were taking that time off, I think it was NatalieÕs idea to call. We got a hold of John Lombardo who had been in the band up until 1986. She and John remixed our first two independent records, Human Conflict Number Five and Secrets of the I Ching which we had recorded at Fredonia State University many moons ago and we put them on Hope Chest. It was like a retrospect of our first decade together ... After that we thought why donÕt we do a little tour behind it in the Northeast. We had John and Mary come out and that was the first time we had ever met Mary. BVW: I had talked to Jerry a couple of summers ago and he told me that you all knew that Natalie was going to leave that band even before you had recorded Our Time in Eden. SG: Oh yeah. She told us even before we had all the songs written for that album. We knew in like '91 when that Hope Chest thing was done and we took some more time off to go back and get some new ideas.BVW: Was the reason for her leaving to go back to school and further her education like we were told in the press?SG: No. Like everyone in this band she was a very strong-willed, hardheaded person and she wanted to do everything her own way and we wouldnÕt let her so she had to leave. She didnÕt like art by committee and thatÕs how we as a band were working, and still do. She didnÕt feel that our input into her ideas gave them proper light and that happened a lot. When you do art by committee you have to sacrifice and she didnÕt want to sacrifice that and I think that was the bottom line. Maybe she wanted all the cash too but she never said anything about that. I donÕt think the public had any indication that by the end of the tour there would be a metamorphosis of the group. We decided, as a group, that we werenÕt going to talk about NatalieÕs leaving the band while on tour because we didnÕt want it to be a farewell thing. The band wasnÕt breaking up, Natalie was leaving and the rest of us were going to keep on going.BVW: Did you know that Mary would be the person to step in and fill the void?SG: When we got done in 1993 we took about six months off from each other and then the four of us started putting some ideas down on tape. We ran into Lombardo, who was visiting the area, who said he and Mary had some new songs -- letÕs record them. We recorded their songs and some of our ideas we had and thought this feels pretty good, letÕs keep it going. It was a very natural thing.BVW: How have the fans reacted to the new additions?SG: YouÕd be surprised how many people think Natalie is still in OUR band. Most of the people out there donÕt have the first clue about the internal workings of a band or the record industry. People hear Natalie Merchant and think itÕs still us. That happens and thereÕs nothing we can do about that except forge our own identity and see what happens. BVW: Have you been recording music for a new album?SG: WeÕve done a little recording but we really havenÕt spent a lot of time on it yet. WeÕre still doing these gigs that weÕre committed to. After that we have a few weekend gigs throughout the summer that will keep the cash flow going but during that time we are really going to start focusing on sharing new ideas and things like that.BVW: With all the trouble that Geffen records has been going through lately are you going to stick with them?SG: We asked them early on if we could talk with other labels and they said okay. At this point it looks as if we are going to do the next record by ourselves and distribute it through an independent label.We didnÕt feel that they really pushed for our record, Love Among the Ruins. After our first single, (a cover of the Roxy Music tune) "More Than This," which also happened to be the bandÕs most successful single, they kind of backed off. WeÕve been in the business long enough to know how to do things and now weÕre going to do it!