When I think about The Union, I can’t not associate the second stanza of Brian Adams’ “Summer Of ‘69” in my head: Me and some guys from school/Had a band and we tried real hard/Jimmy quit, Jody got married/I shoulda known we’d never get far. Believe me, I’ve tried…
With previous bands disbanded due to school, marital commitments, and other life things, the members of Asbury Park-based improvisational band The Union have each come from a place of having played seriously in a group capacity. Like magnets, members Joey Henderson (keyboard), Kyle Hendricksen (guitar), Ryan Bernero (guitar), Robby Derosa (drums), and Dan Pollard (bass) found each other through mutual friends, the formative experience of being in band, and a common desire to continue making music. The improvisational nature of The Union’s sound, marked by expansive jam segments, solo spotlights, and boisterous licks, demands a thoughtful approach to making music that few young bands master so quickly. Some people are just really good communicating.
When I chatted with Kyle Hendricksen, first guitarist and oldest member of The Union at the tender age of 28, in early January (1/14/16 to be precise), he was preparing for Light of Day Winterfest: Wonderjam Deluxe, a continuous five-hour block of live jam music, hosted by Sandy Mack at the Wonder Bar. Patiently, concisely, he gave me the chance to find out more about the method in the music and plans for 2016.
Chemistry in music is everything. You guys seem like a tight bunch. How did you all meet and decide to make music together? What are your backgrounds?
If you go back to the beginning, I was in another group, still am, but the bass player in that group was busy with school and moved to Philly, so I basically had an entire year where I wasn’t going to be doing anything with that group. So I started poking around a little bit, talking to a few people…I knew Dan and Robby, our bass player and our drummer, through, like, mutual friends. I knew they were good players and musicians.
I had hooked up with them and had set up some sessions with our old guitar player Dan, who I had been playing with for, probably, seven or eight years now on and off…He was down, and we spoke to Joe Henderson; he’s our keyboard player. He was in another group and kinda had the same thing going on as me where a couple of the guys [in the group] were away for school and he wanted something to keep busy making and playing music.
So [The Union] kinda started as a side project, sort of. We all knew each other, we were all friends, so it was really easy and wasn’t really a high-pressured thing. The day after Souper Groove two years ago we started playing and sessioning…I guess the path began when we started doing musical sessions at the Lake House in Asbury Park and it evolved from there. Next thing we knew, we were like, “Okay, this isn’t really a side project anymore”; you know, we all got more and more invested in it and started really liking where our thing was going…So the evolution of The Union kind of happened there.
Our original guitar player eventually left the band, he was getting married and stuff…And I knew Ryan Bernero from playing with my old band. We had a show together years ago at The Stone Pony [with our respective bands Pseudotwin, Tash Even and Kyle] and had kept in touch, so when that opening came around, Ryan, our [second] guitar player, hopped on board. And since then it has been an upward kind of climb. Everyone’s been progressing a lot.
Does the band’s name The Union have a story?
Sort of…picking a band name is not easy. It’s really hard to do. You kind of overthink it a little bit, there’s a lot of thought process that goes on. We were actually really close to naming this band the Brotatoes at one point…
This band is kind of like a union of musical people and friends and we saw it as this sort of inevitable thing. Just a matter of time before we united and got together…That’s how we came up with the name. Joey [our keyboardist] actually came up with the name.
I like that. I like it because you do all seem like friends and because it’s simple, straightforward…As if you are saying, “It was only a matter of time…” Very appropriate band name.
Yeah! Everything about this band is just super easy, just a bunch of friends getting together, hanging out, very smooth…It’s a very “group” thing, everyone is very involved in everything we do.
Including tonight’s gig, The Union is scheduled to perform several dates in early 2016 in and around your hometown of Asbury Park. What are your plans for the rest of the year? Any off-home-base gigs planned?
We are actually working on that right now. We do realize that we have been playing locally a lot. At the end of the month [1/30] we’ll be up at Court Tavern in New Brunswick…going to branch out a little bit, try to get into that scene.
In the second week of February, we hope to get in the studio to start recording our debut album. We figure that once we have some recording done we’ll have something to push and start traveling a little bit more. Get our name out there.
The Union does offer recorded soundboard material in the mode of live sets and studio sessions on SoundCloud [https://soundcloud.com/the-union-nj].
That’s one thing we are trying to do for our fans. Soundboard recordings from our live shows. We try to make every single one of our live shows as different as possible. For example, we played this past Monday night at the Wonder Bar. Tonight we are playing at the Wonder Bar again. Different show, different scene, but we’re not going to repeat a single song. We try to make every show as different from the last or surrounding shows as humanly possible.
There are a lot of improvisational jams involved inside our orchestrated rhythm tunes. We try to keep it fresh. We put those live recordings out there free to listen, free to download, free to stream for anyone that’s willing to listen. This is to give back to them [the fans]. They are the ones that are paying to see us, that’s the least we can do.
There are a large number of bands that claim to be “improvisational” with the implication that jams occur on the fly. How much of it is true improvisation? Do jam bands ever just walk up on stage with hopes of magic?
All our songs are written out, and within that written song there’s one where it just opens up. There’s a lot of listening involved. Everyone knows their “role” for every song. It’s different for every song.
There is a direction. It’s like a conversation onstage. It’s like a musical conversation. Everyone’s got something to say and as long as everyone is willing to listen and without talking over each other, it usually works out pretty well.
Wow, I love that! That’s a great way to explain it.
But, yeah, it’s not like we get up there and just “wing it.” It’s definitely more of a conversation than anything else.
That makes sense. A conversation with a friend on any given topic is going to go a certain way versus a conversation with a stranger. A conversation of this type would go over well with your friends.
Having known each other for as long as we have now, we all kind of know each other’s conversation themes, if you will. It’s easy. Like, before Joe plays the lick he’s going to play, I know it’s coming. Everyone knows what the others are doing. Half the time, our eyes are closed, just listening to each other speaking; well not literally speaking, like, musically speaking to each other. Being good friends definitely helps that conversations go a little bit easier.
There’s a very visual aspect to improvisational music that we see in stage production and lights setup. Why do you think that is?
I think that along with improvisational music, the art of it, there is a visual aspect that should be a part of it as well. Live music can get dull if you’re not a musician yourself. I think that visual setup just kind of enhances the whole live music experience. When the band’s playing fast and the lights are going with it and everything is on the same page…it’s kind of like having a fifth band member. You have the band, then you have your lighting guy or your visual guy. It goes hand in hand with your jam show.
It’s like one big package. People tend to forget that there is an actual person running lights.
Exactly. It’s all working together. It’s like the missing band member, if you have someone that runs that for you…It’s not easy either. They deserve some credit.
One of 2016’s scheduled gigs [1/30 at Court Tavern] is a tribute night “Forever Grateful: A Night Remembering Zach Len.” Tell us about that and how you put that together.
Zach was a good friend of Ryan’s who passed away, sadly. His [Zach’s] sister had reached out to Ryan about trying to put something together to raise awareness about addiction and substance abuse. She wanted to do something with music. Zach was really into music, a huge Grateful Dead fan. We wanted to do something to celebrate him and raise awareness at the same time. So we figured, what better way than to put something together up there have some fun and dance around but at the same time raise awareness that there is a problem around here. We just want people to look out for each other
A lot of people in our band…it hits really close to home for all of us. It was really a no brainer…There’s a lot of cool stuff going on in raising awareness but keeping it positive and just doing it for Zach.
F_ck, Marry, Kill: the Grateful Dead, Phish, the Disco Biscuits
Definitely kill on the Disco Biscuits; Ryan’s going to hate me for that…Speaking on behalf of the band, it’d probably be both, but for me, I’d would marry Phish, and I would f_ck the Grateful Dead…I’m 28, I never got to see the Grateful Dead! If I got to experience, got to see them, it might be another story.
If each of your band members were a figure from popular culture (internet sensations, cartoons, TV characters), who would you be?
Lately, they’ve been calling me Squidward [Spongebob Squarepants] because I’m the oldest, the grumpiest, and says all the stuff that they don’t want to hear.
Dan’s the young one. He’s kind of goofy, kind of eccentric…We call him Danny Pop Star. So he would be the talking Pop Star in the commercials? Does that count?
Robby is definitely like, Biggie Smalls. He’s not big or anything, that’s just the attitude that he brings with his music. He takes control.
Joe is pretty hard….Patrick Swayze in Point Break.
Ryan is like the quiet guy but when he has something to say, you got to take him seriously. I feel like he’s Neo from The Matrix. Neo, straight up.
Those are my final answers!
Imagine if you all dressed up like those characters for one of your shows…
We actually do a Halloween show with a costume contest every year at The Saint in Asbury Park. Our first show ever was a Halloween show; it’s kind of like a tradition now.
Anything else you’d like to add?
We are grateful for the whole Asbury Park music scene, for everyone that’s come to see us. We have a lot of people that have been looking out for us. They put up with our silliness from time to time. We’re just really grateful and look forward to having more fun in 2016.
The Union performs Feb. 5 at The Stone Pony in Asbury Park, NJ. For more information, go to theunionband.com