Interview with River City Extension: Deconstructing The Super Highway On The Back Roads Of Tranquility

Sometimes you run across a group that just stands out in a natural way. A visionary so simple that you often look back in hindsight and marvel at the black and white of its uncomplicated nature; a group that naturally draws people to its sound, its vibe and the complex output of emotion in a way so strong that it can’t be ignored. Mostly it’s about inner change, but it’s also about outer expectations and the promise of a search and rescue in a scene gone stale. Is this a musical renovation of the music scene? That’s what I would describe River City Extension as. Lead man Joe Michelini took 10 minutes to answer some questions about the band, the process, and some down-home cooking.

How did you develop such a unique sound in a shore town known for its love of dance clubs, cover bands and Bon Jovi?

I was raised unconventionally, that’s the most positive way I could say that (laughs) I was raised in a Christian family and my parents, their ideals were based on different things. For example I wasn’t allowed to have video games in the house. My parents felt that when I was at home that was the time to be with my family and that was the time to be creative and for that reason there was a lot of stuff that I wasn’t exposed to so I’ve been given the opportunity to start from scratch in a lot of ways. I’ll go to the Hawk (radio station) and hang out and listen to these classics that I’ve never heard before. I also think my parents raised me on a lot of classical music and that’s what we wanted to do here, a band that reflected classical influences, you know?

Is it difficult to meld the ideas of eight different individuals into one collective mindset when writing?

Not at all. We’re completely dysfunctional so…(laughs) I write a lot of the songs and I bring it to them. Sometimes I have an idea of what I want to do and sometimes I don’t, but they are the greatest most receptive musicians and they, ugh, they respect my ideas and my visions for things and at the same time they’re not afraid to throw something creative into the mix which is really cool and I feel like we’ve found a great common ground doing that. If there’s something different or on edge I’ll bring it to the band and have them play along just so I can hear it, so I can take it and say, ‘I wonder if this will work,’ you know? Usually you hope that it does (laughs) and I say, ‘Alright guys I’m dwelling on that riff and I’m going to go home and write lyrics and create a structure,’ and then we’ll start playing the song.

The band just finished recording its first full-length debut disc, The Unmistakable Man, for release on XOXO Records in May of 2010. Could you tell us if that was a long drawn out ordeal verses quick and painless?

Actually you’d be surprised about how so much of the record was done quickly. I mean some of it was time consuming and at the end of the day you can spend forever working on a project but I wanted to make a record and I sat down and—this record to me isn’t necessarily the most cohesive thing in the world but I work behind the wall you know? I’ve got two hands in the glory hole and I’m just working and watching people on the other side react to what I’m doing. (We both laugh at that description) I put up a track list on Facebook and posted it for fan reactions. For them to question why this song is up there or why isn’t another one up there, enabling me to adjust the list to be cohesive and appeal to fans because we’ve been playing live for a couple of years now and our first record is going to be about the fans, like here’s River City Extension, here’s the songs you been seeing live, before we try anything conceptual here’s what it is cut-and-dry. Doing that has kept me from becoming neurotic in a lot of ways.

How did you come up with the band name and attract Eric Sanderson as a producer?

Well what’s funny about his band Pela is they have a song called ‘The Trouble With River City’ which is originally where I took the name. I was so attached to the song I felt it was an extension of my life. So long story short, Pela plays Bowery Ballroom in NYC and I see the lead singer at the bar (Billy McCarthy) and I go to him and say, ‘Man, I have a story to tell you,’ and I sat him down and I told him the whole story about how his record had inspired me to start a band and how I wanted to do what he was doing and then he told me his story about how the song came to be and I was just so enthralled with him and the idea and the Bowery and all—he said let’s keep in touch but you have to promise that when you are where I am now, you will do the same thing for someone else that I am doing for you right now. From there he heard the band and we started playing shows together. When Pela had label troubles and the group disbanded, Eric had the time so we were like, ‘Lets do a record.’

What are the benefits of siding with a major independent label like XOXO (Hands Down Eugene and Gaslight Anthem) over the DIY approach?

Well this feels pretty DIY to me. But trust me, the label helps us a lot. But this is family. When Bill O’Brien came in to manage us full-time we sat down and talked about the possibility doing the record with Jay Small and I started to realize that this was a family and a community of people that really cared about who we are and from there it was just a mutual understanding that he has these pathways built through the success of Gaslight Anthem and he’s able to facilitate what we’re doing in a much quicker and successful way.

Do you find that the support system of our local music scene here, as well as other systems nationwide, is part of the reason your popularity is growing?

We have the most incredible family support system. Honestly I cannot stress how people care for each other on and off the clock. That’s the way it should be. I don’t talk with band members just when were doing band stuff. We talk when one of us is having a problem with our girlfriends or whatever, and the same goes for everything else. We’ve had incredible support from people like Glen Tilbrook (Squeeze) who is a big supporter of the band, obviously Pela, Nicole Atkins has really helped us, Danny Clinch, he’s been incredibly supportive which is so cool.

Why would you tell other groups that it’s necessary to play outside of their home turf?

You want to be human and accessible but you also want folks to know that you take yourself seriously. When we create buzz and then leave for three months people say, ‘What are they doing?’ and someone says, ‘Oh, they’re out touring.’ That person is gonna say well I have faith in this verses, ‘Oh, they’re playing the so and so club, but didn’t they play the other so and so club two weeks ago?’ It just wears off after a while. This area is a great launching pad but too many bands make their home here. It’s too easy to stay put.

Is it true that the band has offered to cook their fans dinner in return for a donation to their tour fund?

Absolutely true. (laughs) I cook almost everything; I think if I wasn’t doing music I would be going to culinary school. So that’s like a big passion of mine. Our drummer Mike as well. We love to cook and I’d rather do that than say, ‘Hey we’re gonna sell you this great gift pack that you can go home and be intimate with,’ instead be like, ‘Why don’t we share a bottle of wine?’ Something like sharing a meal is such an age-old bonding experience, it’s something like really caveman old where if you invite someone to your house for dinner it’s a special event. Everyone has priorities and expectations but we’re also passionate humans and that’s something I want our fans to know. And we want to know everything there is to know about them as well.

Catch River City Extension at the Stone Pony in Asbury Park, NJ, on Feb. 20.