Interview With Joe Michelini From River City Extension: Life, Line By Line

River City Extension are a bunch of New Jersey natives whose volatile cocktail of folk songcraft and punk tenacity serves up joy and sorrow in equal measure, suggesting the one might not be complete without the other. Their most recent album, 2010’s The Unmistakable Man, has found them a place alongside Arcade Fire and Kanye West on year-end lists and earned them coveted spots on tours with The Get Up Kids and Dashboard Confessional.

River City Extension consists of eight members, all of whom I will name because they all deserve their due: Joe Michelini, Jenn Fantaccione, Michael Costaney, Sam Tacon, Patrick O’Brien, Dan Melius, Nick Cucci, and James Ramirez. The Aquarian Weekly recently sat down with bandleader Joe Michelini in a Toms River diner to discuss the band’s growing popularity, difficult tour experiences, and crises of faith.

Your band has definitely grown in popularity over the past year. I saw IGN listed The Unmistakable Man among the top 25 albums of 2010, amongst albums released mostly by nationally known, Billboard-charting artists. Where do you see things headed in the future? What are your goals?

I want to reach the largest audience possible. I want to influence and inspire as many people as possible. Recently, I did an interview and they were asking about that thing I just said, and they asked, “But does that mean you do or do not want the band to be popular?” And I’m open to anything. I just want to reach as many people as possible. That’s the bottom line. With that I’m sure comes popularity to some extent, but that’s not necessarily our goal.

I think a lot of people view popularity as being a bad thing when it really just happens to be a neutral thing. It’s how you got there and what you do with it that matters.

Exactly. The amount of people that can feel affected by the music—I want that to be a lot of people. I want a lot of people to get something from it, even if it doesn’t have to do with us directly. If they’re getting something from it emotionally, I think we’ve done our jobs as musicians, and I’ve done my job as a songwriter.

I’ve seen videos of you from when you started out, playing on the boardwalk. Did you see it becoming what it’s been becoming lately?

What has it been becoming lately? (Laughs) I say that as a joke, I understand.

I see mention of you guys in places that I wouldn’t have imagined seeing you mentioned when I started following you in 2008. You guys are definitely building a fan base.

I don’t really have a concept of that, not because I don’t want to, but because I just don’t. It’s funny—a lot of people don’t see what goes on behind the scenes; we don’t see what goes on in front of the scenes. Every show is a little gauge of how popular the band has become or how much the music has spread, but when you hear mentions of our band—I don’t hear that. I’m surrounded by friends and family who are very supportive of the band, so a mention at home is very different than a mention at the office. Did I envision it? Not really. Not that it’s a bad thing. I’m happy about it. I guess I just figured we would give it our best shot. I got out of high school and I said to my parents, “Give me a year to start a band or try to start a band, and if after a year it doesn’t go anywhere, I’ll go to college.” And I do want to go to college eventually anyway. But the first year was semi-successful, and I think we’re at a great pace. It’s not going too fast, it’s not going too slow. It’s still exciting, but it’s still work, and work is rewarding.

Eight people in a band—how does that work out as far as transportation or even just getting along?

It is what it is. We’ve figured it out. We don’t get along just like any normal people wouldn’t get along, or maybe better than that. Whenever we have a disagreement, I take a step back and realize I’m in a band with some of the most understanding, caring, interesting people that I know. We’re all extremely tolerant of each other. For people with such strong personalities, I think we do all right. We’re not perfect, but we love each other more than anything, and we want to be playing music with each other. That’s why we’re here. Things are going to get hard. I don’t think anyone expected it not to be hard, but we were brought together by our difficulties, and that makes us stronger as people in our daily lives, and it makes us a stronger band, I think.

How do you tour? Do you have one giant van or do you take a couple vehicles?

We have one little van. We have a 12-passenger van and we tour with nine people. We’ll be touring with 10 people on The Get Up Kids tour. Even though it says 12 passengers, 10 people in a 12-passenger is a lot. Our first tour we did in a Jeep Cherokee and a Mazda. It was my dad’s Jeep Cherokee and it was wrecked by a deer in Nebraska. But now we tour in a 12-passenger Ford white van—the typical band vehicle.

What happened when you wrecked the Jeep? Were you touring in Nebraska?

This was on the Lydia Farewell Tour—our first national tour. We had been separated because the Jeep broke down, so we took a few people in the Mazda—myself included—and went on to play acoustic dates until they could catch up with us. The Jeep broke down in Wisconsin. It took longer than expected to get it fixed, and we ended up closing out the Lydia Tour acoustically, but we still had these tour dates we had to do back. So they’re coming to meet us in Denver, Colorado, and we get a phone call from our tour manager 20 minutes before we’re supposed to go onstage, and he said, “We hit a deer. We’re on the side of the road. The car is totaled.” I went down in the green room and I cried. We all cried. We were defeated. That’s the Reader’s Digest version. It was such a long week without the band, and with the difficulties and the money we spent, and we were so close to being back on track. It was so hard. But we went on and we played a show, and we did well, and we sold records. And at the end of the day, that’s what we needed to be doing.

What are some good tour stories? What were some of the best moments?

The rest of it is good. Everything besides hitting a deer with your Jeep Cherokee is awesome. I love touring. I love being on the road. I love new audiences every night. I love going back to cities and seeing the crowd grow.

I have a question about the major lyrical themes, one being alcohol, but another being God—I’m thinking about “Holy Cross” or “If I Still Own A Bible.” I was wondering what your upbringing was like and where you’ve come since then, how it has affected your worldview, and how it comes across in the songs?

I was raised in a stable Christian church and a stable Christian family, not a judgmental one. I think I was about 16 when I decided I had to stop believing in my parents’ God and had to go look for God myself. To this day, most of the time, God and I have no problems. It’s everything in between that boggles my mind sometimes: religion and money—not that either of those things are bad things, either. They’re all necessary, and fellowship and church are wonderful things for practicing Christians, or whatever you choose to believe. I guess I’m still searching, and that’s been a pretty big topic in our music, but I think I’m more secure than our music lets on. I think I write things like that in my darkest times. It works as a personal stepping-stone.

You look at where you were in a bad place, and you have something to push off of. I don’t wish to be up all night wondering about God, nor do I wish to be an alcoholic, which I am not. But I guess it’s what you have to do: you look at those things and then you’re able to look at yourself more objectively as a person by writing them down and moving forward with them. But I don’t want to be in those places. I like to drink, but in no way would I ever want to have a problem with drinking, and as far as God, as much as I like to wonder, I want to know. God is one of those things that I do not believe is ever going to disappear from me once I find out what’s going on, because I don’t think anybody ever finds out what’s going on. The Bible says, “For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then we shall see face to face,” and I believe that to be true, at least for me. I guess it’s kind of hypocritical for me to say I believe that part of the Bible to be true. I guess I believe it all to be true, but there are only certain parts that I let at myself, otherwise I think the conviction would be too heavy. I guess I don’t ever hope to understand God, I just hope to understand God the best that I can, and I hope to one day swallow my pride and be accepting of what He is willing to reveal to me as a person. In the meantime, I struggle with faith.

Do you occasionally get interviewers or other people who perceive you as being this wreck of a person who is always drinking and questioning God?

I think what’s funny about our music is I’m the downer who writes happy music.

A lot of your music is really rousing and joyous. I think it’s more the people who might think the lyrical themes encapsulate you entirely as a person.

People are going to think what they think anyway. I’m just going to write the music I write. I want to write that dark, brooding record but I just can’t, which is good. Playing our music makes me happy, and it makes other people happy, but I’m sad a lot. I spend a lot of time trying to figure it all out and I just can’t. But I guess life is sort of like God in that way—if I ever figured it out, I wouldn’t have anything to live for, so I live for the ride. We got our name from the Pela song “The Trouble With River Cities,” and there’s a line in that song that goes, “Yeah, there’s an undertow, but it ain’t got me.” I’ve tried to live my life by that line, because there always is, even when things are good. It’s important to remember there’s darkness everywhere, all around us, but it only has as much power as you give it. You just have to decide that you’re going to be who you are and do what you do regardless.

River City Extension will be playing at Maxwell’s in Hoboken on Feb. 20 and The Studio At Webster Hall on Feb. 22. For more info on River City Extension, go to The Unmistakable Man is available now.