In this competitive music scene of ours, certain criteria determine which bands will endure. One element is, of course, exceptional musical ability while another is a bit more nebulous, felt rather than seen or heard. Synergy—that symbiotic relationship between the band and the audience—is difficult to quantify. Some call it a “vibe”. Regardless, it is necessary for a band’s survival. If they don’t feel it, then we don’t feel it. If you’ve been around long enough to see the reappearance of certain bands from “back in the day”, you may have noticed their longevity can be attributed to their combination of these elements. And, they always seem to be having a damn good time. Colossal Street Jam is one of those bands. Currently tearing through the scene with renewed energy, a new sense of purpose, and a band of musicians that, together, have found their groove, Colossal Street Jam is back and better than ever. Their electrified new album embodies its name, Living Free, and offers up a satisfying variety of sounds and styles.
Originally from Philly, Gene Potts, vocalist for CSJ, made his way through many bands and incarnations of CSJ. His father’s musical influence, along with artists such as Grand Funk Railroad and Prince, instilled a love of music and artistry that is infused within his strong vocals. Known for their “melodic” tunes, CSJ achieve what they do with players who are experimental, expressive and stylistically varied. As heard on Living Free and certainly live, the band is musically diverse, each adding their own style to the dynamic—Sal Marra’s precise guitar playing, Tony Flora’s steady and soulful bass lines, Dave Halpern’s versatile percussion and Eric Safka’s relentless experimentation on the Hammond B3 results in jams that are inevitably…colossal.
Here, Potts talks of the band as family and how that cohesiveness translates into their music. Individuals elevate the whole. As the band plays locally and in or around the trifecta of Jersey, New York and Philly, CSJ represent the spirit of the jam by bringing various fellow musicians on stage. Whether it’s the Teak Rooftop or the Oriolo Guitars Showcase at the House Of Independents, a night with CSJ isn’t just a night of funky, rockin’ tunes, it’s an opportunity to witness community. Often, the band will invite local fellow musicians to join them. This is evident even during the production of Living Free when they invited Laura Catalina Johnson from Strumberry Pie to add her beautiful vocal inflections on the title track. CSJ is open to adding variables that will enhance the song, proving how synergistic collaboration is truly the strength of any jam.
Your dad was a musician, and you grew up in Philly, right? How did that inform your music?
Yeah, my dad was a huge influence on me musically either from just listening to the music that he listened to…a lot of the classic rock type stuff like Grand Funk Railroad which was really my biggest influence. Mark Farner, the singer from Grand Funk Railroad, was—I guess you could call it—my idol. My dad used to listen to Grand Funk when I was younger and a lot of Frank Zappa and also a lot of Motown. There’s definitely a side of me that loves R&B and blues and soul music.
And, you’re a Prince fan?
I’m a huge Prince fan. I have pretty much everything he’s ever released. He was just a huge influence on me—vocally you don’t hear it, but that style of music and the musicianship that he surrounded himself with is a big part of what I love musically. It was such a big hit for me when he passed away. I’m still very upset about it. I listen to Prince probably daily. There will be a record I’ll pick out and listen to on YouTube, on my phone or whatever every day.
You guys are multifaceted musicians in that you experiment and each have side projects…
We try to be diverse. That’s our whole thing. We have that running theme of the ’70s classic rock music, but we still try to be very diverse. That’s where the name came from—Colossal Street Jam. We all enjoy different types of music. We’re all influenced by different types of music, but when we all come together, it works.
So there is a story or anecdote behind who suggested the name…
John DiMaggio, who is a voiceover actor—he is the voice of Bender on Futurama, one of the penguins of Madagascar. He’s on every video game…done so many different things. He even had his own movie called I Know That Voice. When we were younger, Sal and John were very close friends, and John was around us a lot. He had heard us for the first time after we had been together a short period of time, and his quote was, “You guys are like one big colossal street jam.” So Sal was like, “That’s it! That’s the name.” And that’s where it came from.
Will you be debuting some new music—not on Living Free—at the House of Independents?
Yes, we’re not sitting on this record. It only came out in November, and we’re already writing and getting ready to go back into the studio. We’re going to try and put something out at the end of the year. If we can pull off a record a year, we’re going to do it. We’re really enjoying playing together, and it’s really clicked now that the five of us are together—really a band—we’re writing together. The first record was written by Sal, Tony and I with Dave coming in later on, and we finished the record with Dave, but now that Eric’s in the band—with the five of us writing together—the stuff we’re coming up with is crazy. I’m beyond excited with what’s going on here. Even last night at rehearsal we decided we’re definitely going to play some of the newer stuff, one or two songs. We’re not sure yet, but we know we will be playing new music that night for sure that no one has ever heard. We’re not letting anybody hear it. Before, we would bounce stuff off people…but we are not playing this until that night.
How is this incarnation of Colossal different from the past?
I think we’re older, smarter…wiser, and we’ve all been through so many different bands. We’ve put our time in…whether it be a cover band or whatever. We’ve all done so many live performances—I’ve done 175 to 200 shows a year every year. In the old days of Colossal, we played maybe once a month, twice a month if we were lucky, and none of us were doing any kind of side projects. Now, through time, we’ve learned to work together better. We’ve been friends forever. With the addition of Dave—Sal and I have known Dave for a long time—and with Eric—Eric has become, quickly just one of us. Eric has been playing with us for a while live maybe a year or so. Now, putting that time in together, doing the shows, rehearsing together, it has just become more cohesive. It’s a family atmosphere. We’re all brothers, and we just work well together. We play well together (laughs). Nobody’s fighting. Nobody’s arguing. If somebody has something that is on their mind, they speak up, and nobody gets upset. We all just listen to what they have to say…and it works.
Are there certain songs you change up live or approach differently?
There are a few songs in the live shows that we leave the solo parts and the ending parts open. We just did the video for the song “I Can’t Take It”. It should be out soon, we’re just waiting for the final edit. That song is a four-minute song, but live it could go anywhere from seven, eight, nine minutes, because Sal will solo, and Eric will take a solo, and it will build. If they are working off one another then we will just roll with it, and we feel it. Everybody knows where we’re going, and the end of that song could go on forever. It’s dynamic. Tony and Dave are working together while those guys are taking their solo parts, everyone is working in unison. So there are one or two songs that we leave open-ended where they play off one another and see what it turns into. None of us are held back…we don’t go off on a wild tangent or anything…we stay inside the song. I think it all works well. We’re all very respectful of one another, and I think in the old days, that was the problem where some guys just felt that their ideas should be in the forefront or maybe they felt they weren’t being listened to. Nowadays, that doesn’t happen. We’re all mature. We’re all seasoned musicians, and I think that helps in every aspect whether it be songwriting or live performances or even me talking to you—the guys have no problems with me doing this, and they’re not involved—nobody really has any issues with it. Sal and I usually go out and do the radio interviews, and the guys don’t care. They know that we have the best interest of the band in mind, and they respect us, and we respect them. We’d never say anything to ever make anyone feel like they’re not a big part of what we do.
There is a lot of trust then…
If we had this when we were younger, who knows what would have happened? We had so many things going on. I just think it was all like a tornado. Everything was coming at us every which way, and everybody handled it a different way. It didn’t mesh, and it just ended. Well, it really didn’t end, it was kinda, “Yeah, we’re not doing this anymore.” One guy wanted to do it, and another guy was like, “Eh, I’m not going to rehearsal.” It kind of just faded away. Now, it’s crazy what’s gone on in the past year and a half, especially since we put this record out. We did this for ourselves. We put this record out for ourselves. Yeah, we wanted people to hear, but we didn’t think that all these local radio stations were going to pick it up. We’re getting emails and calls for shows all over the place whether it be in this state or other states…other radio stations are picking it up out-of-state. Also, internationally we’ve got 10,000 spins right now. It’s amazing. We could never have done that years ago. For one, there wasn’t social media back then, and I think we just didn’t have the right plan in place, and, now, we do. I love the record, of course, I do, but it seems like everybody else does, too.
A lot of these songs have the components of hit singles such as “Won’t Last This Way”…
That is the one that has been picked up the most, that one and “Songbird”. The other ones, “Skies Above” and “I Can’t Take It” are starting to get some legs now, too, which is great.
You have a live track on the CD…How was the decision to do that?
We had another tune we were thinking about putting on there, and what ended up happening was Brett Smith from The Stone Pony had recorded us when we played with Gov’t Mule and Blackberry Smoke on the Summerstage. He said, “You’ve got to listen to this live recording. It’s crystal clear. It’s amazing. I did several mixes from the board—one from the stage, and one from the house.” When I heard it, I was like, “I’ve got to bring this to the guys.” And I brought it to the guys and said, “What about putting this on the record?” Sal is always big on live…if we could put a live song on every record, I think he would. He heard it and said, “We’ve got to put this on the record.” We all agreed. We brought it to our engineer/producer, Tony Tee Lewis. He took it, brought the levels up here and there, and we used. It’s had a good response. That’s really one of the first times Eric played with us, on that track. His playing is crazy on that. I wish we had a video. That show was insane.
Tell me about this show at the House Of Independents on the 28th…
I am so thrilled to have Kenny Dubman debuting his band that night. His record is amazing. Ken Dubman was the guitar player for Prophet and for Edgar Cayce. His new record, Reckless Abandon, is ridiculous. It’s so good. He put a record out a year ago and finally decided to get a band together to play it out live. This is the first show that they’re doing. And Frankenstein 3000. Keith Roth and I have been friends forever. I am so glad they’ll be playing with us that night, too, and Pete Marshall from Iggy Pop’s band. And Bitter Crush—Lou Vito was with the Whirling Dervishes. That’s his new band, and he also works for Oriolo Guitars. He’s the one who saw Sal play and said, “I’ve got to have this guy on our roster.” And that’s how we became friends with him and asked if they wanted to open the show.
Sal’s original guitar teacher is going to do a song with us at the end of the night. We’ve got some special guests coming on…we’re still working on that. It’s going to be a great night. And it’s hosted by Ryan Maher who is on SiriusXM, MTV, Artie Lange… He’s an awesome comedian and a good friend of mine. He’s going to emcee the night, so he’ll maybe start off with some stand-up and then, in between each band, he’ll chat with the crowd and get everybody fired up…that should be great, too.
Seems you guys are constantly collaborating, keeping it fresh, and the fans appreciate that …
It’s fun. A lot of the local musicians we get to come out and play with us. And it’s exciting for us because we’re learning songs for them. Kenny played at Teak with us, and he played one of his originals. We learned it for him. It’s a family atmosphere, even with other bands, musicians, and that’s the way it used to be when we first started. All the bands were friends. We were all playing shows together. There was no competition, just friendly competition. I think it’s coming back now…bands are uniting a bit more, but there was a brief time during the early 2000s when there wasn’t that…family. I think the resurgence of Asbury Park has helped. So I’m happy to be in the scene and back out playing no matter how old we are, we’re just going to keep going.
Can you tell me how you came up with the lyrics for “Skies Above”?
Yeah, the guys had written the music for “Skies Above”, and I was struggling with the lyrics. When Sal writes his guitar parts, he always has a melody in mind. He had come to rehearsal and said, “Here’s the riff.” That’s how it started. So he and the guys built a song. I was humming along…didn’t have anything set. He had a chorus in mind, no words—he just sang the melody to me. So these guys had the song pretty tight over a two- or three-week period. I was still struggling. I don’t know what was going on. It was like a mental block. I was having a hard time writing the lyrics for this song.
So I was at work—I’m a network engineer—and I see a guy, a friend of mine, at lunch looking upset. I go over and start talking to him. He tells me about how his marriage is falling apart. I’m listening to him, and he’s saying, “Every night it’s like I’m kicking, screaming, crying, fighting to just get this woman to listen to me, you know?” So that’s how the song begins, “Kicking, screaming, crying…why should anyone live this way?” and my lyrics for this song are almost a carbon copy of the conversation that we had. While I find out his wife is doing all these things, by the end of the conversation he tells me how he’s cheating on his wife. So, it was just this idea of here are these people, they’re supposed to be in love, and it’s dark. It’s like a dark love song. In my mind it was…first verse, this is what he’s going through, second verse, this is what she’s going through, and the chorus is, “They shed a whole lot of blood, sweat and tears…their love is darker than the skies above”, and that’s where the song came from. I went back to my desk, and in five minutes that song was done.
The last two songs that were recorded were “Skies Above” and “Let It Go” which is the song that Sal sings. You can listen to that song and understand who he is. It’s great. He wanted to sing it. And some of the newer stuff, Sal and I do co-vocals on. Sal and I have always harmonized so well together that it’s like we breathe together when we sing. Now, we’re starting to incorporate some of that not just in the choruses but in the verses. You’ll see in a lot of the newer tunes that there is going to be some co-vocals. There is going to be maybe I sing a verse, he sings a verse.
Sounds like the next album will be quite a bit different from this one…
Well, we’re influenced by Grand Funk… Grand Funk did that. We’re not doing it purposely, it’s just what is coming out. We’ve got this new one that we’re definitely going to play at the House Of Independents…the musicianship on this…the runs these guys are doing in between the vocals is just crazy. I’m really excited to record it. I’m also excited to play it, but I’m psyched that we have this plan in place where we’re going to try to put something out by November. We put this one out November 12th, and, hopefully, by next November 12th we’ll have something out.
At the end of the day, no matter what is going on, we did this for us. In the old days, we did this to be famous, to make money, and to be rockstars. Now, we’re doing this for us, and I think that’s why it’s working.
See Colossal Street Jam at the House Of Independents in Asbury Park, NJ on April 28; Flavorfest at Teak Rooftop in Red Bank, NJ on April 30; CSJ and Friends on May 3, June 7 & July 19 at Teak Rooftop in Red Bank, NJ; Opening for The Billy Walton Band on June 10 for their CD release party at The Saint in Asbury Park, NJ, and at the Whiskey Tango in Philadelphia, PA on July 22. Go to colossalstreetjam.com for additional dates and to purchase their latest album, Living Free.