Stephanie DiTirro

Makin Waves with Tom Kanach

The only live music act on the bill for the DJ-centric “Welcome Home Matt Pinfield” on August 14 at The Saint in Asbury Park, Tom Kanach is a deeply talented and equally respected veteran rocker. His potpourri of power pop, punk, and art rock would make The Beatles, The Who, The Ramones, and Cheap Trick proud, as well as their fans instant appreciators of the Jersey Shore singer-songwriter-guitarist. 

With an equally talented band consisting of Dramarama lead guitarist Pete Wood, Bitter Crush drummer Steve Buzbee, and bassist-producer-engineer-label head Joe Rowley, Tom has been recording for Joe’s Pop Clique Records for a couple of years. One of the only artists on the sorely missed Brighton Bar’s Wall of Fame in two different acts – the 1980s punk band Mischief and the nineties alt rock auteurs Well of Souls – Tom returned to a prolific music career in 2017 after a long hiatus inspired by fatherhood. Since then, he also has released two EPs – 2019’s “Once,” and “Change,” which released earlier this year – as well as several singles and videos. 

A New Jersey music industry legend who has been a pioneering MTV VJ, a DJ on Jersey Shore modern rock haven WHGT 106.3-FM, New Brunswick’s Melody Bar, Rutgers University’s WRSU, and an influential record company executive, East Brunswick-raised, L.A.-based Matt Pinfield hasn’t been home in a while because of the pandemic. But on August 14, he will be welcomed back to share the stage with Tom’s band and spin tasty, edgy tunes alongside fellow Melody Bar DJs Peter Santiago and Ed Wong.  

Tom said he is honored to be involved in the event, one of several high-profile gigs on the horizon. In the following interview, we also chatted about his storied history within the Jersey Shore music scene. 

After great local success with Mischief and Well of Souls, you took a long hiatus from music. Why?

Shortly after we married, my ex-wife and I had four children in quick succession. I had never thought that I would be lucky enough to be a father. I wanted to be good at it and focus my attention on raising the kids and being involved in their lives. I went to all of the school events, coached numerous youth sports teams, and even joined the PTA. I still wrote songs and played my guitar around the house, but I stopped actively trying to ‘make it’ in the music business.

What made you come back with the Undertow album in 2017?

Music has been my outlet since I was very young. The first song I remember writing was when I was around four-years-old. The act of writing songs was an escape from the traumatic damage that I experienced as an abused child. It was something I could control, creating a private world of songs. 

In the early 2000s, I began to think about what it meant to be a parent and in doing so decided to try and come to terms with my childhood damage. I wrote and demoed 30+ [songs] at my small home studio on this theme and they felt like they all went together. These songs became a concept album that I called Undertow. It was about coming to terms with what happened when I was a child and how it had impacted me as an adult. I needed to figure it out so I could overcome it.  

I liked the concept of Undertow being a metaphor for the underlying current of self-sabotaging doubt and anger that always seemed to be trying to pull me ‘under.’ It took me over two years to record everything by myself, working mostly late at night after the kids had gone to sleep.  

While I was happy with what I had created, I was self-conscious about playing it for other people as it was very personal. Fast forward a few years and I was in a better place mentally. I asked a few friends to give it a listen and get their feedback. My close friend, Don Dazzo from the Whirling Dervishes and Everlounge, was very supportive and suggested that I talk to [bandmate] Billy Seigel about recording and producing it.

When and how did you start working with Joe Rowley, and what does he bring to your music that wouldn’t be there without him in the studio, on the stage, behind the video camera, and at the record label desk?

In 2015, Billy Seigel recruited Russ McAdoo to play drums and Joe Rowley to play bass on the Undertow sessions. We recorded every Tuesday night for two years to get all 30 songs done. It was a great, fun experience, and I realized how much I missed collaborating with other musicians to create a shared vision. After the record was completed, I wanted to play the songs live and Joe was interested, so we put this band together. 

Joe plays bass the way I hear it in my head when I am imagining songs and parts. He is a cross between Paul McCartney and Graham Maby [Joe Jackson, Natalie Merchant, They Might Be Giants]. He is a great producer and engineer. We work well together. We are both weird and quirky, and we tolerate each other [Laughs].

Over time my anxiety disorder has gotten worse and I rely on Joe to keep everything on track. He does a lot of the business stuff for the band and makes things happen. He has been a great friend and partner.

Stephanie DiTirro

You have an amazing band that includes Pete Wood of Dramarama and Steve Buzbee. How did you connect with them, and what other bands has Steve been in?

Thanks for saying that because even though this is called ‘Tom Kanach,’ it is truly a band. Everyone contributes and we have a lot of fun.

Because I had played multiple guitar tracks on the songs on Undertow, I needed someone to play the other parts. Billy knew Pete from his keyboard fill-ins for Dramarama and thought Pete would be great. We got together and it felt right. Pete is a very underrated lead guitarist and always surprises me with the parts he contributes. He never plays what I would have played, but it always adds something great to the song.

Joe knew Steve Buzbee from a prior band called Bitter Crush and thought that Steve would be a fit. Steve is an excellent drummer and backing vocalist. Steve and I bicker constantly, but in a funny, brotherly way. 

How and why does the band inspire you to be productive and creative? What do you like most about what they do with your songs?

These guys are all professional musicians whom I respect and appreciate, so when I bring in a song, I need to make sure that it is good. Otherwise, I will never hear the end of it [Laughs].

In other scenarios, I used to write everybody’s parts – bass, drums, guitars, etc. Because of their individual strengths, I do not have to worry about that and can now focus more on the melodies and lyrics. 

With each song, I try to find something within that I can emotionally connect with. That way it becomes personal to me. By letting the rest of the band come up with their own contributions, it gives the songs personal meaning for them so they can draw on their emotions when playing the songs.

With the exception of the Change EP, which was written and recorded separately due to COVID restrictions, we always play through all new songs a few dozen times. We discuss the feeling we are going for, debate what everyone should be playing, and, eventually, come to a consensus on what works best.

Photo by Stephanie DiTirro

Over the years, you most often have crafted punk rock, power pop, and art rock. Which acts have been the greatest inspiration to you, why, and how?

I have a weird mix of influences. When I was young my parents listened to Sam Cooke, Buddy Holly, and folk vocal groups like the New Christy Minstrels. While my favorite band of all time is The Beatles, I was introduced to punk bands by Joe DeLorenzo, the bass player in my first band, Mischief, when we were 15 or 16. Because I was angry, I could relate to the energy and adrenaline of The Dead Boys, The Sex Pistols, Johnny Thunders. Those bands represented how I felt.

One of my biggest influences was the Lords of the New Church. Seeing them live made me want to put as much of myself into each show as Stiv Bators did. Another thing that made an impact, Joe knew Stiv, and we got to hang out with them a bunch of times. They were very cool, very kind, and very encouraging to us when they did not have to be.    

Since Undertow, you’ve been quite prolific and productive, releasing several singles and videos, and this year’s Change EP. What overriding themes have you presented in your recent music and why?

I wrote all for the songs for Change right when everything went into the first lockdown in March 2020. I was feeling very sad seeing people everywhere freaking out and behaving poorly toward each other, so I wrote the song “Change” because I wanted to say that we shouldn’t be afraid of change, that change is inevitable, and that we should try to embrace whatever good we can find in change. We need to decide to treat ourselves and each other with compassion, then we can work through the challenges of change together. I guess in some ways, it might seem naïve, but I truly believe that if enough individuals decide to change themselves, and not worry about anyone else, then things will get better. 

We need to find empathy for each other. Understand that no one can judge anyone else. I did not live your life. I did not experience what you did, so who am I to say whether you are right or wrong? Nor can I say that if I had lived your exact existence, that I would have ended up better than you.    

Will you release a third video for Change, or a single and video for your next EP or LP? Whatever details you can share would be great.

We are about 12 songs into the next recording project, which I think is going to become an album instead of an EP. My father died of COVID in March of this year. He and I had a complicated, sometimes contentious relationship. His death caused me to relive and review many of those complex emotions. I did what I always due to process my feelings: I wrote songs. 

One of the new songs is called “If” and it is an intimate song about the fact that we were not fully able to resolve our differences before he passed. I was thinking about how I wished we had had more time. “If” only….

There is also a great song called “Out of The Blue” that we think might be the first single. It is a catchy, upbeat song where I was trying to encourage myself to put myself out of the dark or out of the blue, if you will, and into the light.

We think we will be releasing something in the fall and then the full album in the new year.  

You are participating in an excellent upcoming event: ‘Welcome Home Matt Pinfield.’ Describe the influence Matt has had on your career and the music industry, and how that makes you feel to be the only band performing at that event?

Like many people from New Jersey, Matt turned me on to tons of great new music that I would not have found otherwise. On top of that, Matt has always been a champion of the underdog musician. For me, like many other bands, Matt has gone out of his way many times over the years to support and promote my music. He did not have to do it but made the effort.

If Matt likes something, he is not shy about it. So, when he heard our Once EP in 2019, he got in touch to tell us he loved it. He helped with some great advice when we were working on the Change EP and has been supportive ever since. We were very grateful to be the only band on the bill for the August 14 event and are looking forward to playing.

Just to give a bit more of a plug for ‘Welcome Home Matt,’ what else will folks get to enjoy at it?

This night will be a sort of Melody reunion night. In addition to Matt, DJs Pete Santiago and Ed Wong will also be there performing.

In 1992, Matt got up and sang a bunch of songs with Well of Souls at a Melody show. It was a great night and a favorite memory. Plus, Matt is a really good singer, so I think that Matt might be convinced to jump up with us on the 14th to run through a couple of cool covers.  

What other events and activities do you have coming up?

We plan on spending most of the fall finishing the new record, but now that things are opening back up, we have been playing regularly around the tristate area. We keep our website and social media updated so anyone interested in seeing us can check there.

Photo by Kathy Powers

Are the guys from Mischief and Well of Souls well, making mischief, and still making music?

I do talk to some of the guys from Mischief from time to time and most of them are still involved in music. I am still close with John Pfeiffer from Well of Souls and I am very happy to report that he is writing a bunch of new music.

Given that you have two bands on its Wall of Fame, how do you feel about your old stomping grounds the Brighton Bar being sold to a condo developer?

The Brighton is the place that I played more than any other. When we were looking for a bar to shoot the “Miss Take” video last November, we choose the Brighton. We also had our EP release party there in late January, so when I heard it was closing for good, I was very sad. I will miss it.

Have you heard anything about what’s going to happen to the Brighton’s Wall of Fame?

No, I have not heard anything about it, but would be interested to find what becomes of it.

You have been a participant in the Jersey Shore music scene as long as I have. What is it like now compared to when you started out? How is it better, and in what ways is it not as good?

I think things are different. There are fewer places to play and there seems to be less of a scene than the late eighties and early nineties. However, due to the Internet and the access to a wider public, it is easier to share and promote your music. The bands we encounter now are more supportive of each other than I remember, too.

Is there anything I didn’t ask on which you would like to comment?

I would like to commend you on your new personal training thing. I am very impressed that you did this. I know this might not be good for the interview, but I wanted to tell you that I am very proud of you for getting that together, getting healthy, and helping others get healthy. Kudos to you!