It’s very rare that a local musician can run his own label for more than 30 years, but that Mick Chorba has done so as the founder of two successful local bands is something I don’t believe I’ve seen elsewhere in 43 years of writing about the New Jersey music scene and 35 years producing Makin Waves.
Mick is a marvel, and a very talented one at that. He started FDR Label in 1994 to release music with the power-pop outfit Dipsomaniacs, who flourished through 2007 at which point, Mick turned a 2005 side project, The Successful Failures, into his mainstay. That has been the case ever since with original member Ron Bechamps on bass, mandolin, and vocals, alongside Rob Martin on drums. Lead guitarist Pete Smith (Chubby Checker, Robert Hazard) joined them in 2014.
SF recently celebrated the release of their 10th album on FDR, Wrong Together, the vinyl version of which has inspired a party on July 28 at Randy Now’s Man Cave in Hightstown; the band will share the bill, as well as the stage, backing Tod the Mod, aka Todd Ellis, Randy’s brother and former member of Jersey power-popsters Smart Remarks.
Before heading out on a fall tour, The Successful Failures will spend the summer also playing throughout New Jersey and Eastern Pennsylvania.
I spoke with Mick about his longevity as a band leader and label head, as well as he and his band mates many great accomplishments (more of which are sure to come). You can continue to find out what’s going on with Mick and The Successful Failures by reading his weekly blog at https://mickchorba.substack.com/, but in the meantime, enjoy this interview.
In 1998, your FDR Label released an EP by Lemonlime entitled Without Her with a photo on the cover of Albert Einstein, who is considered one of society’s greatest successful failures. Did Einstein or anybody else influence the name Successful Failures? If not, why is your band called The Successful Failures?
I do love Einstein. Here’s a man deemed inferior, less than human, by Nazi Germany. As a Jewish man, he is forced to flee and emigrate to the United States, where his work – though weaponization of his scientific breakthroughs was not his goal – helped to bring about the atomic weapons that helped to end the war; the very same weapon Hitler was desperately trying to develop for the Nazis. Thus, disproving the ridiculous but popular eugenics and master-race theories that were the zeitgeist of the times.
But, to answer your questions, I used that picture on the FDR Bandcamp site just because the Lemonlime song is called Without Her and Einstein looks so sad here. I first saw the words ‘The Successful Failures’ in a Jack London short story called Minions of Midas and I jotted them down in a notebook as a possible lyric or band name. Around that same time, I was trying to write a rock opera sort of thing about a band, and I decided to name this fictitious group ‘The Successful Failures.’ Some of the songs from that project came out on the Dipsomaniacs albums from that era. I first used it as an actual band name in 1998 for a solo acoustic song called “Hick Bars” that appears on a compilation CD released by my label. It wasn’t until 2005 that the band actually formed with real people.
Who is in The Successful Failures? What do they play?
I play mostly guitar, some piano on recordings, and harmonica, too. Ron Bechamps plays bass guitar. He does the harmonizing and now he plays mandolin on our rootsy/folksy style stuff. Rob Martin plays the drums, and Pete Smith plays the electric guitar. Pete will switch over to bass when Ron is on the mandolin.
What has kept you, Ron, and Rob playing together for 18 years?
We enjoy each other’s company. There is a chemistry that worked right away. We like the same kind of beer and have a lot of the same influences, which is pretty much nineties indie rock bands like Guided By Voices, Sugar, Superchunk, Nada Surf, Spoon, and Superdrag. We also all love bands like Social Distortion and The Replacements. We are all crazy about The Beatles.
I also had plans to make this an alt country-type band, and we all loved Uncle Tupelo and Wilco, and then from there, we developed an appreciation for American roots music. Ie) Hank Williams, [Johnny] Cash, and old blues and songster stuff like Mississippi John Hurt. Then we took a collective dive into Irish traditional music and that is a part of our live show that further confuses people.
To answer your question about our longevity, we are nice to each other, for the most part, and there is a lot of mutual respect. Keeping busy helps, too, whether it be learning new original songs or practicing for shows, booking tours. All this stuff gives a sense of purpose and motivation.
When did Pete join the band?
In 2013, just as we were about to play a major music festival. Our guitarist John Williams abruptly left the band to open a running apparel store in North Jersey. We played as a three-piece for a short time and recorded the album Captains of Industry, Captains of War with just the three of us.
In 2014, a neighbor of Rob’s, Pete Smith, sat in with us at a small bar in Pine Hill and we invited him to record with us on a country-flavored EP called Pine Hill,which features one original, an Old Crow Medicine Show cover, a Johnny Cash cover, and a Hank Williams cover. Pete has a lifetime of history playing music. He toured the world with Chubby Checker for five years. He also played with Robert Hazard for a number of years, was deeply involved in the Philadelphia original music scene back in the day, and is frankly the best guitarist I’ve ever heard. He just kept showing up, and we are lucky to have him in the band. He is not just insanely talented, but he works hard. He plays to the songs and writes parts that complement the melodies and lyrics. When he started making wardrobe changes between sets, we knew he was a keeper.
The Successful Failures have accomplished much since the very first appearance in 1998. What would resonate with you most as your greatest accomplishment?
I think our greatest accomplishment is our dedication to consistently making new music. We just keep moving forward because we love the creative process.
Wrong Together marks how many albums for The Successful Failures?
This is our 10th album. Most of these were released either solely or partly by FDR. A few of them were released as a joint project with other labels.
What are you most proud about Wrong Together and why?
This album is, “Finally! We’re back to business! Pandemic seems to be winding down. Let’s learn 12 songs and make an album!”
In 2020, we did a roots-flavored record called Pack Up Your Shadows, and then in 2021, we did a concept album called James Cotton Mather. Both these projects were fun and kept us busy during the pandemic, but this new album is more traditional SF rock-type stuff. We decided early on we wanted to work with an outside producer so when Travis Harrison agreed to mix the record, we were very excited. Travis has mixed all the recent Guided by Voices albums, and we are big fans of that band and the sound Travis helps create on GBV records.
When was your first release on FDR and by whom?
The first FDR release was a 7” vinyl single by The Dipsomaniacs called ‘This One.’ Oh boy… maybe 1994?
When, how, and why did Dipsomaniacs evolve into The Successful Failures? How are their sounds and styles similar or different?
The Dipsomaniacs main lineup was Tom O’Grady on drums, Ron Mitchell on guitar, Matt Maciolek on bass, and me on guitar. We released seven CDs. Around 2005, we won a Little Steven Underground Garage contest and played some big shows – one with Pat Benater at Cooper River Park on July Fourth, another one opening up for Rocket from The Crypt at Irving Plaza along with the other winners of the Little Steven contest from cities across the country.
Ron Mitchel left the band around 2007 and Paul Crane from Bastards of Melody joined us on guitar for our last album, 2009’s Social Crutch.I started playing with Ron and Rob in 2005, and The Successful Failures were kind of a side project. I had a lot of extra songs beyond The Dipsomaniacs catalog and SF was a vehicle to bring them to life. The Dipsomaniacs started to wind down and I couldn’t sustain being in two bands anyway, so around 2009, I made The Successful Failures my main band. I am still friends with the guys in the Dipsomaniacs, and we have gotten together a few times throughout the years, but we’ve all moved on to different musical things.
Only a handful of artists other than The Successful Failures and Dipsomaniacs have released albums on FDR. Any plans to do that again?
I would like to be more involved in running a label, but for a long time now, I’ve set that aside to concentrate on writing, recording, and playing live shows. It’s just too much work to do more… at least to do it well. When I am able to set aside my teaching job, I hope to revive FDR to open up to more local and international artists… or maybe start a new label. Not really sure.
What have you enjoyed most about operating FDR for the past quarter century and why?
FDR was a great way to make more connections with other bands and that’s why I’d like to get back to doing more of that at some point.
What are The Successful Failures upcoming plans as far as videos, touring, and future releases?
We just recorded six live songs – most of them from Wrong Together – for a video that we’ll be releasing soon. Three of the songs will appear on a Wisconsin-based platform similar to a Tiny Desk kind of a thing called ‘Scummy Water Tower.’
When and where will the band be performing through the fall?
We are celebrating the vinyl release of the new album with a show at Randy Now’s Man Cave in Hightstown on Friday, July 28. We’ll be playing the new album in its entirety at this show and also backing up Tod the Mod. We have some local shows lined up in the fall and are planning a tour, a swing down south in October.
How was Chesterfield’s Porchfest? Did you have a hand in organizing that?
I organized the Chesterfield Porchfest with two friends, Tony DeVito and Chet Desai. Tony and Chet are neighbors and musicians. It’s a small-time, small-town USA kind of vibe – great fun. We plan on doing it annually; three years running so far!
Is Chesterfield evolving into a music scene?
Well, [I’m] not sure about that because we are the one giant neighborhood where I live and then mostly farms as far as you can see. There’s one restaurant, The Chesterfield Inn, that is like 300 years old. It’s a great NJ community and it was cool for my son to grow up here, but can it be a scene? I don’t think so, but who knows?
Did you grow up there? If not, where were you raised, and how long have you lived in Chesterfield?
I was born in Trenton and grew up in Mercerville, a Trenton suburb. I remember one of the first reviews the Dipsomaniacs got in The Aquarian, the writer, Al Muzer, said we were from West Jersey. I didn’t know there was such a thing!
I’ve been in Chesterfield since 2007.
You have a blog entitled ‘I Am of the Stars.’ Please describe your blog, why folks should read it, and how they can access it.
The blog is a weekly newsletter where I share news about The Successful Failures – trying to do some community building here with content a bit more involved than social media fodder. I also use it as a creative outlet, so I share song demos and videos and sometimes essays and lyrics. It grew out of my experimentation with Patreon, which I did during the pandemic. The paid subscribers really helped to cover costs when we weren’t playing shows. but I wanted the material to be available to everyone so once we were able to start regularly playing shows to make money – to fund all these projects – I decided to end the Patreon and jumped on to Substack. Here people can pay if they want to. Thank you very much! But it’s also available to everyone. (Please sign up here.)
Is there anything I didn’t ask on which you would like to comment?
I’d only like to thank you, Bob Makin, for your support of my music throughout the years and the support you give to all the great original music coming out of NJ… West, East, North, and South! Thanks, Bob!
FOR MORE ON THE SUCCESSFUL FAILURES & ALL OF THEIR RELEASES, CLICK HERE!