2011 marks the 10,000 Maniacs’ 30th year of creating and playing music. They are a multi-platinum-album winning, alternative rock band that started in 1981. Yes, the members have changed, some have come and gone, but the premise remains the same—make it danceable and make it fun.
IN spoke to Steve Gustafson, bass and vocals, founding member of the band, and one of the only two original members remaining. He teaches a theatre class at Jamestown Community College in Jamestown, N.Y., where the band got its start.
IN: Thirty years, how has that ride been?
GUSTAFSON: Just thinking about it gives me goose bumps. It has really been an amazing ride. A happy accident, with no plan, and I am amazed it even happened. We would say, let’s write another song, and book gigs, so it kept going. We were not talented enough to play the classics. We are so lucky to even have a band. It’s not everyone who gets to finish a day’s work and everyone stands up to applaud.
IN: How did the band gets it start?
GUSTAFSON: We were all high school friends; we took the bus to get to each other’s houses. We played the piano and guitar, and tinkered with Neil Young and Bob Dylan. Then we plotted how not to work and still make money. There was a radio station at the Jamestown Community College in Jamestown, N.Y., where we all went to school. The radio station gave us our own show. We got records from a guy at Rock Pool, he sent singles from bands such as The Clash, Elvis Costello and Gang of Four. This got our musical juices flowing, and after a legless drunk night of drinking Wild Turkey, we decided to become a band. Rob Buck, guitarist for the band from 1981-2000, was in his third year of a two-year program (laughs Gustafson) and really pushed us to get this band together. Natalie Merchant, lead vocals of the band, came on board when she was just sixteen and had shown up at the radio station with her records. The formation of the band was organic, really.
IN: Tell us about Buck’s influence on the band.
GUSTAFSON: He was such a unique person, an only child who was wonderfully weird. Buck was really into ties, and wore a $10 suit like no one else. He was meticulous about his guitars as well. Rob was a really good friend and generous. He taught us not to be afraid–to just do it.
IN: What was next?
GUSTAFSON: Our elder statesman, guitarist and songwriter John Lombardo, came along with his great record collection and in the summer of 1981 in Eerie, Pa. encouraged us to play our first show. We played the show, were scared to death, ended up getting in a fight with the owner and got thrown out. John was great, he helped us learn how to start and end songs, create a bridge and brought in the English folk sound. That fall was the first show as the 10,000 Maniacs. We made albums, pressed them too, and sent them to college radio stations across the country. The members of Pylon and R.E.M. were really good to us and were great connections to have. We took a trip to London for about six months and played places like The Marquee Club. We worked with Elektra and they got us a better deal. We were having so much fun and waited for the adults to show up and kick us out.
IN: You teach a class at Jamestown Community College (where it all started). What do you tell your students?
GUSTAFSON: I share with them the grizzly details of touring and of the sordid encounters. They say, “Wow, I wanna do that.” We played 1,500 shows over time and played non-stop for the last 10 years. You have to work like hell, sell plasma, starve and sleep on strangers’ floors. Most of all, I tell them to stay away from “American Idol”. The industry has become do-it-yourself with You Tube, Facebook, Twitter and such. No matter what, you have to have good ideas, good songs and be able to play decently. I also tell them it is so much fun–there is nothing like it. You will be scared, nervous; your senses on high alert, chain smoking, chugging beers, then you hit the stage and utopia.
IN: How do you feel about being a pioneer of the genre?
GUSTAFSON: We didn’t even realize it was happening. What is interesting is how the business world works. The record company took a risk on us. College radio really dictated to the record companies. We were isolated in Jamestown, and used that to our advantage. Big hits give way to weird projects. Touring with R.E.M. in 1986-87 pulled us along in their wake.
IN: What’s next for 10,000 Maniacs?
GUSTAFSON: Still have songs to complete, we get to move at a snail’s pace and work only when we can all get together. We are aiming for a 2012 album release date. As long as we are still having fun and people show up, we will continue to tour and perform.
10,000 MANIACS 30th ANNIVERSARY TOUR
WHEN: 8 p.m. Sunday, Aug. 21
WHERE: Vinyl Music Hall, 2 S. Palafox COST: $22-$27