So, picking up where I left off: It’s the beginning of 1996, and the two other members of my band have just quit, leaving me a solo artist for the first time.
With the prize money from Norman’s participation in the TicketMaster Music Showcase, I purchased my first 4-track recorder, an Yamaha MT44D machine with a tape deck and mixing board (separate machines, mounted in a rack-style unit).
It was a monster, weighing about 20 or 25 pounds, and some kind of internal electronic glitch caused popping noises in about 80 percent of my recordings. But those recordings were instantly better than the ones I’d made on my old boombox. This also allowed me to exercise my one-man-band chops, as I was now able to overdub drums, guitars, keyboards, and vocals. I experimented with bouncing tracks back and forth to see how many guitars I could put on one song. The degradation in sound quality was noticeable, to say the least.
The solitude didn’t last long, though. I played a handful of open-mic nights and solo-acoustic gigs at local coffeehouses like Caffe Dolce, Norman’s old stomping ground. But within a few months I was itching to make rock music with a band again. On a lark, I got in touch with the guys from the band Nickel Social, who had appeared on the Bump Into Fate compilation with my old band. We had met a few months prior at one of the Paint Chip Records showcases; I recall being impressed by their drummer, Anthony, and thinking how I’d like to be in a band with him. As luck would have it, the guys were looking to make a fresh start with a new singer-songwriter. And so, after barely a season out of the game, I started a new band with Anthony, his brother Mike on bass, and John, the guitarist. We started playing shows within weeks, at first under the name Sucker. When I expressed my distaste with Sucker–a name which I had selected–Anthony demanded I at least write a song with that title. From there forward, the band was called Kid Dynamo, and “Sucker” was my mom’s favorite song.
Kid Dynamo’s time together was brief but productive. In June 1996, we cut a four-song demo tape at DMS Studio in Albany, in the basement of Arthur Scott Verner‘s Clinton Avenue home. (Scott was the bassist for soon-to-be Paint Chip darlings Queer For Astro Boy.)
We sold that tape at shows and handed it to whatever semi-famous rock bands came through town. But for all our efforts, things never really took off. I thought we had something going for us, but then it was only my second real band.
The whole time Kid Dynamo was active, I continued to regularly play the Thursday open-mic night at Caffe Lena in Saratoga Springs (which I’d been doing since high school) as a solo artist–and still using the name Neon, which I’d adopted during my first year of college. It was there that I met some of the best songwriters I’d ever know, including a very young Brett Rosenberg (who was just as prolific and talented then as he is now), and Rich Baldes, whose voice and songwriting reminded me of March-era Michael Penn. (It didn’t hurt that he played a spotless cover of “No Myth” from time to time.)
At the start of 1997, I heard that Dominick from Paint Chip Records was planning another compilation, this time focusing on solo artists. Never lacking for ambition, I worked up a cassette of some non-Kid Dynamo songs I’d been working on and mailed it off to him–just some simple vocal-and-acoustic things played into a hand-held tape recorder. He chose the two songs we ended up recording (“Remains of a Heart” and “Struck Out”), and the following month we returned to Hyland Recording in Albany to put them down on glorious 2-inch tape. The rush to the studio was because I had to have my tonsils removed soon after, and I was paranoid about what might happen to my voice. (Never once did I consider that it might improve!) The recording of those songs was one of my favorite studio experiences–Dominick and I worked extremely quickly and creatively, and the results still stand up to anything I’ve done since. (Though I’d probably re-track a few vocals if I could.)
Because of my impending surgery, Kid Dynamo went dormant for a little while. For good, actually. I had been wanting to replace our guitarist for a little while, and the break seemed like a good opportunity to do so. Meantime, I’d become interested in starting a band with another songwriter. I phoned Rich Baldes, who I’d met at Caffe Lena the previous summer, and suggested he join the three of us in the band. What I didn’t know until later is that, while I was at home drinking milkshakes, he had cut a few songs for the Paint Chip compilation with my drummer, Anthony. Small world.
And so, the Explosives were born. As a collaborative effort, the band got off to a strong start–Rich and I wrote a few songs together right away, the first co-writing I’d done since one or two songs in high school. We got some decent gigs opening for touring acts at the Albany clubs, and a bunch of solid local press followed.
Late that summer, Sink Into Solo was released, and Rich’s and my songs, respectively, opened the disc. (Those were followed by a pair of tracks by Brett Rosenberg, one of which I co-produced.)
We also recorded a bunch of 4-track demos in my parents’ basement, which we used as a means to secure out-of-town gigs in New York and Boston. One memorable NYC gig had us at the world-famous CBGB on New Year’s Day, coincidentally on the same bill as our Albany colleagues, the Vodkasonics.
The following spring, we returned to DMS to track a four-song EP. (The two songs on which I sing lead are available on Young Man Volume One.) It took several sessions to get the songs sounding right, but we were proud of the end product and excited to finish and release it that fall. And the gigs were getting better: In September, we scored an opening gig for indie-rockers Lotion at legendary NYC club Brownie’s, followed by a hometown bill with the great power-pop bands Sloan and You Am I. Unfortunately, the latter would be our final performance. Some petty personal nonsense got between me and Rich, and just as quickly as it had gotten off the ground, the Explosives crash-landed. Rich went on to form another great pop band, the Day Jobs (with Mike, the Explosives/Kid Dynamo bassist). Eventually we made nice, and I even spent some time playing guitar in his new band. Life is full of surprises.
After the Explosives split, I swore off rock bands for a while, played some solo gigs here and there, and then started working on Tiger Pop in July 1999.
And that’s basically the ’90s in a nutshell. (A suitcase-sized nutshell, anyway.) The Internet will tell you the rest.
For more about Young Man Volume One, check it out on Bandcamp.