UPDATE: We’ve just been informed that the 10,000 Maniacs show has been postponed due to unforeseen circumstances. Please see their website for any info on when they may be back.
ALL EARS It’s a wonder that the “new” 10,000 Maniacs (playing Sat/17 at The Independent) singer isn’t known to everyone. Especially since Mary Ramsey has been the triple-platinum selling alternative rock group’s frontwoman for decades.
“Most people are aware of Mary,” 10,000 Maniacs’ founding keyboardist, Dennis Drew told 48 Hills. “But some people are just out of the loop. After a show, I’ve had people say to me, ‘Is Natalie [Merchant, the original singer] coming out to sign?’ I tell them, ‘It’s not Natalie, who quit in 1993; it’s Mary Ramsey.’ And they say, ‘Wow. Well, Mary was great! Is she coming out?’”
But Ramsey is already familiar to fans who’ve been paying attention. In fact, she toured and recorded with the group as a viola player and backup singer—and appeared on the band’s MTV Unplugged (1993) —before stepping into the frontwoman role. Her first studio album with the group, 1997’s Love Among the Ruins, even produced the Top 40 hit cover of Roxy Music’s “More Than This.”
It was 16 years earlier, in 1981, that 10,000 Maniacs first sprang out of Jamestown, New York and, with a revolving group of members, went on to release 20 albums, including the Merchant-fronted favorites In My Tribe (1987), Blind Man’s Zoo (1989), and Our Time in Eden (1992), which collectively featured the hits “Like the Weather,” “What’s the Matter Here?”, ”Trouble Me,” “These Are Days,” and “Candy Everybody Wants.” Ramsey appeared on the last six albums up to 2017’s Live at the Belly Up.
Before the six-piece of Ramsey, Drew, bassist Steve Gustafson, guitarists John Lombardo and Jeff Erickson, and drummer Jerry Augustyniak takes fans through four decades worth of beloved material, Drew chatted with me about the days to remember, from the Maniacs’ meteoric rise to Merchant’s departure and the band’s continued successes.
48 HILLS Why did the band name itself after the ’60s horror movie, 2,000 Maniacs?
DENNIS DREW You have to remember the era. It was a punk rock name. We wanted to keep the “Free Bird” hecklers away. We identified with the Gang of Four, The Clash, Love Tractor, and all the new wave punk rock bands.
We had a book of movie titles. The last three choices we considered were Men Against the Arctic, Dick Turpin’s Ride to York, and 2,000 Maniacs, and we thought 2,000 Maniacs was not as impressive as 10,000 Maniacs. We wanted to scare away any non-believers.
48 HILLS What gave you the strength to keep going in the early years, when the band was struggling?
DENNIS DREW Who would quit the best job in the world? Besides, it just kept growing. The whole thing was working. We played to some small crowds, for sure, in ’81 and ’82. But we took a leap of faith and moved to Atlanta in ‘82 for about three months and started to play to more receptive audiences. Buffalo was good to us, and only 90 miles from home in Jamestown.
But the thing is, it just worked and people loved it and we loved each other and still do. Everyone wrote songs, we shared everything, and our families gave us tremendous support. I lived at home until I was 30!
48 HILLS How did touring with R.E.M. change things for the band? What made Michael Stipe and Natalie Merchant work so well together?
DENNIS DREW That was a big break playing in front of 15,000 people all around the country and it taught us how to play big rooms. And R.E.M.’s work ethic and the way they treated everyone was a learning lesson.
Michael and Natalie were just kindred spirits, just two young songwriters learning their craft. A couple of twentysomethings winding their way through a wicked world.
48 HILLS What was so special about that period from 1987-1993, when the band was achieving major commercial success, that made it such a wellspring of creativity?
DENNIS DREW When John [Lombardo, founder] left, whatever power struggles were going on ended. We realized we should probably get our shit together and produce. John wrote quite a bit of the earliest stuff and worked with Natalie on lyrics, so the rest of us now had to step up and we did.
Plus, we just kept getting better every day, every gig, every rehearsal. We learned a lot from [producers] Joe Boyd, Peter Asher, and Paul Fox. We wanted to get better. We didn’t think we’d already made it. We were hungry. So we kept getting better, and we’re still getting better.
48 HILLS Did it feel like that level of success would go on for far longer?
DENNIS DREW Not really. With Natalie, we knew she would leave at some point. That’s why we made some of the choices we did. A lot of industry people were pulling at her. From about 1987 on, every time we finished an album’s tour, all our crew and management thought, “That’s it. She’s definitely leaving now.”
But Natalie had an internal plan. When she hit 30, she decided to take the reins of her own career. Before we even started rehearsing Our Time in Eden, she told us it was the last album with us. She would have toured with us for several more months, but we were married and having kids, so we were like, “It’s OK. We’ll miss this, but we’ll be OK,” and we are.
48 HILLS Was there ever a thought about breaking up post Merchant?
DENNIS DREW No, never. We knew she was leaving when we started rehearsals for Our Time in Eden. Hence the title. I remember talking with Max Weinberg from the E Street Band. He substituted for a few weeks when our drummer Jerome broke his shoulder in 1992. He told us we’d be fine after Natalie left because we all wrote the music. He encouraged us. But even at a much lower level of money and fame, this a really great job. Why would we stop? We started writing Love Among the Ruins in 1994 and two years later we had a new record deal with Geffen.
48 HILLS Describe the 10,000 Maniacs sound.
DENNIS DREW We have pretty much the same sound. We play a wide variety of styles within it including folk-rock, real Irish folk music, loud grinding rock styles, R&B-inflected toe-tappers, lush ballads, and new wavy- and Caribbean-influenced dance music—the usual thing we’ve always done.
With Mary in the band, we now have two soloists, so we, for lack of a better term, jam more than we were allowed to in the old, old days. We improvise and have more interplay between us. Back then, the focus was all about Natalie. The focus is on the music now.
48 HILLS Is there another album coming up? What can you tell me about it?
DENNIS DREW We certainly plan on more albums. We started to sketch out ideas this spring. Then some of our equipment was stolen including the hard drives with music on them. But the police recovered all the important stuff.
Money is an issue. Time is an issue. Three of us have other full-time jobs. I am the GM of a community radio station in Jamestown, WRFA. But, for the other three, this is their main income, so money is an issue for them personally. We can’t afford to stop touring and interrupt the cash flow.
Sat/17, 9pm, $35-$40
The Independent, SF
More info here.