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Dramarama Turns its Creative Switch Back on to Make Long-Awaited New Album ‘Color TV’
Television has been a common reference point in the career of Dramarama.
During some mid-Eighties tours, the Wayne, New Jersey-bred band would adorn its stage with multiple TV sets. Johnny Carson was also namechecked in the songs “Baby Rhino’s Eye” and alt-rock radio hit “Last Cigarette.”
Then there was “70’s TV,” off 1989’s Stuck in Wonderamaland, which found front man John Easdale singing about watching reruns of Perry Mason, All In the Family, Emergency, Adam-12, The Partridge Family.
Flash forward to the present and Color TV, Dramarama’s first new studio album in 15 years, sports an antique television set projecting a test pattern on the cover. The physical CD even looks like an old channel dial.
Kicking off with static and tuning sounds, driving rocker “Beneath the Zenith” has Easdale singing about his family’s first model set and how it taught him “How to comb my hair/The cartoons showed me what to eat and how to care … and did it all on seven channels, black and white.” Later, he describes how the medium and technology have evolved.
“We were mining pop culture for things before it was even called that, admitted Easdale in a recent phone interview. Dramarama was “always very heavily influenced by television and what we watched. I was influenced by it from childhood. Growing up, whether it was The Monkees when I was five years old or something else, it changed my life in so many ways.”
The silver screen also influenced Dramarama’s early iconography.
Andy Warhol associate and actress Edie Sedgwick adorned the front of the group’s 1985 debut album Cinema Verite. That one contained modern rock radio staple “Anything Anything (I’ll Give You)” — the most requested song in KROQ/106.7 FM Los Angeles history. Follow-up effort Box Office Bomb gave acting couple Jayne Mansfield and Mickey Hargitay the cover photo treatment.
Color TV, among the strongest rock releases so far this year, was co-produced by Easdale and Jeff Greenberg over an extended period at The Village in West Los Angeles. The highly regarded studios have hosted everyone from Fleetwood Mac, the Rolling Stones and Bob Dylan to Coldplay, Lady Gaga and Smashing Pumpkins.
“It’s a fantastic facility and one of the best studios in the world,” said Easdale. “My friend Jeff runs it and was kind enough to let us sneak in when it wasn’t otherwise occupied, which, luckily for him, in this day and age of people recording at home and using their computers, he’s still busy over there.”
Greenberg said Dramarama first appeared on his radar in the Eighties when “KROQ seemed to be playing “Anything Anything” ‘every five minutes.”
The Village owner, a former artist manager and concert promoter, said he really became a fan when 1991’s Vinyl came out. After seeing the band play a memorable gig at The Roxy in West Hollywood, Greenberg thought “they were one of the greatest live bands around.”
Dramarama guitarist and co-founder Mark Englert was “thrilled to have Jeff’s experience and wisdom. He gave us feedback in ways we absolutely needed.”
The long wait between albums was due to Easdale seeking the right music business team to get a new project off the ground. He finally connected with Bob Divney, a former VP of promotion at Reprise Records, who oversees Pasadena Records (part of radio promotion and marketing consultants The Artist Cooperative).
“Obviously, with technology being what it is, everybody can put their own records out and do their own thing,” said Easdale. “We wanted someone who could help us promote the album better than we could do ourselves. It took a long time. It also took us a long time in the studio just getting everything right and finishing it up.”
Now that the album is actually out, Easdale said he is “delighted and thrilled. It’s been a long time coming … It’s nice to finally have something to share with everybody.”
Keyboardist Morley Bartnoff, who spent eight years touring with Dramarama and calls the experience “easily one of my greatest rock ‘n’ roll thrills ever,” can be heard on seven of the 12 Color TV tracks he recorded in 2009-10.
“I really wanted to see my friends put out the new material they’ve been playing” for years, said Bartnoff, a former member of Burning Sensations during the ‘80s. “It’s new to everyone else that still thinks they’re only about one song … It came out so well. We all need a real good rock ‘n’ roll band record right now.”
Did Dramarama take advantage of any technological advances that developed in the time span between albums? “I don’t know if there was that much difference between 2005 and now,” said Easdale. The last one was mostly done with ProTools.”
Since drums were Easdale’s first instrument, he is always cognizant of the rhythms while recording. “As the years went by, there were better drum sounds we were able to use.”
Tony Snow started keeping the beat for Easdale soon after the original Dramarama lineup called it quits in 1994, following six full-length albums and other radio hits like “Haven’t Got a Clue,” “What Are We Gonna Do” and “Work for Food.”
“We’ve been playing together for so long that there is a kind of ESP, a brotherhood. I can give him an idea and he gets it right away.”
The same intuitiveness holds true for Englert, guitarist Peter Wood (also an original Dramarama member), plus bassist Mike Davis.
“Having me, Mark and Pete onstage and in the studio — the same guys making the same music — there’s a consistency,” Easdale explained. “We all graduated high school together. In some ways, I think we’re closer than siblings. Even the ‘new guys’ have been playing with me since the ‘90s.”
Longtime Dramarama and Easdale followers should instantly recognize Color TV songs like “Swamp Song” and “It’s Only Money.” Both originally appeared in different versions on an early “fans only” version of Easdale’s 1996 solo album Bright Side. Dramarama has played several other Color TV tracks in concert for years.
Ed Stasium, best known for his production work for the Ramones, Smithereens and Living Colour, oversaw “Beneath the Zenith.” Greenberg worked with Stasium in the past and thought he’d be a good fit to elevate that tune’s crunchy rock vibe.
“We were looking for someone to add a little magic,” explained Easdale. “We were lucky enough to get him to do that track.”
When Greenberg heard “A Cassette,” he said it almost moved him to tears. The emotionally resonant pop/rock ballad was inspired by Easdale’s friend Greg Dwinnell, who put out Bright Side and reissued pseudonymous Dramarama project Bent Backed Tulips on his Fullerton, Calif. record company Eggbert and died in 2003.
The indie label head played a small, but important role in Dramarama’s career. While the band was still based in New Jersey, he informed the guys that KROQ DJ and taste-maker Rodney Bingenheimer was playing their French import of Cinema Verite on his popular weekly program — and mistakenly assumed they were French.
Later, Dwinnell frequently turned Easdale on to ones-to-watch in entertainment.
“That was one of Greg’s great talents. He could spot greatness long before the rest of us, whether it was music, movies, actors or actresses, television shows. He was always on the cutting edge. There are so many things that have since become popular after he passed away and (I realize), ‘Oh, that guy! That girl! That band!’” He used to make mix tapes and CDs for everyone too.
On “Up to Here,” Easdale deftly touches upon consumerism and sings about how “the commercial’s more important than the news.” Though written a while ago, it could easily have been done yesterday.
“Unfortunately, a lot of things in the world have been like this for awhile,” noted the singer. “As they say, ‘there’s nothing new under the sun’ … that sort of thing has always been going on and it just bothered me.”
A batch of love songs makes up the album’s back half — something of a rarity for Dramarama. An effervescent “Everyday,” haunting “You You You” and “The Only Thing (Stupid/Brilliant)” are clear standouts. The latter is bolstered by a mesmerizing electric guitar solo a la The Edge. Englert played lap steel for the first time on it and the wrenching “Half Right,” an Elliott Smith cover.
Those are “definitely a testament to my family,” confirmed Easdale. “As I’ve grown older, I’ve come to appreciate the relationship I have with my wife more and more. I’m a very lucky man.”
Over the years, Dramarama has always chosen memorable songs to cover, many serving as a tip of the hat to their idols (Velvet Underground, David Bowie, New York Dolls, Patti Smith, Mott the Hoople, Mick Jagger).
For Color TV, the group tackled Bob Dylan’s “Abandoned Love” and Elliott Smith-via-Heatmiser’s “Half Right.”
“We’ve always tried to pick songs that were a little less well known,” explained Easdale. “Elliott Smith was one of the few artists from more recent times that really made an impression on me. And Dylan? It’s certainly not an original idea to cover Dylan [laughs], but those songs really punched me in the stomach and I felt a deep personal connection to both of them. We started playing them live and when we were in the studio, we thought, ‘Let’s give those a shot.’”
While Dramarama tends to be called an Eighties act due to the group coming into prominence during that era, the band’s sound was always anchored in the classic rock ‘n’ roll tradition of the late 1960s, mixed with some 1970s glam and punk elements. They never fell victim to the era’s often dated synthesizer and drum machine trappings. As a result, Cinema Verite still stands up sonically today.
“I don’t think we were ahead of our time, but we were always doing the same thing and just bashing it out,” admitted Easdale.
During the band’s early years, the front man had to work hard at cultivating a stage presence and connecting with a crowd. With three decades’ worth of experience, that is no longer a problem.
“I’m proud of what we do now when we get up onstage,” Easdale said. “Personally, I’m committed to doing my very best and I’m thinking more about the audience than I used to. I was way more selfish in the old days. Originally, we just weren’t very good and didn’t know what we were doing. We hadn’t spent enough time up there to really get good at playing live.
“I was also drinking, abusing substances and not really caring about the audience,” he continued. Easdale called it ‘the Jim Morrison effect’: “It was all about me. I didn’t really think about the fact that people were buying tickets, came to see a show and I had some obligation to do my best for those people. It was just about what I wanted. If I felt like being drunk and went up there stumbling around, that’s what you got that night. I have much greater respect and I care a lot more and think about it a lot more than I used to.”
These days, Easdale usually goes into the audience to shake fans’ hands or give them high fives as the band winds a concert down. He started doing it long before the practice became customary.
“I basically say, ‘thank you very much’ to everyone I come across. In showbiz, there’s a lot of smoke and mirrors; a lot of illusion. In a lot of ways, music depends on that. You create a myth and a magic that separates the audience from the artist. Makes them larger than life.”
But really, the guy who plays guitar and sings is like everybody else in the audience. There’s no real difference there. That’s important to me: to just be a regular guy.
Earlier this year, Easdale and Englert contributed vocals and guitar to a fiery cover of Ernest Tubbs’ “Drivin’ Nails in My Coffin,” the second roots rock-tinged single by The Reckless Drifters.
A rotating supergroup of sorts, it featured Annette Zilinskas (The Bangles), Clem Burke and Frank Infante (Blondie) and Sylvain Black. The Dramarama musicians were also heard on 2018’s “Baby, We’re Really in Love” and The Reckless Drifters’ take on Elvis Costello’s “Radio Radio.”
“That was a lot of fun,” said Easdale. “I’m happy to be invited to be a part of it.”
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