By Mike Jurkovic
Tuning to a Pawnshop Accordion: Music for The Transition
Chapter One closed with the spirit nation of Slambovia slowly rising above the physical into a new realm of possibility, promise, and potential. It was here the ghosts began to conjure and reveal to the successors of the Ancestors the next phase: Gandalf Murphy and the Slambovian Circus of Dreams.
Tony Zuzulo, who had quit his drums for a future in computer sciences, sets them up again and he and Joziah intuitively lock in on the attic recordings that produce A Good Thief Tips His Hat. Tink takes on accordion, cello, piccolo, and other odd, dusty instruments. There is no bass player. Finally Sharkey travels from NYC with his lead guitar and mandolin, riffing magic and light.
The trek through the open mics, clubs, and “Best Area Band” competitions quickly evolves into a vibe that proves an irresistible force and source of elation to even the most jaded, of which, for the sake of transparency, I was counted among. (I was ripping and regaling the record business writing as The Rock ‘n Roll Curmudgeon)
“We were, and have been, trying to tap into the collective consciousness, that genius, that wants to change things,” Joziah begins, again with the big ideas that have kept the band’s music and mission miles ahead of rock’s baser ambitions.
Tink edges in, because it is, as we’ll see in future installments, a sometimes Sisyphean effort to stop Joziah when he’s on a roll. “For us it’s more a holistic approach to life. How do we bring art into it and how does that art lift people up?”
“We’re deluged with options,” she continues. “You used to walk into a record shop, buy an album and that was it. Now there’s so many confusing options I don’t want. Just give me a candle and it’ll light my way. I’ll find what I want and where I’m going.”
Joziah weaves back in. “The key for us, as our history proves, is we’re not trying to break into the music business. We’re trying to break through the bs of the Earth plane!” (I can’t help but notice a huge grin of artistic satisfaction crossing Sharkey’s face) “We want to empower people to break through the old thinking, the old models, the old ‘isms’ that are killing the planet, keep us at war, and ultimately prevent our spiritual advancement.”
We break. After other business and sundries, we settle back in. But as often happens with wildly creative, life passionate people, our talk strays from the larger concepts and historical flow, jumping ahead to 2005 and the ten year anniversary of the release of their breakthrough, double disc Flapjacks From the Sky. If the course of the band could ever really said to be set, twas Flapjacks that put it in motion.
Every disc has its fair share of fan/band favorites, but Flapjacks is the motherlode, the collection that tuned everyone in and turned everyone on. Of the twenty songs, these immediately come to mind: “Baby Jane,” Bike,” “Sullivan Lane,” “Sunday In the Rain,” “Look Ma No Hands,” “Call to the Mystic,” “Rocket,” “Moondog House,” “I Wish,” the riveting “Talking to the Buddha” and the great, Slambovian un-single “Living With God.”
“Flapjacks was a very intense experience for me on many levels.” the gent who, before becoming the band’s signature guitarist and producer, actually auditioned other guitarists for the Ancestors, openly admits.
And so Sharkey speaks. Those of you paying close attention know that, until now, Sharkey’s been the quiet Slambovian.
“I had two young daughters (ages 3 and 1) and my wife, who had never driven before, was just learning how when Joziah and I go off to a friend’s cottage in Connecticut for six weeks to focus on recording the songs,” he says, launching into his recollections.
“Deep in my heart I wanted to make a killer album for the band. I invested a lot into it - we all did. So each song is incredibly special to me.”
“We set the living room up as a control room and set Tony and his drums up at one end of the porch. Joziah was in a glassed off section at the other end of the porch and I was in the control room with my amp in a bedroom closet. We had tried recording ‘Buddha’ many various ways but we were never happy with it. But we could feel from the get-go this was the take. Then this horrible errrrrrrrrrrrrrr noise comes blasting through our headphones. Miraculously everyone kept playing, because we knew this was the one! I finally wiggled the right cord and the sound disappeared. Fortunately the noise was only on my guitar track, so with minimal patching we landed the song.”
When his eyes don’t well up, his face lights up as other indelible memories surface. “’Rocket’ was our big fanfare. We knew it had to make instant impact and we threw the works in on that one… cello, accordion, banjo, mandolins, jaw harp… rocket ships! (Yeah, rocket ships!) We had just finished ‘Baby Jane’ and right as I hit save the power went out! The whole town had lost power. Luckily, when the electric came back on we found that the track had been saved. I’m really proud how ‘Baby Jane’ turned out.”
“I was glad we got a great flute performance on ‘Bike.’ Tink is a phenomenal flautist and she really shines on that track. ‘Big Eight Wheeler’ almost didn’t make it. There was some kinda flaw that was holding it up. But I was determined to solve it because that’s one of my absolute favorites on the album.”
Every band would kill for a single album of this strength and quality. You guys were blessed with two.
“Jo is such a prolific writer. We already had more than enough great songs for the album, and then he writes ‘I Wish’ and ‘Better Life’ while we were trying to finish the record! They were so undeniably great, they just had to be on there. So against conventional wisdom, it became a double album.”
Why wasn’t “Living With God” a single? The song is utterly irresistible and the chorus is perfect, sing-along-while-driving pop.
Sharkey fist bumps me exuberantly in total agreement. But my question seems to stop him as if he’s looking for the right words. “That song has always brought me great joy. To be honest it still does and always will,” he enthuses. “And I crafted it to be that single, but, without getting too far into the weeds, it just wasn’t in the cards at that time. We didn’t have a solid consensus within our label . . .” he trails off, and I sense a sense of missed opportunity. “It’s such a great track though!” he rebounds.” It’s probably my favorite song on the album.”
“I’m still in awe of Flapjacks,” says the guitar hero who counts Duane Allman, Carlos Santana, and most importantly his brother Michael, who would lay his Marshall amp face down on their bedroom floor so he wouldn’t shatter the windows when he played, as his influences. “Not to take anything away from our other recordings, but it was definitely a landmark and I get emotional thinking about how much work and life went into it.”
“Yeah, we managed to skip the dreaded sophomore jinx by releasing our second and third albums simultaneously.” Tink begins with a laugh.
“Sharkey worked real hard on Flapjacks,” she concurs a few days later. “And it took us a while (2001-2004) to complete it.” (Sharkey’s son Ben was born while the disc was in its final phases.)
“Music touches all our power centers and Flapjacks, by everyone’s definition, certainly does. All the DNA is in there, and the album was generously received by the media and our tribe. We got plenty of airplay. The press started calling us this alt/folk/country/rock band. I guess on some of the songs the ghosts of the Grand Ol’ Opry did get their voices in, but I like to call it surreal Americana, or hillbilly Pink Floyd.”
“Jo tells these abstract stories about the inspiration behind ‘Talking to the Buddha’ but I’ll tell you the real thing. It was right after 9/11 and like everyone else we were watching the news. During one press conference, someone asked the Reverend Billy Graham why did God make this happen? He replied ‘I don’t know.’ We thought, what kind of good counsel is that? Man, through free will, makes these things happen. Not God. Not Buddha. Not the parent of the universe or whatever great spirit you want to call it or believe in. That’s why Jo wrote the line ‘And I realized that I/Was causing all this rain/Somebody help me stop the rain.’”
“But most importantly,” she recalls with deep sincerity, “our fans had our backs throughout it all. Some put us up when we were moving. We recorded in friend’s homes in Cold Spring and Connecticut. One fan lent us her studio in Brooklyn where we finished the album. Jo wrote a beautiful song “I Love Brooklyn Tonight” at the tail end of the process that didn’t make the album but hopefully will be on an upcoming disc.”