New Jersey rock n’ roll outfit Colossal Street Jam recently got the band back together for another trip around the block. I spoke to vocalist Gene Potts about all things New Jersey, as well as talking about the latest album ‘Living Free’.
Hi there Gene, thanks for taking the time to answer some questions, much appreciated!
“Thank you for having me. It’s a thrill to talk to you. You are our first overseas interview!”
Can we begin first with some background on Colossal Street Jam? I believe that the band started out in the late ’80’s, continuing through to the early ’90’s, before taking a break and only recently getting back together. Was the break down to the explosion of grunge and the changing musical climate in America, or had you felt that you had taken the band as far as you could at that time?
“We met and jammed together for the first time in 1989. We were in our teens. We had two local releases in the early 90’s and called it a day around 1995. The grunge age didn’t affect our music, as we really didn’t fit the mould of what was going on at the time… the hair bands and such. I think the whole 70’s style ran through a lot of the music at the time, and bands like Badlands and the Black Crowes were making their mark around then. The only real answer I have for our hiatus was patience… we ran out of it! We had a lot of interest from one label, and we had some great management meetings in NYC, but it was just taking to long, and we got impatient. We started the arguing and things just went quiet after that. I think we just thought it should have happened sooner, so we all started doing different things musically.”
Had the recent shift away from big record companies to a more DIY approach meant that the time was right to “get the band back together” (Blues Brothers quote intended!)
“I love that movie! We got back together for the 20th anniversary of our 1993 release just for fun. We had always stayed friends, and did some different projects together, so it seemed like a great idea. After the first initial practices, we decided to ride it out. I think social media has helped in our growth, and has definitely made it easier to promote the band, and it was a great way to let our old fans know that were attempting a comeback. We’ve made a few member changes since the reunion, but the core three of Sal Marra, Tony Flora, and myself, are still here. It’s amazing how our music has spread without the use of a big record company, I love this whole process now.”
Colossal Street Jam built up quite a reputation as a live band on the Asbury Park and New Jersey scene, including a regular slot, I believe, at the legendary Stone Pony club. They must have been great times, especially since you were playing original music?
“It was the best of times, and at the time I was the youngest in the band. Here I am, just 20 years old, with a steady Sunday night at one of the most legendary rock clubs in the world. We would play our own music to a great crowd every week and it just grew from there. That night helped us really establish ourselves as an up and coming band in that scene.”
The music geek in me has to ask about the Stone Pony. There was CBGB’s, Max’s Kansas City, and the Stone Pony. Those were the three iconic venues in America. What’s it like to play in such a venue, and is it still a classic venue, or has it succumbed to gentrification?
“It’s a great feeling to be in that place, and on top of it, to be asked back repeatedly to play with some of the biggest and best bands. We just played last Summer with Gov’t Mule and Blackberry Smoke, and we will be with Chris Robinson of the Black Crowes in a few weeks. 2 years ago, we played with Robbie Krieger there. We are all huge Doors fans, so that was just an amazing honour to be part of that show. The Pony has actually gotten bigger and better, and has stayed true to it’s roots, a great rock and roll venue. They have a 5,000 person Summer Stage out back of the building now. Huge shows there all Summer long, and we are proud to be part of that.”
I can’t talk about Asbury Park without talking about the thriving New Jersey music scene. Through the music of Springsteen and Southside Johnny, it was easy for a kid growing up on the other side of the Atlantic to imagine what the scene was like, but what would the same kid find in 2017?
“You’d fine a great mix of musical styles coming out of this area. Sure, there are still who hold on to the desire to be Bruce, but it’s more than that. There are a lot of young bands playing different genres. It is a thriving scene with a lot of venues to play. The Pony, of course, but there is also The Saint, which is legendary in its own right, and then we have new venues like The House Of Independents and some smaller places on the boardwalk. It’s a great scene. You will find a different style of music in almost every place you walk into within about one mile. It’s a great time in Asbury right now, and for us, we are hitting our stride in the area.”
New album, ‘Living Free’ has recently been released. Have the songs been brewing for a while over the last few years, or are they the result of the band getting back together?
“There is only one song on “Living Free” that made the cut from the old days, and that was the live track “Sweet Little Lady”. That song was always a fan favourite. There are 3 songs on the release that were written when we first got back together with our original drummer. The rest of the music was written over about a 6 month period with the line up we have now.”
The album has a great mix of styles on it. For instance, ‘I Can’t Take It’ has a little bit of funk going on, ‘Let It Go’ is classic barroom rock n’ roll, but the overriding vibe is one of classic blues-based rock which, I hope you don’t take offence at, in places, is very British sounding!
“Outside of Grand Funk Railroad, most of our biggest influences are British! Free, Bad Company, Led Zeppelin, Deep Purple. The Stones are main influences of the members of our band. So I take that as a huge compliment!”
America gave birth to the blues, then the likes of John Mayall, Peter Green, and Eric Clapton took the influences of the blues greats and ran with it, with blues-rock the end result. Where do your own personal influences come from?
“My two biggest influences, vocally in my life, come from my father, who is a gospel singer, and Mark Farner of Grand Funk Railroad. Those two have really made me who I am today, along with my vocal teacher from when I was in my teens, Rosemary Conte. I am also influenced by the vocals of Paul Rodgers, Gregg Allman, Prince, and some of the Neo-Soul singers out there like Allen Stone and D’Angelo. I tend to lean towards the blues/soul singers as my favourites.”
‘Songbird’ is perhaps my favourite track on the album. It’s not a full-on ballad, but a song with many different interpretations. Some could take it as a love song, but with me being a twisted old codger, I feel it’s the tale of someone saying goodbye. It has dark-ish overtones.
“I think that song is whatever the listener believes to be. I have heard both of those same reviews of the song from so many. Wait until you see the video, it’s going to give you a third way to think of it. That is one of my favourites to sing, and I love the emotion that comes from that song. The whole band is on a whole different level when we play that song. It is also the only ballad we have, but yes, it definitely has dark overtones, I feel the way the song ends lends to that.”
‘Hanging Around’ is another favourite, a great mix of both American and British influences… Grand Funk Railroad meets Bad Company. The guitar sound is incredible!
“Sal Marra is one of the most underrated guitar players. He has so many outstanding ideas, and although he is my lifelong friend, without bias, I will say he is a genius. He has been changing his sound to fit our diverse songs, but yet you know it’s him playing. I love his slide playing on this track… another thing that has to be seen live! This song definitely has each one of us throwing something we are influenced by into it.”
One of the aspects that I enjoyed about ‘Living Free’ is the copious amount of Hammond organ from Eric Safka. The Hammond adds so much to any album that features it. Surely the most underrated instrument out there?
“I definitely agree. It’s like our secret weapon. Eric joined us about a year ago, and it’s been unreal since. He not only adds to our songs, but his live performance is one to see. He’s a maniac on stage, at times almost turning that organ on its side! Our original line up in the 90’s had an organ player, and it was great to have that as part of the arsenal again. Eric’s a definite reason for our resurgence.”
Legend has it, the widow of Otis Redding once said of Frankie Miller, “That little ole white boy Frankie has the blackest voice since Otis!” Colossal Street Jam’s cover Frankie’s ‘Be Good To Yourself’ on the album… what’s the tale behind you covering someone I consider one of the top three British vocalists ever?
“First of all, I love Otis, and as of recent, I love Frankie Miller. I had never heard of Frankie before, and when I went into the studio for the first time to lay down vocals for “Living Free”, I got to get some time with our new engineer/producer Tony Tee Lewis of HiVoltage Music. After a few takes, he said to me you remind me a bit of someone but I can’t think of who. Well after a few sessions together, he said to me, “Have you ever heard Frankie Miller? That’s who you remind me of”. He said to go home and listen to “Be Good To Yourself”. So I did, and I became a huge fan immediately. That was the vocalist I had always strived to be. That type of raspy soul singer was what I wanted to sound like on record. So I brought it to the guys, and they were in agreement that it was the right type of tune for us to add to the release. It’s a fun one to sing, and I just hope that if Frankie heard it he would think I did it justice. So, Frankie’s up there for me on the list of vocalists too, what a voice! I almost forgot, Tony Tee is from the UK!”
We are always being told that, with a few exceptions, no-one is getting rich from playing rock music anymore. With bands like Colossal Street Jam, it truly is about the music. I’m assuming that everyone in the band has day jobs, so is it tough to maintain both aspects at the same time?
“We do this solely because of the music. We have no delusions that we are getting rich anytime soon. I think we’ve all learned to juggle it properly, but at times it’s tough. I think the real test will be if this continues to grow and we can get out on the road to support it. We have plans of doing that in the near future, so we will see, but I do think we will pull it off. We have so many people behind us from family, friends to even our bosses at our day jobs, that I think it’s going to happen.”
What does the future have in store for Colossal Street Jam? Will there be a follow up to ‘Living Free’, and what are your touring plans?
“Funny you ask… we already started the follow up to “Living Free”, and plan on releasing it this year! The five of us are writing as a complete unit, and its spawning some incredible music. It’s definitely a bit edgier than the latest release. We are finishing a video for “Songbird”, which we hope will be out this Summer. We have plans on some U.S shows out of our area, and the plan is to come over to you in 2018. It’s always been a dream of mine to play overseas, so we are going to do everything to make that happen next year, and we will have two releases to support, which will be fun! This band has no plans on stopping anytime soon. We will continue to write and record and get out there to play as long as we can.”
Awesome! Thanks for your time Gene, and all the best for the future!
“Thank you so much! The fact that you took the time to write about us, and to interview us, means the world. We hope we get to meet face to face in the near future!”
That sounds like a plan! All the best, Gene.
More information on the official Colossal Street Jam website
Interview: Dave Stott