The Bongos are a Hoboken staple. They, in a different band incarnation, were one of the first bands to play the legendary Maxwell’s on its opening night and again to help lay the place to rest. Led by “Frontman” and future professor Richard Barone, the Bongos played a mix of British and early California pop. During their heyday, The Bongos were a writing and touring machine, playing over 300 shows a year and releasing three LP’s, in that span of five years before an equal mix of burnout and a call for a solo opportunity took hold. Now back, with their release Phantom Train, an album that should have seen the light of day over twenty-five years ago, The Bongos are out playing again and this time not playing 300 shows this year.
Interview by Ed Stuart
Who’s answering the questions?
Where is the band from?
Who is in the band and what instrument do they play?
Richard Barone: Vocals, guitar
Frank Giannini: Drums, vocals
Rob Norris: Bass, vocals
James Mastro: Guitar, vocals
Can you give a brief history of The Bongos?
From Wikipedia: “The Bongos are a rock band from Hoboken, New Jersey, primarily active in the 1980s. With a unique blend of British Invasion-flavored power pop, jangly guitars, and dance beats they made the leap to national recognition with the advent of MTV.” To be honest, that kinda does sum it up for me.
The Bongos seemed liked a highly prolific band for quite a few years releasing Drums On The Hudson, Numbers With Wings and Beat Hotel within the span of five years plus at times playing 300 shows a year. Did the band just burnout or was the desire to try new musical avenues calling?
It was a combination of things. All of us were always trying new things and at one point those different things all happening at the same time made it difficult to continue in the way that we had. There were solo projects, other commitments… Burnout is a harsh word, but in a way there might have been a bit of that, too. We had been on the road and in studios for nearly 6 years straight, after all.
What is the story behind the Phantom Train LP? How did it become lost? It was recorded in 1986, but was never released.
When we started recording the album we had just come off a 300-show tour. I had been writing on the road and had a bunch of new songs, but we had barely come down for a landing before we found ourselves in the studio – first in New York and then to Compass Point in the Bahamas. After a few months of recording we had a lot of mixes and different takes of the songs. Almost TOO many. It was difficult to piece it all together. And we needed a break. It was during that time that I started performing solo shows in the Village. One of those shows was recorded, and became my first solo album ‘cool blue halo’. It clicked on college radio and soon I was on the road again, this time as a solo artist. After that tour I got signed as a solo artist to MCA, through Marty Scott’s Paradox imprint. So we never really went back to finish Phantom Train. It remained in tape boxes until 2013.
The Bongos had their Numbers With Wings was nominated for a Best Direction Award at the first MTV awards, and the band received a Proclamation from Mayor David Roberts commending them for their substantial contributions to Hoboken's culture and heritage? How does the band feel receiving such accolades?
As you can imagine, we were thrilled. We work very spontaneously and instinctively, and we don’t think much about those kinds of awards and honors. But when they happen we really couldn’t be happier. Or more grateful.
50 years ago people used to buy music and get their water for free, now people pay for water and get their music for free. How do you think this affects music in any way especially considering it seemed an end goal for a lot of bands to sell LP’s, get their videos played in heavy rotation on MTV as opposed today bands where make more money off merch and YouTube has usurped MTV as the chief video content provider.
That’s an interesting thought about water and music. I think some music has always been free. I.e. listening to broadcast radio (as opposed to satellite radio) was always free. Even decades ago, if you wanted to, you could record music off the radio for free and not buy records. But people did buy records, in the millions. I think some music can still be free, but it should be up to the artist and label what they distribute for free and what they sell. As far as YouTube, etc., I think it’s all good. It’s a great way to get the music into peoples’ homes on demand. There are always new ways of doing that. The thing that makes it difficult to develop acts they way they used to be developed is that, unless a video on YouTube goes truly viral, everyone is rarely if ever watching the same thing at the same time, the way people did when the Beatles were on the Ed Sullivan TV show or Michael Jackson’s Thriller video was on MTV. Everyone saw the same thing at the same time, which is very, very powerful. Now everyone sees things at different times, and there are millions more things to see, so it’s very scattered. The entire dynamic has changed in the music industry, and you’re right, it’s all about the merch now. The best place to sell albums, CDs and singles seems to be at the merch table at shows, and of course the digital version on iTunes and Amazon. The one good thing about the sea change that took place is that despite the loss of the brick and mortar record stores that used to sprinkle the country, there are more outlets that ever to get music out there digitally. Small consolation, but one nonetheless.
What was it like playing Maxwell final show considering that Bongos had played there so early in their career? Didn’t The Bongos play the opening of Maxwell’s too?
Yes, the Bongos, in our first incarnation as “a” (the original three Bongos and Glenn Morrow of the Individuals) were the first band to play Maxwell’s, and The Bongos were the last band to play. It was a emotional but celebratory night. The final song played on the stage was “Thank You Friends” by Big Star. There was not a dry eye in the house.
How did the band get involved with Moby? Whose idea was it to re-record a new version of The Bulrushes?
Moby is a friend and was a fan of The Bongos early on. He had performed The Bulrushes himself and had his own arrangement ideas. So when we were re-issuing the album in a special edition I asked if he would like to produce a bonus track, and The Bulrushes was the clear choice.
How did you get involved with Carnegie Hall and become a professor at NYU's Clive Davis Institute of Recorded Music?
I first produced a concert at Carnegie Hall in 2003, a tribute to the great Miss Peggy Lee, with an all-star cast. Later I performed a musical reading of my book “Frontman” at Carnegie, which was a real thrill. The Clive Davis Institute of Recorded Music first invited me to lecture, which I did twice, and then asked me to develop a performance workshop. All of those worked out well, and they soon asked me to develop the workshop into a full, 14-week course, which I now teach there: Stage Presence and the Art of Performance. “Frontman” is my textbook. It’s a fulfilling experience and a new challenge each semester. I really love it.
Where can people hear the band?
Well, people can sign up for my newsletter at http://RichardBarone.com to get news and updates for shows, and they can also find an upcoming shows link on the site. We will be performing here and there as Phantom Train is released, starting in New York City on October 15th for the CMJ Music Marathon. That concert will be recorded for broadcast on SiriusXM Radio’s The Loft, Channel 30.
What’s next for The Bongos?
We hope to be doing shows between now and spring 2014. I will also be doing solo dates along the way, and working on my next solo album, so people can follow me on Twitter @RichardBarone, or follow The Bongos @BongosOfficial. You can also find us on Facebook at /RichardBaroneOfficial and /TheBongosOfficial. We never really know what’s next, so you’ll just have to stay in touch and find out!