Interview with JJ Rassler
This interview was done in conjunction with Carl Biancucci.
Another great Rassler
interview was on the now defunct D-filed site.
We now have it posted - CLICK HERE
ML- Where did you come from originally?
ML- What brought you to Boston?
JJ-The bands basically. My older brother turned me on to folk music and the folk scene was hot up here with Club 47 in Cambridge and all that so I was aware of Boston.
I saw Barry & The Remains open for the Beatles and I saw The Rockin' Ramrods open for the Stones in '65, '66 and I thought "Hmm, Boston." .
So when I got in to rock'n'roll I thought "That's where I wanna live." I thought the music scene here was much more vibrant.
I grew up in Philly and we had a good scene there but it was more soul oriented.
P- So here you are in 1970. You're at BCN around what time?
JJ-'73. I was Maxanne's assistant/roadie basically.
P- I wanted to talk a little bit about Maxanne. She has never really been discussed much. Before, or maybe just as,
the punk thing started kickin' in, she was the only one in the city that was playing any of it!
JJ- There's no question that Maxanne is the unsung hero of Boston Rock as far as I'm concerned. She taught me a whole lot about a whole lot of things.
We're good friends, we have been for a very long time now.
P- Where is she now?
JJ- Down in Florida. She's doing Independent Radio Promotion. Moose and Squirrel is her company.
I was a huge fan of her show before we met and she had to go to the Hospital for something, like in '72 or '73 and I
wrote her a letter and I quoted the Stones song "Torn and Frayed" 'cause I was just in love with her. So I gave this letter of
undying love to her and she wrote back and invited me up to BCN and I started working up there.
She just took me under her wing, as it were. She introduced me to everybody and it was great!
I got my first copy of Funhouse off of her. She got a promo copy of it and she used to play it. She was the only DJ on
Commercial Radio, around here, that was playing The Stooges and The New York Dolls. I loved it!
P- She was the only one that knew! Her play list was pretty regimented at that time,
I'm sure, but she stuck in those things to get them played! Do you remember she used to play Piper all the time.
List of JJ's Bands
The Deserters ('65-'67)
DMZ (12/75 - 11/78)
Bad Habits (1/79 - 2/80)
The Odds ('80 - '87)
The Queers (87-89)
Various Odds reunions (90-93)
DMZ reunion (93)
Queers album sessions (95-96)
Band that became the Downbeat 5 various names and shows (2002)
DMZ ('01 - present)
The Downbeat 5 (Fall '00 - present)
JJ- Well there was a good reason for that! He lived with her. He was her boyfriend!
P- It always amazes me because I think one person can't change anything but I'm always proved wrong.
JJ- She broke Aerosmith nationally, there's no question about it and went on to help break J. Geils Band and then as the
70's wore on there are a lot of bands she was instrumental in breaking…for better or worse…I mean.. Boston, The Cars. She took David Robinson
from DMZ to place him in The Cars. She helped out Mink DeVille early on.
ML- I'll never forget when David came to me down The Rat and said "I'm thinking of leaving DMZ to
go with this new band called Capt'n Swing. What do you think?" we discussed it twice. I said "I hate to see you leave
DMZ but if you feel it's the right thing…blah blah." I get the feeling he was asking a lot of people what they thought because
I think he wanted to stay in DMZ in a way.
JJ- He dug the music with us but he sensed the commercial palpability of the other band and he knew…David's no dummy and he
was in it for much more than just the music and he figured he had a better chance if he went with The Cars. I certainly would never fault him for that.
When I first met him, I had seen the Modern Lovers many times, at The Cambridge Common and the Catacombs.
I was working at Strawberries on Boylston Street and Robinson walked in he says "What are you doing here? I thought you were from New York." I said
"No I'm from here and my band is looking for a drummer. Do you know anybody?" And he said "Yeah, I just left the Lovers. Do I pass the audition?"
and that was that He wanted in, he loved us so when he left I didn't think it was for anything that "I think I can make money with these other guys."
P- What is it with his drumming that made him such a success as he went along? What was his formula?
JJ- I don't know the formula. But he's got a very basic back beat which became commonly referred to as The Boston Beat.
People like Jeff Wilkinson, Howie Ferguson and Paul Murphy have a similar sound. They're not copying him, they're contemporaries but there is a
basic sound that is really inherent in some Boston bands. You can peg a Boston song anytime.
P- Were you in a rock band down in Philly?
JJ- Yeah, we were called The Deserters.
P- You were obviously Rock'n'Roll oriented. You ended up at 'BCN and you're at Rounder Records.
So that everything I hear about you is rock oriented. Did you ever say to yourself "I'm gonna live the rock'n'roll lifestyle." ?
JJ- I remember when I was in high school they used to have what we called 'Guidance Counselors" and they'd drag you in to their
office and say "We're gonna plan your life." I'd say "Hmm, OK, go ahead, help yourself!" They'd say "Well blue collar or white collar,
those are your choices." And I'd say "That just doesn't pertain to me."
I wanted anything that had to do with Arts & Entertainment and they'd say 'No. People don't make a living
at it." And I said "Well, what are these adults doing on stage and on TV? What do you mean? Are they doing it for free?"
And they'd say "No, it's not a practical thing." I said "Well if that's what I want, then what?" So yeah that's what I wanted and that's what I did.
P- OK, so it's 2003. Was it the right choice?
JJ- (Laughter) Well, it's a little late to second guess it!!
P- Has it been a bitch or has it been good?
JJ- It's been a blast. Has it been good? I don't know, it's been fun. Has it been lucrative? No. Would I change it? No!
Not in a million fuckin' years! I mean this is what I wanna do. Am I making a living at it? Well, in a way, I work at a record
label and it's helping other artists achieve their goals. I get a paycheck for doing that so that's cool. In spare time I can DJ
at a college station or I can write an article or reviews for a magazine and keep my hand in things that way. And I play.
P- And that's where you are….
JJ- OK I'm 52, maybe it's the Peter Pan Syndrome, I don't know.
P- By the way, at the gig the other night; Muck & The Mires, Downbeat 5 and Lyres, Murphy was UNbelievable!!
Here we are how many years later and this guy is louder and stronger than anybody!!!
JJ- He's done nothing but get better!! In rehearsals in the past year; Jeff (Connolly), on a whim, as Jeff does, will say "Give me this
and this and this but only on this verse. Not in the rest of the song." And Murphy can do it and commit it into memory.
P- Does Mono Man do that?
JJ- Oh absolutely. There's a little quirk or trick in each song somewhere along the line. And it'll only happen maybe once, maybe twice,
in a song and not in any syncopated time. It's to catch you off guard. It 's to make simple songs unique. You know, what we're playing
isn't rocket science but with these little orchestrations in it, it's mind blowing. You know, Jeff has an unbelievable mind, like Brian Wilson.
I am in awe of what he hears in the total picture. The volume can be up to it's peak and he's smashed out of his mind and if you miss a strum,
he can pick it out! If you strum up when you're supposed to strum down he picks it up.
ML- You'll see him on stage swinging around giving that look…and you expect to hear him scream "You're fired!!"
JJ- YES!! Everybody's had their share of time in the electric chair with Jeff. It's alarming, it's annoying, it's embarrassing, all that stuff.
It's a shame that he does it on stage. At rehearsal I can totally understand.
P- Yeah, he's explosive on stage but it makes the show these days.
JJ- It did back then too! I think Deborah Frost wrote a thing "Spontaneous Combustion" about DMZ back then saying "You don't know if
they're gonna break up in the middle of the show or what! But that's part of the appeal, whether they're gonna kill each other or not."
P- When you first met Mono Man it was in an MIT dorm. He wasn't going to MIT was he?
JJ- He was going to BU. But we had a party there at a dorm in February 76. Our bass player lived at a fraternity house,
Jeff lived in the BU dorms around 800 Comm Ave and the original singer for DMZ, Adam Bomb, lived down the hall from him.
Jeff would present him with records and say "You guys should do this song." Then Adam would come up with these good songs
then we found out it was Jeff who was the source. Adam really sucked and we were trying out different singers. Alpo actually came and tried out, I wanted to get Alpo.
P- I don't want to talk too much about the DMZ record because everyone does, but what was it like at the recording session? How did it feel?
JJ- It was horrible! It was horrible before it even started!
P- Wasn't it recorded during the blizzard of '78?
JJ- We got signed in the summer of '77 and the album didn't even get into progress until Feb '78. We had spent 7 months just sitting around waiting for something to happen.
We had shot our load 3 times before we actually went into the studio. We had 1 set of songs we were all geared for…spring of 77 we did a bunch of shows with
The Ramones and The Dead Boys and we were in and out of New York all the time and we were red hot and on fire. That was the time to record us.
They come around in June or so and we put out the EP. As soon as we put that EP out on Bomp we got signed to Sire.
Then Sire didn't do anything with us until February. That whole 6-7 month period…they were paying us and we had money and everyone was just
doing drugs and sitting around getting baked and the momentum was lost. The songs on the album had changed because we were so tired of rehearsing them.
By the time we got to do the album half the songs were new one we'd just learned. Because we wanted something fresh.
When we went
in to the studio it was with producers we were not excited about working with. We suggested who we wanted; Richard Robinson who did the Flaming Groovies,
Dave Edmunds…a bunch of different people..none of those ever came about…the concept of the album cover: we wanted something completely different.
Their marketing plans for us were much more in the lines of what they did with the Paley Brothers.
P- When you were actually IN the studio did it feel alright then, when you were recording it?
JJ- No! It felt like hell! It was a drunken brawl. It was an awful studio in a town on Long Island. It was in a strip mall type thing,
in an industrial park. It was fucking pathetic! We hated it, hated it, hated it!!
P- You know for all that…I still like listening to it!
JJ- I can't listen to it. I listen to very few things that I've done. Even the Downbeat 5 I haven't listened to for 5 months now.
And I really like it! There are a couple things I'm really proud of that I've done: The Queers "Don't Back Down" album and The Downbeat 5.
Those two I can listen to and enjoy, the others I can't listen to.
P- You hate a clean sound don't you?
JJ- I'm not a good guitar player! If I was a really good guitar player I could play a clean sound. My instrumentals come out like Link Wray where as sometimes I'd like them to be like The Shadows but I'm not that good. But I do really like that hot, nasty, snarlin' sound.
P- For your song writing style it seems you like the beginning of the song to have an intro, to kick off and then it becomes the chorus.
JJ- The formulas I use are standard 1963 formulas for a song. I like to think
about songs as being sound tracks. I like them to set an atmosphere or a mood.
Even before we play I like to bring cd's to put on before we go on to sort of
set the mood.
P- In The Downbeat 5, do you write the music and Jen writes the lyrics?
J- Yeah, that's a generalization but a fair one. We contribute 50/50 really and Jen balances me out; old school/new school.
P- Now, about your influences. It seems to me that most of your influences are early stuff, say pre-DMZ bands. Before '75.
JJ- A lot of it. I think there's contemporary stuff that I like too….(laughing) but they all sound like the earlier stuff! I like Billy Childish stuff. I really love him but he sounds like The Kinks in '65.
P- What do you think about people getting in to The Hives?
JJ- I'm not crazy about them myself but I'm glad that people are waking up to that style of music …or reawakening…people like them and the Strokes…It's kickin' down doors for other people.
P- Your latest Downbeat 5 release is played around this town, like unbelievably!
JJ- I don't listen to the radio but yeah, I hear that it is. I go to the Noise Poll and every month they put up the Top 30 of what's being played around town. We've been #3 for the past 3 months now. I got playlists from 'MBR and 'BCN and 'FNX. That blows my mind! We've been getting play lists from all over the country. We sent out a demo to maybe 60 stations around the country about a year and a half ago and it started getting a lot of play and it started charting at CMG and that's kind of unheard of for a demo from an unsigned band. So we wrote back to the DJ saying "thanks for playing us."
Then we made a couple station ID's for the DJ's. Whether they picked up on it because of the DMZ connection I don't know. But I wanted The DB5 to have an identity of its own.. And they all said "When you guys get a real CD let us know." So as soon as we did we sent out stuff to the same stations around the country. We're doing all the hype on it ourselves. We all have jobs so we can't do it all our selves. Alex Piandes from 'MFO is helping us out too. The label ain't doing a damned thing. All they did was pay for the record.
P- Where did you record it? Austin, right? Not here.
JJ- Studiowise, everything around here is really hi-tech. And we ain't that kinda band. We each play a little bit more than adequately but there's a chemistry between us that makes it work. So if you go into a hi-tech studio it's gonna be all picked apart and sewn back together as records are today and that ain't us man!
ML- This is probably why all those other Boston bands, like The Nervous Eaters say, got screwed when they made their records. They were down there, in the nitty gritty and they were recorded in a away that lost all of that so it didn't work!
P- Did you record it live?
1963 Les Paul Jr.
1962 Hagstrom Futurama - Red
1964 Hagstom I I- Blue
Fender Hot Rod Deville- 65 Watts-for gigs
Fender Blues Deville-40 Watt-rehearsal
1965 Supro-15 Watt- homeuse
Ernie Ball - Heavy Bottom/Skinny Top
Clayton 50mm triangular
JJ- Yes, we recorded everything live except the vocals. We did everything in
one or two takes. No over dubs. We just played it as if we were at the Abbey.
That's why it's sloppy in some areas but I'd rather have it be faulty in a sloppy,
real sense than faulty in a technically sterile way with no balls to it. We
were in search of a room that would capture us. I'm a big fan of Toe Rag Studio
in London. They recorded bands like The Milkshakes and The Headcoats and The
Flaming Stars. It's a very live, vibrant, dirty sound. Not muddy, but dirty.
It sounds very primitive yet it's designed to sound that way. It's recorded
well and that's what we tried to get here.
Jeff and I went to play a festival in Texas over Labor Day.
We were DMZ with a pick up rhythm section. The guy who played bass for us was
Mike Maraconda. He used to be in The Raunch Hands and he 's a producer and he
said "Come by the studio where I work and see what you think." It was a tiny little
shit hole in an old factory building in downtown Austin and I heard some of the
stuff that came out of there and I said "I love this place!" I told him where
we were at and sent him our demos and said "Let's work together."
Then when Sympathy signed us they asked if we had a place in mind and I said "Yeah! The Sweatbox in Texas." We practiced for a month without vocals. We stood in a circle and Jen lip synched and we read body language and we watched each other for cues. Then we started practicing with our eyes closed to see if we had it down. The when we went into the studio and for the instruments we had a mic in front of each amp, a bunch of mics on the drums and two overhead mics for a live Mitch Ryder sound. We just stood in a circle and watched each other, Jen lip-synched and we played the songs. We went out of the room and then Jen stood there and sang then song. And everything was done in 32 hours.
P- When I first saw the DB5 it was at Frank Rowe's
50th birthday party. I hear Jen's voice….I think…"What the HELL is this?!" That
was very early on for the band but even then, talking to people, there was already
a buzz about you guys. And you are playing around and you're getting a great
response. Now when you were in DMZ, I assume you weren't getting a great response
JJ- We got a buzz instantly. The very first gig was the thing at the frat house. It was on my birthday, February 28th, also Brian Jones' birthday. I asked Maxanne if she could hype the show on the radio. She said "I can't coz it's a conflict of interest because you gotta buy the time. But if it's a benefit we can do a public service announcement once an hour. So we called it the Brian Jones Memorial Fund Show and we snuck the PSA on every day. The place ended up being packed!
At the time I was living with Oedipus and he was kind of managing us so we decided to go to The Rat to see if we could get a job. We blew into the doors of The Rat, passed the door guy. Jimmy Harold was sitting there. Oedipus went over and says "Set us up with some drinks." And Jimmy says "What the fuck's going on here?" Oedipus told him we were Led Zepplin! So Jimmy's pouring out the Wild Turkey! Oedipus says "We want to play a surprise gig here next Monday night but not under the name of the band." And Jimmy says "Sure, Sure, what's the name you wanna go under?" Oedi says "DMZ" That was our first club gig and it was fuckin' packed!
ML- Was Jimmy pissed off?
JJ- When he caught wind, me and Peter Greenberg were turning really red, we just started laughin' and shit and he looked at us and just goes "You little fuckin' assholes!!"
P- But I thought maybe the music itself would not be received….
JJ- It wasn't! We were AWFUL! We sucked! Our music wasn't very well received outside our scene. What was more well received was our dynamics, the excitement or the fact that we were going to beat each other up on stage. It was a volatile, exciting show to see. But we couldn't play.
I remember at an early show at The Rat, Jeff taught us a song and we played it and as soon as we finished it we realized we had forgotten an entire chorus on it or something so Jeff made us do the song again, which we did! Like six people got up and left!! It was too much for them!
P- There wasn't really anything around that sounded like that, like DMZ. You were punk, where as The Real Kids were really rock with an attitude.
JJ- And we didn't even know it at the time. That word was not a part of the vernacular.
P- Before you started DMZ had you heard The Ramones?
JJ- It was at the exact same time. DMZ was together when The Ramones played their first gig in Boston, at The Club. We all went.
P- Back then there were like two hundred people that went to those shows and that loved the music. But, at that time, the world wasn't loving it. The world was saying "You suck."
JJ- We couldn't get work around here at all. Oedi would gumshoe it up and down Comm Ave , to the booking agents, all these different people but they just wouldn't sign us. We played at different clubs…out in Lowell, Peabody. It all sucked.
P- So you're playing and even though the world is saying "Punk sucks. You suck." do you know you're good?
JJ- Do we know we're good?? NO! I don't think that ever crossed any of our minds at any time. Were we having fun? Yeah we were having a blast! And that was the motivator, not "Are we good?" We didn't have anything to compare it to. The bands that I had heard at The Rat prior to our gig weren't good. Like The Mezz or The Infliktors or The Boize or The Real Kids.
They weren't good but they were GREAT, if you can understand the distinction. They were fabulous to me but were they technically good? Well, when I saw The Mezz the fuckin' drummer fell off his stool and they started kicking him until he got back up and started playing again. Was that good? No, but it was fuckin' great! Now, Reddy Teddy. They were tight as nails.
P- You mention Reddy Teddy, man, Matthew Mackenzie was so great. Very under appreciated guitar player. He's never mentioned anymore, they don't play that album anymore.
JJ- Matthew is my idol, man. An absolute hero to me.
P- Where is Peter Greenberg now?
JJ- Houston, Texas. Vice President of Pacific Gas and Electric. He was studying the whole time he was in DMZ and he went into the Environmental Protection agency for a while. He spends more in taxes that we make in a year.
P- What was it like recording the Live at The Rat LP?
JJ- It was fun. I remember all of that really well. I remember Jimmy having a big bash for all the bands and we all discussed it and it was pretty exciting. I still have the notes that I took that day. We all set up and played 20 minute sets then listened to the session and got to pick 2 songs to go on the record.
P- What did you think of Miss Lyn back then?
JJ- I remember one time I was in a stall in the lady's room…..
ML- Oh no, this is gonna be very embarrassing!
JJ- Another couple came in to the stall next to us and I was in a position where I could put my head up and I went…."Wow, cool!" So not only was I participating in the adventures in my own stall I could be a voyeur too! And it was really neat! That's one of my earliest experiences of Miss Lyn.
ML- Was it some one from New York?
JJ- As a matter of fact it was.
ML- I didn't do that very often so I think I know who it was.
JJ- Oh, yeah Lyn neither did I!!! I'll believe you if you wanna believe me.
ML- I remember we were doing Roller Babe and I had set it all up for Lynn to use the darkroom at the New England School of photography. She was supposed to meet me at like 10AM on a Saturday. She never showed up and I kept calling her. Finally I heard back from her like a day or two later and she said "Oh I was with JJ and we were in no shape to get out of bed."…you know…drugs, alcohol…etc.etc… And I thought…."That bastard!! I'm gonna kill him!!"
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