This week, Makin Waves chats with Asbury Park metal band Toothgrinder, reviews Little Steven’s long-awaited next solo CD, streams Lowlight, Levy & the Oaks, Control, and The Grip Weeds, and features briefs on the Elephants for Autism Music Festival, DJ Bryan Bruden, Cats on a Smooth Surface founder Harry Filkin, and singer-songwriter Jonn Sontag.
The Asbury Park-based metal band Toothgrinder are wasting no time following up last year’s Spinefarm Records debut LP, “Nocturnal Masquerade.” They have finished writing and tracking the next album, which they will continue to record with “Nocturnal” producer Taylor Larson at his Oceanic Recording studio in Bethesda, Md., before heading out in September on Between the Buried and Me’s 10th anniversary tour for their “Colors” LP with Contortionist and Polyphia.
But first, Toothgrinder will play a special hometown show on May 20 at House of Independents with their Jersey Shore buds in Chemtrail, Hammerfight and Inventure. On behalf of vocalist Justin Matthews, bassist-vocalist Matt Arensdorf, and guitarists Jason Gross and Johnuel Hasney, founding drummer Wills Weller chatted with me about the hard-working past, exploding present and bright future of Toothgrinder.
Question: Where did you guys go to high school together and when did you graduate?
Answer: We all went to Wall High School. Jason and I graduated in 2007 and Matt and Justin graduated 2006. Johnuel is a bit younger and didn't go to the same high school. He's from southern New Jersey.
Q: Did you guys hang out in the Asbury Park music scene while you were in high school and college? If so, what venues did you like to frequent and bands did you like to go see the most and why?
A: Asbury Park was one of the places to play with an actual music scene and original bands that I knew of besides New York City and Philadelphia. Growing up, I wasn't going to the city on a school night; well, at least not until I was a little older. The band gravitated toward the town because it was welcoming to artists and bands of all shapes and sizes. As a group, we quickly looked up to an older local band turned national called The Parlor Mob. Crazy enough, we all became friends later on, shared a practice space, and their guitar player, Paul Ritchie, was a big part in helping us record our first two EPs, ‘Turning of the Tides’ and ‘Vibration/Colour/Frequency.’ We've also been fortunate enough to win a handful of Asbury Park Music Awards, including Top Heavy Band and Top Drummer, multiple times. Some great venues are The Saint, The Asbury Lanes, and, of course, The Stone Pony.
Q: What made you gravitate as a base to Asbury Park, which never has been known for its metal? How did you build a large following in a town so fond of Springsteen and indie rock? Did your crowd come in from out of town?
A: When we started, it was just the town that was close, where we could play shows. We didn't necessarily choose it for its history, because at the time, none of that really mattered to us. We just wanted to play. We would end up playing the most random shows, and our fans were more musicians of other bands in the beginning. Then, as we played out more, we would garner interest from the non-musician. That's when we saw our fan base go from just the musicians to now their girlfriends/boyfriends and non-musicians excited to see us play. We also quickly learned a band needs to go on tour and experience things and play in other states for new people and not play in front of the same people at home.
Q: When you were first starting out, where did you most like to play in Asbury, with whom, and why?
A: We played The Saint, The Asbury Lanes, and a couple random pop-up venues that didn't last very long. We were always playing with random bands, but one band in particular who we became very close with was Chemtrail. They also are playing our hometown show with us on May 20 at House of Independents!
Q: How often did you play with your other opening acts – Hammerfight and Inventure – and were you friends with them before you signed to Spinefarm?
A: We were friends with everyone before getting picked up by Spinefarm. We've played a couple shows with all three bands, and they are always fun.
Q: Have you ever played and/or headlined House of Independents before?
A: This will be the first time playing and headlining, and we couldn't be more excited. It feels great! Every single band brings something unique to the table, so it will be a very well-rounded show that everyone can enjoy!
Q: Toothgrinder are living the dream that so many Asbury Park and New Jersey bands want to have: release a couple of EPs, get signed, tour the world. Has that dream lived up to or surpassed your expectations, how and why?
A: It really is an incredible feeling to be able to live out a childhood dream. Although it's a constant uphill battle, it's the most rewarding thing in the world. I couldn't be happier with the opportunities we've had and can't wait to see what the future holds for us.
Q: How have constant touring and good management factored into your success?
A: Yes, both are very helpful. Touring is so important for a band. Not only does it give you an outlet to play your music to a different audience every single day, but it also to keeps your fans excited about the band. Having good management is another great tool. Their connections, paired with knowledge of the industry, can really create great opportunities and that will help grow a band.
Q: What advice do you give musician friends from Asbury about how they can further their careers?
A: Make music you are proud of. Go on tour. Have fun. Brand your band with a font, logo or better yet, both. Push your own musical boundaries in every aspect as much as possible. Update your social media and build content for fans. Don't take yourself so serious, but take your music and craft serious. A big part of the ‘next step’ is essentially turning your band into a small business, something that people are always thinking about and want to check out.
Q: How did Justin learn to sing the way he does, and how does he keep that style from hurting his throat?
A: He figured out what works best for him. He's constantly working on training his vocals to go in many directions. It's always exciting when we write a new record to see all the new things he’s learned and how he will apply it to the songs.
Q: I really like ‘The House (That Fear Built)’ and its menacing video. What inspired that song and the video?
A: ‘The House (That Fear Built)’ is Justin by himself with visuals of an insane asylum. I look at it as a metaphor for being in your own mind. If you watch the next music video, for the song ‘Lace & Anchor,’ the band is introduced and supposedly rescue Justin, but in the end, we all realize it was just our imagination, and we’re all in the insane asylum together.
Q: ‘Diamonds for Gold’ also is really great. How did that song come about?
A: It's a song that came together in the studio. We were working with Spencer Sotelo, vocalist of Periphery, on vocal production for the record. We thought it would be cool to give him a guest spot, but we were unsure of where. Toward the end of tracking the record, this song came about. Spencer and the whole band just fell in love with it, and one day we came in, and Spencer had recorded a verse. Of course, we all loved it, and it just seemed to fit in so perfect. We have been lucky in the past when we tour with Periphery, sometimes Spencer will come out and sing his verse and the chorus live. It’s always such a cool moment!
Q: My favorite Toothgrinder song is ‘The Last Gypsy’ from your first EP, ‘Turning of the Tides,’ just because it’s such an impressive epic for what was such a young band at the time and it has these little psychedelic touches that you don’t hear too often in metal. Is that song special to the band at all and do you still play it live?
A: That's so awesome you even know that song! It's, of course, going to be forever special to us because it played such an important role in defining our sound as the band grows from record to record. We, unfortunately, we don't play it live anymore. We usually have a 30-or-so-minute set and playing a 10-minute song isn't always the best option (laughs).
Q: Will you be continuing to tour in support of ‘Nocturnal Masquerade?’
A: I believe our hometown headliner at House of Independents will be the final show to close the book and prepare for the release of the next record.
Q: Where would you like to tour that you’ve never been before, but you’re most looking forward to going and why?
A: I think as a band we are very eager to get overseas. We have been fortunate enough to have toured across the United States and Canada multiple times. Something overseas would be a great achievement for the band.
Q: Have you started writing the next album yet?
A: We have started writing, and we have also finished writing!
Q: How is the process going and when do you expect to start recording it, where and with whom?
A: We actually just finished up tracking in the studio last week. We were in Bethesda, Md., with Taylor Larson for the entire month of April. Taylor worked with us on ‘Nocturnal Masquerade,’ so we felt he knew best the direction the band is going in and how we could best achieve the sound to match.
Q: Is there anything else on which you would like to comment that I didn’t ask?
A: I'm very excited to go on tour in September through October with Between the Buried and Me for the ‘Colors’ 10 Year Anniversary Tour. The Contortionist and Polyphia will also be on the bill. There are two dates close to New Jersey on that tour: Sept. 21 at The Theatre of Living Arts in Philadelphia and Sept. 23 at Gramercy Theater in New York City.
I’m so happy that Little Steven’s first solo album in 16 years is highly anticipated on his own Wicked Cool label, including a nearly sold-out show on May 27 at The Count Basie Theatre in Red Bank, then a European summer tour. The buzz almost makes up for how foolishly his first two solo albums were overlooked, especially his 1982 debut, “Men without Women,” one of the best albums ever made. Just ask Bruce Springsteen, because I think he would agree with me.
Steven and a new version of his Disciples of Souls are back with the smokin’ hot high energy of “Soulfire,” a 12-song blast of the soul, rhythm and blues, and blues that he orchestrated as the founding guitarist-producer of Southside Johnny & the Asbury Jukes. From the opening Jackson 5-like strut of the title track written with the Denmark-based Wicked Cool act The Breakers to the closing breezy blues of “Ride the Night Away,” “Soulfire” will uplift the hearts and blow the minds of Jukes fans. The Jukes juices “I’m Coming Back” and “Ride the Night Away” from Southside’s 1991 Steven-produced comeback LP “Better Days,” “Love on the Wrong Side of Town” and “Some Things Don’t Change” from 1977’s “This Time It’s for Real,” and his masterpiece, “I Don’t Want to Go Home,” the title track of the Jukes’ 1976 debut LP, are deliciously re-energized and intricately embellished. Most fun is when Steven scratches his doo-wop itch by remaking “I Don’t Want to Go Home” as a stirring Drifters-like track and throwing a couple shooby doo-wops into “Love on the Wrong Side of Town,” which must make original Jukes drummer Kenny “Popeye” Pentifallo smile a little bit.
But the tune that really is a treat is the doo-wop ballad “The City Weeps Tonight,” which thankfully resurfaces from the archives of tracks written for “Men without Women.” The power in the simplicity of this soulful song lifts the listener up to the point where you feel like you’re dancing on air. And what a sweet nod to the pre-Upstage days when Asbury Park was a nationally recognized spot for great doo-wop.
Other redeemed castaways and overlooked treasure include “I Saw the Light,” half-written for former Bon Jovi guitarist Richie Sambora but finished for “Soulfire,” and the soul-injected Dylanesque “Saint Valentine’s Day,” written for but not recorded by Nancy Sinatra. Then there’s “Standing in the Line of Fire,” which Steven wrote and recorded as the title track for Gary “U.S.” Bonds’ 1984 LP, but has a ball hanging a sharp right with Ennio Morricone-inspired, spaghetti-western gusto.
Steven also covers chunky nuggets by James Brown, “Down and Out in New York City” from the “Black Caesar” soundtrack, and Etta James, the Southside-of-Chicago-styled “The Blues Is My Business.” His enthusiasm for both is a shared delight.
This record makes me very happy, a large part of what music is supposed to do. I hope it’s an absolute smash, not only because Steven totally deserves it for a variety of reasons, but because it’s that good!
Check out Lowlight’s hot video for “Motel Chronicles” made by the band’s own keyboardist Dana Sellers with the help of her husband, the band’s guitarist-producer Derrill Sellers. Then go hear the song live when Lowlight play A Benefit for Planned Parenthood with Overlake, Foxanne, and the Penniless Loafers at Jersey City Underground; with Noordzo, May 27, Pino’s, Highland Park; with Daughter Vision and Exaltron, June 17, Asbury Park Yacht Club; with Coach ’N Commando, June 24, Old Franklin Schoolhouse, Metuchen; with Rachel Ana Dobken and Pam Flores, June 30, The Asbury hotel; July 8 at Through the Grapevine Festival; with Jolly Daggers and Little Vicious, Bond Street Basement, Asbury Park; with Ghost Pressure, July 21, The Gateway, Brooklyn, N.Y., and Aug. 4 at Lot 323 in Woodbury …
The sixth annual Elephants for Autism Music Festival will take place May 19 to 21 at The Watering Hole in Mays Landing. Funds from the three-stage event will go to The Sunshine Foundation to make the wishes of five South Jersey autistic children come true. More than 50 bands will perform on two outdoor stages and an indoor stage. For acts and set times, click on the event’s Facebook page hyperlinked above. A kickball tournament also may be among the highlights. The Watering Hole is formerly Bubba Mac’s, the late owner of which will be honored at the festival …
Levy & the Oaks well-received new EP, “Out of the Blue,” will be celebrated May 25 at Langosta Lounge in Asbury Park. Sharing the bill will be Natalie Farrell. The record will be available on all digital formats on May 19 …
When I was a young writer at East Coast Rocker in the early ’90s, I used to love to hang out with Bryan Bruden and the late Ethan Stein, hosts of WRSU’s “Overnight Sensations.” Between the three of us, we helped so many bands shine, such as Nudeswirl, Big Nurse, The Blisters, The Blases, Whirling Dervishes, Mad Daddys, Destroy All Bands, Spiral Jetty, Wooden Soldiers, Tiny Lights, Spy Godz, All God’s Children, and Bouncing Souls. I’m trying not to leave anybody out, but I should stop now. Well, good ol’ Bryan is celebrating his 55th birthday on May 20 by DJing his Summer Blast Off Bash at the Asbury Park Yacht. Between sets by Bongo Surf and Holmes, the Loop Lounge’s DJ Appetite, Bruden’s brother’s brother-in-law, James Cotter (you with me?), also will spin. Looking forward to bopping back and forth between this one and the Toothgrinder show …
The veteran rock band Control will celebrate their fifth release, a new EP entitled “The Lonely,” on May 19 at Krogh’s in Sparta. Sharing the bill will be Archie Alone, Red Hymns and Sound & Shape. Control also will play June 2 at The Loft @ Foundry42 in Port Jervis, N.Y. …
Lambertville singer-songwriter John Sonntag is among 10 East Coast finalists in the 2017 Philadelphia Songwriters Project Contest on May 21 at Ardmore Music Hall in Ardmore, Pa. Four winners will be showcased this summer throughout Philly …
Beloved Jersey Shore singer-songwriter Harry Filkin, a founding member of the longtime Stone Pony house band Cats on a Smooth Surface that launched the careers of Glen Burtnik, Bobby Banderia, Ray Anderson and Fran Smith of The Hooters, will celebrate the release of his solo debut CD on May 20 at the Wonder Bar in Asbury Park. Helmed by the great Asbury guitarist and producer Marc Ribler at Shorefire Recording Studios, Filkin’s CD features guest performances by fellow Cats founder Peter Schulle, singer-songwriter Arne Wendt, jazz singer Layonne Holmes, daughter of the late Delores Holmes, a pre-E Street Band backing vocalist for Bruce Springsteen, and more …
The Grip Weeds have released a DVD, “Force of Nature Live in NYC,” on their own Ground Up Records via Burnside Distribution. Filmed at the Tribeca Performing Arts Center in New York City, the 90-minute concert film showcases The Grip Weeds' ability to channel high-octane rock and even a short but sweet acoustic set with equal doses of ability, abandon and authority. Steven Van Zandt granted six of the 22 songs featured the distinction of “Coolest Song in the World” on his Sirius/XM and internationally syndicated radio show “The Underground Garage.” You also can see The Grip Weeds live opening for rock legend Ian Hunter on May 19 at The Stone Pony in Asbury Park.
Bob Makin is the reporter for www.mycentraljersey.com/entertainment and a former managing editor and now a contributing writer to The Aquarian Weekly, which launched this column in 1988. Contact him at email@example.com.