The Successful Failures formed in 2005 as a side project for Mick Chorba from the Dipsomaniacs - a garage rock band who put out many great albums during their two decade run and was one of my favorite Jersey bands. It’s amazing to think about it, but The Successful Failures have actually outlasted the Dipsos. Looking at the band’s history, they were bound to succeed...
Long before The Successful Failures ever existed, they had already released a song. In 1998, Chorba released the solo song “Hick Bars” on a compilation CD using the name Successful Failures (taken from a Jack London short story) as his moniker. Several years later, Chorba resurrected the name when drummer Rob Martin and bassist Ron Bechamps were recruited to form a real band. In May 2005, the band played their first show (at the Dewey Beach Pop Fest) and their self-titled CD was released. Shortly thereafter, guitarist John Williams joined the group.
I spoke with Mick Chorba as part of my continuing series that catches up with artists who were part of my old Upstage Magazine who are still very active today. Chorba is not just going strong, he's writing some of the best songs of his career. The Successful Failures don't have a genre that defines themselves, which gives Chorba more room to work with.
I’ve been looking at the history of my old online radio station lately. Many artists and bands came and went and then there’s you with two different bands (Dipsomaniacs and The Successful Failures) who each lasted 15+ years. What’s your secret?
Yeah, I was lucky to do that with both groups. The Dipsomaniacs started in like 1993 or something and we were busy until 2009. And The Successful Failures started around 2005-2006 and we’re still keeping busy.
The Successful Failures originally began as a side project.
Yes, I had extra songs that I wanted to do something with. It was like a story album and the band’s name was The Successful Failures. Actually, one of the songs,“Hello, Cleveland” was on a Dipsomanics record. It was part of this song cycle I wrote about The Successful Failures.
Could you ever have imagined the side project would become its own thing and just keep going?
I had hoped so. I mean, we’re all friends and everybody is really dedicated to it. We play weekly. When we’re not playing shows, we get together and rehearse.
How was it for the band during the early stage of the pandemic?
For a little while there in that March and April we didn’t get together. Like everybody else, I was just playing into my phone for people - something I never thought I’d do because I don’t really like it. Then we starting getting together because everybody was sort of quarantined, so we just included ourselves in a group. By the summer of 2020, it started feeling like it might be getting better. I remember some outdoor events and then it got worse again.
We actually released two albums over that period.
Was recording normal for you guys?
We had just released the album Saratoga in November 2019, but I had 3-4 more acoustically-based songs that I wanted to record to have more original songs as part of our acoustic sets where Ron plays the mandolin and our guitar player, Pete, plays the bass. So, we had just booked time in the studio in Haddonfield (Gradwell House Recording). We did maybe three sessions there. Usually in the winter we don’t play many shows. So we went in and recording four songs with more acoustic instruments. I had a few new songs, so we did another session. We wound up with eight songs and then everything shut down. We realized this could be an album, so we just finished it in my studio. It was weird releasing an album and not being able to play shows!
Are you guys finally able to give the last release some support?
Sort of, it still feels weird.
We released the James Cotton Mather album in 2021. I feel like we used the time as best as we could. It’s a real rock album - full of electric guitars and rock songs. I feel we haven’t gotten to play many venues where we can just rock out on stage yet. I’m looking forward to getting to pull out that album more.
How was it during the pandemic for you as a songwriter? You’ve always been so prolific. Did you find you had more time to write or did the pandemic block you a bit?
I found that I had a lot of time to practice playing the guitar. I’ve gotten much better at a practice routine; playing scales each day and getting practice time. But without being out and interacting with the world, I found I had less emotional songs that popped in my head and came out quickly. That’s why I created the fictional story of James Cotton Mather. It was a little different type of song writing for me, but I tried to keep up with my songwriting routine.
Speaking of writing, I always wondered if you ever wrote short stories or a book? Ever tried?
No, it seems really hard! I was an English major and I wrote some stories in a Creative Writing class, but writing like that is a whole different discipline.
Might be easier for you to write a musical?
Yeah, I think so. A lot of my songs rely on the melody. I try not to just write the words without the melody or the way the words rhythmically fit together; the way they sound. And when you take that away… it’s hard. Words have so much more pressure on them when they’re not being sung.
Going through the catalog of The Successful Failures, what are three songs you’re very proud of?
I’m proud of the song from Saratoga called “Disgruntled Bankers”. I feel like that captured something of the time period (2017-18) without me necessarily realizing it.
I can’t keep myself from the anger / My employment place full of rancor / We sit here like disgruntled bankers
It goes on with that rhythmic flow. I like doing that one live.
There’s another one from that album that I really like too, “Love You So.” For that one, we had recently done a show where we were highlighting The Beatles’ White Album. I recruited a bunch of musicians and we did many of the songs from that album. I realized later on that some of the style on that album had worked its way into some of my thoughts. When I look back on “Love You So”, I hear a little of that influence.
There’s a more acoustically-based song on Ichor of Nettle called “Baby Home Tonight” that we’ve continued to do in our acoustic and electric sets. I like that one lyrically.
Gears will grind, cogs will turn Chimney smokes, the furnace burns Now the moon is shining bright I’m taking baby home tonight
I remember talking to you about the highlights of the Dipsos era - stuff like the Little Steven Underground Competition and playing with Tommy Conwell. What’s a highlight for The Successful Failures?
We’ve been fortunate to play a music festival in Bristol, Tennessee several times. It’s called Bristol Rhythm & Roots Reunion and we will be playing it again this year (September 9-11). That has been a pretty cool experience. The artists who play there are incredible. Names like Steve Early, Jeff Tweedy, Deer Tick…
We performed at the festival four years straight, took a few years off, and went back last year. The experience of playing a set and then seeing Jeff Tweedy play right after us on another stage is pretty awesome.
The Successful Failures has a community of people we’ve gotten to know and it’s been a pretty cool experience throughout. We play a lot of local shows, but we do something on the road a couple times a year, which is always fun. The great thing is to just be able to keep doing it. Music is its own reward.
You mentioned working on new songs. Do you plan on releasing something new this year?
I’d like to release a 4-5 song EP sometime this summer. I’m hoping for July.
I just keep writing songs, so I have a bunch lying around. I don’t ever stop and wait. I’ve always got a bunch that haven’t done anything.
Do you ever take pieces from one song and put them in another?
Totally. All of the time. A piece of one song might become a bridge to another.
It’s like you have all these little parts rolling around in your brain then one day you’re like, “This could work.”
Yep. I love having a band because when you play it live and you’re singing energetically, you get new ideas based on what other people are doing. That was a bad thing about the pandemic in the beginning when we weren’t rehearsing or playing live. There’s something about doing a show where you’re singing - it’s great for your mental health, I think.
I noticed that the URL for your record label (Face Down Records) is no longer. Is the label still going?
It is mostly Successful Failures stuff now. I was thinking about shutting the label down because I just don’t have enough time to do what I would like to do with it. I want to make it more of a community to help other people promote their stuff. But I just started feeling like I couldn’t do that even in a small way.
I was going to shut it down, but then I thought I’d keep it at Bandcamp. I’d like to be able to get back to that someday. I just wasn’t happy with the business end of things and I wanted to spend more time performing, writing and recording. But I have all kinds of ideas for the label.
Are you still teaching?
Yes, I am still teaching. If I stopped teaching, I think I’d be able to rejuvenate the label. I’m teaching English. I like it and it’s a good complement to playing music, but it does take up real time too.
Would you say teaching has allowed you to keep going with music?
I think it has. When I first starting teaching, I actually taught music and I hated it! I’d come home and it was like I did music all day and not music I enjoyed, just stuff I had to do. And it’s hard to teach music. I mean, I give guitar lessons, but that’s different. To teach large groups of people or to run a choir or a band, it’s a hard job. So, it was better to not do it.
I sometime wonder what would have happened if I was forced to do music and had to make money to pay rent and what not. That either forces you to totally go for it and take some risks or it might lead you to make some compromises that you might not be happy with. So, I don’t know what might have happened if I had to do that or if I chose to do that.
I'm glad Mick Chorba decided to keep writing songs. He's one of the best songwriters from New Jersey, in my opinion. You can hear (and purchase) songs from The Successful Failures catalog here and from the Dipsomaniacs catalog here.
Here’s where you can see The Successful Failures
Friday 5/27/22 Red Tank Brewery, Red Bank, NJ, 8:30pm – w/ The Extensions (full band electric)
Sunday 5/29/22 Killarneys – SF Sunday Session on The Patio, 1644 Whitehorse Mercerville Rd Hamilton, NJ 3:00pm – 6:00pm
Saturday 6/4/22 Jailhouse Rock Concert – Burlington County Prison Museum, High St., Mount Holly, NJ 4:00pm – 10:00pm – w/ The Gripweeds, Invasion 65, The Extensions, Jump Jive and Wail, and more tba (full band electric)
Thursday 6/11/22 Screamin Hill Brewery, Cream Ridge, NJ, 2:00pm – 6:00pm (full band electric)
Sunday 6/12/22 Killarneys – SF Sunday Session on The Patio, 1644 Whitehorse Mercerville Rd Hamilton, NJ 3:00pm – 6:00pm
Wednesday 6/15/22 Music in the Square – Free Outdoor Concert, Saddle Way, Chesterfield, NJ, 6:00pm – 8:00pm (full band electric)
Saturday 7/9/22 Spellbound Brewery, Mount Holly NJ 6:30pm – 9:00pm (full band electric)
Saturday 7/15/22 Old Heights Brewery, Hightstown, NJ , 6:00pm – 9:00pm (Mick/Ron acoustic)
Friday 8/12/22 Bruno’s Bicycles, Allentown, NJ , 7:00pm – 10:00pm (full band electric)
Saturday 8/20/22 John and Peters, New Hope, PA, 9:00pm (full band electric)
Friday 9/9/22, Saturday 9/10/22, Sunday 9/11/22 Bristol Rhythm and Roots Reunion, Bristol, VA/TN, (full band electric)