FOREWORD: Under the alias, East River Pipe, former homeless Jerseyite, F.M. Cornog, makes menial pay selling beautifully textured indie pop albums. In ’96, I got to speak to the shy, reluctant artist when breakthrough album, Mel, came out. Since then, he has slowly continued to release some of the most alluring neo-orchestral pop imaginable. ’99s The Gasoline Age bettered Mel while ’03s Garbageheads On Endless Stun and ’06s What Are You On were nearly as good. A vibrant storyteller who refuses to tour, Cornog is truly an enigmatic character. This article originally appeared in Aquarian Weekly.
Born in Norfolk, Virginia and raised in Summit, New Jersey, F.M. Cornog spent time homeless in Hoboken until he was apprehensively convinced to release the 4-track tapes he had made. Much like lo-fi indie rocker Jack Logan, Cornog never planned to make his private tape collection available for public consumption. And much like reflective, low-key acoustic solo artist Smog (a.k.a. Bill Callahan), he hides behind a peculiar moniker – East River Pipe. By combining Beatlesque psychedelia, Beach Boys-inspired harmonies, and vibrating modern electronics into pastoral guitar pop, East River Pipe is basically Cornog’s one man band.
Cornog maintains, “I tried working with other instrumentalists, but they approached music in a second hand manner. And I couldn’t get anything done. I have no time for lazy musicians. And much like my idols – Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, Brian Wilson, Todd Rundgren, and Lou Reed, I decided to get serious and make beautiful, melodic songs on my own.”
But there were huge hurdles Cornog had to leap over before achieving any credibility or indie pop stature. Cornog reflects, “I was severely depressed and used drugs as an escape to obliterate my own ego. It became a vicious cycle. I had no friends and lived in the Hoboken train station. In the winter of ’86, all I had was a green windbreaker. My father had always told me to deal with the real world or it would kick me in the ass – and at that time, it did.”
But as fate would have it, an undisclosed person gave a 4-track tape of Kornog’s work to Barbara Powers, and it became a crucial stepping stone to his success. Powers, now Kornog’s girlfriend and business partner, started Hell Gate Productions (named after the Astoria, Queens bridge).
In ’91, she released Kornog’s East River Pipe single “Axl or Iggy / Helmet.” After several positive reviews, Kornog had a chance meeting with Bar None’s Tom Prendergast at Hoboken’s Pier Platters. Prendergast convinced him to send his single to Britian’s Sarah Records.
With “Helmet” now the A-side, Melody Maker gave East River Pipe single of the week honors. Kornog was then approached by several major labels, but decided he disliked the ‘high pressure bull shit.’ So he opted for Chicago’s tiny Ajax Records and his career has been on a slow, organic climb ever since.
Kornog declares, “You’ve got to put a stamp on your own music. The whole point of being an artist is to come up with new ideas and form a foundation. You should express your own personal vision. Even a retro song like Oasis’ “Champagne Supernova,” a guilty pleasure, was well constructed. Unlike grunge heads’ heavy bummer music, I’ve always written easy, heartfelt songs apart from any scene. Some of my songs are dark, but the music makes it seem less threatening. I’m aware of what music is currently out there, but some bands don’t know the difference between recycling music and making something original out of existing ideas.”
East River Pipe received a big boost when ’96s Mel found a sizeable indie audience with depressive suburban kids and the cool underground pundits supporting them. Jangled pop tunes such as the infectious “The Club Isn’t Open” and the chimy Robyn Hitchcock-like “Prettiest Little Whore” (a sincere assertion concerning a transvestite lover) cuddle up next to the country-folk “Guilty As Charged” and the cloudy tender-hearted “Beautiful Worn-Out Love” (a song Marshall Crenshaw would die for). And somewhere between Jazz lite, pop balladry, and art rock lies the expansive instrumental “New York Crown.”
“Originally, “New York Crown” had lyrics about a guy sitting in a strip bar staring at a girl he wanted as his queen. That song reminds me of the dream-like New York skyline at night. It’s incredible, scary, and beautiful,” Cornog says. “In fact, I’m attracted to edgy street personalities like the Taxi Driver and Midnight Cowboy characters. They lived dingy New York City lives.”
How did Cornog decide on the East River Pipe handle?
“One day I was walking by the East River and a sewage pipe had warm, steamy liquid pouring out of it. So I just decided that I am the pipe, society is the sewage, and my contribution is my music – or my crap, if you get my meaning.”