FOREWORD: Mooney Suzuki really kick ass live. I mean, seriously. I’ve seen ‘em three times and each time they did different astounding routines – like singer Sammy getting carried around by his guitarist while still yelping into a mike. But of course it’s the loud garage rockin’ hell raising that carries ‘em forward. The following piece promoted Electric Sweat, arguably their finest half-hour. ‘04s Alive & Amplified was cool, too. I’ve also included my High Times record review for ‘07s Have Mercy.
Absolutely nothing beats the frenzied primal fury New York City’s Mooney Suzuki unleash live. Drawing inspiration from the Japanese cartoon heroes in Voltron, the Jersey-born frontline of Tenafly-bred Sammy James, Jr. (lead vocals-rhythm guitar) and flashy Livingston sidekick, Graham Tyler (lead guitar), create a giant, unstoppable, indomitable force united as one to conquer all. They destroy people’s notion of what rock and roll bands should be by combining the Motor City Madness of ‘60s hard rock pioneers the MC5 and the Stooges with the retro-rock post-punk of ‘80s underground denizens the Lyres and the Fleshtones.
Clad in black wraparound shades, black matching suits, and black pointy shoes, these sharp dressed men invaded America with ‘00s muscular People Get Ready and a string of enthusiastic Cavestomp! shows opening for reunited legendary ‘60s combos the Zombies, Pretty Things, the Standells, and the Monks. The highly charged anthemic chant-along “Yeah You Can” and the exhilarating, harmonica-driven “Make My Way” immediately became action-packed fuzz-toned garage rock staples.
Sustaining the spontaneous intensity while taking a few more chances, the scrappy Electric Sweat increases Mooney Suzuki’s amplitude, wattage, and range. Blazing originals like the youth-induced “In A Young Man’s Mind” and the pithy “It’s Not Easy” re-invigorate vintage Pete Townshend axe wielding and Who-like attitude while “A Little Bit Of Love” hedges closer to the neo-psychedelic bubblegum of the Music Machine.
Finishing up another string of U.S. tour dates at Tribeca’s Knitting Factory in early April, these bratty, beat-driven dynamos energized a sweat-drenched audience with unbridled recklessness and tenacious resilience. Tyler grinds out rugged riffs with a pelvic thrust, sometimes grinding his head into the stage floor upside down as James, Jr. soaks the mike with hurled screams and R & B-influenced testifying. Drummer Jody Stone and bassist Mike Michaels kick out a spiffy, ruffed-up rhythmic pulse that’s always dead-on and startlingly cataclysmic.
Throughout the one-hour set, Tyler throttles his six-string inches away from Asbury cutie-pie on-line fanzine entrepreneur, Rachel, and jumps into the crowd to kick out more jams. The highlight comes when James, Jr. gives Tyler a piggyback ride across the clubs’ perimeter while they continue to ferociously strangle their dangling guitars in an awesome display of dazzling acrobatics.
I spoke to James, Jr. and Tyler via the phone a week after the Knitting Factory spectacle.
Besides Detroit City Rock, what early influences informed your musical upbringings?
GRAHAM: I’ve always been into James Brown and Sly & the Family Stone. The reason we both picked up the guitar was we had the same Who Fakebook. It’s their greatest hits condensed into four easy chords.
SAMMY: For people with learning disabilities.
GRAHAM: We were able to play “I’m Free” over and over.
SAMMY: When I was a child, I liked Van Halen. Then, after a year trying to be Pete Townshend, that shifted to being obsessed with Jimmy Page in the Yardbirds and Zeppelin. Once, I had those four chords down, it was time to learn the Blues scale.
GRAHAM: We developed the chops to play some of the Page and Hendrix stuff, but I never progressed past The Who’s easy chord book. I wanted to play Hendrix and more intricate stuff with the group at school, but I was so frustrated. I threw the guitar down in disgust. When I heard the Detroit stuff by the MC5 and the Stooges, it was so basic and stupid on guitar it was inspiring to see you could still convey the same emotion, immediacy, and energy of The Who without being a technical wizard.
I never realized how fast-fingered you were on guitar until I saw you play at the Knitting Factory show.
GRAHAM: I wish our drummer could be hearing this. His whole thing is speed equals success. He’d be proud to hear I’m one of the fastest guitarists on the scene. It sounds cheesy, but it’s not what you play, it’s how you play. Miles Davis could play three notes that’ll make you shit your pants while Yngwie Malmsteen could play a thousand and you wouldn’t take a second notice.
On Electric Sweat, Mooney Suzuki manage to maintain the spontaneity of the debut, People Get Ready, but there are some cool changes of pace. The banjo-like acoustics, “Psycho Killer” groove, and “Roll Over Beethoven” bridge of the less manic “Oh Sweet Susanna” brings to mind honky tonk music.
SAMMY: We were disappointed we forgot to bring quality acoustic guitars to the session. (Producer) Jim Diamond had some piece of shit acoustic toy guitars lying around the studio. I liked the banjo tone when we were recording it.
What are some of the differences between indie rock guru Tim Kerr’s production for the debut and Jim Diamond’s (White Stripes/ Detroit Cobras/ The Go) on Electric Sweat?
SAMMY: The sweeping difference was Tim is very hands-on with the material, suggesting arrangements and vocal parts. He’s spiritual and motivational. There’s no stopping Tim. He’s gonna tell you what he thinks whether you want to hear it or not and will kick your ass. Jim was very hands-off. At first, we thought he didn’t like us. But it’s his style. I loved working with both.
GRAHAM: We learned from Tim to document a good time, which is what a lot of great records do – not taking it too serious.
On “It’s Showtime Part II,” Sammy’s organ groove adds a Mitch Ryder & the Detroit Wheels groove.
SAMMY: Everyone mentions the Detroit sound, but forget about Mitch Ryder. But again, the same way we try to sound like the MC5 less than we try to sound like James Brown, we sound similar because the MC5 was also trying to sound like James Brown. We don’t sit down and try to sound like Mitch Ryder, but like Mitch, we try to sound like Booker T. & the MG’s, Ike & Tina Turner, and older R & B. That track was our Stax fantasy. It was just a joke. We were in tears thinking how ridiculous we could make it. The organ sound I get for that song is my favorite sound on any Mooney Suzuki record.
Staying with the Detroit theme, “Natural Fact” has a fuzz-toned Amboy Dukes assertion. Are you a fan of the Nuge?
SAMMY: We used to play “Baby Please Don’t Go” and get Amboy Duke and Ten Years After references. I’m not a fan of Ted Nugent, but “Natural Fact” is more Arthur Lee (of Love fame) inspired.
I take it you think rock and roll is less revolutionary, in the sense of visiting new, uncharted, avant-garde territory, than evolutionary, building upon the blueprint that already exists.
SAMMY: Hendrix is mentioned as revolutionary, but I see him as an example of why the idea of revolutionary music is ridiculous because something completely avant-garde as criteria is empty at the end. Hendrix created things we’d never heard before. Yet in his mind, he was a Blues traditionalist. He was derivative, but his personality, spirit, and distinct energy came through what he did. That’s what affects people. It’s communicative.
You’ve both been arrogant claiming Mooney Suzuki as New York’s finest live band. Is there any competition?
SAMMY: I would say no.
How about in the studio? Do the Strokes do anything for you?
SAMMY: Sure. I like their songs. People put us in the same category because we wear the same jackets and are from New York. There’s no musical similarities. It’s not invalid to group bands together based on style, but musically we don’t sound like the Cure, the Smiths, U2, or Pulp. Why would people think we sound similar to the Strokes? The distinction is the only time there’s a blue note in a Strokes song is eight bars of a guitar lead. Our music is based on the Blues. Based on that, how could there be a common thread.
GRAHAM: I wouldn’t even say in approach or attitude.
I agree. Their roots are in New York City ’79 circa Television and Richard Hell and yours are closer to Detroit ’69. I’m curious what it was like to play alongside re-grouped ’60s bands such as the Pretty Things and the Zombies.
GRAHAM: It’s surreal to play with the Zombies after you listen to their records a million times. It’s great to see bands like that come back with the sound you originally loved. It makes you happy. But there are some that should stay in retirement.
SAMMY: The Zombies aren’t one. Colin Blunstone’s voice came to life. It was unreal.
Did they have organist Rod Argent in tow?
Unreal. Did you learn anything from those legendary bands?
SAMMY: When we’re fifty and do our reunion tour, I’m not going to play a headless Steinberger or put an aqua sock on my guitar. I’m not gonna wear a doo-rag and fanny pack.
What’s an aqua sock?
SAMMY: A neo-preen wet suit custom fit for a lucite Stratocaster you don’t want to scratch.
GRAHAM: It’s like a guitar diaper.
SAMMY: A lot of these older bands come back, hire these hot session guns, and then guys show up with wireless rigs and guitar diapers and it kills the original vibe.
Graham, do you get lots of teenage girls who want to fuck your brains out when they see you gyrate and dry-hump your guitar in a sexually suggestive manner on-stage?
GRAHAM: (speechless, cracking up)
SAMMY: You bring up a good point. There are. They seem to love it.
What are your favorite New York venues?
SAMMY: The Bowery Ballroom is a great room to play and has a professional staff.
GRAHAM: Maxwells in Hoboken is my favorite place to go. I love Todd (the promoter/ booker), the sound people, the bar, and the food. I grew up going to shows there wishing I could play there. The first time Todd put out CD in the jukebox, it was a lifetime dream come true. It’s the coolest New York vicinity venue.