A Conversation with Jim Mastro. . .
Every article I do, I ask myself who to write about that genuinely interests me as an artist?
For this installment of ‘Dawson’s Pick’ I am so thrilled to bring you a man I consider myself not only a fan of, but also a friend. I’ve been aware of Jim Mastro’s musical journey since I worked at a rock club back in the 80’s, where he played with The Bongos. I’ve had the pleasure of having Jim as a business neighbor in Hoboken for many years and I’ve seen him wow the crowd playing with Ian Hunter. But even I didn’t know everything I’ve learned by interviewing this grounded, talented guitar slinger.
I am so happy to bring you today’s spotlighted pick – James Mastro.
James is releasing a new single and gorgeous video called ‘My God’ this week ( see below!!). Read all about it here!
You have been in the music business most of your life. What were your own influences growing up that sparked the fire within?
The Monkees started it all for me. I used to make the kids on the block call me Mickey. My older brother John took up drums soon after, and even though I wanted to play drums, too, we needed a guitar player for the band we wanted to have, so that’s how I got started. We bought records every Sunday after church at Two Guys, based on what we read in Creem and Circus magazines. Mott the Hoople was the band that got me through junior high.
Then my brother came home from a trip to CBGB’s raving about this new band Talking Heads he’d just seen. This led us to discovering a whole bunch of new bands, Televison becoming my favorite. Our teenage band Fast Car was soon playing CB’s and Max’s Kansas City, and meeting and playing with some of our idols. Soon after, I was asked to join Richard Lloyd’s new band. At age 17, I suddenly found myself in a band with half of Television – Richard and Fred Smith.
I was working in a club in New Brunswick, NJ when The Bongos played there back in the 80’s. Such a significant band and ultimately a history changer for Hoboken. Tell us about how The Bongos came to be and their significance to the Hoboken ( and NY/NJ) music scene?
The Bongos had started as a trio in 1980, and I joined full-time a year or so later. I actually knew them all separately before they met each other. I was still playing with Richard Lloyd, but would sit in with them for various gigs. Maxwell’s was the cornerstone of the Hoboken scene. The Bongos were the first band to play the back room, and it just went from there. Owner Steve Fallon made every night a party, treated every band to a meal and actually paid you, and had great taste in booking bands to play. It became a matter of pride saying we were a band from Hoboken, instead of NYC.
At some point The Bongos release ‘Drums Along The Hudson’, an incredible work of art as far as I’m concerned (and clearly many others.) How did life change for you after that album? Not just personally but as an artist?
I agree “Drums Along the Hudson” is a true work of great music and can say so without patting myself on the back. Even though I’m in the photo on the back of the record and was occasionally playing live with them, I didn’t play on the record, and didn’t become an official member until after its release. But dates started coming in, and I found myself crossing the country for the next five years with my three best friends. To have your sole job be to play guitar and write songs for 5 solid years was a blessing that helped hone my skills.
Many people do not know we are business neighbors in Hoboken. You own a fantastic guitar shop called Guitar Bar just across the street from our pub on First St. I’ve loved bringing my visiting friends in to watch them drool over your guitars! Peppy Castro sang a little ditty in there and of course, our mutual friend Arno Hecht came by to say hello. How wonderful, as a musician, is it to have a business where you can tour when you want, live what you love and even have access to incredible instruments?!
I’ve always been a guitar and gear collector, so this shop was opened for purely selfish reasons – I’m my best customer! Having this shop has exposed me to so many great musicians and music. And it’s always a thrill when you see the same fire you felt as a kid about music being sparked in a young student.
You play guitar for Ian Hunter and Garland Jeffreys. Who else have you played with that many people might not realize? What were some of your favorite shows and why?
I’ve been pretty fortunate to play with many of the people that inspired me to play in the first place. Every show with Ian Hunter – and Mott the Hoople – has always been memorable and a lesson in how a rock show should be done. Playing with John Cale were some of the most intense stage experiences I’ve ever had. You had to watch him like a hawk and respond quickly, because he would change an arrangement on the spot. A true genius who taught me that nothing is sacred except the moment you’re in.
I’ve also toured with Patti Smith, who is a true force of nature. She generates so much energy onstage and in the audience, that as a band member, you just ride the wave that she creates. And playing with Robert Plant was as surreal as it gets. This was at the Beacon Theater for an Arthur Lee (of Love) benefit. I’ve never felt such power from someone over an audience as soon as he walked onstage. A true master, music fan, and great guy.
Obviously the music business has changed over the years. Mostly for those in the rock and roll genre. Are you hopeful for the future of the music scene you are involved in? Do you see anything hopeful trending? Particularly as an indie artist or band?
Anyone who says there’s no good music isn’t paying close attention. Obviously, the club scene isn’t what it used to be, but the DIY has shifted to the online hustle and house shows. My daughter’s band Long Neck has successfully toured the country playing mostly house concerts. Though the days of up-front big money record company advances are a thing of the past, it’s much easier to self-release and get your songs out there on a global level.
Your new video is absolutely stunning, both sonically and visually. Please tell us some background – what influenced you to make it and film it the way it was- and the details of who played on it, directed it, etc.
Well, thank you. The song was produced by my longtime friend Tony Shanahan at his Hobo Sound studio. We’ve worked together since the ’90’s in the Health & Happiness Show, which he later left to join Patti Smith. We have similar musical tastes and reference points, so I trusted him completely to add things that the song needed. It’s just me on vocals and guitars, Tony on bass, keyboards, and backing vocals, and the late, great Louie Appel on drums.
As far as the video, I just wanted to keep it as simple and open as possible. “My God,” may not be yours, so I didn’t want to dictate an image or story that would set it in stone. The story is in the beautiful faces that appear in the video. These are all my neighbors on our block in Hoboken; an incredibly diverse bunch in a small area that all work together and get along. Everyone I asked agreed immediately, and seemed to understand the concept of the song. I shot this in the back room at Guitar Bar. My good friend Bob Perry (of Winter Hours), did the great video editing, and there you have it – an iPhone video!
Tony and I go back many years! AND we both have a dog named Bowie. Did you steal that name from my dog?!! Lol – my daughter named her dog Iggy. People always say if you recall when John F. Kennedy died than you will never forget where you were and how you heard about it. I feel that way about David Bowie. What was losing him like for you as a musician? Was he a huge influence?
Hah! Our dog came with his name already attached. How could I change it, especially since he’s a music-store dog? As far as David Bowie, his passing really was a punch in the gut, because it was so unexpected, and still was creating vital music. He was and continues to be a huge influence. When I’m working in the studio, I often ask myself, “What would Bowie do here?” Having his songs as reference points has led me to some interesting musical places.
Tell us about your new record and label. You are releasing this on Jesse Malin’s label, yes?
I do have an album completed, but for now the single “My God” is the only scheduled release. I’ve known Jesse for thirty years, and to me he’s kept the punk rock/Lower East Side music spirit alive. Velvet Elk is his and Don DiLego’s label, and even as talented musicians themselves, they go out of their way to support others. I’d sent Jesse the track, and he just said yes right away, let’s do this.
Hoboken is a unique place. You have been a huge support and help for music events I’ve put together there. I clearly recall the last one when you provided the backline for us and we were wheeling it from your car to my pub. I looked down and everything was stamped with Ian Hunter Band. I admit I got a few goosebumps thinking I’d be playing on that equipment! I am going on record to say you are one of the most ego free, kindest, genuine people I’ve ever encountered in this business. How do you keep your wits about you-and what grounds you?
Well, for one thing, having kids is gonna turn your head around. I was a touring musician who had two small daughters I had to think about. You can come home from a great gig or tour, but changing a diaper at 3am is a great equalizer. Suddenly it’s not all about you, you have these little creatures that need you to survive, so you better be grounded. And having the Guitar Bar puts me in touch with so many people everyday – all with different needs, ideas, talents – that you just learn to listen and react accordingly.
You play with Mark Bosch – another mutual friend. Mark has sat in with us for a few special bday shows of mine. When I’ve seen you play together it seems flawless. Do you find that sometimes it’s pure magic onstage with people you have played with for a long time?
Absolutely. Mark and I have played together with Ian for over 15 years. We instinctively know – most of the time – what the other is going to do. If he goes high, I go low, etc. We’re not thinking about it, we’re just responding to what we hear, and fortunately, it seems to mesh well.
What are future projects you are working on now that excite you – obviously in a post Covid world? Are any tours booked yet?
I’ve been doing a lot of producing and session work during COVID, so I’ve been fortunate to keep the guitar strings from rusting. I’m finishing up producing an album for Greg Amici, another New Brunswick native. Ian Hunter has been writing for a new album, so we’ll be starting preproduction on that in the next couple weeks. My first post-vaccine show will be with the Karyn Kuhl Band on May 15 at Church Square Park, and The Bongos have some shows scheduled in September.
Jim, thank you for your time talking with me. I think you are an example of all I admire in a professional musician. In parting, I’d like to point out that you do a lot of charitable events and pay it forward often. Some of these events you’ve hosted at my pub. You’re very quiet about these things but I want people to know all about you. Please leave us with information as to how to purchase?
Thanks, Cyndi! “My God” is available on Bandcamp, iTunes, and all the other streaming services.