The small bar at the corner of Penn Avenue and Linden Street in downtown Scranton is often this noisy, with bands playing well into the night, but tonight, The Keys has no patrons – just four guys playing their hearts out to an empty room, practicing for one of their biggest shows to date.
It’s a Sunday evening, and the members of A Social State are still reeling from the loss of another venue they used to perform at just one block over, The Vintage, which closed last night for the last time after almost six years of support of the local music and arts scene.
The band didn’t just have its first show at the venue’s previous location, two blocks down on Penn Avenue – it was born in the basement of the Phoenix Cuts right next door, also a distant memory now.
Singer/guitarist Ed Cuozzo’s band, Melded, had called it quits. Livingston, which featured bassists Jon Fletcher and Bill Trently and guitarist CJ Williams, was done, as was Losing Caufield, whose drummer, Nick Ogonosky, would join them to jam in the salon’s basement in late 2008.
“We had our celebration when we moved out (of Phoenix Cuts). I think we must have smashed at least 150 Livingston CDs in that basement because we had a full box of them,” Williams recalled. “I still have a full box at the house, so it wasn’t like we wasted any. It was fun.”
Those shattered pieces of bands past would eventually become A Social State as aimless basement jamming sessions took shape and formed a cohesive indie rock unit.
“I think I had the riff to this one song on our first self-titled EP; it was called ‘Faceless.’ I had this stupid little punky guitar riff, and we started jamming on it. I didn’t realize the pedigree of these guys and how good they were,” Cuozzo admitted.
“For me, it felt too precious to let go because I just had so much fun. That was the difference for me, because it came so much more fuckin’ easy than Melded for me. Everything was like a chore to get one part. It would take an hour, whereas I could just say, ‘Could we do it like this?’ and we’d do it like that in a flash.”
“I went to Chicago for a week and I came back and you guys had ‘Faceless,’ and I think ‘Cigarettes’ was done, and I was like, ‘Fuckers! You start a band when I’m not even around!’” Williams said, admonishing his bandmates. “But I weaseled my way in.”
“Did we even really talk about what kind of band we wanted?” Ogonosky questioned.
“I think we were just screwing around with jammy shit and then you had that riff. ‘OK, this is how we’re going to sound.’”
Trently wouldn’t stay long, but the guitarist did leave them with the group’s name, which came from mixing random words together until they simply settled on it. The remaining four members were “babushkas in the wind” soon after that; judging by their chemistry as they sat down with NEPA Scene for an exclusive interview, that must mean they became the best of friends, forming one of the most respected unsigned acts in Scranton.
‘Heaven’ can wait
Establishing themselves with the “straight up rock ‘n’ roll” of their self-titled EP, their sound progressed with their full-length debut “Everyone’s Your Friend,” slowing down and peeling back layers that would reveal the polished collection of songs on “How to Get to Heaven,” an album two years in the making that will be released tomorrow at a show at TwentyFiveEight Studios (703 N. Washington Ave., Rear, Scranton).
“To my ear, it just sounds like we took the experimentation side of ‘Everyone’s Your Friend,’ that dense, dreamy, more droney, shoegazing kind of sounding songs, and we took the aggressiveness of the first record and found a happy medium in between, but with way more focus on arrangement and songwriting,” Cuozzo said of the new record.
“I think it’s like we married the two sounds of the two records together.”
“I feel like we don’t even have a sound yet,” Ogonosky, who also created the album’s cover art, added.
“I feel like every album we’re going to be changing. I think the point of this band is experimenting and trying different things.”
“You’re pigeonholing yourself right from the start if you’re saying, ‘Well no, we can’t do that. We can’t write a song that has a country vibe.’ Why the fuck not? When it comes down to it, I think it’s fear that stops a lot of great artists from becoming greater artists,” Cuozzo continued.
“I’m not saying that we’re great or anything like that – I’m just saying as far as pushing the boundaries artistically or from just looking at it as a craftsman, songwriting or being a musician. I think you just don’t want to have any fear going in. There shouldn’t be any fucking gate or any sort of boundaries. You should be able to take it everywhere but then be smart about it and arrange and go for what the song calls for. That’s, I think, the biggest thing that we’ve all been good at doing, just doing what every song seems to call for.”
Even Steve Haigler knew to trust the young group (Cuozzo is 27, the rest are 26) as they honed their sound. Impressed by the live-to-tape recordings on A Social State’s ReverbNation page, the producer for bands like Fuel, Pixies, and Brand New reached out and complimented their work, which prompted them to record the album at his Vudu Studios in Port Jefferson, New York.
“He could say, ‘You see the fuckin’ hallway of gold records and shit? Listen to me,’ but he had trust in us. If we thought something was going to be good, he would let us have it with a little bit of work,” Williams pointed out.
“That was what was great about him. He knew what he was doing 10-fold.”
Not that this made things any easier. With Ogonosky away at school in Savannah, Georgia, it meant that most of the preparation leading up to the studio time was done online.
“We were flying blind going in because we had zero rehearsal for any of the record,” Cuozzo emphasized, still dumbfounded.
“It was totally insane when you think about it because that’s not the way people make records. A band gets in a room, they rehearse for six months or a year, they go to the studio, they know what they’re going to do, and they make a record. Or they go into a studio where they have all the money and all the time in the world because they’re set up in that perfect bubble situation.
“All Nick had to go on were really awful, awful recordings on a laptop. I don’t mean with a nice condenser mic through Pro Tools – I mean that shitty little mic in every laptop, so everything just sounded distorted and I would just pray to God that he understood what I was doing. We’re lucky enough to where I think the four of us have a really solid chemistry.”
“The way it was written was pretty much just an experiment. If we didn’t have Nick, it wouldn’t have turned out good. If the four of us couldn’t sit in a room and write it together, then it was through e-mail and me taking the CD home and sitting on my bed writing guitar parts and shit. The way this album was written was totally different than anything we had to do before,” Williams said.
“Once we got into a room together at Vudu at the studio, it was terrifying, but we went through one day of practice really. Pre-production was about eight hours long and we put down everything that we had into it, and Nick had his parts down perfect. We had to figure out – at least I did – what parts would translate best with drums.”
“I do appreciate the people that played with us (in the interim), but we couldn’t play new songs with them because we needed Nick. No one else can really do it,” Fletcher added.
“There are 30 other drummers in this area that are technically better than me,” Ogonosky noted.
“But none of them are songwriter drummers, though,” Williams clarified.
“I think it just goes back to being on the same page. For how many years before I went to school, we formed such a tight bond musically,” Ogonosky continued.
“You need everyone to speak the same language,” Cuozzo agreed.
Thankfully, A Fire With Friends and Esta Coda’s Dan Rosler is also fluent in this language, helping his longtime friend come up with the name of the album, taken from its final track.
“I just had this song where I kept saying at the end of every verse, ‘No sinners go to heaven,’ or something ‘heaven’ – every time it kept ending ‘heaven,’ and I couldn’t think of a name for it at all. Me and Dan used to have what we called – it’s really lame – ‘kitchen sessions.’ While we were working on songs, he would come over and show me his songs and I’d show him mine and we’d try to help each other out with stuff or just critique it,” Cuozzo explained.
“I was like, ‘I don’t know what the fuck to call this song.’ I kept referencing other lyrics in the song, maybe that and maybe that, and Dan just said, ‘Why don’t you just call it ‘How to Get to Heaven?’’ He just said it. If it wasn’t for Dan, we wouldn’t have the title.
“I had that track name before we had all the songs to the record, so I think, maybe subconsciously, thinking about that name inspired a lot more of the lyrics, the conceptual lyrical direction of the songs. They all talk about getting older and nostalgia. What do you do when everything you’ve worked for doesn’t work out? Or you’re right there and you’re just staring at it? That’s kind of where all those lyrics go to.”
That somber sentiment is certainly reflected in the album’s first single, “Aging Egomaniac.’ Though it’s one of the record’s most sonically accessible tracks, it’s also one that was very close to being left out completely.
“I thought it was just a throwaway. I thought it was kinda shitty. I was really reluctant to show it to those guys. I remember I showed it to them and they were fuckin’ fighting for it the whole way. I thought it was going to be terrible, I thought it was going to be cheesy, and then we got to recording it and I remember hearing it back for the first time and getting teary-eyed,” Cuozzo acknowledged.
“I remember a good feeling of vindication,” Williams said. “We hit the playback and we had it on real loud and all three of us, and most importantly Ed, who didn’t know if he liked it or not, all of us were just like, ‘Well, fuck, that sounds great.’ It’s not even because of us – it’s just the way it was recorded; it came out so freakin’ great.”
When asked to explain its lyrical inspiration, Cuozzo responds, but it’s not an easy answer.
“It has a lot to do with the way young local musicians look up to the older groups, maybe the way I was with, say, Okay Paddy or Felix Sarco, and the way the younger generation is with A Fire With Friends or A Social State or Esta Coda or whoever. There’s this thing that happens at shows where somebody will come up and say, ‘I know you’re going to make it. I believe in what you do so hard. You’re going to really do something.’ There’s like this weight put on,” he began.
“It’s so kind that they would say it, but they look at you so earnestly, like they mean it so much, and really I’m sitting at home just like a dork. You know what I mean? Like I’m nothing. It’s really, really hard to explain, but every year that passes and people say those same kind of things, as sincere as they feel, it just kind of makes me feel bad. I can’t put it any other way.
“It makes me feel really good that they would say something nice, but I just feel like…” he trails off, trying to find the words. “I feel like in front of everybody, sometimes you try to be somebody else for them, if that makes any sense. Like you put on a public persona, you act the part in front of people sometimes. For them, you want to be the cool guy, you want to be the life of the party and you want to seem interesting and you realize when you get home, when you’re eating pizza and watching Netflix at 2 in the morning, ‘Fuck, man, these poor kids.’”
It’s a weight that is easier to carry when they play packed shows at venues like The Batcave in Montclair, New Jersey, a house with a makeshift stage right on the floor that further inspires A Social State to bring that positive raw energy right back home.
“I hope maybe we can bring some of that mentality back to Scranton, that we can really do this as a community. We can have a show in a basement – you’ve just got to have the balls to do it and fuckin’ just do it. Enough talking about doing things. I think anything is possible,” Cuozzo enthused.
“I think local bands and local artists of all types, of all facets of art, need to realize it’s not a competition, that we’re all part of the same team. We all have to get over the mountain together. If one does it, great, then pull your buddy up, too.”
Tomorrow’s concert, which will have an after-party back here at The Keys, includes openers Blinded Passenger, Eww Yaboo, and A Fire With Friends. Along with Silhouette Lies, Down to Six, and Those Clever Foxes, A Social State remains close to the bands that called The Vintage their second home during their formative years. Now they feel it’s time to take what they learned there to the next level, forming a scene that’s willing to build something better over tearing each other down.
“We kind of have this thing between those bands. … I don’t know if we’ve necessarily had anything to do with that, but I think a lot of that you could really, honest to God, put on The Vintage, before their last hurrah last night. I think that those guys are really the pioneers of giving all these bands a place to start, a place grow, and where to learn these ideals to work as a team,” Cuozzo credited.
“I think that we’re definitely carrying those ideals out, because how else do you get ahead when you’re in this little town? You can’t do it alone.”
Because, for him, making music is “more of a need to me than a want.”
“I know that’s going to sound like super cliché and lead singer-ish to say, but it is. I feel like it’s always been super therapeutic to me at times, especially as you get older and you see the thing that you want to do with your life, not slipping away, but time slipping away. You see this thing that you want and it’s fuckin’ right there and you know you can either fuckin’ grab it or you’re going to miss and faceplant completely,” he described.
“After I write something super depressing or super angry, I just feel like a weight is lifted. I guess that’s what keeps me doing it so that I don’t piss my pants and run around the city or something fuckin’ nutty.”
His bandmates are quick to add that he does that anyway, never missing an opportunity to bust balls – they’re as much fun to watch offstage as they are onstage.
“That’s the main thing about this band,” Ogonosky observed.
“We have fun and we’re a bunch of idiots, so it still feels like you’re making music with your friends even though we’re doing something, I would hope, a little more substantial.”
by Rich Howells
Rich is an award-winning journalist, longtime blogger, adequate photographer, podcast co-host, and practicing poet. He is the founder and editor of NEPA Scene.