Jersey Beat Music Fanzine

by James Damion

Al Crisafulli has been a vital cog in New Jersey's music scene for longer than almost anyone can remember - and now he's gone. No, not that way... Al and his family have left the Garden State and moved to Kingston, NY. Of course, he'll still be doing what he's always done, fostering great indie music, whether with his label Dromedary Records or his radio show "Signal To Noise," which can be heard on Sunday nights from 10 p.m. to 2 a.m. on WFDU. James Damion caught up with Al to talk about the past, the present, and the future.

Q: By the time this interview is posted, you’ll have officially become a resident of New York State. What inspired the move and what drew you to living in Kingston?

My family and I have been living out in the rural part of northwestern New Jersey for the past 15 years, and in that time, we’ve come to enjoy outdoor activities like cycling, running, hiking, and skiing. At the same time, we are really far away from any of the music we enjoy. If I want to go to a show, I’m not getting home before 3 am because everything is so far away. This makes it nearly impossible for me to discover new music by seeing bands I’ve never heard of – if I’m going to drive two or three hours to see a show, it’s because my friends are in the band or because the bill is too good to pass up. Anything short of that becomes really difficult to justify the late night and long drive. I can’t just show up to see a band I’ve never heard of, and expect to function at work the next day – and the older I get, the harder it is.

A few years ago we began looking for a place where the outdoor activities we enjoyed were closer to the music and culture we love so much. Eventually we started focusing on the Hudson Valley, and from there, Kingston. Kingston is a pretty cool town with a ton of history and a growing arts and music scene, right in the midst of beautiful, rural New York.

Q: Had you lived in New Jersey your entire life?

Aside from four years of college and a brief time as a kid after my father left, yes.

As rewarding as moving out west has been for my wife and me. We’ve created and kept an ongoing list of the things I miss and look forward to experiencing once I return east. What do you think you’ll miss most about New Jersey?

We’ve been a part of the independent music scene in New Jersey for more than 25 years. I love that I can go do a show alone, and chances are still good that there’ll be someone there that I know. I’ve always found it warm and welcoming, and have made a ton of what I hope will be lifelong friendships. I also love that it’s pretty easy for me to put shows together here when I get one of my crazy ideas or causes or whatever, in terms of finding willing bands and venues. I’m really going to miss that. The friendships will always be here, but I’ll miss the proximity of it. I’ll miss being able to regularly reinforce those bonds.

Also, the pizza.

Q: Let’s dive right in. Upon hearing about your releasing Positive No’s new single. Having known you for ten or so years and Tracy for more than twenty, I couldn’t hope for a better pairing. Can you tell us how you came together to do this?

You were actually the person who introduced me to Dahlia Seed’s music, when you were on my radio show. A year or so later, Joe Castrianni introduced me to Positive No’s music. I finally met Tracy and Kenny online after playing their music on the radio, and they were cool enough to come up from Richmond to play a fundraiser show I’d put together for WFDU. When we started doing these lathe-cut records we’ve been putting out, Tracy and Kenny reached out about possibly working together, and the pairing was pretty perfect. We’re pretty aligned, philosophically, in that we want to make something special and beautiful, specifically for the people who want it most. We produced a very limited run of handmade singles, and they sold out in two days. It was all a ton of fun.

Q: I first learned about Dromedary Records from the guys in the band Stuyvesant. Could you give me and the readers a background on the label and what led you to forming it?

Dromedary started in late 1992, mostly because I wanted a job in the record business and discovered that most of the record labels I’d want to work for couldn’t afford to hire an employee. Eventually I decided to just start a label myself, and along with my wife Sandy and my best friend Rich, that’s what we did. We put out a bunch of noisy pop records in the 90s, and then went on a really long hiatus when Rich got sick and passed away. We put out a few great songs that got some national attention, which was fun, but nowhere near as much fun as it’s been since we revived the label in 2010 or so. Now, we put out small-scale projects from people who don’t want to be rock stars, whenever the mood strikes us. The whole point of it now is to have fun, do things with our friends, and make records by people that we find interesting.

Q: A few years back you started Sugarblast Records. I was initially confused by the move. Was it an extension of Dromedary or something altogether new?

Initially there were a couple of business reasons behind it that aren’t really important anymore. I also really like the word “Sugarblast,” as I think it’s a pretty good description of a lot of our music. Ultimately, though, Sugarblast has probably seen its last release, as I’m just going to fold it back into Dromedary. One unprofitable business is enough.

Q: Is there a Dromedary release that you’re particularly proud or fond of? One you regularly reference in conversation? If so, why?

There’s not just one, but there are a couple. I reference the Mommyheads’ Flying Suit a lot, because that’s probably the highest-profile record we’ve ever done. I’ve seen it referred to in more than one place as one of the best indie rock records of the 90s. I probably reference Guy Capecelatro III’s North For The Winter a lot because the record is beautiful and moving, and the songs are masterful. I reference Shine, by Speed the Plough, because of how much that band’s members have meant to independent music in New Jersey – if it wasn’t for the people in Speed the Plough and their friends, this musical climate we have here probably wouldn’t exist. I have an immense amount of love and respect for them as a result. And I reference anything Ralph Malanga has ever done, either with Stuyvesant or Footstone, because he’s my favorite songwriter and one of my dearest friends.

But really, I’ve been fortunate to work with a lot of great artists.

Al and friends at his Camelfest benefit, photo by James Damion

Q: How did you acquire your love for Pop music? Now, are we talking the mainstream Top Forty of indie pop?

When I was a young kid, my across-the-street neighbor had an older brother who listened to what we called “commercial rock” – guitar-heavy pop stuff, like Cheap Trick, The Cars, The Knack, that sort of thing. He was forever taping songs off the radio and then playing them for me. I loved the feeling of having him play me a new band that I’d never heard before. So, I started doing the same thing – taping songs off the radio, and playing them for him – except he listened to the same radio stations as I did, so he’d already heard all the songs.

To try and find songs he’d never heard before, I tried finding radio stations he didn’t listen to – this led me to college radio. That’s where I started discovering bands like The Ramones, The Clash, Elvis Costello, and Devo – and I’d tape those songs and bring them to him. The feeling of playing him something he’d never heard before, and having him really dig it, was the best feeling in the world to me, and so I started doing it to other people – bringing my boom box to school, and playing music for people that I’d taped off the radio.

Eventually, though, MTV debuted, and mainstream music started getting weirder and weirder – so in order to find music nobody had ever heard before, I had to dig deeper and deeper. Because of this, the music I listened to just kept getting edgier and more harsh – but as I kept digging deeper and finding more abrasive and weird music, my favorite stuff always had the pop flavor of those “commercial rock” songs the kid across the street would turn me on to in the early 80s. I’ve always wanted to be that guy who turns other people on to great songs, because I can’t think of anything nicer that you can do for a person. That’s why I put out records, and that’s why I have a radio show.

Q: I think we first became friends through your fundraisers for the Roots & Wings Foundation. (I clearly remember attending the first ones a day or two after a hospital stay with staples in my stomach. Every movement, an exercise in pain.) Can you tell me how you became aware of the organization and why you became so passionate about it?

In New Jersey, if you’re in the foster care system and you turn 18, that’s it – you’re on your own. Roots & Wings helps some of those people with life skills training, a safe space to live, job training, and healthcare. I got a marketing piece in the mail that had a lot of quotes from kids who were aging out of the system, and one basically said “I got home from work and realized I had no food for dinner, so I got on a bus to the bank to get some money, and then I got on another bus to go to the grocery store, and by the time I got home it was 9:00 and I still hadn’t eaten. Is this what life is like?” So many of these kids wind up homeless, or incarcerated – but with a little attention, it’s a segment of the population that we can take care of. It’s a problem we can fix. Why not fix it?

Lately I’ve been focused on a couple of other causes, but it’s good to know that the good people at Roots & Wings are still there, trying to reduce the number of kids who are getting thrown into the world with no guidance. They’re doing important, important work.

Q: As lovers and supporters of independent music. We all know the importance of college radio. Growing up in Queens we had WNYU and to an extent, WLIR. Can you tell us how you became involved with WFDU and how you became the host / co-host of “Signal to Noise”? (By the way, I am still humbled by your asking me to be on your show. I’m also sorry for saying “Fuck”.)

WFDU was one of those stations that I used to listen to, to try and discover new rock music. There are so many bands I heard for the first time on WFDU. I was super flattered when Shaun McGann (a WFDU DJ) invited me on his show to talk about Dromedary. After that, I went back a couple times with Dromedary bands, and eventually Shaun and I got to talking about the possibility of my doing an airshift there. It was pretty much the same thing as if the Yankees asked me if I’d be interested in playing shortstop. I couldn’t have been more excited.

As for the “fuck,” every radio show needs an occasional “fuck” to keep everybody on their toes. This is punk rock.

Q: What advice might you have for all of us kids out there who’ve wanted to start our own indie record label?

Steer clear of people who want to be rock stars. That never ends well. Make something beautiful and put it out there, be true to yourself and do it because you love it and its fun. And don’t fuck anybody over.

Also, don’t ever take advice on how to run a record label from me. I suck at it.

Q: What’s next for Dromedary Records? Do you imagine the thriving music scene in upstate New York influencing any future releases?

Musically, there are a lot of great things happening in and around Kingston, and we’re really hoping to be able to contribute to the scene there in some way. At the very least, we’ll go to shows up there, and hopefully eventually put on a few of our own, and give our friends a place to crash when they come up to play.

That being said, we release music by bands from all over – we’ve worked with bands from Scotland, Argentina, Italy, even Brooklyn. If we love a band, if we get along well, and most importantly if we can actually be helpful to a band and meet their expectations, then we’re happy to talk about working with them. But we’ll always work with good bands from New Jersey.

Q: Before I let you go. I’d be remiss not asking about D. Smith. I’ve always been enamored with him both as an artist and as an individual. While “Groping for Luna” still give me goose bumps. His cover of “Flip Your Wig” by Husker Du (One of my personal favorite bands.) left me with a giant lump in my throat. How did you originally come to know and work with him and are there any planned releases of his work in the near future?

Musically, Dan is as close to “genius” as anyone I’ve ever met. Once I asked him to cover Liz Phair’s “Fuck and Run” for our 25th Anniversary compilation, and he had a fully-formed, blistering cover recorded and mastered in less than a day. His body of work is amazing – not just his solo stuff, but also his work with The 65’s and with Shirk Circus. I’m pretty sure I met him through The 65’s, when Dromedary put out their first album. We got to know each other better when Josh Silverman of Shirk Circus passed away in 2011 and we worked together on releasing their final recordings. It was during that process that I learned about the solo stuff he’d done over the years. One day he just sent me a huge batch of recordings, and I spent a few days with it, picking and choosing the tracks that would become Groping For Luna, Vol. 1. He didn’t send them to me for me to release; he just wanted me to hear them. I started sorting through these volumes of amazing songs, and finally asked “If I came up with a sequence for an album, would you be down with putting it out on Dromedary?” I’ll never forget trying to choose the ones that worked best together, messing around with sequences and trying to figure out which of these excellent songs not to put out.

We’re still great friends and text each other frequently. I would not rule out the possibility of working with him again, but there’s nothing planned in the immediate future. Given how quickly he came up with that Liz Phair cover, though, that could change in an instant.

Check out Dromedary Records here...

Check out Signal To Noise on WFDU here...


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