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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.