Jersey Beat Music Fanzine
Photo by Melanie Wesslock


The Great American Novel turns the page

by Jim Testa

The Great American Novel plays edgy New York City power-pop with clever, witty lyrics and seamless musicianship; tuneful, danceable, consistently entertaining, frequently drunk, and barely out of their teens, the group also proved to be my introduction to the Mama Coco’s Funky Kitchen collective when I met them about a year ago, and I’ve since become an enormous fan (as well as good friends) with its members.

Hopefully, if you’ve been reading, you know about Mama Coco’s, the DIY Brooklyn studio run by Oliver Ignatius that’s been attracting an eclectic array of talent whose music ranges from math-rock to power-pop to jam-band gospel to retro-party-funk. We’ve already interviewed studio wizard, bandleader, fill-in musician, songwriter, and Mama Coco’s owner Oliver Ignatius (who leads the collective as a combination Berry Gordy, Paul Schafer, and Obi-Wan Kenobi,) as well as the high-energy party band the Harmonica Lewinskies.

Now it’s time to meet the Great American Novel, fronted by the gangly, charismatic singer/songwriter Layne Montgomery, along with guitarist JR Atkins, keyboardist Devin Calderin, bassist Pete Kilpin, and drummer Aidan Shepard. Earlier this year, GAN released its first full-length album, Kissing, recorded at Mama Coco's. I sat down with Layne and JR in Pete Kilpin’s Bushwick backyard to talk about the band, music, Mama Coco’s, and what lies ahead.

I started by asking Layne about attending NYC’s Professional Children’s School, where his classmates included Lourdes Ciccone Leon (Madonna’s daughter) and Nat Wolff (of the Naked Brothers Band.)

Photo by Melanie Wesslock

Q: I have this image of your high school as being sort of a cross between an episode of Glee and the movie Fame. What was going to Children’s Professional School really like?

Layne: It was more like a cross between Fame and Hogwart’s. Just kind of a magical place. It was very small, and kind of easy. And it was a really great high school experience for me. I feel like I bonded more with my teachers than with my classmates. They were mostly classical musicians who practiced scales all the time and were scared of me during dodge ball in gym class. Either that, or they were ballet dancers. My best friend is a ballet dancer.

Q: In a school like that, where pretty much everyone is some kind of nerd, do you still have the “cool kids” table at lunch?

Layne: I kind of felt outside the cool kids. Being a musician there – a rock musician, not a classical musician – made me feel that I was kind of an outcast. I had some friends who played rock, but it was still pretty cliquey, especially since for a while I didn’t drink. So I was just not invited to parties. There were all these parties in swank upper west side apartments where kids were drinking from their parents’ liquor cabinets… It was very Gossip Girl. And I was just home listening to the radio.

JR: Going to any high school in New York City has to be like some TV show.

Layne: I didn’t watch Gossip Girl because it just hit too close to home for me. I was also very awkward when I first got here. For a while, I could only talk about Las Vegas.

Q: What was it like growing up in Las Vegas, the son of a stand up comic? That must have been a little weird.

Layne: What it came down to was a fairly normal suburban upbringing. Just my dad stayed at home and my mom went to work at night, instead of during the day like other kids. Sometimes I’d get to meet the women in these topless shows. They’d dance with their boobies out and since nobody wanted to stand around with a hard-on for 45 minutes, my mom would come out and tell jokes in between the dancing. And my dad and I would go pick her up at work, and at 8 years old I was meeting these incredibly gorgeous women. I guess that was the one weird thing I had growing up.

Q: JR, what was your high school experience like?

JR: I went to high school in a Philadelphia suburb. I was drinking pretty early, I was not not-invited to parties. It was pretty crazy. My best friend was a drug dealer. There were 300 kids in my grade but I was one of the only ones who liked to read, but I still wound up associating with the bad crowd, so that was always interesting.

Q: You took lessons after school at the Paul Green School of Rock though. Was that a big influence?

JR: If I didn’t go to the School Of Rock, I can’t imagine that I wouldn’t be addicted to something by now. That’s just where all my friends went.So I am so happy that I did have School of Rock because otherwise I would have wound up there too.

Pete Kilpin: I just want to interject that if there’s an expert on Tom Petty in the band, it’s me and not Layne. Layne doesn’t know shit about Tom Petty.

Q: OK. You’re welcome to join us.

Pete: No, I just wanted to get that on the record.

Photo by Jim Testa

Q: (to JR) Like most New Yorkers, I’ve always felt that Philadelphians have a chip on their shoulder. They brag about their own culture but then they ask if you can get them a gig in New York.

JR: That is definitely not untrue. I went to School of Rock and made friends with (GAN keyboardist) Devin (Calderin), who was this really nutty kid who never really had any friends before. (laughs) I brought a lot of those kids out of their shells because I was from a very different high school background. They kind of calmed me down and I kind of fucked them up.

But Paul Green really put a chip on my shoulder. He definitely changed a lot about me. Yes, he was very demanding and he pushed me, but he was very manipulative too. He definitely gave me an attitude about living that I didn’t get from the regular program. And I really think most of my musical ability I just got from my teachers. He might have pushed me more as a performer, but overall I think he was a really negative influence.

Q: Are you saying that he made you cynical about the music industry?

JR: Yes, very much so. But anyone who knows me knows that I also have a huge ego. Paul Green would tear you down and build you up. Toward the middle of my time there, he was so proud of me and praised me, but then toward the end, he had turned on me and was so fucking mean to me, and I used to get so anxious about going to rehearsals… and then he quit. He was probably trying his best but his methods just didn't work with me. But it was also a blast. I went to Germany and Sweden at 17. It was crazy. But it was definitely an experience. I’ve had to keep myself in check after that.

Q: Okay so let’s take everything you guys have said about high school and take it to the next step. Isn’t Mama Coco’s Funky Kitchen really the Glee of the Brooklyn music scene?

JR: (laughs) It’s definitely the opposite of School of Rock.

Q: It just seems to me that this collective or movement or whatever, not just the bands but the kids who come to all the shows, identify as Gleeks and nerds. If you don’t’ fit the hipster stereotype and hang out at Death By Audio and 285 Kent, you might feel at home at a Mama Coco’s show.

Layne: I do feel that in a way.

JR: I don’t feel I’m missing anything. I don’t feel like I’m doing this as an alternative to going to Electric Zoo. I think all that stuff sucks. I think a lot of us have that attitude. Not that we couldn’t be spending more money and doing harder drugs somewhere else, but this feels like such a natural, organic environment for creativity. Knowing Dr. Skinnybones and the Lewinskies and Ghost Pal, it’s just great to be doing something with those people.

Q: Which brings us back to Great American Novel. Did the band start as basically Layne Montgomery and whomever you could get to play with you?

Layne: At first. I always wanted it to be a band. That’s why I didn’t call it Layne Montgomery. At first it was mostly me, Oliver, and (drummer) Zac (Coe) on a bunch of tracks. And a couple of other friends would help out, and we’d play shows with just a pick up lineup. I met Zac because one of my high school bands called BYS played with his high school band, Forward Forward. And I felt they were really good, and he happened to be wearing a Harlem Shakes shirt, which was my favorite band at the time, so I just complimented him on the shirt. And we stayed in touch. And then he asked me first to play on his record as The-All-About, so I was like, why not return the favor and play on some of my songs? And we became really close, but we still have this weird love/hate relationship. Zac is still my number one guy about whether a song is any good or not. JR will always have an opinion one way or the other, but if Zac likes it, I know it’s worth pursuing. The same thing with Oliver.

Devin Calderin
Photo by Jim Testa

Q: And then did Devin and JR come as a package?

JR: We arrived together, we ride together, we die together.

Layne: I just remembered with one of my pick-up bands, we had a show at Party Xpo and it was a bunch of random people I knew from high school, and Emilio from No Shoes was playing drums. And I just remember JR coming up to me afterwards and saying, “Your songs are really good but your band’s awful. Let me know when you want to get serious.” And then a few months later, he and Devin were in the band.

JR: And to this day, I feel like it’s a constant war between me and Layne about perfectionism. We’re all energy and songs and of the moment, whereas I feel like we could have spent two more months on Kissing getting everything right. One of the things that’s good about me and Devin being in this band is that it makes us realize that things don’t always have to be complicated or perfect.

Layne: That’s the fundamental difference between us. My creativity comes in bursts, and I like to just knock out a bunch of songs. And when we’re recording, I like to do it in as little time as possible and with as little fussing over it as possible. For me, the moment passes really quickly, whereas with Devin and JR, they really like working over stuff.

Q: So Zac went away to school at Colgate and you needed a drummer. How did Aidan join the band?

JR: Aidan knew me.

Layne: Not really. I met Aidan in the same class at the New School that I met (bassist) Peter (Kilpin.) And I’d always known he was a drummer, so we’d always say we’d jam sometimes. But it was definitely JR who pushed him into the band. If Zac was here, we’d get him. My friend Brent who was in Harlem Shakes, which like I said is one of my all-time favorite bands, played one show with us, which was amazing. That was also the first time we played with Peter.

JR: My friend Danny from a metal band called Fisthammer played with us once too. That was crazy.

Layne: And by this point, Peter had come along and he was one of our closest friends, so we knew we had the core of the band, and we just needed a drummer. So Aidan just came in one day and he knew all the songs and loved them. I remember that first rehearsal and Aidan was singing along to all the songs as we played, and I just thought, this is the guy. I think we played five shows in that first month so he became our drummer pretty quickly.

JR: And there were even a couple of times when Zac was here that Aidan played guitar. He’s an awesome guitarist too; he’s faster than I am, honestly. He loved death metal in high school, but he also has this side that just loves guitar pop. When we’re in the car and a Beatles song comes on the radio, he’s singing along at the top of his voice. And he’s such a talented drummer.

Q: The more I listen to Kissing, the more I think it’s really a concept album.

Layne: It is!

Q: It’s not about Tommy or mods or American idiots, it’s a concept album about being Layne Montgomery and the growth of this character you’ve created on the album. So for the next album, can you write another dozen songs about yourself, or do you have to go in a completely different direction?

Layne: That’s something I’ve really been grappling with. But you’re right, Kissing is very much a concept album. I didn’t even realize it at first. When I was writing it, it was my dad who said “these songs really go together well. They’re really in a mindset.” Some of those songs are actually very old but as they came together, it became clear to me that they were all variations on a theme.

JR: I remember “Do You Want To Hang Out?” was something you’d written back in high school, but when the rest of us heard it, we were like, “man, that song is great, that’s something we really have to record.”

Layne: And the title track “Kissing” had totally different lyrics at first. That was something I had written at 16 or 17 too. Musically it’s pretty much the same but the lyrics are completely different now. My dad was really the one who corralled me and said, “make sure these all stay on the record.” Because I had the title for a while, I knew what it was going to be. But as it developed, it became pretty clear that all those songs hung together really well.

Q: Are there any songs on Kissing you really don’t like anymore?

Layne: JR doesn’t like playing “All The Sad Young Literary Men” anymore.

JR: You know, I sort of thought I was over that song, but I did this radio interview a while back and the host played that song, and as I was listening to it, I was thinking, this is actually pretty good. There’s just something I did with the guitar part at the very end that bothers me. I would say I have a very love/hate relationship with “Raymond Carver” too.

Q: Those are two songs that I really think help give Kissing its identity though. The fact that Layne works in a book store and there are all these literary references throughout the album is really one of its main themes.

Layne: That’s really true. On the new album I have a song called “Ubik,” which is a reference to a Philip K. Dick novel.

JR: There are songs on the album that I honestly forget how much I like. Like “I Want You.” I think we should play that song more. There’s a guitar part on that one too that I still think I shouldn’t have put on it, but otherwise it’s a really good song. I was driving home to Philly last weekend and I had the new Dr. Skinnybones album on my iPod, and I was listening to it and going, “Shit, this is so good! I need to listen to Kissing right now to make myself feel better!”

Layne: I really do feel like it’s a solid record with a concept and it’s a very complete work. And I’m very proud of it.

JR: But we can definitely do better.

Layne: Oh, we can definitely do better. That was something it took me a while to realize. For a while I felt like this was the most complete and direct and heartfelt thing I could do. And then at some level, I started thinking, well, this is it. But then I realized - because I talked to Oliver about it – that I can do better. I think we’re all on the upsurge in this collective.

JR: I teach guitar every summer, and that usually gets me up to a certain level as a musician. Last summer, I got really into country, so every moment I didn’t have a lesson, I was sitting by myself practicing chicken-picking. I think a lot of that comes through on Kissing, and right now, after this summer and playing all these shows, I just feel so primed as a guitarist. I’m not tooting my own horn or anything, but I just feel so confident about my playing and Devin’s playing, and Aidan is such an awesome drummer… I feel so confident about all of us going into this next thing. And I think the whole Mama Coco’s thing is picking up some momentum. I really can’t complain about where we’re at right now. I’d like to be making some more money, but other than that, I’m really happy right now.

Q: As the new album starts to come together, do you see it having a theme or a concept too?

Layne: I’m really up in the air. So far, I as a character am really not in most of the songs at all. There’s no theme yet, and there doesn’t have to be, but I’m not ruling out that at a certain point, I won’t say, “oh, right, this is where this album is going.”

Q: I just had this conversation with Brian from the Front Bottoms. Your first album is done, people love it, what do you do for an encore? And he said that he was actually a little intimidated about trying to top himself.

Layne: It is really scary. And we haven’t even really experienced any kind of success yet. It’s not like we’re headlining Madison Square Garden. I can imagine when that happens – and it’ll happen – how I’ll feel then. That’s when we do the instrumental reggae album. (laughs) I always write a lot, that’s not the problem. It’s just a matter of making sure the quality is up to our standards. I wrote 40 or 50 songs for Kissing and I’ve written 40 or 50 songs since then. It’s just making sure it’s a consistent and strong record. If it was 12 songs and every song was about a different thing – like eating pickles, or eating pizza, which is a recurring them on this record – it’d be fine, as long as they were all good songs.

JR: I’ve really been saying that Layne is 60% of this band and the rest of us are 40%, but a big part of what that 40% entails is editing Layne and keeping him in check. He’s a great songwriter, but sometimes he’ll come to us with an idea and the rest of will just say, “well, maybe not this one.” And it’s all cool. Layne will write eight songs awesome and two songs bad.

Pete Kilpin
Photo by Jim Testa

Q: Does Layne ever bring a song to rehearsal and it’s just a complete clunker?

Layne: Oh yeah. And especially with the new songs, there’s a couple that JR doesn’t like yet, but they’re songs that I purposefully left less fleshed out in my mind because I assume the band will have a lot to add to it. And one of the things we really want to do with this next record is work on it as a band, and try to play most if not all of it live before we record it.

JR: There were a couple of instances where we’d learn a song and practice it for Kissing, and then record it the next week. With this record, we really want to play the songs live for a while and see what works before we go into the studio.
Q: I’m sorry he’s not here to do the interview with us, but Devin is such an amazing musician, I assume he’s a big asset when you’re working on new material.

Layne: He’s not only really good, but he’s so nonchalant about it. He makes it look easy.

Q: Devin almost looks like he isn’t even thinking about what he’s doing. At least JR is doing the rock face thing when you guys are playing.

JR: I’m just trying to be Bruce Springsteen.

Layne: Devin is the sage from which you know whether something’s good or not. He just sits in the corner and he either nods his head or he’ll stop and say, “this isn’t working.” But sometimes it’s hard to get a read on him.

JR: I understand Devin because I’ve known him forever. Deciphering Devin can sometimes be very difficult, but I’m usually the mediator between him and the band. He has a very abstract way of communicating things, but he’s a genius. He’s the one that went to jazz school. He literally in middle school just learned every Doors songs by ear. Tonight, if we wanted to do a Doors cover band, we wouldn’t need a bass player, because Devin can play the bass and the keyboard parts just like Ray Manzarek does. When I first met him, I’d just be like “play this song, play this song” and he’d know it. And still at parties…

Layne: Yeah, that’s the best part of knowing Devin. If we’re at a party and there’s Devin and a piano, people will ask him to just play anything and he’ll know it. Literally anything, and he does it. And that’s good party shit.

JR: Nat King Cole… Lady Gaga. Now, play Katy Perry and Ke$ha. And he’ll just think for a second and play it.

Q: Looking forward, Great American Novel is in an unusual situation. You have to make hay while the sun shines this winter, since the band is in such flux over the summer when Pete goes back home to California and everyone else kind of gets scattered.

Layne: It’s weird to make something that you’re so proud of, and feel like you want to share with the world, and then have Peter go away. For me, the moment of Kissing is passed in my mind. It’s already about the next record. That’s just a thing we have to live with.

JR: See, I don’t know. For me, I don’t know if we’re at that moment. I think we could still tour with Kissing before we even need to think about the next record.

Layne: Whereas I’m like, let’s book a session as soon as possible. For me, I would like to be the band in the scene – at least for now – that’s always coming out with new records. That to me is more where I get my joy, always making new music. Not to say I don’t like playing live, because I love playing live. But for us, now, we’ve played four shows in the last four weeks. We know about 20 songs so we’ve been mixing up the set lists, but with a lot of the same people coming to all the shows, for me playing those same songs feels creatively constricting. I’d like to have everyone hear ten new songs right now.
That’s why we did all those covers at the last 111 Rogers show. With so many of the same people coming to see us all the time, you need some new fireworks to set off at every show.

JR: I think that’s a lot of where we need to go from here, thinking of ways to make our live show better. Not more gimmicky, but something that people are going to want to talk about.

JR: But of course Lewinskies songs have more parts than ours, they use more chords. It’s very different. But that’s still not to say that what we’re doing doesn’t make sense. We certainly fill a certain niche in the Mama Coco’s thing. Ghost Pal is sort of jam-band pop, the Lewinskies are revival rock, Dr. Skinnybones are more gritty, and we’re lighter and…

Layne: I like to think of myself as a more romantic Jake (Williams of Dr. Skinnybones).
JR: We appeal to a different crowd. Dr. Skinnybones appeals to all the 20 year old women, and we get all the 16 year olds.

Layne: Well, that’s just the built in fan base from Nat and Alex Wolff. (laughs) But it’s cool too because this whole scene is influenced by everyone else. I feel like we all want to one-up each other. Especially me and Zac, we have this thing like, oh you wrote a good song? Well fuck you, I’m going to write two more good songs. This new record to me feels like in some sense a reaction to the Dr. Skinnybones record.

Q: But since it’s all so good natured, I can’t help but think that’s a good thing. You’ve got that competitive thing going that Lennon and McCartney or Bob Mould and Grant Hart had, but you don’t have to be in the same bands and rip each others’ throats out.

Layne: I think it just pushes all of us to be better. Like a few weeks ago, Oliver made the comment that he thought the Lewinskies were the best live band in the group. And we were like, Well fuck you! We’ll show you the next time we play, we’re gonna be AWESOME. There’s definitely always going to be some sense of competition.

JR: But I think that’s what makes it good. Because it’s all friendly competition. Like me and Devin are playing with (Lewinskie) Rob (Bettaga’s) Brazilian thing soon.

Layne: And me and Alex from Ghost Pal have been muttering about starting a band together and I think we’re finally pushing ahead with that, because we live five minutes from each other now.

JR: And one day, me and Devin are going to put an album out on Mama Coco’s that’s going to blow all you motherfuckers away.

You can find The Great American Novel at and download Kissing at is an independently published music fanzine covering punk, alternative, ska, techno and garage music, focusing on New Jersey and the Tri-State area. For the past 25 years, the Jersey Beat music fanzine has been the authority on the latest upcoming bands and a resource for all those interested in rock and roll.

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