Photo by Melanie Wesslock
MORE SONGS ABOUT PIZZA AND GIRLS
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
Hopefully, if you’ve been reading
JerseyBeat.com, 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
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,
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
Are there any songs on Kissing you really don’t
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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 www.thegreatamericannovelmusic.com
and download Kissing at
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