by Jim Testa
If you’ve been reading JerseyBeat.com lately, you
know that I’ve become enamored with a collective of
musicians who are building a scene in Brooklyn around Mama
Coco’s Funky Kitchen, the DIY studio run by Oliver
Ignatius and Justin Coles. Bands like power-poppers The
Great American Novel and The-All-About, Ignatius and Coles'
group Ghost Pal, the post-psychedelic Sons Of An Illustrious
Father, math-rockers No Shoes, and the poppy Jean Jackets
(to name just a few) are creating not just an impressive
body of recorded work, but a true community – sharing
gigs and turning them into parties where it feels as if
you’re part of something that’s bigger than
just a single set or show.
One of the bands at the heart of the Mama Coco’s
community is the Harmonica Lewinskies;
as it says on the group’s Facebook page, “Funny
name. Serious music.”
Six extraordinarily talented musicians – three of
whom take lead vocal turns – come together for a fusion
of blues, R&B, soul, and good old rock ‘n’
roll. It’s like a party where someone invited Sam
& Dave, Zappa, a young Elvis Costello, and Chuck Berry,
and they all start jamming. They sing about girls, and rocking
out, and girls, and falling down drunk, and girls; “How
To Run A Business,” my favorite Lewinskies tune, is
a multi-part tour de force about a happy ending massage
parlor visit that segues from a pokey country intro to a
feverish Exile On Main Street R&B jam. You’ll
usually find the Lewinskies at a show wearing white shirts
and skinny black suspenders. I’ve already raved about
the new album, Octopus Wallstreet (here);
now you can meet the band.
This interview was done at a Mama Coco’s Funky Kitchen
showcase in Brooklyn; present were Roberto Bettega (guitar/vocals,)
Dan McLane (guitar/vocals,) Will Simpson (lead guitar/vocals,)
Jake Warren (sax, harmonica, piano,) Zebedee Row (bass,
backing vocals,) and Oliver Fetter (drums). Just to make
things more complicated, also present were Oliver Ignatius,
producer and co-owner of Mama Coco’s; Devin Calderin
(keyboardist extraordinaire;) and Mama Coco’s co-owner
Josh Tobin. Got it? Good.
Q: Let’s start with the basics. How and when
did you guys come together?
Dan: We started in college. I met Will when we were freshman
roommates in the dorms. Then I got kicked out of the dorms.
Actually we all got kicked out of our dorms. And then I
took a songwriting class that was a big help, it really
got us all started doing what we’re doing now. And
I met Rob the first day and… there I was, a freshman,
and he embarrassed me in front of the whole class. And then
we started a band.
Roberto: Of course me and Jake have a totally different
story. We met at Marymount, the same school, and then we
started playing together. We had this drummer named Vic
and we jammed all the time in Jake’s apartment. Vic
recorded the first song we ever wrote, “Horizontal
Yellow And Blue.” And then from there, Vic moved away
and we got
Oliver (Fetter) to play drums for us. But before that, Oliver
and I were playing in a band together called Vanilla Thang.
We also called it Chocolate Tooth. So Jake and I were playing,
and Ollie and I were playing, and then I took a class with
Will and Dan, and it all kind of fell together.
Jake on the sax, Dan on the beat
Q: So the bad band names did not start with Harmonica
Roberto: The actual name came much later.
Will: We had a lot of dumb names. The Tony Danzas. The Socials.
We played a show as Pants Optional. The Compliments. Bag
Of Rocks. The name Harmonica Lewinskies came about two years
ago. We started out as a cover band. Then we started playing
at National Underground and we started playing consecutive
gigs and we started to take it a little more seriously,
so we settled on the one name.
Roberto: I think what really pushed us to be a little more
professional is when we saw The Bennys play, and they had
the sax player, and they did really great covers, and it
was really energetic. And they had a uniform thing going,
all wearing the same thing. That really inspired us. We
got Jake to start playing sax on stage with us right after
Will: Before that it was just a party at every show. Although
it still is. But really it was a lot more about just getting
drunk than making music at first, and then we started taking
it more seriously.
Q: When did it become apparent that your sound would
revolve around blues and R&B? That’s really not
the kind of thing that young guys from Brooklyn are into
Jake: I think that was obvious right from the beginning.
I come from a strictly jazz/blues background and so does
Will: I think we’ve always been listening to older
Dan: Will has I-IV-V tattooed on his chest. (Note: that’s
the basic blues chord progression.) That shows how serious
he is about it.
Will: We definitely have a lot of roots in older music –
50’s, 60’s, 70’s music.
Q: You guys don’t do this with any kind of
irony or “retro” vibe though, you’re totally
serious about your love of that kind of music. Which is
interesting, because that’s not exactly going to have
Brooklyn Vegan knocking down your door to write about you.
Was the fact that what you’re doing is so outside
what’s trendy ever become a consideration?
All: No, not at all.
Oliver Fetter: We all knew what music we liked, we like
playing with each other, and fuck everybody else.
Robert: When we came together, we never really thought about
creating a certain sound. That was something that we actually
always talked about. Let’s just play what comes out.
Having three songwriters in the band makes a big difference,
and Jake is a really good arranger. He knows a lot of theory
and I think that’s what really makes us different.
Will: The whole band is writing the music. This band is
a true collaboration. And because there’s so much
input from six different guys, we’re coming up with
a sound that’s not really… I don’t want
to sound too pompous here…
Jake: It’s something completely different.
Zebedee: We’re not putting any limitations on ourselves.
We’re happy to approach all ideas with equal enthusiasm.
Oliver Ignatius: As evidenced by your notoriously terrible
choice of cover versions.
Dan and Roberto
Q: A lot of bands will add a trumpet or a sax solo,
but I think what makes your record exceptional are the arrangements.
It really sounds like an old Stax/Volt session or a Booker
T. and the MG’s session. The horns are an integral
part of the sound, not just stuck in there for effect.
Dan: The horns are all Jake and Chris Lucca (trumpet).
Jake: The horn section is me, Devin (Calderin) on trumpet,
Will laid down a trumpet track, and Henry (Kandel) on baritone
sax. And I do the arrangements
Q: How do you write the harmonies?
Jake: It’s pretty basic. You write a part
that sounds good. You throw down a third that sounds good.
Try the 7th…no, screw that, put the 5th in…
(Note: This is all music geek talk. Ignore it.) It all just
happens on the spot. Oliver Ignatius helped a lot with the
harmonies too. But basically you just try a harmony and
if it doesn’t work, you throw it out and find something
else. And you keep building on it until you get that BIG
sound that we like.
Q: Do you guys work on your vocal harmonies a lot?
I know some bands that practice harmonies till they’re
hoarse and they still can’t nail them live, and other
people who can just sing harmony without thinking about
(Everybody laughs and comments unintelligibly)
Roberto: With us it depends on how much we had to drink.
Jake: It’s a whole lot of sweat.
Dan: We didn’t do that many takes, did we?
Jake: Some of those songs were more difficult than others.
And of course some of the songs we’ve played a lot
and practiced many times and that made it easier in the
Dan rocking out, Will wailing, Oliver Ignatius on
Q: How did you find Mama Coco’s Funky Kitchen?
Dan: Ray Weiss. Ray was in the bands Red Dwarf and Les Rug.
He introduced us to
Oliver and we recorded our first 3-song EP in his basement.
And he invited us to help him set up this new space that
became the studio.
Oliver Ignatius: It’s true, they were part of the
set up crew when we were putting the studio together. If
it wasn’t for Will, we would have never gotten those
sound panels up. They helped us with carpentry and painting
and whatever needed to get done.
Q: Oliver, as the producer, what was the most challenging
thing about recording these guys?
Oliver Ignatius: I wouldn’t say there was any sort
of a challenge, really. They’re one of the most talented
bands I’ve ever met, and I consider myself fortunate
just to have had the chance to work with them. But with
that said, if there was anything that was hard, it was just
that there were so many fucking ideas going on at the same
time, crammed in there. It was a matter of finding the space
for everything to be heard, because there was such a smorgasbord
of things in there.
Will: I don’t think we’ve mentioned Devin Calderin
yet, but he’s totally changed our sound. His keyboard
playing was super influential in how this record came out.
Jake: Basically I was playing keyboards the whole time and
I’m a terrible keyboard
player, and we saw Devin play with The Great American Novel
and we were just like… That guy. In our band. Now.
Roberto: And we totally have to thank Oliver (Ignatius)
for helping us get the energy we did on the album. Our live
show is always fun and huge but I was concerned about how
we were going to get that across in the studio. And I think
he totally nailed it.
Oliver Ignatius: The sessions, would you agree, were controlled
Jake: That was the strategy and it totally worked.
Q: What’s interesting is that there are bands
who have recorded at Mama Coco’s whose albums sound
like organized chaos. But this record sounds like every
note is exactly where it’s supposed to be. Even though
it’s got that live energy, everything is incredibly
tight and precise.
Oliver I: That’s because there’s so much musicianship
in it. It’s not like people were coming into the studio
all loosey goosey, falling all over their instruments. Yes,
there’s the party aspect of this band, but there’s
also the really important side – what I think makes
the band – where everyone is a master craftsman at
what they do.
Q: Let me ask you guys something that I asked Oliver
when I interviewed
him. You guys are making this amazing records at Mama
Coco’s, and it’s reasonably priced but certainly
not free to record there, and then you’re mostly throwing
this music up on Bandcamp and letting people download it
either for free or whatever they want to pay. Is that a
realistic model going forward for sustaining a band?
Roberto: I think it’s a stepping stone, I don’t
think it’s the final result. Because ultimately bands
need to make money from their music or they can’t
go on. Yes, there’s live shows and merch, but ultimately
you want to be selling CD’s. And it is a little frustrating
to think we put so much into this and we’re only going
to sell it for so much as a CD or a download, but that’s
part of being a musician, I guess.
Jake: And the other thing is, you have to believe in the
future. You have to believe that what we’re doing
and what Oliver is doing is going to lead to bigger and
Oliver I: Exactly. We’re trying to do create something
that’s actually something, not just to benefit ourselves
but to build something for the future.
Oliver Fetter: And everybody involved is going to take
off. The guys at Mama Coco’s, all the bands who have
worked with them, all of us are gaining notoriety as this
Oliver I: And not to sound grandiose, but maybe we can inject
just a little bit more fun and vitality and community into
the whole fucking scene. That’s what we’re all
trying to do.
Jake: It’s how to run a business.
For more information, visit theharmonicalewinskies.bandcamp.com
See the Harmonica Lewinskies on Saturday, August 18 at Piano's
(158 Ludlow St. NYC) with The Motive and The Can't Tells.
Admission is $10, showtime is 8 pm.
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