Interview by James Damion
In the bands Stickman, Footstone, Stuyvesant, and now his latest group Cathedral Ceilings, from the torpor of the late Eighties through New Brunswick's late-Nineties Rennaissance to the Artist Amplification regrouping of the 2000's and then through a world-changing pandemic, Ralph Malanga has been there, done that, sung about it, and God bless him, shows no signs of slowing down. To bandmates and fans and friends and family, he's always just been Ralphie, blessed with a powerful and distinctive voice and a bottomless well of melodies and riffs, one of the true unsung heroes of New Jersey's everchanging rock underground. Jersey Beat's James Damion chats with the man, the myth, the poet, the rocker - and, perhaps, the godfather of Dad Rock? Ladies and gentlemen, Ralph Malanga.
Q: How did the idea of creating Cathedral Ceilings come about?
I had been seeing Nick D' Amore around a lot. He was the drummer in New Brunswick's Mr. Payday. He had just joined Overlake and Basic Bitches. I heard he had a thrash band Worldsucks too. But I had never seen them. So I knew this guy liked to work. I had a backlog of songs that had never caught on with Stuyvesant for some reason. So I was looking for people to play with. So I asked Nick if he wanted to play. We knew it was a side project and so all the other bands came first. We jammed a few times and liked it. But being in a 5th band was difficult. So after cutting a 2 song demo as a duo we took a break. We really didn't resume until he had already left Overlake and Basic Bitches. I think he needed bodies to help cover rent in their practice space in New Brunswick. So he asked if I was interested in playing with Tom Diello from Mr. Payday on bass. I was down with it. And from the very first practice with the three of us, I knew this was gonna be a fun ride.
Q: Give me a little background/color on Tommy and Nicky. And what each of them bring to the table.
Well, I just gave you some of Nick's backstory. Tom, I didn't know very well. Even though we ran in some of the same circles since the early 90's. Tom was in both Bad Karma, Barbeque Bob & The Spareribs out of New Brunswick along with a bunch of other Brunswick based bands. He's road tested. He toured a lot with different bands. He's a great bass player. Has a lot of the same influences as I do. I think because Nicky and Tommy have played so long together in Mr. Payday, they're bringing some serious wallop to the table. A ridiculously good rhythm section.
Q: How did the idea come about to launch a new band, write music and make an album come to fruition?
From the very first practice, we were writing songs. I had brought a couple of whole songs that had been kicking around a while ("Hamilton Circuits," "Over The Far and Hills Away") but for the most part, I scrapped everything Nick and I had worked on previously and just concentrated on new stuff. After a few marathon beer fueled practices, we had a handful of tunes ready. We pretty quickly recorded 4 tunes with Chris Pierce at Volume IV and put out two lathe-cut 7- inches with Dromedary, with the notion of doing a full length later. The songs just kept coming, so we recorded 12 songs with Tom Beaujour at Nuthouse in Union City. And boom! The full length was born.
Q: I'm curious about the name Cathedral Ceilings. I couldn't help but think of John Belushi in 'The Blues Brothers' and his line, "We're on a mission from God.”
The name doesn't really have a deep meaning. I just liked the alliteration. Naming a band is tough. You can really get caught up in it. Agonize and argue and talk yourself out of it. I just didn't want to do that. I just thought of something. I Googled it to see if it was taken, and we're done. But there was certainly no religious meaning behind it. It's just a coincidence that the three of us all went to Catholic school.
Q: By the time this interview is posted, the album will have already been released. What are your hopes and/or goals for the album and playing shows to promote it?
The goal for the album was just to make a good album. Recording with Beaujour is always fun and rewarding. So we knew we had that covered. We had 14 songs ready to record. We recorded the best 12. We liked the way they all came out, so we used them all. As for shows, we're all about that. Since the three of us love touring we decided to be a touring band, with just sporadic shows at home. We have done 5 little three or four date weekender jaunts out so far. The last three to promote the new record. We'll take the summer off and do a 9 date tour in September, with a couple of one offs thrown in. The three of us get along really well, so the tours have been great so far. But there are still limitations with family and day job commitments.
Q: You have been involved with Stuyvesant for many years. Where do you go from here with them.
Stuyvesant is alive and well. We just changed practice space so that Stuyvesant, Cathedral Ceilings, and Worldsucks are all in the same room now. I'll never quit that band. Those guys are my brothers. It's not the same without Brian and Pete, but it's a different animal now with Scotty, Jeff, and Eric. Three guitar attack baby!! I'm Hoping we get another lathe cut 7-inch out before the end of this year. We're definitely not as active as we used to be. But I still look forward to our weekly practice and just being silly with the boys. We have enough material to do a new full length, but we'll see what happens. (Photo by James Damion)
Q: How do you approach being in a new band? I was thinking about how Footstone, Stuyvesant, and Cathedral Ceilings come from a similar place musically, yet are very different.
I guess me being the common denominator is the main thing. Same voice. Same guitar sound. Same songwriting approach. I don't change a thing. it's the guys around me who really shape the tunes. Sean's co-lead vocals on some Stuyvesant songs, ala Difford and Tilbrook, would sound different if the Ceilings tried it. Nicky and Tommy's style are way different than Scotty and Jeff's. And Pete and Brian's for that matter. But I don't really change my approach at all. If it ain't broke, don't fix it.
Q: Has writing and your approach to song changed over the decades? If so, how?
Yes and no? I mean I like to think I've evolved as a songwriter. But maybe I haven't. That's a tough question because I really don't self-analyze, I'm always looking forward. What's the next song? What's the next riff? Is it interesting? Is it boring? Is it still melodic? I guess I pay more attention to song structure than I used to. But it's rock n roll right? Too much thinking ruins it. But lyrically, I'm always trying to find the cool angle to tell a story from. I think I've always done that. And in that case I think I've gotten better. I'm not trying to write a rock opera. (although, I have thought about it;) I'm just trying to copy Elvis Costello.
Q: From Footstone, to Stuyvesant and now with Cathedral Ceilings, there have been similarities but the one that stands out the most is your history with Al Crisafulli and Dromedary Records. Can you fill us in on the friendship/working relationship the two of you share? What is it about Dromedary that blends so well with the music you make and it being the vehicle you wish to deliver it in?
Did you ever have a party and there's one person who won't get the fact that the party is over and never leave? And you're cleaning, and yawning, and saying things like "thanks for coming", but this person just won't leave. And keeps talking about how much fun they are having at the party. Well, that's me with Dromedary Records. I won't leave. I have no reason to. Al, Sandy (Al's wife) and I have been friends for 30 years. So it goes beyond music. It's families, it's baseball, it's beer and food, it's politics, as well as music. The thing is, none of my bands are in Al's wheelhouse. Al loves clean-channel quirky indie music. Stuff like Pavement, Yo La Tengo, Feelies. But because I'm the thing that won't leave, he's stuck with an orc mashing distorted chords over and over again. And I love him for that. I'd like to think that I've shaped some of his musical preferences over the years. But he has such a voracious appetite for music, so probably not. I can see us in our 60's and 70's continuing to turn each other on to new music. And gossiping over a beer at a loud show. I actually look forward to that.
Q: How did you approach writing the songs that were chosen for 'Summer of Misguided Dynamite'? The hooks and all?
The approach was the same as it always was. It starts with riffs of just jamming. We expand on it. Beat it to death. The only thing I knew I really wanted was to keep the songs on the shorter side. And with the exception of "And How" and "Zero" we did that. Always leave them wanting more was something we said to each other a lot when writing this record, and our songs in general. Two minutes is plenty of time.
Q: What are, if any, your favorite songs on the album and why?
I'm not sure I have one. A few songs I'm really enjoying playing live, like "Zero," "Nancy," "You Weren't Even Listening. But as I'm a guy who's always looking forward, I'm more jazzed about the new songs. Two of which we are including in our live set at the moment. It's always more, more, more with me.
Q: With us all being older now, I was wondering how being married with kids and a career fits into making and wanting to make music? Does your family roll their eyes when you bring up the subject?
No, they don't roll their eyes. They are super supportive. In fact I think they look forward to my weekly Stuyvesant practice. That means more mommy time. But I do have to give my wife a ton of credit. She has pretty much let me do what I want. Because of that, if there is any pushback, I back off and slow it down. As the kids get older, it gets easier. Hence the five or six Stuyvesant tours the last 10 years, and five Ceilings tours in one. It's much more manageable now. As for my job, I'll never leave to do music full time. So I have to work within the constraints of my vacation time. Which so far has worked out.
Q: Somehow I always thought of Stuyvesant and Maxwell's were intertwined. Seeing you play at other venues never felt quite the same. Now with Maxwell's and many of the spots in Jersey I used to enjoy seeing bands closing their doors to live music, what are some of the options?
This is a huge issue. The club scene in Jersey is essentially dead. A small number of clubs remain. Dingbatz? Crossroads? The Saint? That might be it. It's more of a bar scene now. Places that exist with or without live music. Sometimes I get the feeling that live music is a nuisance to these places. Pino's, Tierney's, Pet Shop, Red Tank. It's the main reason Cathedral Ceilings doesn't play a lot of local shows. We're better off on the road. The coolest bar that has live music in Jersey is the Mill Hill Basement in Trenton. But a lot of people are afraid of Trenton. So a secret it remains. I do miss those Maxwells days. But I also miss the Court Tavern, Melody Bar, Dirt Club, The Cove, Pauly's, Clash Bar. The list goes on and on.
Q: Are you going to be playing shows to promote the record?
Yes! We did three weekend jaunts from April to Memorial Day to promote the record. 10 shows total. Nicky has some Worldsucks dates coming up. Plus we have some family vacations planned. So we'll resume the promotional tour in September with a bunch of shows. And it looks like we'll finally play a couple of local shows this summer. We haven't played in NJ since last summer.
Q: I'm not sure if it was Jim Testa or James Appio who introduced me to the term 'Dad Rock,' but the term wasn't the easiest pill to swallow at first. As someone who might fit that bill, how would you describe it and its approach toward making music?
I can see how "Dad Rock" has a negative connotation. Kinda like "Okay Boomer". But I sorta embrace the term. Especially with the Stuyvesant guys. I mean, all five of us are dads! In fact we go even further with the hashtag #OFDR (Old Fat Dad Rock.) Why deny what you are? It doesn't bother me in the least. And because of that, it doesn't change my approach to anything music wise. I still have the same mental approach at 52 as I did when I first joined Footstone at 19 years old. Sing hard. Be melodic as hell. Have fun. Nothing has changed. Nothing will change as I continue to do this into my 60's. The only thing that would stop me is if I was physically unable to do it. My voice has held up so far. So I'm not worried about that yet. In fact, I'm ready for the "Grandpa Rock" phase!
You can find Cathedral Ceilings and some of Ralph's other bands at cathedralceilings.bandcamp.com and dromedaryrecords.bandcamp.com.