Jersey Beat Music Fanzine

By Jim Testa

Tris McCall has worn a lot of hats over the years – journalist, critic, author, musician, songwriter. He’s written for Jersey Beat, covered pop music for the Star-Ledger, published a novel, added synth and electric piano to bands like Overlord and Palomar, and released several albums of pithy, nerdy, clever, catchy, and infectious pop-rock. And while his music has been on the back burner for the last few years, on Friday, September 8, was back behind his bank of synthesizers at Jersey City’s new Art House Productions revisiting his 2003 album “Shootout At The Sugar Factory” to commemorate its 20th anniversary.

While McCall has done a few small gigs at venues like Berlin and 18th Ward Brewery in Bushwick in recent years, his Shootout show marked his first New Jersey gig in a long time, ironic for a guy whose songs always made a big deal about not just celebrating New Jersey in general but Hudson County in particular. Sadly, McCall’s music had to be put on pause while caring for his wife Hilary Englert, who lost a long battle with cancer in the Spring of 2022. During that time, McCall established a new career, covering Jersey City’s vibrant art scene for the Jersey City Times, bringing his deft, descriptive prose to the galleries and museums of his adopted hometown. (McCall also covers North Jersey events for

“Return To The Sugar Factory” brings McCall’s story full circle, merging songs like “Dancing To Architecture,” “Machines To Make You Feel Good,” and “Go Back To West New York” with Jersey City’s art scene. The concert was staged in the new Art House Productions building on Marin Boulevard, featured light installations by local artist Frank Ippolito and an integrated slideshow by photographer Dorie Dahlberg, and coincided with a new show in the Art House gallery by Andrea McKenna, an artist McCall has long championed in print.

The concert will featured a six-piece band that included two of McCall’s longtime collaborators and producers, guitarist Jay Braun of the Negatones and multi-instrumentalist Mike Flannery. We talked to Tris to find out a little more about why he decided to return to the Sugar Factory.

Q: You’ve never been the most self-aggrandizing person in the world. Where did the idea of doing a 20th anniversary celebration of “Shootout At The Sugar Factory” come about?

Tris: Jay and Mike both mentioned it independent of each other, and somebody else, I don’t remember who but someone not really involved in music, was like, “you know, it’s 20 years since ‘Shoot Out’ came out.’ And it made me think this might be an interesting thing to do. Jay and Mike were on it immediately, and Jay has wanted to remaster ‘Shootout’ for a really long time. So I give them credit for encouraging me. Would I have done it without all that encouragement? Probably not.

Q: New Jersey has a great music scene but a shortage of venues, especially places that are easily accessible from New York, where a lot of your fanbase is located. Art House Productions (which is around the corner from the Grove Street PATH) seems perfect, especially given your writing about local art. How did that come about?

T: Art House has been in Jersey City, I feel, about the same amount of time that I have. When we first moved to Paulus Hook, 166 Grand Street, Art House was at Victory Hall, which was maybe three doors down. I saw some of the stuff that they were doing, and they were engaged in some way with trying to keep the arts community at 111 First Street intact. I remember a play that Christine Goodman put on that was basically about 111 First Street that really moved me, and since then I’ve always followed Art House Productions to the different locations they had. I always felt a kinship because I thought their story paralleled mine, and they were trying to be engaged with the community in the same way I was.

And then they had this beautiful new space.It really has been a long time coming, and I felt really good that they got it. So in a way, it was the most logical place for me to pitch this to first. They suggested we do it for a Jersey City Friday, and I thought it was right on the money. I think this will be the first time they’re doing music in the new theater, and if you’ve been there, it’s really, really nice. So I feel very happy and very honored.

I remember Art House from way back and they just opened this theater to some fanfare, it just made sense. Art House has been doing excellent art shows and that has to do with Andrea McKenna, who is the curator of the gallery. Andrea has been the curator there for a while, and she did outstanding shows. Really good, consistently terrific stuff that I would always go and review and write about. So Andrea's involvement made me happy and to really put the cherry on top for me, Andrea is opening a show of her own on the 8th. So if you want to come to the show, which I hope you do, I really do, what you can do is you can come down at 7 o'clock, there is a dance performance that's going to be out on the street. And then inside, Andrea is opening a show of her own works. We'll probably be soundchecking inside and we might make some noise, but we won't make too much noise, but then after that is over at 8, everyone can go into the theater and we'll do the show. The whole goal is for me to feel a little more integrated into this stuff. And it will make me feel like I'm part of a night and makes me feel part of part of the Jersey City Fridays thing. So yeah, it all made sense, it all seemed very logical to me.

Q: You’ve written about music for over 20 years but how did you start reviewing visual art?

T: I started writing about visual art for Jersey City Times. I think when they first started, I was trying to figure out what I could possibly do for them, and I thought visual art was the right angle. It was about 2019, definitely pre-pandemic.

Q: Then the world took a year and a half off.

T: Yeah but I kept writing about stuff. I remember early on there was a really cool exhibit by Hamlet Manzueta at Art House and nobody went to see it, and then things kind of shut down. Then there was an interregnum, and then it came back. But it always seemed to me this was the right way to write about Jersey City because it’s always been a visual arts town. And writing about the visual culture in the visual language of Jersey City seemed like the best way to write about Jersey City and the best way I could help Jersey City Times. And now it’s 2023 and I’m still doing it.

Q: Long before there was a Jersey City Times, you became very involved with the crusade to save the arts community at 111 First Street as a blogger, and I always thought that you gave you an in with the art scene.

T: We did a couple of shows at Uncle Joe’s and I remember one show in particular, a lot of the artists from 111 First Street came to find out who this guy writing about the space they lived in was. That was really nice. ‘Shootout At The Sugar Factory’ is very much an album about public culture. It’s about urban space. That’s what I’m singing about. And now we’ll be in what the Powerhouse Arts District has become doing those songs, so it really does feel like it’s come full circle.

Q: Several of the songs on ‘Shootout’ have always stayed in your live sets, but you’ve never gone back and performed the whole album. I’m sure you had to go back to the album and re-engage with it to prepare. Have you discovered anything about the album that you didn’t know before?

T: It’s funny. All of these songs were written for the stage. When I was writing the songs for this album, I had a really great band, the New Jack Trippers. And I felt that was an asset, I had a band who were way, way better musicians than I was. So I could write music for them and their strengths. And because of that, all the songs were designed to be performance pieces, which is unusual for me. And because of that, they’re very easy to bring out and put in the set. So a lot of the songs have never really fallen out of the repertoire. I’ve been thinking about these songs for a long time, and maybe they’ve changed, but isn’t that the way? Like, I think in every art, whether it's visual art, or music or anything, the stuff that sticks around for you as the artist tends to be the stuff that you write very quickly, in kind of a fever, you write it very fast, you almost don't even remember writing it, you’re just writing as fast the ideas come upon you. And then you spend the rest of your life wondering what the hell you were talking about.

I was very excited to work with these great musicians and moving to Jersey City, there was a lot of energy and I was responding to all that, and all that was coming through in the music. And I've really been thinking about it ever since, like what did I mean by this or that song. I have a pretty good idea because the stuff on ‘Shootout’ is really thematically coherent. And it had to do with the time and with that time in place. But it also had to do with processes that were happening at that time that continue to happen. Gentrification, redevelopment, people moving in and out of the city, people feeling estranged from the city because of all the things that were changing. Politicians jockeying for power and position, the beauty of all the new buildings and the sadness of what we had to leave behind. All of that stuff was on that album, and all that stuff continues to be present.

What’s kind of funny is that ‘Shootout’ was largely written in 2001-2002, with the exception of ‘Go Back To West New York,’ which is older. I had put out ‘If One Of These Bottles Happen To Fall’ and I had this great band and I was getting out and gigging a lot as a real musician for the first time, and then 9/11 happened, and the shadow of 9/11 is very heavy on the album. ‘A Commuter’s Prayer’ is directly about it. ‘Dancing To Architecture’ is a song that clearly references 9/11. A lot of the fear you hear in songs like ‘Scatter My Ashes On The NJ Turnpike’ has a 9/11 element to it.

Now, re-engaging with a song like ‘A Commuter’s Prayer’ is weird because there are so many more things to be afraid. The things we’re afraid of have just proliferated. It isn’t just the fear that the Lincoln Tunnel is going to blow up, it’s the fear of catching some disease in the tunnel, or the fear of the lunatics who are going to meet you with pitchforks at the other end of the tunnel just because of what you’re wearing. It’s like the paranoia that was inscribed on that album has only been amplified. ‘A Commuter’s Prayer’ almost feels naïve today; that character is only worried about one small thing, there are a million things to worry about now. There’s no shortage of things to be paranoid about.

Q: Another song from the album whose meaning has changed is ‘Robert Menendez, Basta Ya!’ At the time you wrote it, he was this newly-elected reformer who was going to fight the power in D.C. and now he’s been repeatedly accused of corruption.

T: I think that it’s more to the point that these things just go around in circles. Robert Menendez Jr., his son, is now our Congressman. So now there are two Menendez’ and that name has become a brand in Hudson County politics. That song was really about trying to understand Union City as it was at the time and what it meant to raise up a political champion. I remember Menendez heard the song and I don’t think he was thrilled. But it isn’t really about the senator. I had a song I was working on at the time called ‘Hector The Code Inspector’ and Hector ended up in the Menendez song, in the second verse. I imagined that this code inspector was somebody who might be a Menendez voter and I tried to imagine his point of view.

Q: Where are you in terms of the future? Are you working on a new album? Will you continue looking to book shows?

T: The answer to that is, about 16 months ago, I had no concept of the future. I didn’t really feel a future could be possible for me. There was no way to look past the moment. It’s not that planning a show or an album wasn’t feasible, I just couldn’t conceptualize it. Now I feel like I can be a person with a future. We have two albums that haven’t been released. Some of them are online on McCall’s Almanac. So the next logical step is to figure out a way to make those songs public. I organized the songs into two albums, Mike Flannery produced one of them and Jay Braun is the musical director on the other. And if this show goes well, I hope we can do more like it. I would love to do some kind of audiovisual show going forward, that would be really cool.

There’s one thing I want to add about the Shootout show. We have two talented visual artists working with us. Frank Ippolito, who had a show at Art House, does video art and is doing some projections. And Dorie Dahlberg, who is a photographer from Long Branch and president of ProArts, and one of my absolute favorite artists in the state, will be doing a slideshow of her photography that will be integrated into the show in a way that I think will be very cool. So you will not just get Tris McCall music, you will get Tris McCall music as it relates to visual art that has been inspired by some of the same stuff, and seems to dovetail with the concerns and interests that are on the album. So it’s going to be more than just another show. It will be a big deal for me and I hope people come.

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