If you would have asked me back in the early to mid-'90s if I thought any underground bands from the NYC area were going to break through on a bigger level like Jawbreaker would go on to do on the other side of the country during the same period, I would have probably told you Garden Variety. With a sound and songwriting style that balanced melody with dissonance and off-kilter arrangements, the Long Island trio released two studio albums and a grip of 7 inches and split releases that put them in a class of their own.
Back in 2016, I interviewed Garden Variety drummer Joe Gorelick about his career in and outside of the group, but with a new discography box set hitting stores, it was an opportune time to catch up with the band's bassist/vocalist, Anthony Roman. After the band split up in 1996, Anthony went on to a successful run with dance-punks Radio 4, but in this following piece, we keep things all-Garden Variety.
Clearly, these kinds of reissue projects take a lot of work and time. When did you guys decide to pursue the box set? Also, how did Arctic Rodeo Recordings get involved?
I think the original discussion was for Gern Blandsten to release just the first LP, but as it grew and became more of an all encompassing box set, we had to find someone else to put it out. I don’t think [Gern Blandsten founder] Charles [Maggio], understandably, wanted the hassle of something this broad in scope. And it was a hassle, that much is true. I’m not sure how Joe [Gorelick] knows the Arctic Rodeo people, but it was great that he found them. It took about four years but it’s finally out!
Well, speaking as a fan, I'm happy that this reissue project will get the Garden Variety music in the hands of people who might not have heard the band before.
It was really important to us to release the first self-formed LP as our old engineer, Phil Palazzolo, was able to give it a proper mix. We were so rushed and young that we never spent enough time on it. So, he basically kept the original spirit intact, but improved things significantly.
Finally, the whole package was all Joe, I had a say in the liner notes and stuff, but the reason it exists is because of Joe's determination and spirit. He really made this happen. And he worked tirelessly on it, and kept plugging away when many would’ve given up.
When I interviewed Garden Variety drummer Joe Gorelick in 2016, he said he joined the band after answering an ad where you and guitarist Anthony Rizzo included the following rule: "Drummer wanted, must be into Soul Asylum, Squirrel Bait…” Thinking back to that early era of the band and where you ended up on the Knocking the Skill Level album, how far away from those early influences do you think you guys got?
I think those influences remained there, but obviously we moved further and further away from that. In the early '90s there were so many great scenes that we crossed paths with — DC/Dischord, San Diego/Gravity, Olympia/Kill Rock Stars and we were lucky to enough to play with those bands. Eventually all those bands rubbed off on us. Particularly, Jehu, Unwound, Fugazi, and Jawbox. I always tell people one of the best shows I ever saw was Heroin at Outer Limits in Franklin Square, Long Island. We played with them and they were just so unique and theatrical, and new, it was really an amazing thing to see.
I remember after Heroin's crazy set, Rizzo and I walked with them to Carvel to get ice cream cones. Things were much simpler then. I remember playing with Unwound at [Born Against drummer] Jon Hiltz's house and they were fantastic. We did shows with these types of bands at the Jabberjaw in LA, which is still one of my favorite places ever that I played.
We played the Taang! record store in San Diego with Antioch Arrow and Angel Hair. Things were moving fast and it was exciting. All of this aside, these days I still listen to Dinosaur Jr., Replacements, Squirrel Bait, etc., much more than Rodan or something.
I saw Garden Variety play out many times back in the day, and I always found that the there was a cross-section of indie rock types, people from the hardcore scene, and anything in-between that. Did you guys play on mixed bills by design, or was that more out of necessity?
We took any show that was offered to us. And we played with tough guy bands and we played with twee pop bands. We played with the Magnetic Fields and with Burn. I don’t think we cared if we were the lightest band on the bill or the heaviest. I feel that socially we connected pretty heavily with the ABC No Rio crew for a while. We met Charles, Jon Hiltz, Ted Leo, Nick Forte, and Citizens Arrest, Rorschach, and Chisel, and that was all because I went to school with Will Tarrant of Animal Crackers/Medicine Man. He took us under his wing and introduced us to those people.
There were really interesting characters at ABC — there was a guy named Anthony Emo, another guy Charlie Adamec. I have no idea what happened to these people, but they were entertaining and cool. They understood us. We obviously had little in common musically with Rorschach, but those guys were music fans, they weren’t just sitting around listening to Die Kreuzen. They had extensive record collections. We had a few people on Long Island who also liked us, mainly both Arties: [Arty] Shepherd and [Artie] Phillie, but mostly it seemed to confuse people.
After ABC No Rio, we started to play shows at Brownies, at night, and we loved that too. There we met even more like minded people and we had a lot of great times. It all seemed a lot better than waiting around the rec center for [Mountain Monthly zine] Chris Jensen to tell you that you sold out or something.
As much as I like the first album, I think Knocking the Skill Level is a much better record. What I find most impressive about the material on the second album is how you manage to make everything have a really strong sense of melody despite the fact that the arrangements were often complex, or at the very least, unorthodox when compared to many of Garden Variety's contemporaries.
I think we all were clinging to the melody amidst all the chaos in the music. We loved melody, always did, and that probably set us apart from our contemporaries. My favorite record of ours is the first 7”, Rizzo wrote all the music in this incredible quick frenzy of emotion and Joe found us this great spot in Jamaica, Queens to rehearse. We went down to DC and did it with Don Zientara and our friend Vinny Segarra put it out. Perfect.
I recently read an interview with J Mascis where he says he can’t listen to Bug (a record I love) objectively because he can only think of what was happening within the band at that time, and that’s how I feel about Skill Level. I hated the experience in DC at WGNS, we should’ve done it at Loho in NYC. Then we came home to finish it, and my appendix burst and I was hospitalized for two weeks. People were coming to see me and I could see in their faces that it wasn’t good.
So, what went wrong?
We didn’t have enough material, really, and we left Gern to do it with Headhunter. That was tricky for us because we loved Charles and he really believed in us. So I think of a lot of those things when remembering the record. I haven't heard it in twenty years either. That said, when people come up to me to talk Garden Variety, that’s the record they want to talk about, so who am I to say anything?
How much touring did you do for the Knocking the Skill Level album, and how was that experience?
The touring for that record started great with J Church and Small, but quickly went downhill culminating in a month long disaster with Into Another. Their fans hated us. I had a great time with Richie [Birkenhead] and Tony Bono, but musically it was a mistake and as a result it killed my spirit. Tony Bono, by the way, every minute I spent with that guy was great. You’d be hard-pressed to find a better human. I saw him after both of our bands broke up at the Path station in Hoboken and he was in a suit, giving the real world a try, and we sat and talked about what we were going to do with our lives and all that.
This is what Gorelick told me about Garden Variety’s break up: “...Roman had had enough of Garden Variety by late 1996 and wanted to reinvent himself and the music he was making—hence, the formation of Radio 4.” What’s your take on the break up and the reasoning behind it?
Joe has a right to his opinion but we did not break up because I wanted to reinvent myself. I simply thought we were done. We had trouble writing, we couldn’t find a musical direction that we all agreed on, and we weren’t getting along. There was a new wave of groups that came in and they were playing a much simpler, poppier version of what we were doing. We were friends with all those bands and all that, but it wasn’t what we were into.
The first thing I did after the breakup was talk with Blake Schwarzenbach at the Cooler about playing together, and to Chris Leo about join the Van Pelt. After that, my idea was to do more of an Uncle Tupelo/Son Volt kind of thing. I wasn’t immediately going to play post-punk. In fact, it’s over two years between Garden Variety and Radio 4. But I definitely wanted to play a simpler style of music. I was tired of tricky timings and stop start nonsense, etc.
If you dig deeper into what was actually happening within the band, there was a huge tragedy that occurred around the band very early on, and there were some betrayals that occurred near the end, and we were far too young to deal with any of it. My thoughts were that we were not in sync musically enough to put up with the emotional struggles. Rizzo and Joe both have said we would have made better music had we carried on and they could be right. I don’t really know. I had moved to Jersey City and was thinking about other things. It just all seemed so difficult at the time.
Garden Variety: The Complete Discography 1991-1996 deluxe 3xLP box set is available now from Arctic Rodeo Recordings.
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