“I have to write songs”, that was one of the first sentences Frank Migliorelli spoke when we sat down together for IPA’s and Stout at the New York City dive bar institution Peter McManus in Chelsea. What followed was a long and winding discussion about music and life as Frank Migliorelli & The Dirt Nappers just released their second album Bass, Drums, Guitars and Organs. The songwriter, guitar player and frontman was in high spirits and the conversation was a pleasure to be a part of; for example when we started discussing what he was listening to today the back and forth could have lasted for hours.
Migliorelli has music flowing through his soul as he has run an independent music label and been a part of the big apple live scene for decades. He has played and been a mainstay at such varied historic NYC venues as Manny’s Car Wash and the Wetlands to modern day spots like the Lower East Side’s Leftfield and even expanding his reach to Westchester and The Green Growler.
While his live show fluctuates from solo outings (to work on the songwriting craft as he says) to full on band get downs, his last two albums have featured a talented host of players who has supported everyone from Buddy Rich to Buster Poindexter. The group’s first album in 2015 was titled City Eastern Serenade and it contained some studio polish and sheen over the straight ahead tales, it received positive reviews and gave him the confidence to keep the project flowing.
His newest release, Bass, Drums, Guitars and Organs is more organic and direct, an engaging mix of roots-rock that goes back to the basics in the genre. The live feel was something everyone strived for in the studio, wanting minimal overdubs when finishing the disk. In the end, Migliorelli and company have produced a winner in the vein of Tom Petty’s Wildflowers or early Wilco efforts. Check out our discussion below on the album, songwriting and more, then go and grab the new record.
Yeah, we got a great reaction from the first disk (City Eastern Serenade) with positive reviews and radio station reactions. WERU in Maine was one that reached out to us and was playing some songs; that was a nice supportive kick in the ass to keep going and write this disk.
How’d you and The Dirt Nappers come to be, who are these guys?
The Dirt Nappers basically came out of a crash and burn of my previous band (The Real Rough Diamonds). While that band had it moments, it never really gelled, and we recorded a record which I have since taken out of print and destroyed all but one copy (for posterity).
I wanted something different, something more focused and stripped down, and the Diamonds were too all over the place. I kept Duncan Cleary, the guitar player from that band, but pretty much left the rest behind. It was really frustrating because we had been together a few years and I didn’t hear the band progressing. Mark Minkler, the upright bass player from that band still plays with me and plays on the new Dirt Napper record, but he has tinnitus -so it’s hard for him to do live gigs with the full band, I like to get a bit loud every now and then, and that’s a tough situation for him to be in. One time I turned around on stage and he was wearing those hearing protectors that you wear when you are using a chainsaw….we burst out laughing. Great player though- Mink played with Buddy Rich years ago, and tells some great stories about being one of the many bass players who got fired.
Duncan Cleary also has an interesting background. He played for 13 years as the pit guitarist in The Big Apple Circus. I don’t know if you ever saw them, but they were a KILLER band. He and I always played well together, and he really listened to the tunes I wrote and worked on bringing good parts to them. Just a great feel, and a great rock and roll sensibility.
The new band has come together over the past year since our first release. It is real hard to hold together a band these days, especially since we aren’t playing all the time, but I’ve been fortunate to have a bunch of regular guys who have really brought it to both the recording studio and to gigs.
Tony Tino is on bass, he’s amazing and has been playing with me since I formed the Dirt Nappers. Great player, great feel, he was Gavin DeGraw’s bass player for a while, and regularly plays with Southside Johnny and the Jukes. Phil Cimino is a NYC based drummer who is rock solid and another great collaborator. Jeremy Baum is my go-to guy on organ, keys, and accordion. I’ve known Jeremy for over 20 years, he played keyboards on the late Bill Perry’s debut, which I produced and ended up selling to Point Blank Record’s. Jeremy has a great ear and has one of the most unbelievable touches on a B3 organ. He toured with Shemekia Copeland for years and occasionally is part of the touring Blues Brothers band.
Wow, that is a solid group of players.
Yeah, when we started recording this new record, Duncan had to bow out because of a few life changing events, so Andy Stack of the band Buffalo Stack jumped in to help. He’s another one of those guys who comes with great ideas and great chops. He’s occasionally playing with Amy Helm, Levon’s daughter. I love having a pedal steel around, so Mike “Booker” Heaphy has been both recording and playing with us. He’s a Bronx-born Irishman, a vet of the McClean Ave music scene in Yonkers, and backed up Steve Forbert on a number of tours.
In the studio, I’ve always had a great singer there to support me and Sherryl Marshall has been on both of the Dirt Napper records, she has such a great ear and tons of recording experience. She was in Buster Pointdexter’s band for years and has been on stage and in the studio with a list of rock and roll royalty that will knock you out. She’s also a great singer-songwriter and you should check out her stuff on Soundcloud. Eric Puente played percussion on a bunch of tunes, he occasionally also drums live with us, but he really knows the feel I’m looking for percussion-wise.
These players seem to be from all over and have played in a variety of acts, how do you wrangle them all?
I try to pull the full band together as much as possible, but a lot of times it’s a trio or duo thing, just because of the general music scene. Not too many places can handle a full band doing originals, and I want to make sure that everyone gets paid, so sometimes it doesn’t make economic sense to pull the full band. But when we do, it is SO good, these guys just feel it, and they know what I’m trying to get sonically.
Duke Ellington was asked once “How do you keep your band together?” He laughed and answered: “I pay them!”. I figure it this way, I got talented people who help me make my songs work, so I try as much as I can to reward them as professional musicians. It’s hard, but those are the rules. While we love playing music, we also like to eat and pay the rent, so I can’t expect to have a great band of people and not reward them. To me, it’s the difference between having a nice weekend band that has a few beers and shuffles through tunes, or working with people who really WORK on making the music great. I can sit around by myself with a six-pack and shuffle through tunes…..but I’d rather do it this way.
Your newest release is titled Bass, Drums, Guitars and Organs which alludes to the ‘back-to-basic-rock-and-roll’ contained on the disk, but I have to think the plural “Organs” may reveal something uh, more personal? Relationships seem to be the root of all the lyrics or am I over analyzing things?
That’s funny, I hadn’t thought of it that way, and you are the second person who made that inference. My publicist was putting together the press release for the record and made a reference to the idea that “organ” referred to someone’s heart. I think that is a nice association but honestly, I didn’t mean it that way. The first record we did in October of 2015 was done through a lot of overdubs, multiple people playing on tunes, and took a long time to put together. I like the record, but I was really just starting to get my head into producing a real record again, and there are definitely things I wanted to do differently the second time around.
I love the sound of a band playing and recording with the least amount of overdubs and takes as possible. I think The Black Crowes, The Faces, and the Stones capture that feel on a number of their recordings. I wanted to have that kind of discipline this time, so I kept the instrumentation down, just Bass, Drums, Guitars and Organs. No horns, no synths, no layers and layers of stuff, if we were overdubbing, we would do it for specific parts or ideas, but we didn’t feel like we had to do it on every song. I kept saying “I just wanna keep it to bass, drums, guitars, vocals and organs”- that’s the production goal. We came close the only sampled sounds were the string hits and the viola on the last cut. I just couldn’t get a good string section together, so I opted for the samples, which I was pretty happy with.
So the title was sort of my production mantra. The corresponding cover art just came to me as a funny way of representing the words in the title.
I think that stripped down ethos comes through directly.
Yeah, we had a sense of playing the basic tune live, stopping, asking “Did that work? Yeah? Boom!” and moving on. These are three-minute pop songs and we wanted to get them out there.
There is a cinematic quality to your songwriting and sound, where do you take inspiration when crafting these numbers?
Honestly, I’m not really sure where most of the tunes come from, I don’t try and sit down and just write a song, different things pop in my head, and I manage to turn them into songs. I’ve been listening to music since I’ve been born, so I’m steeped in it. I always have a radio or record on. I’m sure it drives people around me crazy sometimes, but I do constantly have music on as much as possible. I hate TV. I’ll take my stereo anytime!
I guess I tend to do a bit of storytelling in my songs. A song like “Rafferty Train” tells the story of people who want to escape, who need to find something different, we’ve all felt that way at some point; imagine having the balls to just pack a bag and jump on a train? That song was inspired by a story that someone told in a documentary of the life of Gerry Rafferty. He kind of tried doing that at one point but I took the idea and ran with it.
That track does feel like a short indie film.
Some of the tunes are just Boyce-Hart inspired ditties. I grew up with an AM radio in the 60’s they would play ANYTHING. One moment I heard Motown, the next minute bubble gum, then a Doors song.
But then you hear Dylan, Springsteen or Waits tell a story, and you learn about telling stories. Listen to the Clash or the Jam take on politics, I would love to push myself to write like that even more, I got a ways to go
On the new album there are some pretty clear musical influences. Tom Petty and Wilco jump out, but what are you listening to these days?
Yea- Petty definitely. Always was a Stones fan. I love Paul Weller, he’s always taking chances. I think Steve Van Zandt is an underrated songwriter. I mentioned Boyce-Hart, Motown- That stuff totally is in my head-I can still throw on a Monkees album and dig it. As I grew up I became more aware of blues, soul and R&B, I’m a huge Stax fanatic, Booker T and that house band was amazing. I recently picked up a 10 disc Otis Redding box set, it totally blew me away.
I’ll listen to Dinah Washington anytime. She kills me, that woman was one of the most amazing blues/soul singers ever.
I am excited for the new Spoon record and the new Garland Jeffreys record. Spoon is probably my favorite band of the past 10 years. I really like they way they write, record and just have a great energy about them. Totally under appreciated. I’ve been playing Alejandro Escovedo a lot, his new album is pretty balls out sonically, I love the way he brings serious guitars to the mix and there’s a real rough edge sensitivity there in his songs, beautiful stuff. I’m digging the new Thievery Corporation record, those guys are great. Radio Retaliation is a masterpiece.
Both “Baby Put A Dress On” and “Wound Up Woman” feels like throwbacks to the 50’s or at least a Springsteen shore song, what was the inspiration for these as they almost seem companion pieces for Friday and Saturday Night?
I’d be lying if I said I didn’t want people rolling down the car windows in the summer and blasting those tunes. “Wound Up Woman” was a finalist in the Great American Song Competition, they thought it was “vintage cool”.
I wrote “Put a Dress On” as a tune that the band could open a set with, I love coming out and killing it right away. I love the way it came out on the album, Tony Tino really pushed the arrangement a bit, and Andy laid down this weird modal guitar line, sort of took it into the Beatles “Revolver” type sound. Eric Puente played percussion on it, it is amazing how the congas and the claves drive that tune.
Oh yeah, Fire Cracker Lounge, I stole the name of that place from Peter Wolf. He mentions it on his rap before the band kicks into “Musta Got Lost” on a live J.Geils album. He said something like “That’s only gossip that you’re hearing down at the Firecracker Lounge”. Don’t ask me why but stuff like that sticks in my head.
Turns out the is or was a real Fire Cracker Lounge in L.A. and Brad Nowell from Sublime recorded some bootleg performance there, supposedly legendary…..but I never heard it.
Staying in that throwback vein, did you record this album any differently or take that spirit into the studio?
Hell yeah! I wanted to keep it simple and we were producing it ourselves, so that was a little risky because it could’ve gotten out of hand, but everyone was really good at sticking to the plan.
We really didn’t do a lot of takes everyone came in and played parts, but it was really funny, there weren’t tons of tracks to weed through, and I mixed the album pretty quickly. We also recorded the drums and bass in a big live room. We used the studio kit I keep around the studio and even played a few weird things. We used a cajon as a kick drum, and Toca makes this hybrid snare/tambourine thing called a “snamborine”- which sounded great on some songs. We even mixed up the bass tracks between electric, upright and fretless. I think we had all the rhythm tracks done in about 8 to 10 hours. We probably could’ve done the whole record in two weeks if everyone’s schedule jived, but, it took a bit longer to coordinate.
How about the vocals? You mentioned you were more songwriter than singer, but that you were very happy with the results.
Vocally, I felt so much more confident in the studio this time around. I have some great mic pre-amps that just captured the sound, and I tried to nail the vocals in one or two takes; we wanted it to be as alive as possible!
My next goal is to get everyone in a room and do a live recording like the Crowes have done- some acoustic stuff, some more rocking, some just solo- I don’t know- I just want to try it. I was just listening to “Hard Again” by Muddy Waters, you feel like you are in the room with those guys when you hear that record. I would love to try that…
You close the album with the excellently titled “Former Femmes Fatales and Romeos” that deals with middle age and possible new beginnings via a soft sadness but also some hope for the future, can you talk about this track and the sequencing of it last on the album?
That’s actually a tune from back in the Real Rough Diamonds days, we used to do it as a more upbeat, pop thing. One day I was just messing around with it on an acoustic, and I capo’d the guitar up a few frets, and a whole new feel came out. I called up Mink and said, “When you get a chance, swing by, I need you to play on something“. He’s a great bow player, so the bass parts are really nice on that. We shot a demo of it and it really worked, so I wanted to put it on the album. I’m basically a singer-songwriter, I guess, so I wanted to have one all acoustic thing on the record. It came out so well, kind of haunting in a way, that I thought after all these guitars and drums, it would be a nice way to bring it down. The Bodeans did that on their first album with the tune “Looking for Me Somewhere”, I always loved that T-Bone Burnett produced that, and I thought I’d try it.
To me it’s a sad song, I obviously wrote it about some people’s lives, when you jump on a train every morning and slog into the city, some people look so friggin’ miserable. Don’t get me wrong, I love where I live, Croton is a great town, but I’d be lying if I said there were never days when you look around and say “What the fuck did I buy into????” Some people never get out of that funk and just complain and do nothing, get miserable, live in the past on Facebook. Fuck that, I got things I want to do. I’m glad you heard a twinge of hope in “Former Femmes”- bottom line is you can’t stop time, so you might as well roll with it, and make the best of what you got.
Did you take from your personal life on other tracks?
“Someone Else’s Dream” and “I’ve Been On My Knees” are also more personal tunes on the record. “Knees” was about losing a few people close to me a short period of time and realizing that I really don’t buy into the whole praying thing. That doesn’t work for me. “Dream” basically was written about watching my old man fade into dementia and I’m stuck cleaning up all his old business dealings. I told my kids that if they turn out to be songwriters, I hope they never write a song like that.
Wow that is tough, so let’s finish this on a more positive note, is “Wound Up Woman” a true life tune?
Ha! “Wound Up Woman” In some ways, I can totally relate to the woman in that song. I can’t stop playing the fucking guitar, I can’t stop cranking the stereo until the police show up and the lease gets shredded, I can’t stop going to rock and roll shows. And we all know a woman or two like that.