Joseph Michelini isn’t as much a survivor as he is an inspirer.
Having been a long-standing staple of the New Jersey coffee house scene, Michelini wasn’t very content just sitting around while strumming acoustic laments for baristas. Slowly he began introducing banjos and cellos into his set, and one man became three people, which soon became eight, which soon became River City Extension.
With a sound that seems to find a sweet spot that lies perfectly between Neutral Milk Hotel’s near-orchestral bombast and Modest Mouse’s popular brand of almost-cynicism, River City Extension makes full use of the various instruments at their disposal (cellos, trumpets, a djembe for Pete’s sake!), but never once plays them just for the sake of eclecticism. On The Unmistakable Man—the group’s second full-length—the Extension swerves between acoustic ballads (“Today, I Feel Like I’m Evolving”) and piano-lead group sing-a-longs (“Holy Cross”) with remarkable ease, the whole disc feeling like a unified statement while never sacrificing the need for a storming pop hook. It’s no wonder its live shows are as heralded as they are.
Shortly after the release of the band’s latest record, Michelini tackled PopMatters’ 20 Questions, revealing a deep-seated love of Paul Simon’s Graceland, the frustration over a stolen laptop filled with songs, and why life truly isn’t complete until you have heated toilet seats ...
1. The latest book or movie that made you cry?
Lately I have been crying at commercials. Blame it on menopause.
2. The fictional character most like you?
I think on the inside I am a little like Jason Schwartzman’s character Albert in the movie I Heart Huckabees, except maybe a little less environmentally conscious. In the movie, he is an insecure, freaked out late-‘20s environmental activist/poet who hires a pair of existential detectives to sooth his metaphysical woes; they end up following him in the process. He is equally disinterested and annoyed with the world as he is curious and naïve. That’s definitely me. Full of questions.
3. The greatest album, ever?
Man, I don’t know what kind of question is that ... to go out in public? Maybe a Paul Simon record. Graceland maybe. That’s such a heavy, loaded question though. For now we will say Graceland, until I think of something better.
4. Star Trek or Star Wars?
Star Wars. I have those glow-in-the-dark plastic pieces still stuck to my ceiling from when I was 11 or 12 years old. When I go to sleep at night, there are space ships, stars, all kinds of crazy stuff.. Episode 1 themed. A lot of people hate on those movies, but for me it was just more story than the originals. I wasn’t going into it as a film critic. I also had sheets, and the comforter. All kinds of junk.
5. Your ideal brain food?
Meeting new people. Though I will stand by the fact the most people drive me crazy, I love meeting new ones and trying to figure them out.
6. You’re proud of this accomplishment, but why?
I’m not sure I understand the question. On second thought, the best record could also be something by Modest Mouse, but I don’t know which record I would put my finger on.
7. You want to be remembered for . . . ?
I’d like to be responsible for changing music, in every aspect. I want to have a marketing plan for bands to follow, a feel to our shows that no one has, a diverse crowd that eventually becomes our crowd, a completely original sound, something the world didn’t know it needed. I guess anyone who does that and gets popular for it is really only reinventing pop music, but still, that’s not an easy thing to do. Introduce something completely new and still make it accessible to the world? That’s what I would like to be remembered for.
8. Of those who’ve come before, the most inspirational are?
My parents. It sounds cheesy, but in almost everything I do—music, life, whatever—the passion that they have for living and loving each other has been such a positive influence on me. Also, the inventor of the cheesesteak, as well the inventor of wet wipes . . . in that order.
9. The creative masterpiece you wish bore your signature?
The Midnight Organ Fight by Frightened Rabbit, or Animal by Margot and the Nuclear So and Sos . . . or I guess Graceland, but that record was a product of so many people, it just seems impossible to recreate. The other two, I’m workin’ on.
10. Your hidden talents . . . ?
I feel like I used to have these, and I have been recently so obsessed with playing music that I’m not sure I have any anymore. Thinking back to elementary school, I used to be able to make a whippoorwill call with my hands that was pretty convincing. I tried to do it the other day though at a party and I just ended up drooling everywhere.
11. The best piece of advice you actually followed?
One time I met Billy McCarthy from Pela at Bowery Ballroom after their headlining show there. I had the chance to tell him about how he had inspired me to start a band and write songs and how much his songs meant to me. Bill gave me a big hug, sat me down at the bar, and told me about why he wrote like he did, and where he came from. We sat there for a little bit and I was floored, I mean this was my idol at the time. I thanked him after we were done talking, and he looked me in the eye and said to me, “The only thing I ask is that when you are where I am now, that you do the same thing for someone else that I am doing for you.” That’s the best advice I’ve ever followed.
12. The best thing you ever bought, stole, or borrowed?
I mean that could be anything. How about, the best thing I ever had stolen from me. That was my laptop. Me and my friend were robbed one night and all my work to date disappeared in an instant. Recordings, unfinished songs, whatever. It was a good chance to start over and start writing other things and go in different directions.
13. You feel best in Armani or Levis or . . . ?
I don’t know what a Levis is.
14. Your dinner guest at the Ritz would be?
15. Time travel: where, when and why?
I don’t mess with that stuff. I’ve seen what happens. Chain reactions and all the stuff. I guess if I could go and observe a certain time period, it would be the 1920s in NYC. There is some kind of appeal to it . . . and I don’t like visiting NYC in general.
16. Stress management: hit man, spa vacation or Prozac?
I am a stressed/emotional eater. When I am upset, I sit in the kitchen and clean out the leftovers. It’s kind of a problem but I suppose it is not as bad as so many things that I could have a problem with.
17. Essential to life: coffee, vodka, cigarettes, chocolate, or . . . ?
Tea, whiskey, music, heated toilet seats.
18. Environ of choice: city or country, and where on the map?
Paris, France. I went there a few years ago and just loved it. What a great place.
19. What do you want to say to the leader of your country?
Sorry about the mess.
20. Last but certainly not least, what are you working on, now?
This piece of Trident in my mouth. Also, I am working on a new record. I’m writing new songs and getting demos down. Our “new” record seems so old already and it’s only been out for a month, or less. It’s always exciting to think about what else might be on the horizon, and I never stop writing . . . so yeah, this should be a great year.