Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Drop Nineteens: An oral history as told by four alumni

Three former Drop Nineteens meet up for the first time in many years 9/20/17
L-R: Pete Koeplin, Steve Zimmerman, Justin Crosby

Hi readers,

This article has been updated with Paula Kelley’s input, more photos, and an interactive map on Boston Hassle. Check back on Square Cotton Candy for some non-Boston related reading at some point after you read the revised and expanded Drop Nineteens story.

-Tom Faix


When it comes to classic shoegaze acts, few are more overlooked than Boston’s Drop Nineteens.  Though they were one of the first American bands to gain momentum within the scene, both their style and lineup went through a series of distinctive revisions in their rather short career before unceremoniously disintegrating.  Granted, they’ve ranked on certain best-of-the-genre lists and even still enjoy occasional college radio airplay, but in this era of deluxe reissues and critical reappraisal, their story has remained largely untold. As such, Drop Nineteens detectivism was among my first priorities upon arrival in Boston this year. With the Autumnal Equinox nearing, the trail of clues led me to Jamaica Plain’s Midway Cafe, where I was joined by bassist Steve Zimmerman, a founding member, as well as drummer Pete Koeplin and lead guitarist Justin Crosby from the group’s later period. At a corner table, we discussed the Drop Nineteens experience at length before Koeplin took the stage with The Chris Brokaw Rock Band. Afterwards, I reached original drummer Chris Roof, who was kind enough to shed some additional light on their earlier days. From these discussions, Square Cotton Candy is honored to present, for the first time, the Drop Nineteens story in depth and in [most of] their own words.

Formed in 1990 as In April Rain, the band coalesced under the leadership of Boston University student Greg Ackell. Roof recalls, “ I played in a couple of bands with Greg when we were in high school at Northfield Mount Hermon School. I don’t think either of us realized we were both going to BU, but once we bumped into each other we talked about putting another band together, and we ultimately did, first rehearsing in my dormitory’s basement music room, then the basement of a frat house in Allston.” Even though just starting out at college, Ackell had conditioned himself an A student of new wave. “He was the person who came from boarding school, had played in bands, had done covers, really knew New Order, the Smiths, the Cure, had some vision about songs that he wanted to write that were his own originals, and could lead the thing at that young age,” observed Zimmerman, who along with lead guitarist Motohiro Yasue, completed the first incarnation of the band’s lineup.

At this early stage in their career, developing their sound and repertoire was undertaken organically, without the pressure of live appearances. “Somebody would come in with a riff, than we’d work it for hours/days/weeks until it began to turn into an actual song,” explained Roof.  From this experimentation came a sound that mixed the atmospheric guitar layers and co-ed harmonies exemplified by predecessors My Bloody Valentine and Slowdive, as well as distinctive lead guitar hooks reminiscent of classic 80’s dance-pop. Though still a four-piece, additional vocal duties on early recordings were handled by then-part-timer Paula Kelley, who was classically trained and shared an affinity for top 40 radio with Ackell.

Their second demo (and first as Drop Nineteens), Mayfield, served to elevate the band’s out of town profile while still being completely unknown at home.  British publications like New Musical Express were impressed, and over the state border in New Hampshire, the buzz also finally landed Drop Nineteens live bookings. Roof recollected, “I believe [the first gig] was at UNH. Their radio station had picked up a copy of one of our demos and there seemed to be a bunch of interest there. The dark, live pictures that ended up [inside of the CD insert for] Delaware were taken at that show by my friend Turlock.”

After attracting some positive attention from the press and getting a taste of the stage, the band was ready to record again. Zimmerman explained, “with the momentum we decided it was great to get in for the Summer Session, we called it, to do four quick songs. We went into the room with the intention of writing the EP as quickly as possible, and we felt like we had solid enough ideas to rent the equipment, and then like sort of isolate ourselves, and lay down the basics of what we had come out with, and then finish them up and get it out. So the Summer Session, which had what’s really called ‘Damom’, not Damon, ‘Song For JJ’, 'Soapland', and ‘Back in Our Old Bed’... it’s not part of Mayfield [as is often mis-cannonized by fans and bootleggers alike]. There was actually a continuation, to try to maintain interest in the press. Show that we’re still writing, creative, and evolving, ‘cause that sound was even more washed out, even less immediate than the Mayfield demos.”

The Summer Session took Drop Nineteens’ signature blend in a new direction, but for reasons now forgotten, a temporary vocal vacancy needed to be filled. This responsibility ultimately landed with a mononymous Hannah. “I think Hannah knew Greg from someplace but am not sure…Paula was never formally in the band when we recorded [The In April Rain and Mayfield demos]. I’m not sure why she didn’t do the [Summer Session], but once we started talking with record companies she formally joined us,” reflected Roof.

Industry attention gradually built up over the approximately three months following the Summer Session, with the live show becoming increasingly important. Roof continued, “the talk with record companies really picked up after we played our own show as a part of the CMG festival in what was literally the meat packing district back then in NYC. I had to do sound and play the drums. I’m sure it sounded interesting, but it was a pure and raw show, which many of them were.”

During this time, a few labels came and went from the negotiating table. Zimmerman reveals, “Cherry Red was the very, very first label to even offer, to put something on the table and say we’d like to do an album. Theirs was a tiny little deal, but Cherry Red was the first one to really sort of believe in us. We didn’t go with them, but there was quite a number of months where we were in talks with them, but then the other conversations started with other labels, and Caroline was a great fit for us.”  

A sub-brand of Virgin, Caroline was, as put by eventual member Crosby, “a packaging deal essentially. It was an image deal to test bands out for viability.” In the early ‘90s, Caroline had built its reputation as a seal of quality for the exploding alternative rock scene, boasting releases by leading acts like Smashing Pumpkins, Primus, and John Spencer Blues Explosion. Later addition Koeplin reminisced, “when you were going to like TapeWorld and looking for cassettes and records Caroline was like, you’d go and you look at like Caroline records, [and say] ok I’ll give that a shot.” 

On catching Caroline’s attention, Zimmerman remembered, “when we played with Chapterhouse they were there for the last few minutes, and it was our cover [of Madonna’s] ‘Angel’ that they saw. That’s all they saw, but, sometimes things go really well and that song that night sounded good. We were very manic. Greg was bleeding from the strumming from the show. So it was a real scene, bumping into everyone, but all of the starts and stops, and the wah that Moto was doing and whatnot. Everything was flawless, for that few minutes that Virgin happened to show up. So [it] made an impression, and so they contacted us more after. It didn’t become a frenzy, but it was enough for them to say, ok, we’ve heard about this, we showed up in time, we caught a little bit, and it started the conversation.”

With a deal in hand from Caroline, the band had a few potential routes to choose from for their debut. After all, there was already an album’s worth of quality songs on the promo-only demos that could have easily been redone in hi-fi, but creative complacency was never part of the equation for the now-quintet. As such, a complete refresh of material became the preferred option. On this juncture, Zimmerman elaborated, “there was so much backlash in the press about shoegaze and the scene that celebrates itself at that time, and because our interests were growing, we deliberately had a meeting, sat down and said how do we all feel about scrapping everything that we’ve made, which we know was a lot of to get to this point, but now that we do have a developmental deal, we are going to make an album. Write another all new album, and the way that [the Summer Session] was so fast to just crank out, those four songs and put them down, we had a lot of confidence that, sure, we’ll make an album. And so we set out to write songs of Delaware, wanting them to be more immediate, a little bit more of our own sound, ‘cause the [Summer Session] was even more Slowdive than maybe Drop Nineteens.”

To record their debut full-length, Delaware, the band entered Boston’s Downtown Recorders while still juggling school commitments. “A little bit hinged on our college schedule, so we were fortunate enough that we had some support from families to be in college, and we knew that if we weren’t in college, we wouldn’t have that same support. So we did classes and wrote, and then if we, when were touring and recording, that that was part of the record company’s momentum, or contract let’s say”, explained Zimmerman. “So we sort of planned it so that it could be one or the other, cause we were too young to really…we didn’t wanna’ get jobs yet and we were too young to support.”

Released in 1992, Delaware was as diverse as it was mysterious, featuring eccentricities like “Ease It Halen”, whose lyrics were constructed from Van Halen song titles, the epic soundscape-sandwiched-soliloquy “Kick The Tragedy”, subdued acoustic numbers like “Baby Wonder’s Gone” and “My Aquarium”, their winning Madonna cover “Angel”, and lead single “Winona”, which gained some traction on MTV’s 120 Minutes program. Like so many discs of artistic merit, Delaware was well received overseas, but it didn’t do much to warm Drop Nineteens’ peers up to them.

Regarding their standing in the US scene, Kelley commented toExcellent Online in 2002, “because we circumvented the system of playing around at local clubs before "making it" we were rather resented by bands who were doing that.” Still, they were invited to play SubPop’s now legendary Vermonstress festival in Burlingtion, VT that year alongside esteemed contemporaries such as Velocity Girl and Beat Happening. As Roof remembers it, “[though I] do recall being intimidated to play at Vermonstress…it did really pump us up, and we played one of the most raw and in your face shows I remember that night.”  For Drop Nineteens, the Vermonstress experience stood somewhere between playing packed crowds in New York City and nearly vacant halls in Ohio during the Delaware era, but the highs and lows would become much more pronounced after  another visit to the studio.

“The record company said it would be good to have more music out before touring. We also wanted to show how much our sound had evolved at that time,” commented Roof on the Your Aquarium EP, which contained a souped up version of the Delaware track and the group’s take on Barry Manilow’s smash “Mandy”.  With the short new disc ready, Drop Nineteens headed to Europe.

As a group, life on the road was rocky and being so far from their home continent seemed to aggravate mounting tensions. Roof explained, “we did band things together, and a couple of social things, but not many. Greg and Steve were tight for a bit. On the road Greg and Steve shared rooms and Moto and I did.” However, for as much as Kelley enjoyed the traveling and performing aspects of touring, she found this band’s European tour to be exasperating, and before long she had to confront the creative and personal disagreements she experienced. With the prospect of a US trek to follow, Kelley announced she would leave the band at the conclusion of the tour.

Her departure would serve to initiate a radical transformation in the group as a whole. To fill the void left by her absence, Megan Gilbert was brought in as her successor. Almost immediately though, Roof would also make his exit and a new drummer would be sought.  Enter Koeplin, who recalled, “I actually met Greg through a friend of mine, Phil Mastrellis, who was a skateboard buddy of mine in high school. He’s also mentioned in Kick the Tragedy when it’s like, ‘fucking Phil is off…’. That’s my friend, Phil Mastrellis…my late friend. He died in ’95, but Greg came and saw me play with my band Flipside back in high school, in my basement. He was visiting Phil, and [they] came into my basement, and Greg had, you know, Rayban glasses on or something, and watched me play for literally like, I don’t know, a minute; like 30 seconds, and then left. And then I got a call a year later from Phil saying ‘dude, uh Greg’s looking for a drummer. I don’t know, opportunity might be knocking.’”

For Koeplin the prospect of hitting the road with a professional band seemed more enticing than hitting the books at UMass Amherst and worth taking a serious chance on. He continued, “Greg called me. I talked to him; he said ‘we’re gonna’ be recording a new record. We’re gonna’ be doin’ like a tour, a national or international tour. It was something, and so why don’t you go to the record store and find Delaware and the Your Aquarium EP, and listen to ‘em and come to Boston in a week and audition?’ And I was like, ‘well ok then’. So I went and I found the records and I listened to ‘em and I went in and that’s where I met Steve, Greg, and Megan? Was it? Cause I never actually met Paula Kelley. I still haven’t met her to this day. I don’t know if it was Megan or just [Steve], and Greg, and myself, and we just ran through a bunch of stuff...and maybe Moto might have been there. I ended up doing two shows with Moto, but I got that call like a week later saying we want you to join the band. We’re gonna’ be opening for Smashing Pumpkins in two weeks, and for me it was like the dream call, like are you kidding me? ‘Mom and dad, I think I’m gonna’ leave school to play in this band. I think its gonna’ be something serious.’ And that’s exactly what happened. Two weeks later, we were driving down [to Atlanta] in the blizzard of 1993 to play with Smashing Pumpkins.”

For the time being, Yasue still held down lead guitar duties next to the two new members, though it’s possible that he may have been just sticking around a little longer to tie his show count with Roof and Kelley. Such conjecture is based on Roof’s clarification (regarding if he ever played live between the Kelley and Gilbert eras) that “the only time we played [as] a four-piece was when Moto wasn’t allowed to cross the US-Canada border so we put him on a bus to Detroit, and we played Montreal and Toronto without him.” In any case, his time with Drop Nineteens ended without any shortage of adventure.

Zimmerman described the trip as “that storm that that movie [The Perfect Storm] is based on, where the whole eastern seaboard just got pummeled. So even down in Atlanta, I remember being in Atlanta and nobody knew what to do.” Koeplin added, “it was a ghost town. Yeah, we heard on the radio, ‘The Smashing Pumpkins show has been cancelled tonight and we don’t know where Drop Nineteens are’, and we were like an hour outside of Atlanta and going like ‘we’re there, we’re coming! We’re right here!’ It happened though. It was the next night, right? They just put it off for a night and we stayed like two nights in Atlanta.”

Upon returning from their blizzard journey, Yasue parted ways with Drop Nineteens and the new incarnation of the band was about to leap into a new writing cycle with a new lead guitarist. As Koeplin remembers it, “when I first joined, it was learning Delaware and Your Aquarium, but it was immediately like, we got a practice space, which was underneath Jillian’s on Lansdowne street, and it was the four of us. I mean after Moto; after they told me Moto was gone I was like, ‘well my cousin Justin can play guitar.’”

Crosby turned up about a month after the Smashing Pumpkins gig, having done his due diligence with the Delaware album. On his initial experience, Crosby explains, “I was under the impression that that’s what we were going for, so I was surprised when we started writing so different, but my entrance in was kind of right into the writing phase for National Coma. So cognitively it seemed like it didn’t make sense to me, but I mean it was just, you know, it was just sort of adaptive to [Ackell]. Ironically, I listen to Delaware a lot and I was quite a fan of that album before starting the writing process.”

Whereas Delaware was inspired from Slowdive and My Bloody Valentine, the writing of National Coma appeared to take more cues from the modular, work-tape approach of avant-garde bluesman Captain Beefheart. Koeplin elaborates: “The four of us had a practice space and Greg [would come] in with a part, and he would say, he was like ‘I got this’, and he would play something, and we would record onto like a boombox.  Greg would come in with a part, then Steve would know something too, and I would try a beat to it, and then Justin would try something.  And we’d record that part, and then it would be like ok, here’s the next part, and we would do things in pieces, to the point where, by the time we got to Syntex Studios to record, Greg was on the box going, ‘let’s try this part’, and fast forward, and he would go ‘and this part’, and we’d put them together and make a song. Which is, to me, was kind of like, maybe why National Coma sounded [exactly like that].”

“Cuban” was the first tune worked out for National Coma, which garnered a mixed reaction from both Caroline’s office and Koeplin’s parents alike. He joked that “after that BAM BAM, you know I think that no one knew quite what to do with that.” Zimmerman, however, maintained that the label saw promise in the group’s new direction. “Caroline liked that one. They were like woah. So they were very excited to hear what was next, cause it had some of the classic elements of Greg and Megan’s vocals, the male/female vocals. It didn’t sound like shoegaze anymore but it had a softness to it and it sounded like it could be an evolution and that other songs that were coming behind this, which the other songs were nothing like it.”

The label's puzzlement grew as more songs were submitted. “They were really excited about it, and then they got the rest of the album. After a while our A&R guy said, ‘I think it actually might be genius’, but they had a real hard time figuring how to market this. What do we do with this?” reflected Zimmerman. “It was always like, well what’s the single? And the closest we could even get to an answer was ‘The Dead’. [Note: “Limp” was ultimately issued as the single from National Coma.] We just took a left turn. We said no to some producers.  We looked at some producers. They actually asked Jimmy Destri from Blondie, the keyboardist. We met with him, sat with him, and were like, nah we’re not sure, we’re not sure if we’re really gonna’ comingle so well. And we really wanted J. Mascis, but he was busy. He had heard about it, he did have interest, but he couldn’t, the time, the schedule wouldn’t work, so we just did it ourselves”.

The final product that was National Coma reflected the breadth of the revamped band’s collective personality, but didn’t exactly captivate Delaware’s audience anew. As Zimmerman posited, “the demos did great, Delaware did great, and so when you always do great you don’t think that people who want to listen to what you do aren’t gonna’ accept the next thing, even if it’s a turn. And when you’re that age, also, you don’t necessarily understand sound. What it was that might be your trademark, your own brand, your trademark and your sound, and think that if you completely crumble it and make a different thing what that might mean to the audience or to the company who has decided that they’re gonna’ make an album with you based on a certain sound. It’s a pretty interesting thing.”

Now having a pair of mismatched sounding records in stores, Drop Nineteens hit the road with in support of National Coma with a setlist Koeplin likened to shuffling the deck. “ I don’t know if I could go back and listen to that set now, what that must’ve sounded like… to go from ‘Winona’ to ‘7/8’,” opined Zimmerman. However, much like the Delaware-era tours, show attendance sharply contrasted from show to show. Koeplin recalls, “when we were playing in the UK… until we played the Reading Festival, we were on that stage and playing the songs. By that time, I remember people jumping around and dancing, but there were a lot of club shows where there was like 20 feet of nobody, and a crowd of people watching doing absolutely nothing but just watching. And I didn’t know if it was because it was…such a divergent thing. Like, they couldn’t put A and B together and figure out like how is this gonna’ work together. It was still like trying to figure it out, you know.”

Also like the prior version of the band’s time on the road, moments joking around punctuated the season’s rising tensions. Koeplin, for example, relayed a time when, “we wrote Radiohead sucks on the wall at one point, at one of the clubs,” with Crosby adding, “[that] the irony is, I remember we were at the Reading Festival and we were all knocking Radiohead, like we were knocking Creep….and here they are, one of my favorite bands, like over time, oh my God they evolved into this behemoth of something authentic. And there, that just shows you the maturity level I was at for sure.”  However, even incidents like this though proved unable to preserve the National Coma-era Drop Nineteens as they were.

Looking back on that incarnation’s unraveling, Crosby stated, “it just kind of very quickly ramped up to that, and I remember there was always some tension there, but it was very abrupt.” Koeplin elaborated that “no one got fired, but at the immediate aftermath of the National Coma tour, which ended like Christmas, December of [1993], Greg’s like , ‘hey, I’m flying everybody home’, and we were like thank God.  So we all went home. I got a call from Greg in like January, and it said that, ‘I don’t think that Steve or Meg, or Megan are gonna’ come back. I’m not sure about Justin,’ and I think he asked me do you wanna’ like, who do you know that, like, would wanna’ play? Like, what do you wanna’ do? And, I was like, well, you know, without any hint of like, like I’m so sorry that’s happening, which is what it would be now, I was like, well, I know my friend Craig Rich plays bass, and I, so we, there was a couple formations of the band that came, and we demoed a few things.”

The post-National Coma demos, pitched to London/Polygram, nearly earned the band a new major label deal but, in Koeplin’s view, “the wheels were falling off by then.” Some creative fire remained in their stove, but as Crosby put it, “it felt like it was musical chairs, where it was just so like rapid where it was like pace kept picking, and then boom, suddenly [Steve’s] gone, Megan’s gone and it was just…and you know, I’m in because they were replacing, it was like, it was kind of like The Cure [with] the ever-rotating cast of characters, which is unfortunate. It just seems like there was nothing to latch onto that I could understand from an authentic perspective.”

Crosby also attributes a lack of outside involvement to the ultimate halt Drop Nineteens met, stating, “it wasn’t one of those bands where you had your, say 40% of your gigs were DIY, where you were calling when you had like off time and setting up weird little tours around the state, like, and … I don’t know if that was unique to our situation, where bands, you know, where they’re insulated by a label. ‘Cause it’s interesting to see that I feel like that was another thing that would have helped glue everything together, if there was this ethic of just  like keeping us playing and, you know, and gigging when we were in between albums. You know, like that’s sort of really is the heart and soul of what keeps a band alive when they’re not recording. I think the problem was we never had someone actively on the periphery keeping us glued together.” Contemplating how the band might have been able to survive, Zimmerman added, “if there was a producer involved or a manager who’s very strong and just said there’s some differences, there’s some things going on here. I don’t know if you should still be Drop Nineteens, but I see something here, let’s take this and now go make another album. We’re gonna’ rebrand it maybe. We’re gonna’ do something else.”

Such a rebrand did eventually occur, with Ackel, Koeplin, and Rich briefly continuing as Fidel. A four-piece also including keyboardist Chris Coates, Fidel recorded a full length album and played a few live dates, but the record only made to bootleg status. Koeplin relayed, “we played Mama Kin's before Mama Kin's closed, and I, and I mean, I think Greg is a, God bless him man, he’s a creature of like, wants to like, he, when he’s into something, when he’s into the project and he’s interested in it he does it for all it’s worth, but the minute that it kind of like, maybe isn’t going to be worth it to a certain, or he doesn’t see it in the long haul, like that band just kind of fizzled out. We practiced, you know, we worked hard, but then like most bands, it’s like, it just came to a point where we just didn’t  practice anymore, and if no one’s gonna’ book a show like, who’s gonna’ do what? You know, it’s bands just kinda’ come and go if you’re not like actively, if no one’s actively booking the band, and saying we’re practicing tomorrow, you know, how does a band survive?”

Before long, even Fidel ceased activity and, as the mid-‘90s progressed into the late 90s, the Drop Nineteens alumni all moved on with their lives. Starting with Hot Rod, Kelley built a substantial music career on her own terms, eventually founding the Paula Kelley Orchestra before pursuing a career in television and film composition in LA. Crosby too carved out a niche composing, with his work appearing in household name media ranging from Dexter to WWE. Roof recounts having, “played with a few friends’ bands for a while after [leaving Drop Nineteens] and [doing] sound for others as well, including briefly at Club Passim in Harvard Square.” Koeplin continued active involvement in the local music scene, being the longtime drummer for rockers Kahoots (among other acts), while Gilbert resurfaced circa 2010 as part of New York duo La Marcha.

In recent times, the nostalgia cycle has made the shoegaze reunion scene a thriving one, but Drop Nineteens have remained one of the few conspicuous absentees. Surprisingly, this isn’t for lack of effort. Zimmerman explained, “I remember [in Summer 2001] where we sat and I remember talking about [making a new Drop Nineteens album]. Paula had momentum with things that she was doing, and we just couldn’t come to an agreement on it. And then that was it. I think we had one practice session, Greg and I, and then he called me the next day and said we’re not gonna’ do this. So we could have called Megan, we could have looked for other people, um, we hadn’t actually reformed the band or done anything yet, but it was just a thought, and that started with, well we know the sound of Greg and Paula’s voice together is what, is desirable, at least under that name of Drop Nineteens. And when that was already, when she was already saying I’m gonna’ pass on that and it wasn’t right for her, it just didn’t seem like there was a point.” Fast-forward to 2017 and the proposition still isn’t unanimous, as Crosby stated, “I don’t know if I’m, I think I’m too old for it.” Koeplin, on the other hand, is more enthusiastic. While noting that Ackell is “generally not too interested in rehashing the past”, he persists, “I’ll always ask for a reunion, and I will never get one, but it’s ok. I’ll keep asking. I think I asked Steve last week…[but]it’s gotta’ be all or nothing. I mean Greg’s gotta’ be involved if that’s gonna’ happen.” And so, as it stands, Boston’s Drop Nineteens remain strictly a phenomenon of the past, but at least their name is still an available vanity plate!

1 comment:

  1. thanks for this. really informative. what the heck does Ackell do now? can't find anything on the guy!