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Joe Michelini: “Sudden Change Has Definitely Been a Theme in My Life.”

May 24, 2016


River City Extension, the raucous 8-piece indie rock band from Toms River, had a good run from the mid-00s until 2015. They toured extensively and shared the stage with some of the biggest indie rock acts of the era. Their music burst from the mind of founder/frontman Joe Michelini, backed by a horn player, a violinist and other very talented and passionate musicians.

But the band played their last show in November and several of the band members are now focusing on other projects.

Michelini has since moved to Philly and has been recording new music under the banner of American Trappist. On June 4th, he’ll perform the new material at Ortlieb’s.

We talked to him about his new music and life in Philadelphia. (Photo by Chris Loupos).

Where does the name American Trappist come from?

American Trappist worked for a few reasons. For the last couple of years I’ve fed myself a pretty steady diet of beer and Leonard Cohen.

When I think of Leonard Cohen, I think of a monastic approach to life and creativity, and it’s been healthy for me to adopt that approach in some ways. When I was in Belgium visiting the Trappist monasteries, something about their philosophy spoke to me. I felt peace. I knew I wanted my spirituality to be a part of what I was making, even if it had nothing to do with organized religion. I also wanted to make something new and distinctly American.

Coincidentally, St. Joseph’s Abbey in Massachusetts just started brewing beer. That makes their beer the first and only certified Trappist beer to be brewed in the United States. I think they are making something new and distinctly American. Both of us, of course, are also trying to pay the bills.

The songwriting and recording processes must have been more difficult in an 8-piece band like River City Extension. How have things been different on your own?

Things have been different in so many ways. Songwriting and what it means to me has changed a lot.

I feel more aware of myself and how what I’m writing represents or intentionally skews whatever I’m going through. I pay more attention to details now and more time is spent on every song. I would say it’s easier to get an intentional result that I’m really happy with.

At the same time, it’s still very much about sitting down and being open to that supernatural visitation that whispers an album in your ear. I think the biggest difference is that I now sit down more often. As an adult, writing becomes something you must do deliberately. A significant amount of my time is spent trying to quiet my heart and mind to better prepare myself for the next work. I still bounce a lot of ideas off a creative council made up of friends, musicians, etc.

I have no interest in the music industry or entertainment politics. This is also the first record I engineered on my own. A few friends came by to fill various roles but I spent most of that time alone. It was easier to get into the headspace I needed to do vocals, I think. That saved time and ultimately it was easier to gain momentum in a session. The whole thing was very fluid.

How does the music compare?

Hard to say. It’s all very linear to me. I’m rarely thinking about the last thing that I made while I’m making something new. I think it can be poisonous to look back and say “that’s not me anymore.” That’s now how time works, anyway.

It’s also weird that anyone tries to follow themselves up. I think that happens naturally if you’re open to growth and art that you don’t understand. The music is definitely different, but it came out how I heard it in my head for the most part. Learning to close the gap between my mind and the finished product has been a good thing for me. The more songs you hear, the more tools you gather, the easier it can be to do that.

I’ll always be grateful for the natural intervention that goes on, but it’s nice to be aware of what you’re responsible for and what just happened on its own. This album was picked while it was ripe. I think that has something to do with it all. I didn’t sit on it for a long time.

The new music will be released in three parts? How so, and why?

I decided to put it out in three pieces for a few reasons.

First, there was a better chance of everyone hearing every song. Second, I wanted to draw out the release process and make the record an event that lasted the entire summer. It’s an experiment. Maybe people will pay less attention. I’m not sure. But to me it made sense.

The other thing is that I wrote a lot of different types of songs after River City. We probably could have tried to produce them all with a similar vibe, but it seemed like more fun to really augment the production the individual songs were suggesting. What piece of the record each song ended up on was based on the mood it implied, all things considered: production, lyrics, etc. I think the three pieces sound good front to back one after the other as well.

The fact that all the songs were written in the same two years makes it an album to me. It’s a snapshot in that way. Maybe the stylistic differences will be jarring at points, but that’s life. You adapt and it informs who you are. Sudden change has definitely been a theme in my life recently and it shows on this record.

How did you wind up in Philadelphia?

My mom grew up in Bucks County and my Dad went to Temple, so as kids we never spent much time in New York. It’s been a long time coming and the timing was right. I wanted to make work in a new space and be surrounded by music and artists I didn’t know. Toms River is just over an hour away. It’s a good platform for myself and my fiancé to debut new material. It’s big but it feels small. We like that.

There is a big community of musicians here. Does being in Philly influence your sound at all? 

Yeah, definitely. I don’t know if the scene right now is directly influencing the music I’m making, but it influences the way I think about my music and about music in general. This record is definitely not what I would call the “Philly sound.” It’s nice to be part of a scene but I would never want “the sound” at any point in time to directly influence what I’m making. I’m not good enough at predicting trends anyway.

I think if there is a “sound” and it’s a new sound and it’s going to take more than one band to get that sound to the world, a scene can be a good thing. More often than not though, it’s one band getting popular and a bunch of other bands trying to catch a break by making something similar, and they’re willing to sacrifice their own identity to do that.

Everyone has unique work to offer. Telling someone else’s story from someone else’s perspective over your own story and perspective is a disservice to any scene and to art in general, in my opinion.

What’s been the best part about being here over the past few months?

I’ve met so many great people. It has forced me to understand things I didn’t want to understand or didn’t think I had to understand. Popping the bubble of the suburbs has been good for me.

What can we expect from the show at Ortlieb’s?

I’ll play all of the songs I’m going to release this summer. The arrangements will vary a bit from the record. It’ll be fun. Buy a ticket.

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