BR: The New Riders are averaging, what – a hundred shows a year or more, right?
RP: Yeah, it’s so fun. It’s amazing to be playing with those guys – it really is.
In the meantime – between the cracks in my schedule with the New Riders – the Neon Gods got more serious about things and became the Ronnie Penque Band.
The thing is, when I get home off the road and have a chance to relax, these new ideas just start coming into my head, you know? The writing just seems to happen. So whenever I got off tour, that’s what I would do – write songs and work them up with the band.
BR: And, of course, in the meantime, the other players in your band have their own things going on …
RP: Exactly – so that sometimes makes it difficult for us to book studio time or schedule live gigs or whatever. We’ve all done what we had to do to make it work.
BR: So when did the recording process for Only Road Home actually begin?
RP: We went in about a year ago – October of ’09. After about six months of getting together when we could, we had most of the album done. Almost all of the tracks were recorded live with only a few overdubs here and there. I’m pleased with the result for my first attempt at producing – but I had a great teacher.
BR: I noticed the “special thanks” in the liner notes to Michael Falzarano, your New Riders bandmate.
RP: Yeah – exactly. Michael’s produced I don’t know how many records by other artists and he’s good at it. He’s one of the best.
Michael was very busy when I was getting serious about doing this record – he just didn’t have the time to come in and produce it himself. But the great thing was, he allowed me to pick his brain along the way. “Hey, Michael, I’m at this point and doing this and that; what do you recommend?” And he’d say, “Try this” or “try that.” “Go here.” “Go there.”
Michael really helped me deal with any problems I ran into during the production of the album. He’s a great teacher – and I like to learn. I’m the one who’s always leaning over the console when someone else is working it, pushing buttons and asking “What’s this do?” (laughs)
BR: So before we talk about specific tracks in the album, I need to tell you something … and I hope you’re going to be okay with it.
RP: (laughs) Yeah?
BR: Well, as I often do, the first time I really listened to the new album, I was driving and making little notes on a pad on my knee, okay? And song after song, I kept coming up with these Dead comparisons – not in a sound-alike way, but totally a Dead vibe throughout the songs.
RP: Ahh – that. (laughs) Yeah, we had to come face-to-face with that. (laughs)
Look, everybody in the band has all come from the Grateful Dead College. It’s in our blood; it’s in our veins; it’s who we are. It would be much more difficult to fight with it, you know? And it’s not something I feel we need to apologize for … I’m actually proud of it. I hope people know that I’m just being me; we’re all being ourselves.
BR: Cool. The album gets rolling with “Thunder & Lightning”; Jeff’s keyboards caught my ear right off the bat with those classic Melvin-like swells. It makes a big soft bed for the rest of you to bounce on, but at the same time he never overplays.
RP: Absolutely – very tasty. I love the guy and he’s a great player. The whole album was done with a really nice sounding old B-3 organ that was in the studio at Forge Recording; we put a bunch of microphones on it and used that.
BR: I’m betting there’s a story behind “Thunder & Lightning”.
RP: Oh, yeah. (laughs) When I first started touring with Melvin, it seemed like we would go to Colorado all the time. And I was really having a problem with the altitude – it didn’t agree with me at all – dizzy and all that stuff. I was singing every song and playing the bass all night through three-hour shows, loading the equipment with the other guys, driving the van, you know – the whole deal. And I actually passed out one night while I was singing.
BR: Oh, man …
RP: Oh, yeah – Colorado just kicked my ass, you know? (laughter) But at the same time, I love the place – the people, the mountains, everything.
So, “Thunder & Lightning” is Johnny Markowski and his positive vibe. It was Johnny who got me in Melvin’s band; it was Johnny who got me to play bass with Stir Fried; it was Johnny who got the New Riders back together … he’s this powerful entity who brings people together, you know? In the third verse where I say, “The Orb’s on his new horizon, rolling thunder down your street,” that’s Johnny throwing some more good vibes out there. I call him “The Orb”: rub his head and good things will happen. (laughter)
And the next line, “I’m here in Adams County kicking ass at ten thousand feet,” – that’s the first time that Stir Fried and the David Nelson Band played together back in May of 2005 – it was called “May Daze”. That’s where we all met and hung out together; and that’s what put the seed in Johnny’s mind to call Nelson a couple months later and get the New Riders started back up.
BR: It just begs for a sing-along at the end.
RP: Oh, yeah – we definitely rock the end of that a lot longer live, but I didn’t go there on the record.
BR: It’s a neat segue into the next song, “Circles”. That’s such a great bass sound on the intro – a real biting attack. It almost sounds like you’re playing with a pick at that point.
RP: It’s actually all fingers with really nasty calluses. (laughter) But it’s cool that you picked up on it, man. A lot of producers and artists will roll the treble off the bass completely and get that real muddy sound – what I call – “reggae tone.” I specifically went for that “pick tone” with the fingers … that’s what you’re hearing.
BR: There’s a cool guitar weave going on between Chris and Andy on “Circles”, too.
RP: Absolutely. That song is actually getting the best feedback right now and is probably going to be the first “single” off the album. People have called me up cursing: “I’ve got that damn song in my head!” (laughs)
BR: There are worse problems, man.
RP: Oh, I know – I know. (Laughter)
BR: It’s a totally upbeat and catchy melody, as you say; you don’t realize how hard the singer is having it until you really listen to the words.
RP: It’s true. I like to write cryptic lyrics that can have different meanings for different people. I’m not going to say too much about that one; I’ll let the listeners decide for themselves. Of course, the gist is there: the singer’s been going ‘round in circles, right? “You want to do it in the rain, but I begged to differ.” (laughter)
BR: Next is “Olivia Rose”. I thought the version on the New Riders’ Where I Come From was lovely, but this one has an added dimension of sweetness. To me, Jimmy Fleming’s mandolin has a lot to do with that. Tell us a little about Jimmy, who also plays some fiddle on the album.
RP: Jimmy’s a friend of the common circle here in the New York area. He has his own band, The Electrics, out on Long Island; he’s sat in with Michael Falzarano and the New Riders; a real talented local cat. I always wanted a mandolin on “Olivia Rose” – we actually cut a take of it with mando for the Stir Fried album that never got released. That’s what we were after – that strumming mando; the REM tonality. I thought it would sweeten it up, just like you said.
BR: Ivan Funk is the other guest on the album. On “Olivia Rose” there’s a cool moment during his pedal steel break where he and Jeff begin to weave and suddenly you realize Jeff has taken over the lead on the keys – it’s a cool and seamless transition.
RP: Isn’t that sweet? Yeah, I’ve known Ivan for a while, too. Back in my days with Ripple, I’d sit in with all the New York and Philadelphia area Dead bands. I was kind of like the bass player of choice. Splintered Sunlight was one of the bands I used to play with three or four nights a week in those days and Ivan Funk was actually one of the drummers with them back then. He was just an awesome musician.
BR: But a drummer – not a picker?
RP: Yeah, well, that’s the thing: years later, I find out that Ivan’s associated with Forge Recording, where we were going to record the album. And he’d taken up pedal steel – actually took lessons from Buddy Cage and they’d become good friends.
When it came time to go in the studio, I wanted to put some pedal on the album – but I also wanted to keep things small; hold it to our band and maybe a couple of local guys. I talked with Buddy about what I had in mind and he thought it was a great idea, plus he wanted to see Ivan get on a record playing pedal steel. And Buddy is certainly the first person you’d think of to bring in on pedal, but that’s the way he is: he’s so supportive.
BR: I think that’s a side of Buddy that a lot of people aren’t aware of: they know the legend as far as the music and they know the, uh … outspoken side.
RP: (laughs) You could say that, yeah.
BR: But they don’t know that the man has a really big heart.
RP: Oh, man – Buddy’s a great guy. Like I say, he was really behind getting Ivan on this album. And Ivan did a wonderful job.
BR: And was there a conscious effort on his part to stay away from the, we’ll say, “Buddy licks” on the New Riders’ version?
RP: We didn’t actually talk about that, but I knew before we even went in the studio that Ivan had his own thing going on. Ivan is Ivan, you know? If anything, I thought Ivan’s tonality and attack were more like what Garcia might’ve played on pedal – that “Teach Your Children” kind of thing.