By Clare McCabe
Today I got to speak to one of the actual Ramones. Yes I kid you not. CJ Ramone, the bass player for the Ramones from 1989-1996, chatted to me from New York. At length.
CJ Ramone has a new album out (Last Chance to Dance) and it is great. He is also about to do a tour of NZ and Australia in early February.
Hi CJ, how's New York treating you?
Well today, real cold and a little bit snowy. And when I say real cold, I mean single digits. Fahrenheit by the way. That's why I'm looking forward to getting over there.
How long until you go on tour and is it just NZ and Australia this time round?
We leave I think it's first week/second week of February - something like that. Yeah just NZ and Australia. I find at my age that the trip alone, the flights alone, and then no time to really adjust to the time schedule and what not, that gets to be a little bit much. So we're going to come in and just go full throttle for the two weeks that we're there and then come home and recover.
Yeah I noticed that the timeline in Australia is pretty tight - there's like a concert almost every night.
Yeah it's so different now than what it was like when I was out with the Ramones because it just seems to me like it's way more expensive to travel now and it really makes it hard to like hang around and enjoy yourself and take a day off, it really makes it tough. And especially when you're touring to 200-500 people a night, you really have to keep it moving so that you don't end up paying to be on tour.
Yeah that's true - I guess there's not that much money in touring any more either?
Not much. But you know I always tell my buddies, well any of the guys that are in the band (I've been through a whole slew of drummers, it's a really bad thing with drummers), but whenever people start complaining (especially the drummers) I always tell them, look at it this way: a bad day on the road beats a good day at work. So if you can keep that in mind, if you can just keep that in your brain every time you're going to open your mouth and complain about how you didn't get enough sleep, you don't like the food, you don't like the equipment, just keep that in mind. The problem is that I guess back in the day when you were a musician you were willing to do anything to make it happen you know. But this is a whole different time period and it's just not conducive to a good state of mind when you're touring.
But it must be cool to be back on the road again, how are you enjoying it?
Oh I love it, I love it. You know I was gone for a while. I took time off to have a family pretty much right after the Ramones retired. And then you know my boy, my first-born, he was diagnosed with Autism early on so like I totally dropped it all together. I was still going out a little bit with my own band after the Ramones retired. That was pretty much what I was planning to do. But when he got diagnosed with Autism, I realised I had to be home. So I took off a real good long while and really didn't do much of anything until 2008.
And what made you get back into it - get writing again and touring?
Actually I got custody of my kids from my first marriage and then I got remarried to a gal that I was friends with for 17 years and you know she just said to me "you know what, you're such a miserable prick when you're not on the road, why don't you go back out and do music" (laughs). It did wonders for our relationship too. But in all seriousness she knew that I love doing music and that I missed it and that was always kind of in the back of my mind, to get back to it. And she said, "you know I'd be totally cool with it". So I had somebody I could trust and I could leave my two kids with and I knew she would hold down the fort and be here when I got back so I just started going out and doing only Ramones stuff at first and then I think it was 2012, I put out Reconquista.
Which is quite hard to find by the way...
Oh it's about to be re-released - it's going to be re-released on Mozrite Records... Reconquista and the Bad Chopper record also, which was the album I did before that.
But I did Reconquista and that was kind of like my planting the flag there, that's my comeback and then I had such a really, really good response especially from the hardcore Ramones fans. I put it out myself, I did it through a crowd-funding site, so it was a real small amount and I think we sold like 6,000 all together at the end of the day. And that was it. After the response I got from that, that kind of got me locked on and I did Last Chance to Dance last year.
Oh yes, I'm loving the new album Last Chance to Dance.
Cool, thank you.
My fave tunes on there are Last Chance to Dance and Clusterfuck which are quite different in style - there's two different sorts of music on there...
That's been one of the things that some of the reviewers are saying: you know that song Clusterfuck doesn't really sit on the record but you know to me, if it's a good song, it goes on the record. When I did Reconquista, there were three songs that I thought were a little bit too heavy and I wanted to make sure that it had some kind of continuity. You know musically I just felt like I wanted all the songs to at least be kind of similar and it was really just being too anal about the whole thing. And of course the three songs that I didn't put on the record made it on to YouTube and I got messages from fans saying "why the hell didn't you, how could you not put the title track (there's a song called Reconquista) on the record, its such a great song". But stylistically I didn't think those three songs fit. As it turns out those three songs were some people's favorite songs. So I made up my mind, I was like you know what, I don't care, from now on whenever I write, if I feel like it's good enough to be on the record or if I feel like it's just a great song, it's going to go on the record no matter what style it was.
So on this one, I asked Steve Soto and Dan Root to do some writing with me. So Dan actually wrote the music for Clusterfuck. So when he submitted that to me I was like ohhhh yeah. Because to me it was kinda like the "Warthog" of the record or the "Endless Vacation" or something like that. The Ramones always had one hardcore song thrown in the mix, so to me that's what Dan's song was. And then to write lyrics to that music is super-duper easy for me because I live in a constant state of anger and frustration (laughs). It's not often that I would write a song like that myself and be very blatant about what I'm trying to say and be angry, but it just really fit the music well so I just let it fly.
Excellent. So going back to when you're on tour. I notice from previous set lists that you do a couple of songs from End of the Century, which is something that we didn't get to hear that much when we heard the Ramones live. Is that one of your favorite albums?
It's probably one of my least favorite albums. Just too much Phil Spector and not enough Ramones. It kind of marks the beginning of what becomes a wave of mediocrity there for awhile where they were just putting out records with a couple of moments of greatness but with pointless production and not sounding very much like the Ramones. I always felt like they had some of the greatest pop stuff, I mean really great pop music, really great melodies, nice harmonies and stuff. But you know the problem always was that a lot of times there were songs that Joey wrote about Johnny's wife (laughs) which made it kind of difficult. And Johnny, you know after awhile when he realised they were not going to be a pop sensation, he became really angry and he just wanted to do all the heavy stuff. Which I always felt was a shame, but at the same time I understood it. It's a lot easier to get on stage and act tough and put on the scowl and play darker, angrier songs, it's a lot tougher to get on stage and play those beautiful pop songs with all the nice melodies and everything else and still come off punk. So I kinda get it. But you know on the last tour, like when we were just in Japan and Germany, we really pulled out all the stops. We did "Baby I Love You" - I really tried to give the fans something that they would not have even gotten at a Ramones show. Just to switch it up a little bit.
And the other thing is we play everything at the speed it was recorded (at the original recordings) or maybe at It's Alive speed. But we don't play everything a million miles an hour and that was kind of a point of contention between me and Johnny. I told him pretty early on when I got into the band that I could see Joey was struggling trying to sing the songs, just trying to draw a breathe in between lines because we were playing so fast. And I said to Johnny, you know John we're playing them so fast, nobody can even tell what the song is until we hit the chorus most of the time. I said if we slow it down a little bit, Joey will be able to sing better, it's going to lengthen your career I can guarantee you that. I know at that point I was really just a fan who got lucky. I said I know it's just coming from me and it's not real convincing to you, but give it some thought. And he wouldn't even consider it. He was like no, the kids like it fast, they like to slam-dance, they like to have fun, they like it fast.
You mean, "this is what we do"? Not big on change then old Johnny?
No - not at all, not at all.
Did you get to do any actual writing with Ramones on the last few albums?
The last album I got two songs on there. "I Got a Lot to Say" and "Scattergun" were the two songs that I wrote. You know, looking back now I really squandered my time, I could have been working on song writing and what not. But I have to say it is really super intimidating to submit songs to the Ramones. Well for me it was anyway, especially because I was a fan first. I mean who wants to put something they wrote up against the Ramones' back catalogue you know. And the fact that Dee Dee and Joey were not average songwriters by any stretch of the imagination. They were both really, really good at writing from the heart and Dee Dee was great with the funnier stuff. So realistically I was kinda like yeah right, that would be a joke you know. But thinking about it now I should have done more writing. On the last record I submitted those two songs and thank God I did because boy there were some real stinkers made for that record and a couple of them even made it onto it. To me it was a pretty weak goodbye record but ...
It was still the Ramones though...
Oh yeah, yeah absolutely. It's still a Ramones record. But if I were to have some of the songs off of Reconquista or even some of these songs from Last Chance to Dance written, I mean they easily would have gotten on the record ahead of a whole grip load of songs that are actually on those records.
Let's go back to when you first started touring with the Ramones - 1989 I believe? The first time I got to see the Ramones was when they came to New Zealand in late 1989, so I guess that was when you had just joined?
Do you remember anything about that time?
Absolutely. You know its funny. Like now, years later, after travelling all over the world, one place I always say has the craziest fans in the world, absolutely the best place for Ramones music is South America. People down there go crazy, just beyond the beyond. We used to go down there and it would be like Beatlemania, that's how wild it was. But after the first time I went to New Zealand, I always said that if they ever chased me out of the States or if I ever got tired of living here I would go to New Zealand. I loved it when I went there. I really dug it a lot. I couldn't even tell you why. I mean everyone was really cool that I met and of course the countryside is beautiful and I loved all the Maori stuff. But just something about that place, I just loved it right away. They chase me out of here, that's where I'm going. Or if I ever wanted to disappear and go somewhere where no one would look for me, it'd be there.
Indeed. Are you going to get to spend any downtime here or are you just going straight into the tour?
We actually get there a day ahead of the first show. So we'll have that first day and the time before the show, well before sound-check anyway, to hang around a little bit. I have a friend who lives over there in Auckland so when I get to town, I'll probably get in touch with him and go hang out for a little while.
Nice. Do you still go and see live bands yourself?
Oh yeah, I mean not often, not like I used to do. I used to go three/four shows a week back in the day. But now I get out every once in a while to see a show. I still look around for bands that I might dig. I just find that the older I get, the more I go towards the music that I listened to when I was younger. Last month I went to see Kepi Ghoulie and the Mean Jeans. I had never seen the Mean Jeans before - they're a really, really great band from Washington State, I think they're from Portland. They were unbelievable, a really good band, a very cool Ramones kind of style. In fact we're talking about getting out on the road and doing some shows with them in May.
Cool. I'll look out for them. Now your kids, who you mentioned before, are they into music and do they like your music?
Oh yeah. They don't necessarily like my music but they're both into music. My daughter is multi-instrumentalist. She plays everything although she says she can't. She plays a little bit of guitar, a little bit of bass, she's a really gifted cello player, that's her main instrument. But she can play a little bit of piano too. And she's a singer. She's got a lot of natural talent but like all kids with natural talent, completely unmotivated to do anything with it. But you know, her and a couple of the boys up the block got a little band together and stuff and they've done a few shows and what not so she's doing alright.
My boy's more the scholar/athlete type than musician but he played guitar for a little bit and he played drums for a hot minute there.
Do you take them to see any bands yet?
Oh yeah. Last summer we went to see Iron Maiden, which they loved. They're so great live.
And they've been to see Pearl Jam - back in 2008, Pearl Jam were coming into town and they got in touch with me and asked me if I wanted to get up on stage and play a song with them, they were playing at Madison Square Garden. If you live in the States, Madison Square Garden is like Mecca. That's like the height of playing a live stadium show. And of course I grew up going there to see hockey games and concerts myself, I saw everybody at the Garden. So the first time they (the kids) ever saw me play in fact was that show, was at Madison Square Garden, they actually got to stand up on the stage and see the whole thing. I came off and my daughter said to me "Daddy, I didn't know you were so famous". A really cute moment. Those types of things are the things that really make music worthwhile for me, stuff like that.
It's often when you go and see the older bands that you remember (like Pearl Jam, like Iron Maiden) that you have the best time - because you know all the songs, you know all the music...
Yeah. It's funny how, to me anyway, and I know this sounds very old-mannish, but to me the last big like proper musical movement was that whole Seattle grunge scene. That's really the last real legitimate breakout of rock n roll or punk or heavy metal or anything like that. And that's what I try to get them (the kids) to understand. I said you know Pearl Jam, and the rest of those bands, Soundgarden and Nirvana and all those bands, were pretty much the last of the big stadium rock bands that have any connection to the earlier ones. Most of the stuff that I see now, maybe it's just because I can't relate to it because of my age or whatever, but they just don't seem to be very fiery. I don't see a whole lot of pissed off bands playing it like they mean it. I see a lot of bands that look great and they have the sound down and their song-writing chops are mean and what not, but there is no emotion in it at all. For me anyway. I just don't see it I don't feel it.
But like I said, it could be that I'm just getting to be an old man. If you walked into a hardcore show in the early 80s, it was like the ultimate in teenage angst. That was the attraction to it a lot of times, it was dangerous, you know what I mean, it was dangerous to be there. And I've been to a good amount of shows and I just don't see that and I don't hear it any more. Which is sad.
Have you seen that Foo Fighters documentary Sonic Highways yet? That brought up all of those old bands and how exciting it was to be part of those scenes, like in New York and Chicago.
Oh yeah I really liked the DC episode where they had Ian MacKaye from Fugazi on there. He really said a lot of cool stuff, I really liked what he had to say. And of course that scene was a really super vital, really cool scene of the time.
I just recently also watched the CBGBs movie, did you ever get to play there?
Not with the Ramones. I did a couple of parties with Joey and played there with a couple of my own bands and of course I saw a whole ton of bands there and went to the Sunday matinees and all that good stuff. But never played there with the Ramones.
Harking back to when you played with the Remainz with Dee Dee and Barbara, what was that like?
I think I did like two or three shows with Dee Dee, with the Remainz and it was awesome, I loved playing with Dee Dee. You know, Dee Dee was one of my biggest influences so it was awesome to get to play with him. But he wanted me to be a full-time member in the band and I had my own band that I was working with and I just couldn't do it, couldn't stay with him. It was kind of weird to say no to Dee Dee Ramone you know but ... Dee Dee was really crazy. I love him like a brother and I had great times with him and I helped him out a couple of times and stuff, just like he helped me out, but he was really crazy. And I knew being in a band with him would be really hard, I knew it would be really difficult. So I just did a couple of shows with him, just to kind of get a feel for it and see what it would be like and I could tell he was out of his mind. The problem was, and I ran into this problem with Johnny a couple of times too, when you're in a band with somebody that you grew up idolising and you were a big fan of and stuff, and then you get on a personal level with them and you start having like heated discussions with them... it would really be disturbing to me to get like into a situation where things got really ugly. It almost happened with Johnny...
It would like ruin the history?
Yeah like ruin the history or I would just feel shitty about it you know what I mean ... and then I'd go down in history as being the guy that broke up the Ramones (laughs). Or the dummy who blew his shot with the Ramones. So I just felt like it was fun doing it with him, I had a good time, but I think if it would have been long term, it wouldn't have ended good. And most of Dee Dee's projects did not end good.
Indeed not. Now moving away from that subject, do you think you will be writing your autobiography any time soon?
Oh will I be writing a book about my life? Yeah, I've been working on a book for a very long time actually but when my little one was born, it got tough and I just had to put it down for a while. And it's just been hard to pick it back up. But I've got a lot of stuff written, it's long enough to be put out now and I just got into the Ramones... I'm really hoping to get it finished this year. What I'm going to do is when I go out on the road, I'm going to take my laptop with me and I'm really going to work hard and try to finish it in all the downtime...
Hollywood Forever, the Johnny Ramone tributes that happen every year. Do you attend?
I went to I think it was the first two of them. But I don't really get invited to many Ramones events now. And to tell you the truth I kinda prefer it that way because I went on my own path early on and I said I'm going to try and keep the Ramones legacy alive and put out albums ... you know when I do a record it's got to live up to that Ramones name. So I really tried to do really good quality stuff for the fans, give them something a little bit different and be a little bit more accessible and just not so business-like about the whole thing.
I've had a lot of luck and I've had a really good time being in touch with the fans and being more approachable. When people write me on Facebook, if they get an answer its from me. I've really worked hard to kinda do it myself and stay in touch with the fans. And that's worked really well. I'm really happy to be doing it on my own because I don't feel like I need to work with Marky or Richie or Johnny's wife, I don't need to work with those people to legitimise myself or to project an image that I'm still part of the Ramones family. That's not what I was trying to do, it's not what I want to do.
So I just keep doing it on my own and I do it in small ways. I enjoy playing to like 200 to 500 people. To me that's a perfect show. Yeah, it's a punk show. I never liked playing stadiums. I never liked playing big giant festivals and the big rock shows. I never dug it, always felt like it was contrived and stupid and it felt like Motley Crue or something.... I always enjoyed the smaller shows where the fans are right there in your face, they can see everything that you do, you can see everything that they do, there's a nice exchange of energy going on. That's what I dig. That's my part of keeping the Ramones legacy going. And that's what I'm happy doing.
Excellent. Well we're looking forward to seeing you in Auckland in a few weeks (at a small venue which will make you happy). Is there anything that you'd like to say to your fans here in NZ?
Ramones For Ever...
Obviously Mr Ramone, obviously.
And off he goes to tend to the children, still laughing...
Make sure you catch CJ Ramone on tour- he plays the Kings Arms on Saturday 7th February. See you there. I'll be the one in the back singing along to every song.
Saturday February 7th: Kings Arms Tavern, Auckland
Tickets via Under The Radar