ABOVE: RIVER CITY EXTENSION (STANDING, LEFT-RIGHT: PATRICK O'BRIEN, SAM TACON, DAN MELIUS, JENN FANTACCIONE, MIKE COSTANEY, NICK CUCCI, JAMES RAMIREZ; SEATED: JOE MICHELINI). IMAGE COURTESY OF DANNY CLINCH
If music festivals gave out congeniality awards, River City Extension would be a decorated bunch. The New Jersey folk outfit, which played a rousing set at last month's Austin City Limits Festival to cap nearly two years of hard touring behind its growing catalogue, is both giving and gracious in conversation—in part, perhaps, due to the band's humble beginnings. Frontman and founder Joe Michelini was raised in a religious household that sheltered him from experiencing the usual nascent rockstar benchmarks: band manager Billy O'Brien recalls an instance in the not-too-distant past in which Michelini asked him to identify a song that turned out to be "Stairway to Heaven." Michelini was already entrenched in the New Jersey acoustic scene before he endeavored to form a small combo in 2007. River City Extension was formed soon after, and before they knew it, the band had swelled to seven members.
To dismiss the group as simply "happy to be here," however, would be a mistake. RCE's sophomore album, Don't Let the Sun Go Down on Your Anger, released in June, reveals a band striving to push past the boundaries of its small-time beginnings—and a songwriter coming to terms with deep-seated demons. To accomplish those goals, the band turned to veteran producer Brian Deck (Iron and Wine, Margo and the Nuclear So and So's, Modest Mouse), who, according to vocalist Sam Tacon, "brought an element in us that we were unable to bring out ourselves." The resulting collection of 14 songs is dynamic in both sound and lyrical scope, exploring themes of romantic love and regret with a punch notably absent from the band's debut.
Curious to learn more about the band's unique past (and future), Interview sat down with RCE members Michelini, Tacon, and drummer Mike Costaney in Austin for a wide-ranging discussion touching on the Internet, van travel, and the fight to write objectively.
JEFF OLOIZIA: Your album is titled Don't Let the Sun Go Down on Your Anger. Were you aware when you came up with it that you were creating the most epic Oasis song of all time?
JOE MICHELINI: What's that?
SAM TACON: [laughs] Oasis.
MICHELINI: I know Oasis, but I don't get the reference.
OLOIZIA: So they have that song, "Don't Look Back In Anger"...
OLOIZIA: And they also draw from, like, 1000 Beatles songs, including, presumably, "Here Comes the Sun."
MICHELINI: Isn't there also that song, "Don't Let the Sun Go Down On Me"?
OLOIZIA: Yeah, the Elton John song. So you basically mashed up Elton John and Oasis. It's like something from Glee.
MICHELINI: Well, the title's actually a Bible verse. It's a direct quote.
MIKE COSTANEY: The Bible was first!
MICHELINI: [laughs] Yes, that's true, the Bible was first. It was more of a personal thing. I grew up on that Bible verse coming from my parents, so...
OLOIZIA: Well, it seems like a very personal record.
MICHELINI: It is, yeah. I wrote this record for my mom. [pauses] I hate the Internet, by the way. Just wanted to put that on record.
OLOIZIA: I have a very love-hate relationship with it myself.
TACON: Really? You're a millennium guy; you're part of the generation.
MICHELINI: We don't even have a choice.
OLOIZIA: I'm cautious about it. And for you—as a musician now, I think you inherently have—I don't want to say a debt, but it's part of the gig.
MICHELINI: It's part of the game now. And it's a shame, because if it wasn't a part of the gig, I'd be Amish already.
TACON: [laughs] You kind of look Amish.
MICHELINI: Yeah, I'm working on the beard.
MICHELINI: And the commitment.
OLOIZIA: Well if you ever decide to cut free from the music thing...
MICHELINI: If I decide to follow God, there's only one place I'm going, and that's to Lancaster, Pennsylvania. That's for sure.
OLOIZIA: You guys are originally from Jersey, correct?
MICHELINI: Yeah, Tom's River.
TACON: We're from the same town.
OLOIZIA: Did you all meet when you were young?
MICHELINI: Mike and I knew each other in high school, but we weren't close friends.
COSTANEY: No. We were acquaintances that just played music in the same area, and we wound up playing a show together. That was the day that we exchanged numbers and kind of made it a thing after that.
MICHELINI: And we met Sam through her brother's band, Brick and Mortar, which is a band from New Jersey. Her brother's the drummer, and he said, "Well, hey, my sister sings."
COSTANEY: Incredible drummer, by the way. Huge inspiration for me.
OLOIZIA: And you are now up to seven people in the band?
MICHELINI: Yep, seven of us.
OLOIZIA: That's kind of crazy. How is it traveling with seven of you?
MICHELNI: It's tight. [Tacon laughs] We're in a 12-passenger van. It's smaller than the standard band van.
TACON: We're packed like sardines in there, but we figure it out. We cuddle. [laughs]
MICHELINI: We come up with a lot of characters. Everyone has a different character, aside from themselves, that they play in the van to keep things light and make sure that no one is taking themselves too seriously.
OLOIZIA: Do you have a favorite place in the States that you've traveled to?
MICHELINI: Well, Austin is one of them, for sure. We have a couple of cities we really love: Austin, Chicago, San Francisco, New Orleans...
TACON: San Diego, Portland... It's really cool, because coming from a small town and getting the opportunity to travel with some of your best friends, play music and see the country is something that not many people are able to do. It's something we'll never forget, you know?
OLOIZIA: Did you find that your travels influenced your songwriting with this record?
MICHELNI: Oh, definitely. It's just the way I write content, which is based on what we're doing at the time. I'd like to learn to write a little more objectively, and I think I will in the future, but for now I just kind of write about what's going on in our lives right now. And right now we're on the road seven months out of the year.
OLOIZIA: You said that you'd like to write more objectively. Can you explain what you mean by that?
MICHELINI: I mean that what I know about writing right now is to take in life, to filter it, and to sift through what's left. But there are a lot of [opportunities to] write a little fiction to describe real life, or even just musing about an experience. There's a lot that goes on in everyone's heads, you know? And I tend to write about the immediate, about what I'm seeing and feeling and so on, and I want to write a little more objectively from the outside of life looking in, as opposed to, "This is life right now, and this is our experience."
OLOIZIA: Thematically, there seems to be a real progression to this record.
MICHELINI: Absolutely. The last three songs on the record are about resolution: resolution with yourself, resolution with others, and resolution with God. Those last three songs close the record in that way on purpose.
OLOIZIA: Do you feel like now, going forward, you can free yourself from those ideas when you write?
MICHELINI: Yes, very much so. I think we're done. I got out everything I needed to get out about my relationship with God and so on... I'm interested in living a personal, spiritual journey, and the more we write about, I aim to challenge myself and move outside of those things. Those are pretty typical folk-rock subject matter, so I'd like us to put out a different record. I'd like to do some exploring on my own.
OLOIZIA: Well I'm sure it will work out and you'll find, over time, what the next record's going to be.
MICHELINI: We will see. We've been on the road most of the year, so I'm looking forward to being home for the holidays. Winter is my favorite time to write, so we'll see what happens.
RIVER CITY EXTENSION PLAYS MERCURY LOUNGE DECEMBER 12. DON'T LET THE SUN GO DOWN ON YOUR ANGER IS OUT NOW. FOR MORE ON THE BAND, VISIT THEIR WEBSITE.