With his old band’s
music finally reissued, Scott Kempner’s all fired up.
BY REV. KEITH A. GORDON
Naturally, Bronx-born-and-bred Scott Kempner is a New York
Yankees fan. “I grew up in the shadow of the ball park, a fifteen minute walk
from my bedroom to my seat,” Kempner remembers. “Back when I was a
kid, it was all day games, so you go early, wait for them to show up, watch
batting practice… you could pay for general admission and the ushers would
always let you go down to the box seats because they never sold out on weekday
afternoons. That was my childhood.”
Kempner’s legendary ’80s-era rock band the Del-Lords were as
American as baseball and apple pie. Pursuing a vision of 1960s-inspired pop-rock
mixed with country, blues, and folk, the band helped define the roots-rock sound.
Although they never won the musical equivalent of a championship during their
decade-long existence, the Del-Lords were like a scrappy minor league player
that earned scores of loyal fans, but never quite broke into the majors.
American Beat Records will reissue the first three Del-Lords
albums on May 26th. The band’s 1984 debut, Frontier
Days, and 1986’s Johnny Comes
Marching Home are appearing for the first time on CD, and 1988’s Based On A True Story, although
originally released on compact disc, never received widespread distribution.
Kempner was just as surprised about the reissued albums as
the rest of us. “I didn’t know anything about it,” he says. “I
got a phone call one day from American Beat that they’d licensed the Del-Lords
stuff. It was amazing to me because my lawyer and myself had attempted to track
it down for quite a while, and we never really found where the licenses ended
up. So they told me they were doing this thing, and I was thrilled.”
Each of the three Del-Lords reissue albums will be crammed
with additional songs-demos, outtakes, and live tracks. “I immediately
offered up bonus tracks,” says Kempner. “We used to rehearse in this
building right across the street from the Port Authority on Eighth Avenue,
twelve floors of empty rooms that were rented out to bands. Madonna was there
at that point, the dB’s were right across from us, Iggy was there, the
Fleshtones… It was a really fun time!
“We had an eight-track set up – for a songwriter, it
was inspirational enough to have a band right there, to be able to write a song
and hear it back that afternoon. So I had all these bonus tracks sitting around.”
The three albums have not been remixed and will be presented
exactly as they were released. “There are things that I’m not crazy
about,” Kempner says about the original albums, “but it is what it
is. It’s funny, but when I listen to the demos and the outtakes, they sound
better to me, because they have a lot less of the ’80s process that was so
The Del-Lords began when Kempner-the former Dictators
guitarist known as “Top Ten”-and bassist Manny Caiati were brought
together in the band of the late, revered New York City punk-metal goddess
Helen Wheels. The pair discovered an instant chemistry and set about finding
other musicians to round out the Del-Lords. They were happy to find guitarist
Eric Ambel, from Joan Jett’s band the Blackhearts, and drummer Frank Funaro.
The Del-Lords were imagined by Kempner to be an “East
Coast Beach Boys,” with Kempner writing the songs and all four members
singing. After rejecting the advances of several labels with ideas of changing
the band (“No thanks,” said Kempner to the thought of adding a female
vocalist or a horn section), the Del-Lords finally signed with indie Enigma
Records in 1984. “Eric and I had been through the mill enough not to jump
at anything and everything that came our way,” says Kempner.
The Del-Lords bucked musical trends from the very beginning.
“It was the MTV era,” says Kempner, and the band neither looked nor
sounded like anything else being heard on the radio. The Del-Lords were at the
forefront of a guitar-rock movement that included bands like Jason & the Scorchers
and the Del Fuegos, beloved by fans in spite of their commercial misfortunes: “We
were holding on for dear life to rock ‘n’ roll.”
Del-Lords fans will be happy to know that the band’s
impossible-to-find 1990 album Lovers Who
Wander will also be reissued later this year, combined on disc with the
band’s 1989 live EP, Howlin’ At The
Halloween Moon. Kempner, whose latest solo album Saving Grace is out now on 00:02:59 Records, is also in discussions
with American Beat to reissue his 1992 solo album, Tenement Angels. And with the reissues, a Del-Lords reunion might
also be in the cards.
“We haven’t played together in 20 years,” says
Kempner, “and that could actually happen before the end of this