A right hand man is also a righteously rockin’ man…
TEXT BY TIM HINELY/ PHOTOS BY MARY GARITO
I don’t remember exactly when I first met Jeremy Grites but in the late 80’s/early 90’s he began drumming for a friend’s band called Noise Museum (a play on the name of a local museum in South Jersey). The friend stated that he had “found this amazing drummer who is like 15 or 16 years old!” After Grites tenure in that band ended I’d seen him at a handful of local gigs before I left for greener pastures in the Summer of ’92 (California) but he and I kept in touch and he eventually became my right hand man at DAGGER, helping with reviews, interviews and loads of encouragement. I even made it out to Brooklyn once in the mid or late 90’s and saw his pad that was stocked with records and instruments and he showed me his ‘hood. Over the years he’s seemed to bounce between NYC, Philly and his native South Jersey seemingly playing with (or at least seeing) every musician alive. Fast forward to 2017 and we even had the pleasure to chit chat over drinks on the deck of a restaurant/bar in South Jersey on my trip there last summer and had a chance to meet his lovely girlfriend Mary (who took most of the pics for this interview) and even his dad. I’d thought about interviewing him (email stylee, of course) for the past few years as he’s had a helluva history/run these past few decades and he shows no signs of slowing down. These days he’s mostly playing drums in Philly/Jersey combo The Improbables (check out their full length, Object To Be Destroyed on the Hidden Volume label) as well as occasionally playing with Wreckless Eric/Amy Rigby (see below). The guy simply doesn’t stop but took some time out to answer my questions with in-depth answers (if anyone knows what the DAGGER readers want it’s him). He’s also one of the nicest guys around so if you ever see him, go up and introduce yourself (but then you’ll have to buy him a beer) and chat music at the guy’s a textbook on all sorts of genres. So grab a birch beer, sit down and read on, you just might learn something.
Did you grow up in Absecon, NJ? Any punks in that town?
Although I was born in Baltimore, MD, I did grow up in Absecon, starting in the late 70’s and through the 80’s. In a way it was nice because there were a lot of woods and trails and the beach was only 10 minutes away. Culturally however, it was (and still pretty much remains) a nightmarish wasteland. People in that area don’t trust anything remotely different from what they have known their entire lives – and they usually reacted vehemently against those differences with a provincial-yet-smug sort of attitude. Anything new or different in any way is a threat to their normalcy and they had to ridicule it – at the very least. Subsequently, there were very few punks / new wavers, and the few that existed kept a pretty low profile in the interest of self-preservation. We did have some skinheads for a minute, but most of them were in jail by the time I was out of high school. Fortunately I met the few misfits around town through skateboarding and surfing and that helped me survive and also find new music.
Do you remember the first song you heard that was weird (punk, new wave, etc.?) that made you think there was other kinds of music out there?
Well, it’s odd because I remember seeing Blondie on the show Solid Gold with my parents and loving them. They were definitely ‘different’, but also one of the biggest bands in the world – likewise bands like the Police and Kiss who I already liked. I was also really into the Go-Go’s and Devo as a kid, but before I actually understood the history of all that stuff or what it meant or represented. It was just fun, catchy music. I had already become a huge British Invasion fan and begun my record collection around 6 years old. I had nearly every Beatles / Stones record in both mono and stereo and would spend hours digging through LPs and 45’s at flea markets while my parents shopped for antiques. I was a weird little kid. That was a good way to learn though, and my dad taught me how to haggle with the record dealers way back then. (Same priciples still apply.) Anyway, I think when I was about twelve I got ahold of the standard 80’s “Starter Kit” of underground bands like Big Star, the B-52’s, the Sex Pistols, the Velvet Underground, the Damned, Rain Parade, XTC, Minor Threat, Black Flag, Modern Lovers, the Stooges, Ramones, REM, the Smiths, Minutemen etc through some mixtapes from older friends. That’s when the switch flipped. After that I lost all interest in anything that was on the radio or what kids in my school liked. I basically set my mind to meeting and befriending older kids/adults and milking them for as much musical knowledge as I could get. That eventually led me to hanging out with students and community members that were on WLFR, the college station in our area – the most important of which were Champagne Bob Portella and Paul Glaser. Their far-reaching musical knowledge and influence is still me with me to this day. Anyway, I wormed my way onto some shows at WLFR while I was 14, and by 15 I was the yougest FCC liscenced DJ in the country and wound up with my own radio show. After that I was off to the races.
Do you remember the first record you ever bought with your own money?
Well, technically the Flea market buys would be the first, but I remember the first records I ever bought in a store were Paul McCartney “Tug of War,” and John Cougar “American Fool.” I believe I got them at a Kmart with some birthday money from my aunt or grandparents. That was before I really knew about record stores as actual stand-alone places where kids would go to hang out. I thought you just got records at the supermarket or the record counter in Sears or Caldor. I totally didn’t get it. Once I figured out that there were independent stores that could order records for you and had cool, older kids working in them, then that was all I wanted to do. I would hang out in the shops for hours listening and even taking notes. I had a little notebook with records to try to find and ‘band family trees’ etc – trying to learn my history. Super nerdy.
Did your parents encourage you to learn musical instruments? Were drums the first?
Ha! No, they did not encourage it at all. In fact, it was quite the opposite. They were sort of on board with my skateboarding, but playing music was definitely an annoyance that were not keen on. Actually, I think I asked for instruments and/or lessons and was refused, which is why I got a job at such an early age. I bought a used drum kit off a guy out of the newspaper and convinced him to drive it to my house because I was only 14 at the time. Once the drums were there and paid for with my own money, there wasn’t a lot my parents could do. I got them dropped off and put them in my room while no one was home – poof! Instant drumkit! Hahaha. I did the same thing a year later with a guitar and amplifier. It wasn’t until after I got into some bands and played some shows that my parents started to come around to it a little bit. Once they saw I was actually doing something with it, and was decent at it, they didn’t mind as much. Later, they embraced it fully because I think they figured out it wasn’t going to stop – so why not pretend to be proud…
First gig you ever went to?
I was lucky and got to see a lot of concerts when I was a little kid because we had neighbors that seemed to always have spare tickets to things. So, I got to see the Beach Boys (with ALL of the Wilson brothers) and people like Johnny Cash and Dionne Warwick etc as early as like 5-6 years old in small theatres in Atlantic City. I also saw lower tier bands play at the nearby college where my dad taught, so it’s tough to say really. I can’t even remember the first punk show I went to because it all started so early for me. Could’ve been 7 Seconds and a bunch of ther bands at the Omni? Or it could’ve been the Dead Milkmen at the AC Elks or something? I wish I could remember. One of my weirdo friends from school and I used to take the bus from AC to Philly (which was scary) and walk from the (scary) bus station down to Old City (which was also scary) and watch bands from the sidewalk at a place called the Khyber Pass (dirty and scary). That was a famous Philly venue with the stage basically in this huge bay window right on the sidewalk – facing in of course. So we would just go sit or stand on the sidewalk and watch shows from behind the band because we were so far underage – there was no way we were sneaking in or passing a fake ID. I saw a lot of great stuff that way though – the Magnolias, GG Allin, the Wishniaks, Throwing Muses etc. That was definitely an experience and traveling around unsupervised was definitely part of the fun. Much later in life I became good friends with all of the guys in the Wishniaks and they remembered the two little kids out on the sidewalk for shows. That was me.
Tell me about Noise Museum? Was that your first band? How old were, you, like 16?
Yeah, Noise Museum was the first sort of ‘real’ band I was ever in, although it was pretty Busch-League in retrospect. I joined when I was 15 and had been playing drums for about a year, so I was a babe in the woods in every way. Prior to that I would just play along to records in my big, 70’s headphones – I’ve never had a lesson, on any instrument. I would just try to learn every stop and fill on the records I loved and that’s how I learned to play with ‘people.’ I spent a lot of time with the Replacements and Husker Du LPs, plus Sonic Youth and the Who. Those LPs really shaped how I played for about the first 10 years, until I discovered the Meters and James Brown. Anyway, nearly all of the output from that band is fairly embarrassing to me, but it is definitely where all the ‘Firsts’ happened. First gigs, then first gigs out of state, first terrible drunken gig, first heckling, first time recording, then the first time recording in a real studio, first piece of vinyl I was ever on etc etc. All that stuff happened in that band, but I stayed in it way too long and it became a very detrimental and damaging situation. Worst of all, I had almost no creative input – I wasn’t allowed to write songs or help arrange them, I had to compromise the drum parts all of the time – it became a real drag. I did at least come away with meeting 2 or 3 life-long, important and invaluable friends through that band though, which is the only saving grace. After I quit I promised myself that any bands that I would ever join from then on had to be fun, or I was out the door. That’s why Swivel Chairs started when I was 19.
Was Marlin Spikes next? Swivel Chairs? The latter is your solo project, right? Tell me a little about each of them.
In the early days Swivel Chairs was always a duo – it was me and my college roomate Jason Brown. We started on acoustic guitars and a four-track cassette recorder and kept plugging away all through college. During that time we ended up playing OUR first shows and doing cassette releases etc. It was all super home-made and fun. When we graduated, I moved to NYC and Jay moved to Philly so there was a little bit of a break. (I actually self released a boxed set of those early recordings in an edition of 50 and gave them to friends for a laugh) That’s when I started making home recordings by myself on an 8 track machine and did a couple more cassette releases all under different names. Marling Spikes started around that time as well with my new roomate in NYC, Matt Wilbur. (Unlike me, Matt had been given music lessons his whole life and was a great guitar and piano player.) That wasn’t even supposed to be a band really – it was just an accident, or what we’d do on the weekends. But then it sort of turned into a band and so Jay joined up and we took a break from Swivel Chairs for a short bit. The best part of that group was that everyone could play everything, so we’d all write and switch instruments all the time etc. After being stifled earlier, I wanted everyone to be able to do whatever they wanted to. We had some wildly careening nights in Brooklyn and in AC at McGuire’s Erin Bar during the summers. It was a fun distraction, but I really wish we’d come up with a better name though. haha.
How/when did you make it up to New York to live?
I moved to NY about 2-3 weeks after college graduation and was seriously floating around from couch to couch for a little while, but then settled in Williamsburg Brooklyn in 1995. I am still there today, although it is virtually unrecognizable from when I moved in. Living and working in NY back then (and now to a certain extent) was an absolute goldmine of culture. Aside from the obvious stuff like architecture, galleries and museums, there was just so much going on everywhere. There were shows every night all over the place, there were huge loft parties, artists and musicians everywhere, awesome grafitti, street musicians, you name it – and it was still cheap to live there. I used to cut wood for Steve Keene in his studio and get paid in paintings – that was a thrill because he knew Sonic Youth and Pavement and did famous LP covers. It was a hard place to get used to at first, and I was poor as shit, but it was a non-stop blast. Some of the shows I saw were legendary and you could literally stay out all night. Sometimes it was the simply random things that would happen like standing behind Lou Reed in a deli, playing pool with Elliot Smith every week at our local bar in the East Village, seeing Robert Quinne working in a guitar shop or having David Byrne almost run you over on his bicycle. Plus, when you’re 21 everyone and everything is new to you and it all seems so cool, so it was a lot fun.
How did the gig with Fontaine Toups come about? What happened to that band?
I suppose I have DAGGER to thank for that actually because Hinely asked me to interview them! So, we met up at our mutal friend Laura (Rogers, from the Rogers Sisters)’s bar and just started hanging out, having beers together, telling stories and sort of becoming friends. I managed to do an interview in between all of that and, while we are settling our enormous tab, they asked me if I knew any drummers because they had kicked theirs out. I said that the only available drummer I knew was ME, which was completely true, and they suggested a try-out. So, I went home and memorized their record just like I did when I was a kid. Couple days later I auditioned and was accepted – possibly as much for my drinking prowess as my drumming – but either way, I was in and we all became great friends. We had so much fun and I really love them all dearly. In fact, I think that was some of the most fun I’ve ever had playing with people in my life. Plus, being adopted into the whole, extended Versus, Plus Minus, Teenbeat family was amazing and mind expanding. That whole crew are some of the smartest, nicest, coolest and most talented people I’ve ever known. No joke. Plus, the shows were killer and we got to do some fun things like open for +/- and Unrest at the Teenbeat 20 festival in DC – which remains one of my favorite weekends I’ve ever had in my life.
Tie up some loose ends for us….I know you’ve played with many other musicians. Fill us in.
Well, all during the late 90’s and early-mid Oughts Jay and I were always doing Swivel Chairs on some level and we managed to put out a few records in between all the other stuff – not to mention our day jobs. Those were a lot of fun to make because we did them all at my house in Brooklyn and had a ton of guest musicians come through and play on tracks etc. – people like Bliss Blood from the Pain Teens and the Reverend Vince Anderson who was a legend in BK back then. At the same time I was spending a ton of time in Philadelphia with my girlfriendwife Mary Garito and her band Audible (who were fantastic). I got to play with them a little bit towards the end of their run and fullfilled my dream of being a full-time tamborine player for an indie rock band! Plus, I got to fill in on drums for their last-ever live performance – which is still a highlight for me. Later, in the mid oughts, our friend Jim from Transit of Venus Records actually signed Swivel Chairs to his label right when TFT was going on hiatus, so I boosted half of Audible and they became ‘Chairs for a few years! It was great actually because it was another love-fest of a band to be in. We all just loved hanging out and playing music and they were all ringers. Getting to be on ToV put us in some nice company too – Photon Band, Like a Fox, Trolleyvox etc. were all labelmates. It was definitely a fun club to be part of. Eventually everyone started getting married and having kids (also partially why we never did any touring), so Swivel Chairs packed it in. It was a good way to go out though, and we played some good shows – our last show was opening for the dear sweet Barbara Manning! I can’t tell if I answered your question or not.
How did The Improbables rope you into playing with them? That latest album (Object To Be Destroyed on Hidden Volume) is a scorcher.
They’re clever those Improbables, aren’t they? Well, to start, Kevin and Dave and I have been friends since we were all probably 18 or 19. I knew them from bands and DJ’ing back then and we had always kept in touch. I had not been playing much of anything for the better part of a year, (least of all drums), but I had started doing weekly DJ nights and having a lot of fun with that. Sort of back to my roots as they were… Eventually, I started having Kevin and Dave both come and spin records with me – because they have amazing record collections and are two of the finest DJ’s in Philly actually. So one night at the 700 Club Dave told me that their drummer quit and they have a show booked in 8 days and that they’re going to look like assholes if they cancel – would I fill in? Now at this point, I hadn’t even played drums at all for almost 7 years because I stole Audible’s amazing drummer Steve Cawley for Swivel Chairs and didn’t have to play anymore, haha. So, I felt like I was gonna fall on my face, but I said yes anyway and we had 3 practices in 7 days to get 10 songs down. It was really tough for me and I was super nervous – plus every Philly drummer that I admire was there that night watching me – it was brutal! The Hidden Volume folks were there that night too, so it was a bit crazy. Fortunately I got through it and about a week or so later they called me to meet up and asked me if I would join for real. I really tried not to, but it’s a really fun band with great songs and two of my oldest friends, so there was really no way I could say no. haha. So, we started learning the old stuff and gradually started writing new songs together and it turned into a good unit. Due in part, no doubt, by some good bonding moments like being dance-heckled playing a pizza joint or by having our practice space burnt to the ground by an arsonist (not kidding). But, nonetheless, we rallied and soon after I joined Scott Sugiuchi asked us to sign up with Hidden Volume. We were psyched to be part of that whole growing family and burgeoning scene for sure. We had a great summer recording and fall, mixing that LP with our friend Mike Kennedy (the mastermind behind the aforementioned Audible) who produced and recorded it. We have a follow up 45 due out later this year on HiVo and then we start work on the 2nd full length, so it’s going quite well. Plus, we are playing the HiVo Field Trip festival in Florida in February which is gonna be killer! The Imps are probably the only band that I’ve ever been in where it feels like more than the sum of its parts, which is pretty cool.
Tell us about your involvement with Wreckless Eric and Amy Rigby.
Yeah – leave it to me to not play drums for 7 years and then join 3 bands as the drummer, haha. I actually disavow any knowledge of or involvement with Wreckless Eric whatsoever. (I’m just kidding, I put that in here just to see if he’d actually read this far into the interview.) I literally met Eric through the magic of the internet and we somehow went from being virtual friends to actual friends. It started through his painting site actually (some people may not realize, but Eric is a wonderful painter). Anyway, he had a show in Philadelphia that wasn’t properly promoted or advertised which sounded like kind of a disaster and afterwards the club refused to pay him. He was really pissed and wrote a whole post about how terrible it was online – I contacted him the same day. I said, “If you ever want to try Philly again, let me set it up – I think you will have fun and get a better idea of what Philly can really be like.” To my surprise, he accepted the challenge and we put together a show with the Improbables and another great Philly band called AM Mills and sold the motherfucker out. Everybody had a blast and he called me about 2 weeks later and asked if I’d like to play on his next record. I was a little surprised and a bit intimidated, but said yes anyway. So I went to his studio a few times and ended up being on the record that became “amERICa.” It was a lot of fun and he is a human master-class in every aspect of music – history, writing, recording, performing, booking, fixing instruments – everything. I’ve learned an immense amount from him and he doesn’t seem to have an “OFF” switch so I’m going to keep taking notes. He’s got stories for miles and there have been lots of nights sitting at the dining room table laughing ‘til 3am. After “amERICa” came out we did some local shows and then he did a massive solo tour. When he came home he immediately started working on his wife Amy Rigby’s new record, as well as stuff he had written along the way for his next record. They invited me along so, I started going to their studio periodically and began working on both records at the same time with them. It was a really interesting experience to do these albums because the two of them work so differently. It was challenging, but it was great fun –And I’ll tell you what – Amy Rigby knows how to write a goddamn song! I’m not kidding, she’s one of the most clever and adept songwriters I’ve ever played with. Both of those albums are coming out in February and March respectively and we are going to do some shows for each I believe. I’m really lucky to have met them and become such great friends, they’re absolutely terrific people and very lenient bosses.
Who are some of your favorite current bands?
Randomly off the top of my head: Bully, Night Beats, Olympians, Cactus Blossoms, Preservation Hall Jaz Band, Shopping, Field Music, Proper Ornaments, AM Mills, the Jay Vons, Slowey and the Boats, Courtney Barnett, I Think Like Midnight, Blank Realm, Eddy Current Suppression Ring, Swedish Taboo, James Hunter, Dead Ghosts, Menehan Street Band, Mystery Lights, Pow Wows, Reigning Sound
Also older bands with new stuff: Superchunk, Dream Syndicate, Spoon, Robyn Hitchcock, the Bats, the I Don’t Cares, the Chills
What are your top 10 desert island discs?
No order top 10:
Big Star – radio city
The Clean – vehicle
Duke Ellington – money jungle
Versus – the stars are insane
Mickey Baker – the wildest guitar
Superchunk – majesty shredding
Kinks – village green preservation society
Minutemen – double nickels on the dime
Frank Sinatra – live at the Sands
John Fahey – blind joe death (1st lp)
Any final thoughts? Closing comments? Anything you wanted to mention that I didn’t ask?
Actually, I’ve been thinking a lot recently about all of the great records that came out in the “CD era” of the late 90’s – late ‘oughts that never saw a vinyl release due to lack of interest or funds. There were so many fantastic albums that have sort of been forgotten and would sound amazing on wax. So I thought I’d compile a list of the ones I’d love to see re-issued now that people buy records again. It’s a selfish list, but the records are derserving nonetheless. Here goes:
Audible – In Simple Intervals
– Sky Signal
The Deathray Davies – the kick and the snare
- the day of the ray
Whysall Lane – s/t
Scrawl – velvet hammer
Bigger Lovers – honey in the hive
– this affair never happened…
Hensley Sturgis – open lanes
Jenny Toomey – tempting
Carolyn Mark – terrible hostess
The Essex Green – the cannibal sea
Mazarin – we’re already there
Lucksmiths – why that doesn’t surprise me
Bon Mots – le main drag
The Swimmers – fighting trees
the Handsome Family – in the air
- the last days of wonder
the Sneetches – blow out the sun
Wayne Hancock – A town blues
The Feminie Complex – complete recordings
Leftys Deceiver – cheats
Photon band – back dow to earth
Legendary Jim Ruiz Group – oh brother where art thou?
Tsunami – a brilliant mistake
Matt Suggs – golden days before they end
Apex manor – the year of magical drinking
BONUS QUESTION- You had as long stint as a writer for DAGGER. Did Hinely pay you top dollar?
Hinely only ever paid me in compliments, but they were exceptional compliments so that was enough.
ALL PHOTOS BY MARY GARITO (EXCEPT THE REAL EARLY ONES, NO ONE KNOWS WHO TOOK THOSE).