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Photo by Brian AppioBefore you can begin to comprehend Rye Coalition, you've got to understand where they're coming from. Jersey City is just a 15-minute train ride from Manhattan's Wall Street, but it's a crucial 15 minutes. When you emerge in Jersey, everything is different. Just outside the Grove Street station, a red-faced drunk stumbles by a very pierced punk rock chick, who is gabbing on her cell phone. And a guy who seems neither homeless nor hungry gets in her face and asks for a dollar. She rolls her eyes and dismisses him with a wave of her hand. As you walk toward the waterfront, neighborhood tough guys peer out from under the hoods of beat-up cars to offer lewd remarks to female passers-by. The sidewalk disappears, and the residential streets quickly become industrial cobblestone pathways, scarred by ancient trolley tracks. Bulldozers pulverize abandoned warehouses, and condos will soon rise from their remains. The place is deserted in the late afternoon, except for the cops guarding the entrances to the construction sites. Big things are in the works, but it's still a pretty hard-luck town.
There aren't any street signs or address numbers on the blocks that lead to Rye Coalition's favorite local bar, but if you're lucky, somebody from the band might catch you wandering around alone and give you a lift. This time, it's drummer Dave Leto, hastily grabbing his seat belt when you reach for yours. "This part of town used to be really sketchy," he says, "but now all the rich people are moving in."
And by "rich people," he must mean the kind that love grimy, desolate streets that are almost as spooky in broad daylight as they are in the dead of night? Shut your trap, kid. This is neither the time nor place to dis on J.C. The Rye Coalition guys are cut from the same cloth as diehard, working-class Jersey boys like Bruce Springsteen and Jon Bon Jovi. Only instead of E Street bandanas or big frosted hair, they've got trucker caps and tattoos. Leto wears the outline of his home state on his forearm--with a red star marking Jersey City. His state pride is as fierce as his band's sound.
Rye Coalition plays loud, hard and fast--and at their last New York show, there was this wild woman up front who couldn't get enough. The whole crowd was feeling it, but she was going nuts, up against the stage with her entire body writhing to the beat, her hair a blond blur under the colored lights. And singer Ralph Cuseglio was giving it right back to her--strutting with his mic held high, sweating through his slim button-down shirt. He says he feels funny inviting his mother to his shows, and this is why. No matter how many people are watching, he performs as through he's entertaining an entire stadium--he's a hardcore kid with enough Robert Plant swagger to thrill the folks in the nosebleed section.
Though the guys are only in their mid- to late-20s, they've been playing together for 10 years--and they've almost got something to show for it. They recently toured with Queens of the Stone Age, got signed by Dreamworks and convinced Dave Grohl to produce a record for them. Grohl's genius for melody and percussion helped to spin their sometimes haphazard tunes into efficient rock machinery. Onstage, their sprawling rock rants have been replaced by high-octane, three-minute songs. The band has AC/DC energy—guitarist Jon Gonnelli literally kicks and screams through the set—but it's hard to say when you'll get to hear the recording. Dreamworks "kind of" folded, and Interscope "sort of" took over the project. The new record was supposed to come out already, but now it's not supposed to drop until January--yet the fellas don't seem nearly as confident about that as their press release.
"If something bad can happen to us, it does," Cuseglio laments, adjusting his orange baseball cap, marked with the letters R.C.--which aren't just his band's initials, they're his own initials, too. Maybe this is a Jersey thing. I saw a girl ("Denise") wearing a name plate on the train (a big-ass one, the kind we used to call "bullet-protectors" in high school), and Leto's wedding band is locked in with a big gold ring that reads "David." Jersey City kids want you to know who they are. And, hey, you got a problem with that? I didn't think so.
We're sitting in the back yard of Uncle Joe's, Rye Coalition's favorite hangout--and semi-regular venue when they're not on tour--a ramshackle dive bar, which used to be a brothel.
"But that was just in the upstairs--way back, like, five or six years ago," Leto explains, between sips of his drink of choice--a raspberry Stoli and seltzer. "Now it's an apartment with six bedrooms that are just big enough for bed. Justin [Morey], our bass player, used to live up there. It was hard to go over without thinking about dirty guys doing it."
Fortunately, Morey has since moved. But when they look back to the beginning of their bad-luck streak--the streak that has wreaked havoc throughout their career and to which they superstitiously link to the crumbling of Dreamworks--he's the one they tend to blame.