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"It started with something Justin said back in 1994. He grabbed the mic at a show and said something about being the Hard Luck Five."
Cuseglio shakes his head, regretfully, as he recalls the jinx they've yet to undo. "At that point, we couldn't see the longevity of the band."
"Some of us couldn't even drive then," Leto adds. "But I think we've been the Hard Luck Five ever since."
Of course, lots of bands have bouts of misfortune, but for Rye Coalition, this hex really seems to hold true. Like, there was that time they almost broke into the top 30 of the CMJ charts--and then the computers malfunctioned so the issue couldn't come out that week. By the time the next one came out, they were barely in the top 200. And there was that Mission of Burma show they almost played--but they couldn't because they had just booked a tour on the other side of the country. And then the second offer from Mission of Burma conflicted with their recent Grohl recording sessions. Now their record isn't out, and they don't expect to get a third chance. And there was that other time, back in '96 or so, when Steve Albini agreed to record Lipstick Game for them, but on the days they were supposed to do it, he got offered a bunch of money to do Bush's second album and he had to turn Rye Coalition down. Albini did end up recording their next release, On Top, but then there was an issue with that record where the label, Tigerstyle, couldn't give them enough money to cover all the recording costs.
"We almost had to get a loan from a loan shark," Cuseglio sighs.
It's hard to tell if he's kidding.
"Come on," Leto says, as if it's the most logical thing in the world, "What bank's gonna be like, 'Here's 10 grand--go make a record'?"
All right, it's no joke. But it's hard to believe any band--no matter how tough and/or crazy they are--would risk getting their kneecaps broken just so they could record with Steve Albini. Enter Charles Maggio, the man behind their first label, Gern Blandsten, to confirm that detail.
"Oh, yeah," he says, "I heard that a friend of a friend of a friend--in Jersey City, of course--had indeed secured those funds. Did they not go through with it? If they didn't, I think they came really close."
More recently, when the Dave Grohl sessions drained their funds, they couldn't pay the rent on their practice space. I heard a rumor they were worried about getting locked out--and were already plotting ways to break in and steal back their equipment. The lock-out, luckily, didn't happen, either. But their equipment did get stolen from them during their first (and only) European tour. Maggio wasn't there but he remembers the stories.
"They were getting heckled and treated badly, and I think [guitarist] Jon [Gonnelli] finally snapped and started a fistfight with somebody in the crowd. In Germany and/or Switzerland."
Maggio was their "tour guardian" back in the day--he had to meet with the band members' parents to prove he was a responsible adult before they could hit the road for the first time. Maggio didn't realize how young they were until a few days into the tour when guitarist Herb Wiley declared that it was his 16th birthday. ("I was like, 'Whoa, you were 15 yesterday?'")
"The last thing they want is for people to feel sorry for them," Maggio says. "But I do. All the good things that happen to them turn into the rug that gets pulled out from under them."
In the past decade, they've encountered more disasters than the average band, but they haven't given up. Maggio has some other ideas about what fuels the Rye Coalition machine: "They're very Italian, they're from New Jersey--like me--and they're very stubborn," he says.
Back at the bar, Leto admits, "There have been times when we didn't play ball or kiss ass. Some other bands that started at the same time as us puckered up to the right behinds and have become really huge. But that's not for us."
On our way out of Uncle Joe's, we walk back past the bar, where some construction workers are gathered around the TV, watching a news broadcast of a bridge that Hurricane Ivan tore in two. They can allegedly tell from the helicopter view that somebody down in Escambia Bay used the wrong kind of concrete on that piece of work, and they raise their pints as they offer tips on how they'd rebuild it.
"That commentary was the best thing I've heard in a really long time," Cuseglio says with earnest respect once we get out front. Those Jersey City construction workers share more with Rye Coalition than a favorite bar--both parties come from a city where only the scrappy and industrious get by. Both are constantly tearing things apart only to build them back up.
Leto points out a passing mini-bus that reminds him of one of their first tour vehicles--except they tried to paint theirs black and it turned out purple. They can look back and laugh about past mishaps or look forward instead, but for now, as the sun is going down over First Street, the present doesn't seem so bad. And they smile, taking it all in.