By Daniel Kohn
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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.
"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.