Dusting 'Em Off
Revisiting an album, a film, or an event on its anniversary

An Oral History of Dramarama’s Cinéma Vérité

on December 12, 2015, 1:30am
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Either you love Dramarama or you haven’t heard of them.

Similar to The Replacements or The Psychedelic Furs, the New Jersey outfit’s brand of alternative power pop burrows deep into your heart, where it can last forever. Vocalist John Easdale sings with the cadence of a hallway hero, spinning tales of fractured love and circumstantial anxiety over infectious hooks and melodies, courtesy of lead guitarist Mark E. Englert, rhythm guitarist Peter Wood, bassist Chris Carter, and, depending on the track, drummer Jesse Farbman.

Chances are you’ve heard their iconic single, “Anything, Anything (I’ll Give You)”, especially if you grew up in the Los Angeles area and worshipped rock ‘n’ roll radio like KROQ, where legendary host Rodney Bingenheimer cosigned the band decades ago. If you haven’t, good news: Your next favorite song is just one listen away, with a few others lingering nearby. That is, if you’re willing to trace the hit back to its original album, the band’s 1985 debut, Cinéma Vérité.

Over 30 years ago, Easdale and Carter assembled the album like an aural scrapbook, pairing the five tracks off their 1984 Comedy EP with six new compositions. As such, it’s a strange assembly of songs — featuring two obscure covers of songs by the Velvet Underground (“Femme Fatale”) and David Bowie (“Candidate”), no less — but one that captures a glaringly innocent narrative. As Easdale contends, “The story of the album is the story of us growing up and putting it together.”

To the best of my knowledge, it’s a story that hasn’t exactly been told — which is one reason why I reached out to Easdale and suggested we talk about Cinéma Vérité in celebration of its 30th anniversary this year. He was game and connected me with Carter and Englert. Throughout the fall season, each of them reflected on living in Wayne, New Jersey, hanging out at their own personal record store, recording at The Barge, making it big in France, and moving out to Los Angeles.

“Memory is a misty kind of mirror,” Easdale admits. “What you remember and what makes an impression on you … even if you go back yourself and go back to those places, the sizes and everything, it’s different. Memory is surreal in a way.”

Having said that, here’s an oral history of Dramarama’s origins and their debut album, Cinéma Vérité.

The Beginning

Dramarama began in Wayne, New Jersey, a humble township in Passaic County that’s located less than 20 miles from Midtown Manhattan.

Chris Carter: Wayne was just a little suburban town 40 minutes outside of Manhattan. You could drive 40 minutes the other way and you’d be going into Pennsylvania, so we were right there. Densely populated. A lot of people in one area. That was Wayne, but now, of course, everyone knows of Wayne because of Fountains of Wayne.

John Easdale: All of us grew up generally 15 miles from New York, which used to have factories and stuff that’s not so much there anymore. My dad was a mailman and my mom was a waitress on weekends. They encouraged everything — my sister and I were real lucky. Dad was a music geek, he played a lot of records, and had the whole stereophonic setup, but [my parents] didn’t play music — they weren’t musically inclined.

Mark Englert: My uncle bought a guitar, a Dobro, from the 1930s, and it remained in my family. When I discovered it in a closet, I actually found myself playing with Matchbox cars, driving them up and down the neck. The weird thing is that other people in my family actually took guitar lessons, but none of them could grasp it like I did. So, in a sense, I always had the gene for that stuff.

Chris Carter: All the kids of our generation, we were like the dividing point. None of us had cool parents. All of our parents had been to wars and really had a different mindset. They were a completely different generation. That was the true generation gap. You gotta remember, this was pre-MTV.

When we grew up, rock ‘n’ roll was still a very mystical thing. You had your five magazines that you read and that was it. You didn’t see, necessarily, rock stars on TV. You would watch Don Kirshner’s rock concert, but that was it. Unless the band came to your town, you had nothing except for these records and whatever you were collecting from the band. It was a different time.

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John Easdale: I grew up in that magic moment, ’65, ’64, ’66. I turned five in ’66. All the cartoons, The Beatles thing just exploded. It was a time when my mind was most impressionable. Around when I turned five, The Monkees came on TV. I think that cemented it for me as to what was the coolest thing in the world. That and some band that played on the block party at my house. I watched them do it right in front of me, and I was like, “That’s what I’m gonna do.” Regardless of the wisdom of following that dream, that was when I was put on the path. Regardless if it was going to be financially or commercially acceptable, it was what I did.

Mark Englert: In the fourth or third grade, my grandparents, on my mom’s side, had a 50th wedding anniversary, and I remember this very clearly, because it scared the shit out of me. Some guy from the band said, “Hey kid, come here. Did your mother write this?” And it was a note on a napkin, written in lipstick: “Would you let my baby go up there and play the guitar?” Of course, I didn’t know what the hell I was doing. It freaked me out, but I wanted to do it.

The first song I ever played live in concert was “The Battle Hymn of the Green Berets”. [Laughs] I was losing the words. I was scared shitless. My sister was mouthing the words to me, and I remember some lady laughing hysterically. I managed to get through the song, so I guess it was an accomplishment at that young of an age, a milestone. And what song would anyone want to sing more at a 50th wedding anniversary than “The Battle Hymn of the Green Berets”?

John Easdale: I played the drums when I was real little. I took lessons for a couple of years, and then I was in jazz band in junior high. That’s when I began thinking about what it was like to be a songwriter and started teaching myself how to play guitar — very slowly at first. I’m still just a beginner in a lot of ways. Then I started writing songs. We had an old Magnus chord organ in my bedroom. Air blew through it and it was cool.

Mark Englert: My parents would tell a story that in order to keep me quiet, they’d either put a transistor radio in my hand or else they would put on a Johnny Cash record.

David Bowie - Diamond Dogs

Chris Carter: All the rock stars we liked — Jagger, Bowie, and The Beatles — they came from very strict parents, and they came from a very tough time in England. So they knew the rough side of life, and they kind of appreciated their fame a little bit more than, say, the stars of today, who last about an hour and a half before they burn out. They grew up in a different era, so they perceive their fame differently.

We grew up with those guys kind of as role models. That’s where we’re rooted in rock and roll, and when you have The Beatles and Dylan and the Stones to listen to when you’re nine, 10, 11, you’re pretty seasoned already — the bar is pretty high. So, we only liked great music; we would never listen to a shitty band. You’d never find Uriah Heep albums at our house. We only listened to great stuff or what we thought was great anyway.

Mark Englert: I listened to a lot of prog rock, which was Emerson, Lake & Palmer, Yes, and stuff like that. I kind of got involved in that more because a lot of the musicians I was playing with at that time were listening to heavy types of music: Hot Tuna, Kinks, Jefferson Airplane, and all that stuff. The first time I heard the Ramones, I was in more of “a celebratory state of mind.”

I went over to somebody’s house, and, in true Mark Englert fashion, the stereo system wasn’t set up. Basically, only one side of it was working, so I got to hear the bass and drums along with Joey Ramone’s voice, but I didn’t get to hear Johnny’s guitar. I was like, “This is horrible. This is terrible stuff.” But turns out the joke was on me. 

Chris Carter: I was in my room listening to all of the records that no one else in my high school listened to. So was John. We were both kids that had Lou Reed albums, Elvis albums; we had every Mott the Hoople album. We were highly educated musically at a young age.

Mark Englert: I grew up two doors down from John. Outside of my parents and siblings, he’s one of the first people I remember early on. 

John Easdale: Mark and I had known each other since we were babies pretty much … as soon as I was old enough to know neighborhood children. Must’ve been three or four years old.

Mark Englert: I remember knocking on his door at an ungodly early hour and his mother said he’d be dressed and come down. It was the early ’60s and we were in a really good neighborhood, so we just kind of knocked on each other’s doors. That’s pretty much how it was. John piqued my interest in rock ‘n’ roll because when he was really young, he was the first person I knew with an electric guitar. It was a toy, the body was made out of metal, but it was pretty cool regardless.

John Easdale: He was already playing guitar by grade school. I know there’s pictures or video somewhere of us jamming; I’m playing drums and he’s playing guitar, lip syncing, or whatever, to records. So yeah, we’ve known each other forever. We went to the same grade school and the same high school.

Chris Carter: I graduated in 1977, so I was older than all those guys. I knew of them in high school, like I knew who John was, but they were a couple of years younger, so you know … I didn’t necessarily hang out with them. John played football, so a lot of the guys that I knew in my grade knew John from football, so he was okay. Our friendship deepened when he started to work at Looney Tunez, which was the record store that I owned coming out of high school.

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John Easdale: Looney Tunez opened in August of ’79, which is right after Peter [Wood], Mark, and I had graduated from Wayne Hills. Chris was co-owner with Tom Mullaney, who I had known since I was little. They were a couple of years older than us, but I gravitated to the store because it matched my thing: rock ‘n’ roll and the music that I enjoyed. 

Chris Carter: I was going to college for business management, and I had the opportunity to actually manage a business. Looking back, I probably should have taken the course, but we did okay. It was an old head shop, and Tom, who ended up playing keyboards for Dramarama mid-period, was like my best friend. He and I started this store because ever since we were in high school, we’d say, “Wouldn’t it be cool if we owned our own record store? Every day we could go to the record store and listen to records.”

We thought that’s what it was all about. As you learn, with anything, it’s a business, you have to run it like a business; you have to earn a profit. You don’t go there to listen to records. But, of course, we would open the records up when they came because we liked them, and we played them. It was like making dinner for people in a restaurant and then sitting down and eating the dinner. So, we learned a little bit about the business.

John Easdale: It was like MTV three years before MTV, but not even, because it wasn’t MTV. Because there was the Ramones, the Dolls, the Plasmatics, which wasn’t what was on the radio in New York City. They had import singles and they’d have autograph signings. We were trying to do this really cool Manhattan kind of record store.

But it made no sense in New Jersey, except for the days when we had autograph signings. No one was coming over and buying an import of Sandinista!, and we were too cool to sell Kenny Rogers’ Greatest Hits or Michael Jackson’s Off the WallWe were elitist bastards with great taste, and nothing we enjoyed was on the radio. We wore that as a badge of honor. 

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Mark Englert: As we were getting out of high school, John and I were in a couple punk rock bands together. John actually did not sing. He played bass guitar, but I always knew he was a singer. He was always much better at it than I was. 

John Easdale: Mark and I were in a band called The Fucks; we played our high school graduation. Department of Public Works was the next year and was the first group that had me, Mark, Peter, and Ronny [Machuga], the first drummer in the band.

Mark Englert: The DPW’s band uniforms were the New Jersey township employment things that I got from work.

John Easdale: When it came time for us to hit the road, so to speak, we all wore the T-shirts.

Mark Englert: I was actually working for the Reagan theater program at that time, which involved government agencies. If I had looked straight ahead, I probably would have just stuck with it, because I’d be retired by this point getting a pension as part of the corporate sector.

Chris Carter: I was in Drive-In Sister, a Mott the Hoople-style band, but nothing that made any difference anywhere. Dramarama was the first one.

John Easdale: The band name came from a girl I knew who was an actress. She came back from college and would call her fellow drama students “dramarama people.” I was like, that’s a cool word, I’m going to name my band that.

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Mark Englert: After having just played in different bands, I realized that we could put out our own record, and then John put forth the idea of recording a 45.

John Easdale: I had seen Chris play in a band in a gymnasium in ’76-’77. He was a bass player, and I think he sold his bass equipment to buy a car. Then he got the store. I persuaded him to go back and buy a bass and to go make a record, make a 45. He and I were partners, leaders of the pack. 

Chris Carter: We were all big music fans. We got together because of music — the record store and everything — so it would only make sense that we end up trying to make some. We had no manager, so I was the de facto manager. I was the one who made the phone calls. I was the one who called the guy at the label. You know, all the stuff that nobody else wanted to do.

John Easdale: He was the businessman and although he was also involved musically, he was co-producer on all the records we made together. As far as the things that we accomplished, he’s definitely a strong catalyst to that.

Mark Englert: Chris and John working together was a very good team in terms of getting all that together. What Chris lacked in musical ability, he more than made up for in terms of managing. He wasn’t that much into bass playing. He was way more into the other aspects of the music industry, putting it together. The production half of it all.

Chris Carter: I think we all figured out what our strengths were, and we went for it. It just made sense to us that we could probably do this. It’s like wanting to make a movie because you’ve seen so many movies, you figure, I can do this…

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